He created — in the pages of the Depression-era pulp magazine Weird Tales — Conan the Cimmerian, a.k.a. Conan the Barbarian, a character whose pop-culture imprint might be compared to such icons as Tarzan of the Apes, Count Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond.
With Conan and his other heroes Howard created the genre now known as sword-and-sorcery in the late 1920s and early 1930s, 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 the modern genre 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.
The author's early life was spent wandering through a variety of Texas cowtowns and boomtowns: Dark Valley (1906), Seminole (1908), Bronte (1909), Poteet (1910), Oran (1912), Wichita Falls (1913), Bagwell (1913), Cross Cut (1915), and Burkett (1918). Talking to aging Civil War veterans and Texas Rangers, listening to grisly ghost stories told by his grandmother and various ex-slaves, and visiting old forts and historical sites all had a strong influence on his personality. By the time he reached his teens, Howard had soaked in the dying of the Frontier, the bloody history and legends of the American Southwest, and the art of the tall tale.
During Howard's youth his mother Hester had a particularly strong influence on his intellectual growth. Known throughout her family as a kind and giving woman — she had selflessly spent her early years helping a variety of sick relatives, contracting tuberculosis in the process — it was she who instilled in her son a deep love of poetry and literature, filling his ears daily with recited verse, and who supported him unceasingly in his efforts to write. Howard never forgot her many kindnesses both to himself and his extended family, and her growing sickness and invalidity did much to cement his view of existence as heartless, unfair, and ultimately futile.
Other themes began to appear at this time which would later seep into his prose. Howard loved reading and learning, but found that school, jobs, and most bastions of authority were to him hated prisons filled with stultifying rules and endless boredom. Experiences watching and confronting bullies revealed the omnipresence of evil and enemies in the world, and taught him the value of brute physical strength and violence. Firsthand tales of gunfights, lynchings, feuds, and Indian raids developed his distinctly Texan, hardboiled outlook on the world.
Sports, especially boxing, became a passionate preoccupation. At the time, boxing was the most popular sport in the country, with a cultural influence far in excess of what it is today. Jim Jeffries, Jack Johnson, Bob Fitzsimmons, and later Jack Dempsey were the names that dominated Howard's dreams during those years, and he grew up a lover of all contests of violent, masculine struggle. Specifically, he focused in on a type of boxer he called Iron Men, tough battlers who had little skill but made up for it in the sheer ability to take punishment that would kill a lesser man. Inspired by these heroes, Howard lifted weights, practiced boxing and wrestling with friends, and read everything he could find on the subject — most notably in exciting, somewhat lurid magazines such as The Ring and The Police Gazette.
In 1919, when Howard was thirteen, Dr. Howard moved his family to the Central Texas hamlet of Cross Plains, and there the family would stay for the rest of Howard's life. That same year, sitting in a library in New Orleans while his father took medical courses at a nearby college, Howard discovered a book concerned with the scant fact and abundant legends surrounding a group of barbaric tribesmen in ancient Scotland called the Picts. Named for the tattoos they decorated themselves with and bitter enemies of encroaching Roman legions, the Picts fired Howard's imagination and crystallized in him a love for barbarians and outsiders from civilization who lived lives of great hardship and struggle but also great freedom and verve. From then on, the Picts became a muse of sorts, appearing in various guises throughout all the many genres Howard wrote in, and helping to thematically tie his work together.
At fifteen Howard first sampled the popular world of pulp magazines, especially Adventure and its star authors Talbot Mundy and Harold Lamb. Like a lightning bolt striking, his fate was sealed — come hell or high water, he was going to be an adventure writer. The next few years saw him creating a variety of series characters: El Borak (a Texan cross between John Rambo and T. E. Lawrence), a cowboy hero named The Sonora Kid, the puritan avenger Solomon Kane, and the last king of the Picts, Bran Mak Morn. Soon the fifteen-year-old was submitting stories to pulps such as Adventure and Argosy. Rejections piled up, and with no mentors or instructions of any kind to aid him, Howard became a writing autodidact, methodically studying the markets and tailoring his stories and style to each.
In the fall of 1922, when Howard was sixteen, he temporarily moved to a boarding house in the nearby city of Brownwood to complete his senior year of high school, and it was in Brownwood that he first met friends his own age who shared his interest not only for sports and history but also writing and poetry. The two most important of these, Tevis Clyde Smith and Truett Vinson, shared his Bohemian and literary outlook on life, and together they wrote amateur papers and magazines, exchanged long letters filled with poetry and existential thoughts on Life and Philosophy, and encouraged each other's writing endeavors.
