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Robert Ervin Howard (22 January 1906, Peaster, Texas – 11 June 1936, Cross Plains, Texas), was an extraordinarily prolific and inventive writer of fiction and poetry during the 1920s and 1930s.
Although best known as the creator of Conan, REH wrote hundreds of poems and over three hundred works of fiction in a wide range of genres – about half of which were published during his tragically short career.
REH's unique synthesis of historical adventure, fantasy, and horror created what we now known as sword and sorcery.
REH was the son of Dr. Isaac Mordecai Howard, one of the southwest's most prominent pioneer physicians, and Hester Jane Ervin Howard. As a child, he lived in at least nine towns across Texas until his father settled at Cross Plains in 1919.
REH steeped himself in the folklore and history of the southwest, but his interests were far broader than this, encompassing not just Texana, but history and anthropology, sports, erotica, and poetry. All show through in various stories – crystalised by REH's growing up during the last days of America's frontier culture.
At fifteen, he began writing his tales of savage men living outside the rest of society, battling against other men, for land and pride. Though the circumstances and settings changed, the hero, or anti-hero, was always somehow a shade of the same creature – part savage, part nobleman, part poet, part pioneer – not unlike REH himself.
REH was a keen amateur boxer, participating in bouts at the local ice house. Between 1925 and 1928 had put himself through a weight and strength program, taking on really heroic proportions! He is described as an imposingly tall, dark, brawny man – with piercing blue eyes. His characters were as much himself as they were pulled from his extraordinary imagination.
REH's mentor and friend, the legendary father of pulp fiction, H.P. Lovecraft, described him as "a lover of the simpler, older world of barbarian and pioneer days, when courage and strength took the place of subtlety and stratagem, and when a hardy, fearless race battled and bled... the real secret [of REH's stories] is that he himself is in every one of them…"
There's a scene in The Whole Wide World – the movie based on Novalyne Price's One Who Walked Alone – that illustrates this quite neatly. REH and Novelyne go for a night ride and stop by a corn field with the headlights left on shining at the corn. They are sitting on the fenders chatting about writing, etc., and she says something like, "Tell me about this new Conan character of yours!"
He hops off and faces her and the lights and says, "Conan is the damnedest bastard there ever was!" And as REH tells her about Conan he becomes his character – and you can hear the swish and clang of swords in the background.
REH had a passion for oral storytelling – and often declaimed his stories as he typed them (to the annoyance of his neighbours!). His prose is direct and vivid, with no literary pretentions, yet he was a skilled and dynamic storyteller. He created thrilling tales, in which violence is usually the hero's best solution to any problem, and gold, jewels, and beautiful women his reward.
His stories in the pulp magazines made him the most popular fiction writer in America from the late 1920s to the mid 1930s – he was probably the first author of serialized fiction to ever earn a living as a full-time writer. He was able, in a single month during the Great Depression, to earn as much as $500 – more than three times what the local bank president earned.
His writing career was at its height in 1936 when, after his tubercular mother fell into a coma, he committed suicide: he shot himself in the head and died eight hours later. His mother expired little over a day later.
In 1922 REH moved to Brownwood to finish high school. His fiction, poems, and articles appeared in the Brownwood High School magazine The Tattler in 1922 and 1923. One such story was "Under the Great Tiger", which REH co-wrote with his school-friend Tevis Clyde Smith.
REH made his first sale – for $15 or $16 – in 1924 when Weird Tales accepted "Spear and Fang", a short tale in which a Cro-magnon rescues his mate from a Neanderthal. This was published in Weird Tales 6 1 (July 1925).
"In The Forest of Villefère", published in the August 1925 issue of the same magazine (Weird Tales 6 2), was the first of only two tales of de Montour, who inherits the horrid curse of the werewolf…
"Wolfshead", the second de Montour tale, published in Weird Tales 7 4 (April 1926) earned him a kind of bonus: the cover artist (E. M. Stevenson) had the only manuscript when the magazine was going to press, so REH had to re-write the story from memory!
