Friday, June 11, 2010

Deathday: Robert E. Howard 1906-1936 Pulp Author

Robert Ervin Howard (January 22, 1906 – June 11, 1936) was an American author who wrote pulp fiction in a diverse range of genres. Best known for his character Conan the Barbarian, he is regarded as the father of the sword and sorcery subgenre.

Howard was born and raised in the state of Texas. He spent most of his life in the town of Cross Plains with some time spent in the nearby Brownwood. A bookish and intellectual child, he was also a fan of boxing and spent some time in his late teens bodybuilding, eventually taking up amateur boxing himself. From the age of nine he dreamed of becoming a writer of adventure fiction but did not have real success until he was twenty-three. He was published in a wide selection of magazines, journals and newspapers but his main outlet was the pulp magazine Weird Tales.

He was successful in several genres and was on the verge of publishing his first novel when he committed suicide at the age of thirty. His mother was terminally ill with tuberculosis before she had even met his father and so was slowly dying throughout Howard's entire life. When he learned that his mother had entered a coma from which she was not expected to wake he, for reasons that are not clear, walked out to his car and shot himself in the head. His suicide and the circumstances surrounding it have led to varied speculation about his mental health; from an Oedipus complex, to clinical depression, to no mental disorders of any kind.

Howard created Conan the Barbarian, in the pages of the Depression-era pulp magazine Weird Tales, a character whose pop-culture imprint has been compared to such icons as Tarzan, Count Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond. With Conan and his other heroes, Howard created the genre now known as Sword and sorcery, spawning a wide swath of imitators and giving him an influence in the fantasy field rivaled only by J. R. R. Tolkien and Tolkien's similarly inspired creation of High Fantasy. Howard remains a highly read author, with his best work endlessly reprinted. He has been compared to other American masters of the weird, gloomy and spectral, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Jack London.

In the weeks before his suicide, Howard wrote to Kline giving his agent instructions of what to do in case of his death; he wrote his last will and testament; and he borrowed a .380 Colt Automatic from his friend Lindsey Tyson. On June 10, he drove to Brownwood and bought a burial plot for the whole family. On the night before his suicide, when his father confirmed that his mother was finally dying, he asked where his father would go afterwards. Isaac Howard replied that he would go wherever his son went, thinking he meant to travel away from Cross Plains. It is possible that Howard thought his father would join him in ending their lives together as a family.

In June 1936, as Hester Howard slipped into her final coma, her son maintained a death vigil with his father and friends of the family, getting little sleep, drinking huge amounts of coffee, and growing more despondent. On the morning of June 11, 1936, told by a nurse that his mother would never again regain consciousness, he walked out to his car in the driveway, took the pistol from the glove box, and shot himself in the head. His father and another doctor rushed out, but the wound was too grievous for anything to be done. Howard lived for another eight hours, dying at 4pm; his mother died the following day. The story occupied the entirety of that week's edition of the Cross Plains Review along with the publication of Howard's "A Man-Eating Jeopard." On June 14, 1936, in a double funeral, the sermon was held at Cross Plains First Baptist Church and they were both buried in Greenleaf Cemetery in Brownwood, Texas.

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