Howard also spent his late school years engaging in a self-created regimen of exercise and sparring, eventually building himself into a muscled, burly specimen. He began boxing locally in seedy drinking and gambling venues such as the local Cross Plains icehouse, gaining a reputation for toughness and seldom if ever losing a fight. All of this real-life experience with physical struggle began factoring heavily in his stories, giving them a frighteningly realistic aura and power seldom seen in literature.
These bouts of depression haunted him throughout his life. In later years, Howard would attribute this to a variety of reasons: the inherited gloomy disposition of the Irish; his poor treatment at the hands of locals who derided him for staying at home as a writer rather than getting a respectable blue-collar job; the natural lonely, somewhat outcast existence of writers; and a shyness and lack of self-confidence exacerbated by frequent moves during his youth. The constant mental and emotional pressures Howard experienced in his role of primary caregiver for his increasingly sick mother may also have contributed to his depression.
Howard's writings reveal that he planned to go out while young and in the prime of health. Friends recall him defending the act of suicide as a valid alternative as early as eighteen years old, while many of his stories and poems have a suicidal gloom and intensity that seem prescient in hindsight, describing such an end not as a tragedy but as a release from hell on earth. At his lowest times he insinuated to friends that the only thing keeping him from attempting suicide was the effect it would have on his ailing, tubercular mother, who by now was mostly bedridden and increasingly relied on her son to get through daily life.
Howard spent his late teens working a variety of hated odd jobs around Cross Plains: picking cotton, branding yearlings, hauling garbage, working in grocery stores, office work, serving at a soda counter, public stenography, packing rods for a surveyor, and writing oil-field news, all while taking courses at Howard Payne Academy in Brownwood (an adjunct of the college) and trying mightily to break into the pulp markets. After years of rejection slips and near acceptances, he finally sold a short caveman tale titled "Spear and Fang", which netted him the princely sum of $16 and introduced him to the readers of a struggling pulp called Weird Tales. Nicknamed "The Unique Magazine" due to its strange and macabre content, it was destined to become one of the classic, best-remembered pulps, largely due to the influence of Howard and his two contemporaries, H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Further story sales to Weird Tales were sporadic but encouraging, and soon Howard was a regular in the magazine. His first cover story was for "Wolfshead", a werewolf yarn published when he was only twenty.
Six more Kane stories followed over the next four years, but Howard was already expanding his horizons. In conjunction with his friend Tevis Clyde Smith he dabbled heavily in verse, writing hundreds of poems and getting dozens published in Weird Tales and assorted poetry journals. The best of these efforts remain classics, conjuring up the same blood-splattered, dark, mythic visions of war and rapine that his best stories do. Efforts to get a book of poems accepted by a mainstream publisher failed, however, with several editors recoiling at the brutal imagery and macabre subject matter.
Ultimately Howard judged the writing of poetry to be a luxury he couldn't afford, and after 1930 he wrote little verse, instead dedicating his time to short stories and higher-paying markets. Nevertheless, as a result of this apprenticeship, his stories increasingly took on the aura of "prose-poems" filled with hypnotic, dreamy imagery and a fantastic power lacking in most other pulp efforts of the time.
During the same period, Howard took his first stab at writing a novel, a loosely autobiographical book modeled on Jack London's Martin Eden and titled Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. Of interest to Howard scholars for the personal information it contains, the book was otherwise of middling quality and was never published in the author's lifetime. Stymied by the poetry and novel fields, Howard kept plugging away at Weird Tales, filling its pages with Kane stories and verse. He also did his best to expand his markets, submitting a bewildering array of tales to a variety of pulps.
After several minor successes and false starts, he struck gold again with a new series based on one of his favorite passions: boxing. July 1929 saw the debut of Sailor Steve Costigan in the pages of Fight Stories. A tough-as-nails, two-fisted mariner with a head of rocks and occasionally a heart of gold, Costigan began boxing his way through a variety of exotic seaports and adventure locales, becoming so popular in Fight Stories that the same editors began using additional Costigan episodes in their sister magazine Action Stories. The series was Howard's first foray into humor and first-person narration, and has been compared to the humorous work of such writers as Damon Runyon and P. G. Wodehouse. With three solid markets now all buying up his stories regularly, Howard quit taking college classes, and indeed would never again work a regular job. At twenty-three years of age, from the middle of nowhere in Texas, he had become a full-time writer.