Even when he began to be published professionally, REH had to supplement the meager income from his stories with a variety of jobs: a private secretary in a law office, a geologist's assistant, an oil-field "stringer" for various newspapers, a public stenographer, and a drugstore assistant – a job he despised. In the fall of 1926, to appease his father, he enrolled in a book-keeping course.
But once that was finished, REH set about writing again in earnest, and within a year he was regularly selling stories to Weird Tales.
"The Lost Race" was published in Weird Tales 9 1 (January 1927). This was actually the second story that the magazine had accepted! It was the first of REH's stories to feature the Picts, a race that would have an enduring fascination for him.
REH wrote a number of fantasy/horror tales set in the south and south-west United States. The first of these was "The Dream Snake", published in Weird Tales 11 2 (February 1928). The following month saw the publication of the first of his contemporary horror stories, "The Hyena" (Weird Tales 11 3).
Solomon Kane, the first character REH sustained beyond a couple of stories, first saw print in "Red Shadows" in Weird Tales 12 2 (August 1928). Solomon Kane was REH's perception of relentless, icy, and often bloody, nobility – a saturnine 16th-century English Puritan swordsman, a swashbuckler of sorts, and an avenger: in REH's words, "[Kane] considered himself a fulfiller of God's judgment, a vessel of wrath to be emptied upon the souls of the unrighteous".
Some of the tales take place in England and the Continent, but Kane faces his greatest challenges in a dark, African netherworld of primordial jungles and lost cities, pitting his strength and righteousness against vampire queens, savage pirates, and ancient horrors.
In "The Apparition in the Prize Ring" (Ghost Stories, April 1929, as by John Taverel), the ghost of legendary bare-knuckle fighter Tom Molyneaux helps a 20th-Century black champion, Ace Jessel, in Ace's most desperate moment.
This was REH's first sale to a magazine other than Weird Tales – and the first story where he revealed his love of prize-fighting. But not his last!
It is impossible to ignore the sheer number of boxing stories that REH wrote – or the passion with which he wrote them. He wrote them faster than the magazines could print them. Clearly, he loved what he was doing. The fight stories are funny, bawdy, picaresque, and violent.
REH broke into Fight Stories with "The Pit of the Serpent" published in July 1929. This was the first story to feature the roistering merchant seaman Sailor Steve Costigan, a lovable, hard-fisted, and innocent semipro pugilist, who takes on dastardly villains in exotic ports of call.
Costigan was to be REH's most frequently used series character, featuring in no fewer than thirty-four stories and three unfinished fragments. This count is confused somewhat by the fact that Costigan is called Sailor Dennis Dorgan in a number of the stories… But they really are the same character, according to Robert E. Howard scholar Mark Finn.
When Fight Stories suspended publication in 1932, REH found a new outlet in The Magic Carpet Magazine; but as this was already publishing other stories by REH, he became Patrick Ervin, and Sailor Steve Costigan became Sailor Dennis Dorgan.
In the end, only one of these altered stories was published – "Alleys of Darkness" in January 1934 – before Magic Carpet folded and the rest of the altered Costigan stories went unpublished during REH's lifetime.
Weird Tales 14 2 (August 1929) featured the novelette "The Shadow Kingdom", the debut of Kull, a brooding, violent exile from Atlantis, who eventually seized the throne of fabled Valusia in the Pre-Cataclysmic Age. Kull was the only character that REH claimed to have created spontaneously. Initially intended only as a minor character, Kull soon became so fascinating to his creator that he was given a series all his own. Many critics have pinned the birth of sword and sorcery down to this specific REH story, and his peculiar melding of historical adventure with elements of fantasy and horror.
REH's first serialized story in Weird Tales was Skull-Face, published in three parts (14 4-6; October-December 1929). In this story of exotic mystery in vein of Sax Rohmer, the hero, Stephen Costigan, visits the Thames-side den of Yun Shatsu, the opium lord, and there meets the skull-faced Master, Kathulos of Egypt!
