WHAT THEY TRADED: Robert E. Howard
"I sat and thought. My thoughts ran, shall I live and continue to be a failure, to grind my life out and at last pass on, a failure, among failures OR?"

Or what? Or struggle against the crushing weight of the world?

Robert E. Howard used to shout his stories as he wrote them. There he'd be, still living with his parents, clacking at his typewriter and screaming along to himself about Conan or Solomon Kane or Sailor Steve Costigan.

His neighbors thought he was another mental casualty of the lonely Texas plains. Howard spent his early life traveling from town to town in Texas with his father the doctor, and watching the bust cycles of the oil boom. He watched towns and lands raped by invading hordes of pioneers; he saw towns spring up in their wake and become civilized and gentrified; and then he saw the towns blow away like dry rot when the inevitable depression came afterwards.

"I'll say one thing about an oil boom: it will teach a kid that life's a pretty rotten thing about as quick as anything I can think of," wrote Howard.

But Howard didn't write about oil towns. He wrote about men fighting other men, and sometimes about men fighting women, and sometimes about women fighting snakes. And he wrote about boxing and swords and pirate ships and Africa, screaming his tales into the silence of the hot plains and into his typewriter fingers.

Howard didn't have any writer friends or writer training or writer mentors, and so the mail was his only access to the world of publishing and print. It is no surprise that he therefore channeled his writing skill into stories that could be told through mail-order publications like "Adventure" and "Argosy" and "Strange Detective." He only ever wrote one novel, but everybody told him it was crap (no ACTION), and so he stuck it in a drawer. And when he was wasn't writing, he was beating people up for money at the local Cross Plains Ice House, and studying how to do a better job at it. The "sweet science," they call it.

Howard decided early in his life that existence itself was a sort of sleep-walking hell with several hundred layers of pain and torment, and he told friends that the only reason he stayed alive was because his mother needed him. This was true, maybe. His mother was dying of tuberculosis as he wrote his fantasy stories about werewolves and the last king of the Picts; as he wrote pulp about arcane temples and the "worms of the earth."

He worked to pay her bills. He didn't bother with making friends or with town social events. Instead, he wrote over 800 stories about pain and futility.

"Like the average man, the tale of my life would merely be a dull narration of drab monotony and toil, a grinding struggle against poverty," wrote Howard. "I'm merely one of a huge army, all of whom are bucking the line one way or another for meat for their bellies... Every now and then one of us finds the going too hard and blows his brains out, but it's all in the game, I reckon."

Howard wrote letters to H.P. Lovecraft about writing and about Celtic ritual. He wrote stories about whatever was hot and whatever was weird. He sold stories to "Complete Stories," "Cowboy Stories," "Dime Sport Magazine," "Fight Stories," "Ghost Stories, "Jack Dempsey's Fight Magazine," "Marvel Tales," "Oriental Stories," "Spicy-Adventure Stories," "Sport Story Magazine," "Strange Detective Stories," "Strange Tales," "Super Detective Stories," "Thrilling Adventures," "Thrilling Mystery," "Top-Notch," "Weird Tales," and "Oriental Mysteries." He invented many stoic and grim protagonists, but couldn't keep all those bubbles afloat. He would create them and then lose interest.

"Suddenly I would find myself out of contact with the conception," wrote Howard. "As if the man himself had been standing at my shoulder directing my efforts, and had suddenly turned and gone away, leaving me to search for another character."

He eventually did find one he could stick with for awhile, during a trip to Fredericksburg, Texas -- a town known mostly for its German street signs and a giant slab of granite that lights up at sundown called "Enchanted Rock." Here, Howard came up with the idea of Conan. The world was so awful and strange and brutal that you had to be Conan to survive. Only a person like Conan was equipped and built for what the world demanded.

Conan was always free. Conan was never lonely or depressed. Conan had too much to do, too many people to kill, too much blood to drink. Howard, on the other hand, had nothing but time and problems.

Howard had a girlfriend for a little while, but she couldn't get close. She told him to leave his mother in the care of a nurse and get out of Texas. See things; see the world. They had some fights. Who would pay this nurse, he asked? She started dating his friends, and then she left him to go to grad school in Louisiana. Another boom, another bust.

When "Weird Tales" stopped paying him, he moved into westerns, earning the nickname "Two-Gun Bob" from the East Coast mandarins. He read history. He waited.

And then, finally, his mother started to die for good. But she did it slowly, requiring constant care and requiring constant help. He was equal to the challenge. He drank coffee; he didn't sleep; he stopped telling himself stories out loud because she was trying to rest; he typed softly.

In 1936, after a few particularly bad days that ended in his mother losing consciousness completely, the doctor broke the sad news, and said that she wouldn't ever wake up again, and that her life was over. Howard was so happy, according to his father, that he glowed. He was ecstatic. Howard asked the doctor if anybody had ever lived after a gunshot to the brain. The doctor said "no," not knowing about Howard's perception of his duty. Still, he was taking the news rather well, wasn't he? Howard's father and the doctor watched him with concern and alarm. Whistling, Howard ran to his typewriter and wrote this:

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

Then Howard ran outside to the driveway. He took a .38 automatic from the glove box of his car, and shot himself in the head. He lived a little bit longer. Long enough to get to the hospital. But the next day, both he and his mother were dead.

I have this feeling that he made a big mistake, and not for obvious reasons, not because his death was a tragedy (what's one less writer in the world? Right? Right?). But I have this feeling that Robert E. Howard would have LOVED World War Two. He would have enlisted the first day he could, and he would have had a damn good time out there. He loved a fight -- he loved a fight like he loved nothing else -- and he missed the best one of his century.

But there's the lesson. He missed World War Two, even though he had been preparing for it his whole life. He missed it by this much.


Posted by miracle on Mon, 09 Jun 2008 16:23:12 -0400 -- permanent link

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