Friday, November 11, 2011

Of Texans and Cimmerians

On June 11, 2011, I was travelling across the state to a wedding when I made a detour through the tiny town of Cross Plains, Texas. Cross Plains, as you may or may not know, is the one-time home of Robert Ervin Howard, 1930s pulp writer and creator of Conan the Cimmerian; June 11 was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the day he committed suicide. I went out of my way that day to look about the town and tour his house, which is now a small museum.

Though I am no very great fan of pulp fantasy, I have a special fondness for REH. Possibly this stems from the fact that he was a product of small-town Texas, as I am. His conception of Cimmeria was inspired by a misty evening in the Hill Country around Fredricksburg, a part of the world that I know well. He lived in Poteet and Wichita Falls and other towns I am familiar with, and travelled to Carlsbad Caverns, where I have been many times. There is something in his stories that speaks strongly of Texas, especially in his later ones, e.g., “Red Nails.” Yes, he was “trapped” in the rural backwaters, but his prose has attained to some kind of immortality.

The Howard house is a small white one-bedroom affair on the edge of town; REH slept and wrote in a tiny sleeping porch behind his parents’ bedroom. I was taken all over the house by a kindly old lady, who, if not exactly an avid reader of REH, was at least proud of their local celebrity. It is furnished for the most part with period antiques rather than with pieces the Howards actually owned. But they have a number of delightful relics there as well, including the bust of Cleopatra that REH bought with his own money on a trip to New Orleans when he was a teenager (it belonged to L. Sprague de Camp before being donated to the museum) and a postcard sent to REH by H. P. Lovecraft from Quebec (written in typical Lovecraftian prose, no less).

For all Howard’s success in pulp writing, he was an intensely lonely and troubled person. He took his own life upon learning that his ailing mother had lapsed into a coma from which she was not expected to recover. It seems that he had been planning to do so for some time. She died the same day, and they were buried together in the family plot in nearby Brownwood.

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