- "– but, oh God, the face! A skull to which no vestige of flesh seemed to remain but on which taut brownish-yellow skin grew fast, etching out every detail of that terrible death's head. The forehead was high and in a way magnificent, but the head was curiously narrow through the temples, and from under penthouse brows great eyes glimmered like pools of yellow fire."
Stephen Costigan – surely an alter-ego of Sailor Steve? – also appeared in "Taverel Manor", but this fragment remained uncompleted and unpublished until after REH's death.
Between 1928 and 1930 REH became increasingly interested in Irish history, legend and poetry, and he began to include Irish characters into his stories…
Late in 1930 Oriental Stories (a companion title to Weird Tales) began a series of historical adventure stories set during the Crusades, or periods of Mongol or Islamic conquests, many of which feature Celtic heroes.
- "The Voice of El-Lil" (October-November 1930)
- "Red Blades of Black Cathay" (February-March 1931), REH's second collaboration with Tevis Clyde Smith
- "Hawks of Outremer" (Spring 1931), featuring Cormac Fitzgeoffrey
- "The Blood of Belshazzar" (Autumn 1931), featuring Cormac Fitzgeoffrey
- "The Sowers of the Thunder" (Winter 1932), featuring Red Cahal and Baibars the Panther
- "Lord of Samarcand" (Spring 1932)
This seems to have been REH's preferred genre: "I wish to Hell I had a dozen markets for historical fiction – I'd never write anything else."
Unfortunately Oriental Stories, which became, briefly, Magic Carpet, proved relatively short-lived. REH's early rejections by Adventure Magazine – which had published Howard Lamb, one of REH's major influences – seem to have disuaded him from submitting further tales once Wright's magazine had folded. Also, perhaps, he found another outlet for this muse in one of his other series…
In Weird Tales 16 5 (November 1930), the novelette "Worms of the Earth" featured Kull and introduced another popular character, Bran Mak Morn, a Pictish chieftain fighting Rome's inoxerable incursions into Britain.
The Picts were a long-standing interest from the time a 13-year-old REH had discovered a book on British history in the New Orleans public library. This small, dark race of Mediterraneans who settled in the British Isles before the arrival of the Celts captured REH's imagination: "I felt a strong sympathy for this people, and there and then adopted them as a medium of connection with ancient times. I made them a strong warlike race of barbarians, gave them an honorable history of past glories, and created for them a great king – one Bran Mak Morn."
In 1930, REH had began corresponding with fellow Weird Tales author H.P. Lovecraft – sparked by Lovecraft's use of Gaelic in "The Rats in the Walls".
Like Clark Ashton Smith, REH wrote stories within Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos; his contributions include the forbidden encyclopedia Unaussprechlichen Kulten (Nameless Cults) and its author von Junzt, the mad poet Justin Geoffrey, the Black Stone, the serpent men from the Kull stories, and the Picts and their great king/god, Bran Mak Morn.
His first attempt at a Cthulhu story, "The Children of the Night" was published in Weird Tales 17 3 (April/May 1931).
Another of REH's boxing heroes, Kid Allison, made his first appearance in Sport Story 15 September 1931.
Weird Tales 18 3 (October 1931) featured the novelette "The Gods of Bal-Sagoth", in which REH introduced Turlogh Dubh O'Brien, a Celtic outlaw. In a second Turlogh Dubh story, "The Dark Man", Weird Tales 18 5, December 1931), we also encounter Bran Mak Morn, who has become a god to the remnants fo the Pictish race.
"The Phoenix on the Sword", in Weird Tales 20 6, (December 1932), introduced the character who would soon overshadow all REH's other heroes: Conan. Many of the Conan tales are REH's historical epics in another guise, the same confrontation between barbarism and civilization translated from Earth's written history to the Hyborian Age.
"Shadow of the Vulture", in Magic Carpet (January 1934) – the last of REH's historical adventures to be published by Wright – is best known as the story in which REH introduced Red Sonya of Rogatino, prototype for Roy Thomas's Red Sonja. (REH's – Ervin's! – Sailor Dennis Dorgan debuted in the same issue!)
