On the morning of June 11, 1936, Robert E. Howard walked out of his house, gun in his hand. His father and hired cook were in the house, and paid him no mind as he walked past them to his car. Once seated inside, he raised the gun and shot himself in the head. It was the end to a particularly short life and a promising career in writing.
Robert Ervin Howard was born in Peaster, Texas, on January 11, 1906, the son of Isaac, a doctor, and Hester, whose family enjoyed a long, entangled history with the United States. Both parents would have a profound impact on Robert's writing down the road: His mother heavily encouraged scholarship and reading, while his father entertained him with made up, mythical stories. Throughout his childhood, the family moved from town to town, which were serious upheavals for the young, sensitive child. The violent Texas of the early 1900s likewise helped to shape Howard and his works as much as his parents did. Early in his childhood, his parents drifted apart, often fighting, bringing more strife into his life. His mother, always a protective presence in his life, drew him in closer. After much upheaval, the family eventually ended up in Cross Plains, Texas, in 1919.
Howard was long fascinated by fantastic literature, and in 1921, he came across a pulp magazine called Adventure Magazine and was immediately hooked. His English teacher at the time, Doris Pyle, encouraged him to write up a story to send to the magazine. He did, and received a prompt rejection from the publication, something that bothered him for the rest of his life. Howard continued to write, and first found print in a high school magazine, with the help of another English teacher, Osee Maedgen. After graduating in 1923, Howard had little interest in continuing his education and turned toward writing professionally, working odd jobs as he could find them. Rejections piled up, and he took some courses in typing and writing.
The year 1924 marked the first short-story sale for Howard: His story “Spear and Fang,” an action-packed tale about a Cro Magnon tribe overtaking the neighboring Neanderthal, appeared in the July 1925 issue of Weird Tales Magazine. Themes of racial domination and decline were common throughout Howard’s stories; earlier works had decried multiculturalism and hailed elements of white supremacy. Howard began writing at a more furious pace, eventually losing his job, and remained at his mother’s home, where he eventually began to sell more stories. His next, “In the Forest of Villefere,” appeared in August 1925. He continued to pick up odd jobs, writing letters for the workers who arrived in town following an oil boom. Soon, he sold another story, “Wolfshead,” a sequel to “Villefere,” Over the next couple of years, Howard would largely remain with Weird Tales, publishing numerous stories with the magazine.
Under all this, the introverted Howard maintained a seething temper. He found it difficult to work with other people and was frequently in and out of work. His biographer, L. Sprague de Camp, noted that he often took rejection slips very personally, sometimes to the point where he would never submit to a magazine more than once. Other times, he exhibited a type of violence, such as when he boxed with friends and lost control of his emotions.
In 1928, Howard published a story introducing the first of his notable characters: “Red Shadows” introduced puritan explorer Solomon Kane to Weird Tales readers. This was quickly followed up with another story, “Skulls in the Stars,” which appeared in January. The year 1929 also marked the first sword and sorcery story from Howard, “The Shadow Kingdom,” which de Camp attributes some influence to the works of fantasy authors Lord Dunsany and William Morris as well as fellow pulp author Edgar Rice Burroughs. The story introduces his character Kull, a hero from Atlantis, whose adventures were predictably violent and bloody. Two other stories would follow: “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” (published in Weird Tales’ September 1929 issue) and “Kings of the Night,” (November 1930, Weird Tales). Several others would be published posthumously. By the end of the 1920s, Howard had arrived: He was earning a steady income from his work, with evermore frequent publications to his name. Greater things were on the horizon with the start of a new decade.
In 1930, Howard was struck by a story by fellow Weird Tales author H.P. Lovecraft, and wrote an appreciative letter to the magazine, which was then forwarded to the Rhode Island author. The pair quickly struck up a correspondence and friendship, sharing many similarities in family, politics and outlook. Through Lovecraft, Howard began to meet and speak with other authors in the so-called Lovecraft Circle, and began to incorporate elements of Lovecraft’s worlds and stories into his own. Indeed, a November 1931 story published by Howard, “The Black Stone,” carries with it a distinct Lovecraftian feel that sat well with Howard’s sensibilities: ancient, decaying civilizations destroyed by their own cultural failures.
