|On a journey to
Cimmeria, described by Homer as a region of perpetual mist and darkness, the author seeks
the birthplace of his childhood literary hero, Robert E. Howard, author of Conan the
Barbarian. Naturally, being a legend and all, Howard was a native Texan who lived his
entire but brief life in Cross Plains on the northern edge of the Hill Country.
All road trips are little
adventures, but I was going to the source... the heart and soul of adventure. I was headed
for Cross Plains, Texas. It was early morning when I started this road trip. In August,
though, even early is hot. I wasnt particularly worried about the heat; I was more
concerned about the wind-whipped steppe. My mind wasnt on the dry, fire prone grass
either, but drifting over the frost-covered moors and snow topped tors of Cimmeria,
birthplace of Conan the Barbarian. This was a trip I might choose not to return from; or,
as with any adventure, I might not have a choice in the matter.
If you havent heard of Conan, perhaps Kull the Conqueror, Solomon Kane or Bran Mak Morn will ring a bell. All of these, and dozens of other characters came from the fertile and somewhat odd mind of Robert E. Howard. He was a life long resident of Cross Plains, and that fact became somewhat tragic when he ended his life at thirty years old, with a pistol shot to his head.
Cross Plains is on the northern edge of the Hill Country. They had a little oil boom nearby, in the 1920s, and there are still well-maintenance companies around, but mostly its a farm and ranch community. Cross Plains looks a lot like the rest of the Hill Country; tall oaks, mesquite and wild flowers. But, according to Joan McCown, librarian at the Public Library, if you go twenty miles east or north, youll think you fell off the edge of the planet.
The community, under the auspices of Project Pride, has made it their job to preserve the memory and work of their most famous son Robert E. Howard. They purchased the Howard House in 1989, restored it to its 1930s condition and started the Robert E. Howard Museum. At the local library I found a collection of Howards work in the form of original manuscripts, original copies of pulp fiction (nothing to do with John Travolta) that published his stories in the thirtiesWeird Tales, Argosy, Strange Tales, True Detective, Strange Adventure, Spicy Adventure (they didnt have a copy of Spicy Adventure, but Id sure like to see one).
At any rate, Howard was nothing if not prolific. He wrote more than thirty novels, stacks of short stories, and poetry in numerous genres from sword and sorcery fantasy, western adventure, gothic horror and prize fighting.
Just as an aside, I had never heard of prize fighting as a subject of serial fiction. Robert was a big boxing fan apparently, and created several characters around this subject. I quickly read part of one story and, like most of his stuff, it is graphically violent and very descriptive. Like the stories of Conan et. al., that I grew up reading, he can really take you to the scene of the action. You can smell the smells, and wince at the horrific pummeling these fighters give each other. Howard was quoted as saying that his heroes werent thinkers. They shot, slashed or slugged their way out of every situation.
Conan is very big in Europe, and over the years, the library and museum have been sent copies of Howards work in almost any language you can imagine. These donations go from modern comic books, to hardback, paperback, the classic pulp magazines whose cover art is worth the look. Pure camp.
Since the museum started, Cross Plains has celebrated Robert E. Howard Day every June. Last year was the sixtieth anniversary of his death and fans came from as far away as Australia for the event. Ms. McCown said that the locals were astounded by the response. There is an organization called REHUPA (Robert E. Howard United Press Assoc.) that has a web page (http://www.sure.net/~ aguaman/rehupa) and puts out a magazine covering Howards stories, as well as other authors in the world of fantasy fiction.
A movie based on the final years of Howards life was made in 1996 entitled, "The Whole Wide World". Based on a memoir by Howards old girlfriend, Novalyne Price, who is still living in Louisiana, the movie was shown in New York City, and briefly in Austin. According to the Texas Film Commission, the film wasnt popularly received; however, due to the recent popularity of the films stars Renee Zellweger of "Jerry McGuire", "Texas Chainsaw Massacre II" the Commission thinks it will be re-released.
The Howard Museum has a copy of "The Whole Wide World" which they show on Robert Howard Day, so if youre interested, mark next June on your calendar. Ms. Prices original title was, "One Who Walked Alone", which seems more fitting for a fellow who was renowned locally as a recluse. Howard had few friends, and Ms. Price seems to have been the only woman in his lifeexcept for his mother (more on that). Certainly, with visions of heroic Hyborian combat and Pictish duels with Roman Legions on his mind, the author didnt find many folks to talk with on the edge of West Texas, in the midst of the Great Depression.
The Depression, by the way, was one of the reasons for Howards original success, and the success of the pulp fiction style. During that period, people were looking for any diversion from the realities of their situation.
Considering the hard times back then, Howard made a good living, sometimes as much as $500.00 a month which was more than the bank president was earning. In 1935 this pulp fiction author was the only person in Callahan County to buy a new cara Chevrolet.
