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Stumbling upon Conan

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There is probably no worse place to be lost than West Texas. The scenery leaves something to be desired, dusty grays and reds dotted by cactus and mesquite trees, roads stretching endlessly to nowhere. Well, I was indeed lost several years ago, attempting to take a short cut from Austin to Abilene to enjoy the summer countryside of this rough part of the Lone Star State. I was to cover a regional basketball tournament located at a college in Abilene. I took a turn here, a turn there, next thing I know I’m in the town of Cross Plains.

There’s not much to Cross Plains, a Main Street, a stop light, farming, agriculture and about 1,200 residents. It is as faceless as the hundreds of other faceless towns one drives through en route to some off-road destination. Small town people, leading small town lives, content, happy, if a bit suspicious of outsiders. I notice a sign that reads “Home of Conan.”

Every small town has a “Welcome To….” sign, with writing beneath proclaiming a reason for local civic pride, a state football champion from 30 years ago, a former actor/actress unlucky enough to have been born there. Cross Plains, amazingly, was the hometown of Robert E. Howard, one of the greatest fantasy writers in history and the creator of Conan the Barbarian. I can’t explain how shocking this was to me, and for this man to have written all of his work in this dusty, cotton farming nowhere of a crap town.

I stayed for an hour, driving to the white-frame house on the outskirts of town where Howard lived with his parents. I stared into the side room where he wrote his stories, including the Conan series, westerns, boxing yarns, swords and sorcery epics, horror tales and an immense correspondence with the one and only H.P. Lovecraft – all during a 12-year period in the 1920s and 1930s. Absolutely fucking amazing.

Howard was an oddball, to say the least. He would go to town adorned in a sombrero or walk down the street boxing with imaginary foes. He was said to narrate his stories aloud while pounding away on a manual typewriter, his voice echoing down the block until late hours of the night (most of you kids are probably unaware manual typewriters were once very popular with writers – I know, hard to believe). He worked a variety of odd jobs including soda clerk, freight loader and secretary, before settling on writing.

Howard published his first story, “Spear and Fang” in the magazine Weird Tales at the age of 18. By most reports, Howard was a voracious reader, devouring European history, Gothic poetry and pulp magazines. He would act out his stories in the front yard with friends, tree branches serving as swords and rifles. Over the next 12 years of his life, Howard would be published in such varied magazines as Action Stories, Fight Stories, Spicy Adventure and Strange Detective. Many of these stories and the characters he created, among them Conan, Kull of Atlantis, Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, El Borak and Sailor Steve Costigan, are to this day still in print.

Howard would live the lives of his Celtic, medieval and boxing heroes. In fact, he put himself through an intensive weight and strength program, developing the kind of muscles his own characters possessed. In 1930, Howard enjoyed the story “Rats in the Walls” by the legendary H.P. Lovecraft. He wrote a letter to the author, mentioning the use of a Gaelic phrase which he considered mistaken. Lovecraft was surprised someone would even notice the liberty he had taken with the language, and over the next six years they corresponded continuously. To this day, these letters are studied by scholars as a way to provide insight into the very secretive lives of these two immensely talented writers. His letters to Lovecraft appear to have been a great influence in the creation of his most famous character Conan.

In 1934, a young school teacher named Novalyne Price arrived in Cross Plains. With a similar interest in writing, she eventually contacted Howard leading to a unique two-year romance. Price’s experiences became her memoir The One Who Walked Alone, which was made into the beautiful 1996 motion picture The Whole Wide World starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Renee Zellweger (the movie was not filmed in Cross Plains, but in Bartlett, Texas, near Austin). When it became apparent Howard would not marry her, Price moved to Louisiana to pursue a graduate degree.

To say Howard had a peculiar relationship with his mother would be an understatement. It is believed she inspired his interest in writing since she was a great lover of poetry. Hester Jane Ervin Howard suffered from poor health for most of her life and her son Robert suffered by her side. Afflicted with tuberculosis, among other ailments, Hester Jane Ervin was eventually bed ridden in the Cross Plains home. Howard’s father hired a live-in nurse. Money was also short, so Howard’s father, a physician, began working out of his home. Thus, there was little time for Robert E. Howard to write.

On June 11, 1936, Howard’s mother slipped into a coma. Grief-stricken, Howard wrote on his typewriter:

“All fled, all done
So lift me on the pyre.
The feast is over
And the lamps expire.”

Howard walked to his car, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He died eight hours later, only 30-years old.

I stumbled upon Conan quite by accident. I gazed at the fields from his bedroom window where he created his stories, listening to the chugging of tractors, the chirp of blue jays, the incessant summer buzz of locusts. It was quiet in Cross Plains, a considerable distance from any large town. As I stared into the field, wondering how often Howard did exactly the same thing, I tried to imagine the kingdoms he witnessed and the epic battles he directed. There was a patch of woods within sight. What great prehistoric warriors resided within its shade? There was not much – a dirt road, a cotton field, sleepy cows and wild cactus. I realized, standing in that small house, in that small room, within sight of that small field, fantastic civilizations were created and brilliant minds corresponded. Such an unusual story, in the most unlikely of places.

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About Chris Wilson

  • Eric Olsen

    Fascinating and odd Chris, thanks!

  • Chris Kent

    Thanks Eric,

    Read Mac Diva’s post on memoirs and thought of Price’s One Who Walks Alone, which in turn reminded me of this detour to Cross Plains. I have been fascinated by this story ever since. Howard reminds me of the Simon Stimson character in Our Town, the church organist and town drunk, bored with small town life, eventually committing suicide by hanging himself in the church.

    “Some people just aren’t made for small town life.”

  • Eric Olsen

    Or like Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” People decry “rootlessness” but I think mobility is a wonderful thing: get the hell out, start over again. The scrutiny of small town life can be crushing.

  • Chris Kent

    Good point Eric. Small town Texas can be terrifying. I have often wondered if he had left his situation, would the result have fueled the same kind of prolific/imaginative output? I was reading up on Howard the other day and learned he was becoming interested in Texas/pioneer history a la J. Frank Dobie and Larry McMurtry. It would have been interesting to see his work in these areas.

    I know, most people could care less about Texas, but us Texans love reading the old stories/legends…..

  • If you’re still fascinated by Robert E. Howard, there’s a blog out there (see link) that’s devoted to him and his work. Some of it is personal fan-politics, but there’s a lot of good info and sources on the blog, too.

    Mark Finn