With his own interest in Solomon Kane dwindling and his Kull stories not catching on, Howard applied his new Sword-and-Sorcery template to one of his first loves: the Picts. His story "Kings of the Night" depicted King Kull conjured into pre-Christian Britain to aid the Picts in their struggle against the invading Romans, and introduced readers to Howard's king of the Picts, Bran Mak Morn. Howard followed up this tale with the now-classic revenge nightmare "Worms of the Earth" and several other tales, creating horrific adventures tinged with a Cthulhu-esque gloss and notable for their memorable use of metaphor and symbolism.
Howard was given the affectionate nickname "Two-Gun Bob" by virtue of his long explications to Lovecraft about the history of his beloved Southwest, and during the ensuing years he contributed several notable elements to Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos of horror stories (his Mythos stories include: " The Cairn on the Headland", "The Black Stone," "The Children of the Night and " The Fire of Asshurbanipal"). He also corresponded with other "Weird Tale" writers such as Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and E. Hoffmann Price.
When Farnsworth Wright started a new pulp called Oriental Stories, Howard was overjoyed — here was a venue where he could run riot through favorite themes of history and battle and exotic mysticism. During the four years of the magazine's existence, he crafted some of his very best tales, gloomy vignettes of war and rapine in the Middle and Far East during the Middle Ages, tales that rival even his best Conan stories for their historical sweep and jewelled splendor. In addition to series characters such as Turlogh Dubh O'Brien and Cormac FitzGeoffrey, Howard sold a variety of tales depicting various times and periods through the Middle Ages.
Conan first appeared in Weird Tales in December 1932's "The Phoenix on the Sword", and was such a hit that Howard was able to place seventeen more Conan stories in the magazine between 1933 and 1936. The character had a wide and enduring influence among other WT writers, including C. L. Moore and Fritz Leiber, and over the ensuing decades the genre of Sword and Sorcery grew up around Howard's masterwork, with dozens of practitioners evoking Howard's creation to one degree or another.
Their relationship was a series of on-again, off-again encounters, with one falling in love while the other one stepped back. When Novalyne began dating other people behind Howard's back (notably Howard's close friend Truett Vinson), their friendship was irrevocably scarred, but they continued visiting with each other until May 1936, when Novalyne left Cross Plains for LSU to get a graduate degree.
Howard began appearing once again in Action Stories (which the Depression had killed off a few years earlier, but which had now started republishing) in March 1934, this time using a new humorous character in the place of Sailor Steve Costigan, a nineteenth-century hillbilly woodsman named Breckinridge Elkins. Written as tall tales in the vein of Texas "Tall Lying" stories, which were usually spoken aloud, the series became immensely popular in the magazine, which published a new Elkins story every month without fail until well after Howard's death.
Other magazines asked Howard for similar characters, and soon the author had three different western series in play, as well as penning other more serious westerns for other pulps. By 1936 almost all of his fiction writing was being devoted to westerns, a book of Breck stories titled A Gent from Bear Creek was due to be published by Herbert Jenkins in England, and by all accounts it looked as if Howard was finally breaking out of the pulps and into the more prestigious book market.
Most importantly, his home life was falling apart — after decades of struggle, his mother was finally nearing death, and the constant interruptions of care workers at home combined with frequent trips to various sanatoriums for her care made it nearly impossible to write. Several times in 1935–36, whenever his mother's health precipitously threatened to give out, he made veiled allusions to his father about planning suicide. Both parents made efforts to convince him to reconsider. 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 a borrowed .38 automatic 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 4 p.m.; his mother died the following day. They were both buried on June 14, 1936 in a double funeral in Greenleaf Cemetery in Brownwood, Texas.
Another field in which Howard was successful was supernatural horror, where he influenced and was in turn influenced by his peer and correspondent H. P. Lovecraft, adding his own trademarks of quickly paced action and strong characterization. His original creations, like the forbidden tome Nameless Cults by Friedrich von Junzt, are now considered to be integral parts of the Cthulhu Mythos. Howard and Lovecraft shared a love of the same "weird" writers, chief among them Ambrose Bierce and Arthur Machen, the latter being very important to both authors in the construction of their Cthulhu Mythos tales. Howard's true source of inspiration came from folklore and tall tales that he absorbed from various storytellers at an early age.