However, it is the Howard’s Barbarian adventure stories for which he is best known; his hero Kull prefigured a more lasting icon: Conan the Cimmerian. The mythical Barbarian’s first appearance was in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales, in the story “The Phoenix on the Sword,” which was a reworked Kull story that had been rejected earlier. In a rejection for one of Howard’s other stories, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright noted that “THE PHOENIX OF THE SWORD has points of real excellence. I hope that you will see your way clear to touch it up and resubmit it.”
Howard created a world that was not too unlike Southern Europe / Northern Africa, where a wild adventurer would take over the known world. The Conan tales essentially became the popular vision of what a pulp story and hero should be: plenty of swashbuckling adventure, a central, muscular character and plenty of fantastic elements. Howard was all of 26 years old when the first Conan story saw print, and de Camp speculates that the figure of Conan might be loosely inspired by his father, with a backstory inspired in part by the legacy of his family’s ancestry.
In all, Howard wrote 21 Conan stories, most illustrated by Margaret Brundage, the usual cover artist for Weird Tales. Her Conan illustrations were divisive among the magazine’s readers: Some enjoyed the masculine, sensual covers, while others tore the covers off in protest. The first Conan story was a hit with readers, however, and Howard promptly began to write more of them, turning in three to Wright, only to have them rejected. Undaunted, he rewrote one of them, changing the main character’s name, and submitted it to a fanzine. He turned in another story to Wright, “The Scarlet Citadel,” which was accepted and was then followed by “The Tower of the Elephant.” The stories continued, jumping back and forth throughout Conan’s life, following him on a number of fantastic outings that saw him as a thief, pirate and soldier. Readers for the most part couldn’t get enough of the adventures, and filled the magazine’s letter column with praise of Howard and his creation.
Still, while Howard’s writing fortunes were improving, other parts of his life were beginning to slip. Frequently, he was plagued with depression and at times, suicidal thoughts, which came to a head in the late spring of 1936. On June 8th, his mother, ill with tuberculosis, took a turn for the worse and fell into a coma. Over the next couple of days, Howard remained by his mother’s side. Her condition affected him greatly: He acted in an uncharacteristic manner, singing and laughing at points. He reserved three grave plots, under the impression that neither he nor his father would survive without Hester. His father, noting the uncharacteristic personality his son had taken on, worried that his son might kill him and then himself. On June 11th, three days into Hester’s coma, Isaac declared that his wife wasn’t likely going to reawaken: The end was near. Robert was quiet and returned to his room, where he typed out a short poem on his typewriter. He folded it into his wallet and proceeded to the family car to kill himself. His father carried him into the house, where he lingered for eight hours before expiring. He died at the age of 30. His mother lasted for another day, and died on June 12, 1936, never reawakening.
Howard’s stories continued their publication following his death, appearing in various magazines over the next couple of years. A collection of stories appeared in 1937, with another, Skull-Face and Other Stories, published in 1946. In 1950, a new specialty publisher, Gnome Press, took out the rights to begin printing the entire Conan run of stories. The first appeared in 1950, retitled as Conan the Conqueror, and was followed by four additional volumes of the stories: The Sword of Conan, Kin Conan, The Coming of Conan and Conan the Barbarian. Author L. Sprague de Camp took an interest in the stories, and worked tirelessly to edit and promote them, eventually unearthing a number of unpublished stories and bringing them to print. After their publication at Gnome Press, de Camp took the rights to Ace, which published Conan the Conqueror as an ACE Double Novel alongside Leigh Bracket’s own sword and sorcery novel, Sword of Rhiannon, in 1953. Legal issues with Gnome threatened the publication of other Conan stories at other publishers, but by the end of the 1960s, the books were back in print, bolstered by the U.S. publication of another fantasy classic, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Howard’s stories became an important arm of the Fantasy genre—Sword and Sorcery—and helped to influence the stories of other authors, such as Leigh Brackett, Fritz Leiber, Michael Moorecock, C.L. Moore and many others. The subgenre focused extensively on a single hero or heroine and their personal troubles, rather than the much larger and epic scales of High Fantasy, which included the likes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.H. White, Lord Dunsany and William Morris. Howard’s fiction helped to define the genre in its early years, much of it due to his characters Kull and Conan. His characters were deeply personal, inspired through Howard’s own troubles, pride and internalized anger. Like his characters, Howard’s life and legacy as a complicated and at times contradictory figure live on through the imaginations and works of those he inspired.