Background and Formative Years
Robert E. Howard was born on January 22, 1906, in Peaster, Texas (Parker County ), just west of Fort Worth, to Dr. Isaac Mordecai Howard and Hester Jane Ervin Howard. His ancestors had owned plantations in the South and fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Robert spent most of his early life living in many booming Texas communities.
Dr. Isaac Howard had an adventurous spirit which caused him to frequently move his family in search of better opportunities. By his eighth birthday, Robert had lived in seven different Texas towns. Between 1915 and 1919, the Howards moved to Cross Cut, Texas (in Brown County), Burkett, Texas (in Coleman County) and finally to Cross Plains, Texas (in Callahan County). Robert would live here for the rest of his life.
Robert Howard attended the local high school, where classmates remember him as reserved and polite. Like most high school boys, Robert tried a number of odd jobs, including carrying trash, delivering laundry for dry-cleaners, working as a store clerk and loading cargo at the local train station.
The Cross Plains school only went through to the tenth grade, but Robert Howard needed to complete the eleventh grade to qualify for college. In 1922, at age 16, Robert and his mother moved to Brownwood so that he could finish high school. After graduation from high school, the Howards returned to Cross Plains.
In addition to his high school education, Robert Howard was an avid reader. Apocryphal stories abound as to Howard’s voracious appetite for books, including sneaking into a school library during the summer to read their books. Some of Howard’s favorite authors were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer, Jack London, Mark Twain, Harold Lamb, Rudyard Kipling, Sir Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, G. K. Chesterton, and Oscar Wilde.
In addition to his passion for reading, Robert Howard also had a love for verbal storytelling. Many of his neighbors recall hearing Robert tell his stories out loud as he typed them on his typewriter—many times into the late hours of the night.
Early Writing Experiences
Robert Howard recalls that he first started writing stories at the age of nine or ten. There was something in him that wanted to share his stories with others and get them into print. By age 15 he submitted his first story for publication, and his first professional sale came at the age of 18.
While at Brownwood High, Robert Howard first experienced the joy of being a published author. Two of his stories won cash prizes and publication in the high school newspaper and three more were printed during the spring semester.
Once he decided on writing as a career choice, he pursued it with reckless abandon. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Howard confessed that he could spend as many as 18 hours a day at his typewriter, honing his craft and perfecting his stories.
Early in his writing career, Robert Howard received the usual rejection slips that every aspiring author receives. While these did not derail his efforts, it did mean that he would need to find steady work to support himself. During 1927, he worked in the Texas oil fields as a reported, but the extreme summer heat was more than he could handle. Next he spent countless hours working as a soda jerk at the local drug store and had almost no time left for writing. So he decided to make a promise to his father: he would go to school at Howard Payne Commercial School and take a course in bookkeeping. In the following year he would try to make a success of his writing. If that failed, he would find work as a bookkeeper.
In 1928, it was clear that Robert Howard would be able to make it as a writer. That year, Weird Tales published four of Howard’s stories and five poems. From that point until his death in 1936, Robert Howard’s stories appeared regularly in the magazine. His stories also appeared in such publications as Action Stories, Spicy Adventure, Argosy, Oriental Stories, Fight Stories, Sport Story, Strange Detective as well as others.
Creating Memorable Characters
Many of his most memorable characters were created during his boyhood and germinated in his imagination as he grew as a writer. For example, the character Bran Mak Morn
was created when Howard was thirteen. Robert’s father took the family to while he attended a post-graduate medical course. To pass the time, Robert Howard found a public library and discovered a book on British history which described a small, dark race of Europeans who settled in the called Picts. This historical group of people strongly appealed to young Robert’s imagination and a future character was born.
Another popular character, Solomon Kane, was created when Howard was sixteen but wasn’t put down on paper for another five years. Howard wrote the story in 1927, entitled “Solomon Kane,” and submitted it to Argosy All-Story magazine. This was a break from his routine submissions to Weird Tales magazine. In a famous antic dote from Howard’s history, an editor from Argosy All-Story rejected the story but included the following note, “You seem to have caught the knack of writing good action & plenty of it into your stories.” Encouraged by this note and undaunted by the rejection, Howard submitted the same story, without any modifications, to Weird Tales, which promptly accepted and published the manuscript in August 1928 under the title “Red Shadows.”
Perhaps Robert Howard’s most famous character is Conan. Conan was not created until Howard had matured in both life experience and as a writer. In 1932, the Howard family was visiting Mission, Texas. Writing to a fan, Howard commented, “Conan simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower . I did not create him by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures.” Further reflecting on the creation of Conan, Robert Howard wrote, “…Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen—or rather, off my typewriter—almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-writing.”
Howard submitted his first Conan story to Weird Tales under the title “The Phoenix on the Sword” which was published in the December 1932 issue. Conan the Cimmerian took the pulp world by storm and became one of the most popular characters of that era.
Through 1935 and 1936, Robert Howard’s mother’s health declined rapidly. More frequently, she was taken to medical facilities and hospitals which produced a mountain of medical bills. The Howard family simply did not have the savings or other funds to cope with the financial stress. Dr. Howard moved his practice into the family home which produced an endless stream of patients coming and going from the house. This, combined with the despair he felt regarding his mother inevitable death, placed enormous stress on the thirty-year-old Robert Howard.
Howard planned his death very carefully. He made meticulous arrangements for the handling of his stories in the event of his death. He carefully assembled the manuscripts he had yet to submit to Weird Tales or the Kline agency, with instructions on where they were to be sent. He borrowed a .380 Colt automatic from a friend who was unaware of his plans.
Robert’s mother, Hester Howard, slid into her final coma around June 8, 1936. Two days later, Robert went to Brownwood and purchased a cemetery plot for three burials. On the morning of the June 11, 1936, Robert asked the nurse attending his mother if she thought Mrs. Howard would ever regain consciousness, and was told that she would not.
Robert Howard went to his room and typed a four-line couplet on his typewriter:
All fled, all done
So lift me on the pyre.
The feast is over
And the lamps expire.
He then left the house and got into his 1935 Chevy. A gun shot was heard. Robert Howard had shot himself above the right ear, the bullet emerging on the left side of his head. His youth and good health allowed him to survive for almost eight hours. He died at 4:00 pm, Thursday, June 11, 1936. His mother died the following day and a double funeral was held on June 14, where mother and son were buried at Greenleaf Cemetery in Brownwood.
Despite dying at the early age of 30, he created some of the most iconic sword-and-sorcery characters of modern literature and helped create the sword-and-sorcery genre.
Creations of Robert E. Howard