Howard also wrote in other genres:
Howard envisioned almost all of his sword-and-sorcery stories to take place in the same literary "universe", starting with the prehistoric adventures of James Allison's pre-incarnations; evolving in the Thurian Age of Kull, set in the times of Atlantis and Lemuria (from where Kathulos/Skull Face comes and also the remnants of Atlantean civilization Solomon Kane finds in central Africa); onward to the Hyborian Age of Conan and then to known history. The James Allison stories can also be viewed as taking place within the context of the latter half of Howard's famous essay, "The Hyborian Age", when, as he recounts, a cataclysm destroyed the age of Conan, and the proto-Nordic tribes roamed the world in vast migrations. A voracious reader, Howard was familiar with the works of H.P. Blavatsky and contemporary racial migration theories, so his "proto-Aryans," descendants of the Hyborian Age's AEsir and Vanir, roamed the world looking for new lands to conquer (this is made most clear in his excellent tale, "The Valley of the Worm", in which the AEsir have but recently left the northlands and have encroached upon the land of the Picts, who during the Hyborian Age lived directly south of "Nordheim"). This took place between the end of the Hyborian Age and the beginning of recorded history.
Howard engineered his tales so that a great cataclysm always came to seal and divide each era from the next one, so each civilization was barely conscious of the ones that came before, and even then only in myths and legends (for example, Allison's slaying of the "Great Worm" provided us with the myths of Siegfried and Beowulf).
In one of the most memorable Howardian tales ever ("Kings of the Night"), a cross-over between different sagas is presented as the Pictish chieftain Bran Mak Morn magically conjures Kull the Valusian from his time to aid him in battle against the Romans and their allies.
Howard's prose is straightforward, colorful, and exciting more than subtle and literary, and it attempts to entertain rather than instruct, but it is not without sophistication. Howard tells of worlds where violence is usually the best solution to problems, and where gold, jewels, and beautiful women are often the hero's reward; yet, distancing himself from his inferior imitators, Howard's works have a shade of macabre, even malignant humour in contrasting his square-jawed heroes' efforts with their ultimate futility in the greater picture of things. And yet, as true Nietzschean heroes, they accept their toil of suffering, bloodshed, passion, and pain without even lamenting or complaining about it, thus achieving ultimate freedom from it.
In 1966, de Camp made a deal with struggling Lancer Books to publish the existing Howard and non-Howard Conan corpus in paperback, along with additional material contributed by himself and his colleague and collaborator Lin Carter. Together they completed recently discovered fragments of Conan pieces by Howard and wrote several of their own stories to fill out the picture of Conan's career. The Lancer Conan series became a publishing phenomenon, selling millions of copies and spawning a host of imitators. Sporting a set of now-classic covers painted by Frank Frazetta, the success of the Lancers created a decade-long "Howard boom" in the 1970s which saw not only the birth of popular Conan comics (Conan the Barbarian, The Savage Sword of Conan, et al.) and movies (Conan the Barbarian, which made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star), but also the reprinting of virtually every word Howard ever wrote in a bewildering variety of hardcovers, paperbacks, chapbooks, and fanzines.
During this same period de Camp popularized Conan, Howard, and fantasy in general in a number of books (The Spell of Conan, The Blade of Conan, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, et al.) and magazines such as Amra, culminating in his writing of the first full biography of the Texan, Dark Valley Destiny: the Life of Robert E. Howard (1983). His success in making Howard a subject of serious scholarship led to the erosion of his own reputation, as fans who had been happy to see anything by or about Howard began to give way to Howard "purists." As a result de Camp's work has become a divisive issue in Howard studies, with proponents praising his decades of service to the Howardian cause and detractors accusing him of using Howard's work to promote his own interests, and denigrating what they see as his factual errors concerning Howard's life and writings.
The 1980s saw critical respect begin to come to Howard, in the form of The Dark Barbarian (1984), edited by noted critic Don Herron, who earlier had penned a seminal essay, "Conan vs. Conantics", which took de Camp to task for what he regarded as the pollution of Howard's reputation with substandard stories by himself and Lin Carter. The Dark Barbarian was the first critical volume on Howard to appear by an academic press, and has since been followed by a 2004 sequel titled The Barbaric Triumph.
In 1987, Robert E. Howard, by Marc Cerasini and Charles Hoffman, was published. Mr. Hoffman was the author of the seminal essay, "Conan the Existentialist," published in the 1970s in the Journal of Popular Culture. Robert E. Howard was the first book-length critical study of the author's entire literary output. Now out of print, a revised and updated version of this groundbreaking work will be released in 2008.
A host of journals and magazines have also contained much criticism. In 1972 The Robert E. Howard United Press Association (REHupa) was born, and for thirty years its members have contributed new scholarship in the field. In recent years Howard's stories have been meticulously restored and republished by various editors and presses such as Wandering Star and Wildside Press, and a journal called The Cimmerian has become the first paying market for Howard criticism, publishing twenty issues in three years.