Thursday, June 13, 2013

Post Oaks and Sand Roughs

We recently passed the seventy-seventh anniversary of the death of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Cimmerian and seminal writer of the sword-and-sorcery genre. I had the opportunity to tour his home on the seventy-fifth anniversary of his death; I've written about it here before, but I took some decent pictures, and have been meaning to return to the experience. This seems like a good enough occasion.

Howard was born on January 22, 1906, and died by his own hand on June 11, 1936. He spent most of his adult life in Cross Plains, Texas, having moved there with his parents at the age of thirteen. This is where they hold the annual Robert E. Howard Days on or around June 11, having made the morbid decision to celebrate his life's work on the date of his suicide. His father was a country physician, and the family moved around the state pretty frequently before settling down. Cross Plains was only a hamlet when the Howards arrived, as it is now, but became a boom town within several years of their arrival. To this Howard credited his familiarity with the dark side of life. He worked odd jobs around town before getting published. Apparently he helped install the wires for the first radio receiver in the area. He liked to hunt and fish, and went everywhere with his dog Patch. He was also a boxer.

The house where he lived with his parents up until his death is a museum now; during Howard Days it's open all day long, but usually you have to make arrangements to see it. They were excited I'd come from so far away, from "a whole nother" part of the state, as the local tmesis has it. The Cross Plains Barbarian Festival was held in a nearby park; I went to it, briefly, but was disappointed to find rednecks, country music, and beer rather than feasting Cimmerians, Stygian rites, and black lotus.

Here we have Dr. and Mrs. Howards' bedroom. Robert's room was the closed-in sleeping porch visible through the window on the right. His mother ailed from tuberculosis throughout much of his life, and her illness affected him deeply. As her condition worsened, he made plans to commit suicide. The day after he bought a family cemetery plot in Brownwood, she lapsed into a coma from which she was not expected to recover. He went out and shot himself immediately. His mother died the next day, and they were buried side by side. He was only thirty. No one knows exactly why Howard committed suicide. The only note he left was a bit of verse: "All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre;/ The feast is over and the lamps expire."

The books in the Howards' parlor were Dr. Howard's and look to be mostly of the country Baptist variety. Dr. Howard is supposed to have owned several books about Eastern mysticism that he sometimes used in his practice, but none were in evidence. The piano, the tour-lady told me, did not belong to the them, nor did they own such a thing. The historical society just thought it went with the room.

Howard bought this bust of Cleopatra when he was fourteen while spending some time in New Orleans with his father. It's certainly an unusual thing for a teenager to have spent his money on, and presages his many stories dealing with shapely, scantily-clad females in ancient mythical lands. He also spent time in the library during that trip, and there discovered the Picts, a barbaric race that later became an inspiration in his Conan stories. The bust was owned for a time by L. Sprague DeCamp before being donated by him to the museum.

To me, nothing is so inspiring as to see the place where a writer or artist created their works. Here we have Howard's tiny bedroom and study, a closed-in sleeping porch. The typewriter is, I believe, Howard's own. The inkwell is from Jerusalem and was sent to him by a friend. Howard's original desk is now owned by an elderly lady in a nearby town and has been converted into a coffee table. She refuses to part with it despite having been offered a large sum of money; she's promised to leave it to the museum when she dies, however.

Howard was inspired by history and adventure novels. The book in the front was a gift to his lady friend, Novalyne Price. They dated off and on during the couple of years leading up to Howard's suicide, having met at college in nearby Brownwood. She'd asked for a history book for Christmas, but instead he gave her a French pornography book with bizarre "naughty pictures," as the nice old lady who gave me the tour put it. Price was rather disturbed by the present and kept it hidden away. When she asked Howard the meaning of the gift, he replied that it was a history book in a sense, for to him it portrayed the slow degradation of our modern civilized culture. He was writing "Red Nails" at about the same time. He hadn't long to live then.

Price was also an aspiring writer. They told me that she had to drive to Howard's home in Cross Plains to get her first date with him because, whenever she tried to telephone, the protective Mrs. Howard would say her son wasn't in. Price later wrote a memoir about Howard—The Man Who Walked Alone—and it has been made into a movie with moderately famous actors. She wasn't fond of the Conan stories.

Howard corresponded regularly with fellow Weird Tales writer H. P. Lovecraft. This postcard was mailed from Quebec, and Lovecraft's description of the local sights sounds like it might have come out of one of his Arkham stories. Of the First Triumvirate of the Pulps—Lovecraft, Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith—only Lovecraft has achieved some form of respectability; his works are even featured in a handsome Library of America edition. Howard himself might be called a follower of Jack London, another Library of America author, but I don't think he'll ever escape the lurid aura of pulp seaminess. Perhaps that's as it should be.

Howard is something of a patron saint to me, having been, like me, a Texan who never made it out of Texas, nor ever really desired to; who lived in some of the places I've lived, and was inspired by some of the local sights that have inspired me (like the Hill Country around Fredricksburg on a misty winter evening); who cobbled together such an education as his means and resources could afford; who had an idiosyncratic worldview that proved incomprehensible to the people around him. I remember once, when I was in high school, I had the temerity to exhibit my artistic oeuvre at a show in a neighboring town. Surrounded by little old ladies with paintings of bluebonnets and rusty windmills, I had a naked Prometheus giving fire to man, and three-headed Hecate at the crossroads, and the Orphic creation myth, and other such things. A lady, upon seeing the latter, said quite loudly so that I could hear: "An angel? Hatching out of an egg? I don't think so!!!"

The tale I've sold most recently—"The Goblin King's Concubine," to Beneath Ceaseless Skies—is a subversive tribute to Howard. It's a retelling of the story of Cynthia Ann Parker's rescue at the hands of Sul Ross and the Texas Rangers, which seemingly also inspired Howard's tale "The Vale of Lost Women." Howard's latent racism, which unfortunately mars several of his stories, is in evidence here, and my story is in part an exploration of chauvinism and otherness.

So, perhaps Howard isn't altogether free of the besetting sins of his time, as I, no doubt, am not free from those of mine. He's something of an enigma, a complex man who died as he lived, unable (one suspects) to ever really say what was on his mind, who found himself in a dead end from which he could see no escape. I remain grateful for the earnestness of his writing and for the example he set; and I'm grateful, too, for having had the opportunity to be under the roof of his former home. Apparently someone from the REH House will be on hand at LoneStarCon in San Antonio this year to conduct a side trip to Cross Plains; I hope that some of you, my faithful readers, will take advantage of it.

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