The publishing industry suffered during the Great Depression: many magazines suspended publication or folded altogether; for a time, Weird Tales reduced its frequency of publication from monthly to bi-monthly. REH was forced to seek new markets.
REH came into the detective-fiction magazine scene virtually on Dashell Hammett's heels. Despite an aversion to the detective formula, he was willing to try any marketplace to make a living.
The February1934 issue of Strange Detective Stories featured two Steve Harrison tales: "Fangs of Gold" and "The Tomb's Secret", the latter as by Patrick Ervin.
Harrison is a brawny police detective who patrols the unquiet slums and dives of River Street, in an unnamed port city where the sun never shines. But REH's stories were far-removed from the "mean streets" of Hammett's and Raymond Chandler's stories in Black Mask. Like Skull-Face they owe more to Sax Rohmer – and to REH's own contemporary horror stories. Only two other Harrison stories were published in the 1930s.
REH found a more successful niche in the Western genre with the Paul-Bunyanesque Breckinridge Elkins tales which ran in every issue of Action Stories from "Mountain Man" in March-April 1934 to "The Conquerin' Hero of the Humbolts" in October 1936, after REH's death. Several of these stories were assembled as the novel A Gent from Bear Creek (Jenkins, 1937).
Top-Notch provided another new market for the tales of REH's "Desert Adventurers": Kirby O'Donnell, a restless American who found his true home on the far borders of High Tartary, and Francis Xavier Gordon, called El Borak – the Swift – by the untamed tribesmen of Central Asia and the Middle East, his nickname describing his speed with sword and revolver, the latter skill perfected in an earlier career as a Texas gunman.
O'Donnell debuted in "Swords of Shahrazar" (Top-Notch; November 1934) and El-Borak in "The Daughter of Erlik Khan" (Top-Notch; December 1934). El Borak, in "Hawk of the Hills", featured on the cover of the June 1935 issue of Top-Notch (right).
REH continued to have success in new markets up to his death – sometimes under pseudonyms. Spicy Adventure Stories (April 1936) published the first of a six of tales featuring Wild Bill Clanton: "She-Devil" as by Sam Walser.
Even after his death, magazines continued for some time to publish his stories or reprint them under other by-lines. Pike Bearfield, another of REH's humorous Western heroes, appeared in stories in three issues of Argosy in October 1936. One story of Black Terence Vulmea, a hulking Irish buccaneer, "Black Vulmeas Vengeance", was published in Golden Fleece in November 1938. Many of the Sailor Steve Costigan stories re-appeared in Fight Stories in the 1940s under new titles as by Mark Adam.
Some of REH's characters first saw print only much later. Agnes de Chastillon (also known as Dark Agnes de la Fere), like Red Sonya, a red-headed sword woman of the 16th Century – featured in three stories, none of which were published until the 1970s – following the success of Lancer's Conan series in the 1960s.
- List of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories
- Influences on Robert E. Howard's Conan stories
- Quotes from Robert E. Howard's Conan stories
- Robert E. Howard — Official REH website
- Joe Marek's Robert E. Howard Page — Somewhat mussy, but with much useful content.
- Robert-E-Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association
- The Robert E. Howard United Press Association — "A website catering to REH scholars."
- The Barbarian Keep — A really excellent site, maintained by Edward A. Waterman
- Robert E. Howard Directory — Online directory for the life and works of Robert E. Howard.
Characters & series Edit
- Robert E. Howard, Bran Mak Morn, and the Picts — by Rusty Burke
- Howards's Ace of Swords: A Solomon Kane Primer — E.E. Knight
- Dreams of the Purple Kingdom (Kull) — on Dale Rippke's Heroes of Dark Fantasy website
- Dark Agnes: A critical overview of Robert E. Howard's Sword Woman — by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
- Sailor Steve and the Iron Men [PDF] — by Matthew Baugh