Id be the last one to accuse, but I noticed an odd thing about some of his manuscripts. Occasionally, a duplicate manuscript would have Howards name erased and another name insertedPatrick Ervin was the one I noticed. Ervin, by the way, was Robert E. Howards middle name. I also noted that the name of the main character would be similarly treated. I wondered if these two, Pat and Bob, ever got published at the same time, in different magazines. Oh well, times were tough in the thirties.
He also wrote poetry, quite extensively, that were complied into books some time after his death. Most, but not all, of the poetry leans to the dark and morbid side (Ive included one here). Given his eventual suicide, the dark ones get all the attention. The problem with these and many other of his works, and works about him "The One Who Walks Alone", for exampleis that they are out of print. The Howard Museum has spoken to the former publishers regarding reprints, so we can only hope for the best. Given Howards continuing, and growing popularity, it would seem like a wise thing to do, but thats why Im poor and publishers are rich, I guess.
Howard was a steward of the fantasy genre, if not its leader. His room at the Howard House has still displays his own reading preferences: Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence Of Arabia) histories of the Crusades, Marlowes History of Tamburlaine, the Mongol Conqueror, the poetry of Robert Service (Dangerous Dan McGrew). Since there was no public library in his time and the local school only went to our equivalent of junior highhe graduated high school and college in Brownwoodhis reference materials came out of his own head. His room, by the way, is absolutely tiny. I would guess it to be no more than six feet by twelve feet. Pictures of Howard show him to be a big man, and I dont know how he got past the furniture.
According to the new Handbook of Texas (Vol. 3; Pg 745) the works of Robert E. Howard have outsold every fantasy author, with the exception of J. R. R. Tolkien. With the two Conan moviesArnold Schwarzenegger sent the Museum an autographed still from the first oneand "Kull the Conqueror" which came out in August 97, Robert could still go over the top.
Robert E. Howard was born in Peaster, Texas in 1906, to Issac Mordecai Howard and Hester Jane Ervin Howard. Issac was a doctor, and after their move to Cross Plains in 1919, it seems that he spent much of his time away from the family. This left Mrs. Howard and Robert to their own devices for most of his youth. The two became devoted to each other. Even when he was going to college in Brownwood, she called him "My little boy" in her letters to him. I have heard that they had some sort of neurotic dependency on each other. That is a hard thing to call. People with any notoriety are always called something other than normal, but the local opinion was that the family was odd, to be sure. Not scary, just odd. For example, after the deaths of his wife and son, Dr. Issac moved in with another physician and his family, and as payment, promised to leave that family with everything he owned. This also explains why some of Roberts stuff got scattered to the four winds.
By the way, if anyone out there has some of Roberts stuff, you should talk to the Howard Museum. This is a worthy endeavor.
Hester Howard had suffered from tuberculosis for several years. In June 1936 she slipped into a coma. Robert was informed by her nurse that his mother would not recover. The moody author parked his car in the back yard of their home and shot himself. His mother, Hester, died a few hours later. Together, as always, they shared the same funeral service.
Some odd philosopher, somewhere, said that suicide is not a matter of why, but of why not. As Robert Howards poems may suggest, his suicide was more a matter of when.
To me, these are irrelevant points. He lived. He wrote. I read and was thrilled and entertained. One of the goals of the Robert E. Howard Museum is to keep his stories safe and alive. It isnt Shakespere, but it has its morality, and pathos and its fun to read. Thats my bottom line.
Cross Plains is a community in the truest sense of the word. They are having a homecoming celebration this year. Volunteers will give Main Street a fresh coat of paint for the event. I dont think those buildings have been altered substantially since Robert Howard walked there. The museum is a community effort also. It is new and small, but what it lacks in size it makes up in enthusiasm.
I have seen the view from Howards window, and I didnt see Cimmeria. It must be there, however, because he never left that town. I didnt meet Conan either, which is probably a good thing.
I think I met Red Sonia, though. I stopped into the local convenience store to find out where the Public Library was and was told by this pretty redhead that the library was closed on Saturday. I knew that, I said, but Im going to meet someone there. Well, who?, she wanted to know. Her mom worked there. Rather than be slashed to death, I told her who, what, why and all. It worked out, though, the library is north on Main, on the left, in the same block as the bank building.
You gotta love a small town.
If you go: Cross Plains is northwest of Brownwood and southeast of Abilene. It is the intersection of State Highway 36 and 206. The Cross Plains Public Library is open from 1 PM to 5 PM on weekdays. We know its closed on weekends. You should call ahead of time to arrange for a guide to visit the museum. The Library phone number is 254/725-7722. The Chamber of Commerce phone number is: 254/725-7251.
SOMETHING TAPPED ME ON THE SHOULDER
Something tapped me on the shoulder
"Who are you?" I asked the phantom,
And my soul tugged at its moorings
In the shadow panorama