Monday, January 25, 2016

Dark Valley Destiny, Part II

Well, it's time to wrap up my reflections on Dark Valley Destiny: A Biography of Robert E. Howard. The first part of this post can be found here; my crackpot theory that Howard was autistic can be found here. These reflections are, of course, quite self-centered, given that this is a blog; but Howard himself, the biography asserts, tended to see all the things he read only in relation to himself, so perhaps this is not inappropriate.

Howard's work space (but not his original desk (which
happens to be doing service as a coffee table in the town
where my sister-in-law lives)).
I had hoped to find more information in the second half of the book on the nuts-and-bolts aspects of Howard's professional writing career. The authors (L. Sprague de Camp & Co.) mention having failed to obtain permission to view certain correspondence, so perhaps this is not all their fault. What they do describe vis-à-vis Howard's daily writing activities I had gleaned for myself through a visit to the house and reading the notes to his collected works. To wit, Howard lived and wrote in a tiny walled-in porch behind his parents' bedroom, with no privacy and scarcely enough room for his bed and desk, pounding out story after story on a typewriter, usually working through about two drafts, sometimes with a preliminary synopsis and sometimes not.

Parenthetically, I must admit feelings of bemusement and chagrin at reading de Camp's estimation of Howard's various stories. He and his pal Lin Carter did the world – nay, the universe – inestimable service through their efforts to rescue various pulp writings from oblivion, but they were, I think, not the most perceptive of critics. Just my two cents.

The Howard family's living room.
Anyhow, the authors do provide a careful account of Howard's earnings. Here I was a bit surprised. Adjusting dollars for inflation, and taking the narrowness of the market into account, he didn't do half bad. Because he lived with his parents all his life, I had assumed he was unable to support himself through writing. On the contrary, although he probably couldn't have made a regular full-time job of it without some other means of support, he was a professional writer in a sense that no contemporary short-fiction fantasy author could ever be, the SFWA's six-cent-per-word threshold for "pro rates" notwithstanding.

Don't get me wrong. Living as I do from paycheck to paycheck, a story sold at six cents a word is nothing to sneeze at, and may even be the difference between (say) fixing a hot-water heater or going another month with cold showers. (Luckily I live in South Texas.) But I have a full-time job to pay the regular bills and expenses. Even if I sold stories every month to every available outlet, I wouldn't make enough money to support myself, let alone my family. Those were just different times. It was the era of the pulp magazine, before the rise of the mass-market paperback. I gather that a successful pulp writer of the thirties was something like what a moderately successful trade paperback author is now.

The Howard family's kitchen.
As I've mentioned before, one thing that makes Howard a sympathetic character to me is his utter isolation in rural Texas. He did have a number of friends with literary aspirations, and even contributed to a little circular among a clique of writerly acquaintances. But no one had an interest in anything like Weird Tales. His one literary confidant and love interest, Novalyne Price, found his work distasteful. Other Weird Tales authors were just as isolated, I suppose, but I would argue that a writer of weird fiction feels his isolation more keenly in rural Texas than in (say) Providence or California.

It's one thing to have magazine critics on the Internet say unpleasant things about your work, to which they have at least paid the compliment of reading it. It's quite another to have the people in your life despise you for your very devotion to a craft. Eventually you have to develop a thick skin, figure out – for yourself and no one else – what it is exactly that you're about, and learn to follow your own lights and not pay any heed to the hail of doubts and criticism. The danger in such a course is that you might end up going right off the deep end. It's never very safe to hardwire yourself to ignore warning signs.

Postcard from HPL to REH.
The end of Howard's life was dark. Despite my already being familiar with the circumstances of his death, I found this part of the book hard to read. There were some disturbing hints and details that I hadn't known before. Perhaps, instead of mourning his tragic end, we should be happy that it was no worse. I really do wonder what was passing through his mind during those last few days. But it's probably best to just let it lie.

This may be a disturbing admission, but reading about Howard's death called to mind a certain time of my own life, when I planned in all seriousness to commit suicide. I was in my late teens. Plenty of teens think about suicide as a way of feeling sorry for themselves, I suppose; but, then again, plenty of teens end up doing it, too. I think I would have done it. I had a lot of problems, due mainly (as I now know) to an undiagnosed developmental disorder. Things got worse the closer I got to graduating.

What tipped me over the edge was a single phone call from an adult scout leader. Through an unfortunate combination of circumstances, I'd been elected to an office with duties in several counties. I was sixteen at the time. This leader, who was very enthusiastic, set himself up as my mentor. He came to my house with his ladyfriend and had big plans for me and my year-long term. But, you see, I'm this guy to whom making a telephone call to a stranger involves working myself up for hours or days ahead of time, only to collapse in a panic attack at the last moment; to whom participating in a conversation is like solving a Rubik's cube while riding a unicycle. That's how I am now, mind you – back then it was worse. So, long story short, I screwed up, and this leader let me have it (by telephone) at the end of my term. Even now I remember everything he said to me, about how I'd dashed his hopes, how disappointed he was in me, and how embarrassed he was in front of other adult leaders. I'm more than twice as old now, and it still bothers me. Damn.

But that episode was only the straw that broke the camel's back, of course. After I hung up I wrote a journal entry about knowing at long last what a despicable worm I was, and deciding that the best thing was to…well, you know. After considering all the possible methods, I settled on opening my wrists while taking a warm bath, an idea I'd gotten from The Godfather: Part II. I read about how to do this so as to ensure death, as I was quite intent on its being no mere "cry for help." At one point I painted a large picture of a teen in the act, a picture I later destroyed. I'd been in the habit for some years of secretly hurting or injuring myself in minor ways so as to alleviate pressure. Suicide seemed only a short step further.

More than self-hatred, I think the real driving force behind all this was my paralyzing fear of moving out on my own. In the back of my mind, I knew that that's precisely what I had to do: start a new life somewhere else. But I was terrified of such a change in my situation. Suicide was, to me, an honorable compromise. A compounding of various factors during my senior year only strengthened my resolve. I was, I recall, quite cold and rational about it, at the same time as being almost completely unhinged.

In the end, I made a deal with myself: I would go to college, and see if I could make some friends during the week before classes. If things didn't go well, I would kill myself. As it turned out, the first person I met was an older student, a kind young woman who ultimately became my wife. That probably saved my life. Things have never really gotten easier, though. To tell the truth, perhaps I'm not out of the woods yet even now. But I've gone a long way toward learning to live with my limitations. Knowing precisely what the limitations are helps a great deal, of course; otherwise, I'd just be shadowboxing my way down the road.

So, maybe Robert E. Howard shared my disorder. Maybe he had something else wrong with him. Maybe he was just a seriously messed-up guy whose life went bad. In the end, to quote one of my favorite films,
He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?


  1. Have found your REH articles extremely interesting, and also applaud you for the clarity with which you interweave your personal experiences. Rather than come up with something trite, I'll just say thank you for sharing this. Are you also familiar with REH: The Two-Gun Raconteur, the on-line Howard journal? That has some excellent detail on REH in its archives. Kind regards.

    1. Thanks for your kind words and for doing my posts the honor of reading them. As a matter of fact, I'm not familiar with the journal you mention, an omission I shall have to remedy.