At 14, when I first had inclinations toward writing, I couldn’t have told my mom that my favorite writer, the writer who had instilled the desire to write fantasy novels, had shot himself to death.
Such was the fate of Robert E. Howard, creator of pulp fiction hero Conan the Barbarian, a writer credited also with creating the fantasy genre of swords and sorcery.
Mom couldn’t understand my fascination with fantasy, and was probably convinced I was broaching perilously toward the dark side, toward making a compact of some sort with the devil. She confirmed this a few years later by making me get rid of my fantasy novels and role playing games because she had heard such things, indeed, were leading children nationwide to the devil. (I was, though, allowed to keep and continue reading science fiction, as well as comic books.)
Still I wanted to create stories of ages undreamed of, but quenched the yearning for years, and by the time the yearning to write surfaced strongly I had lost significant interest in pulp swords and sorcery, turning toward “serious” fiction of the kind taught in university literature courses, though some of that was fantasy without the swords. I had not, though, forgotten the desire to one day visit Cross Plains, Texas, where Howard lived, wrote and died.
Actually, at 14, a strong tie that I had with Howard was Texas, was growing up in a town not much bigger than Cross Plains, which today still has a little more than a 1,000 people living there. If Howard could be from a small Texas town and write and make a living at it — in the 1920s and 1930s writers could do pretty well writing for the pulps — so could I. I felt that same tie when I first read Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show at 18 (jump that novel’s time frame up by 30 years, and it captures very well to some extent mostly vicariously my experience of growing up in a small Texas town.)
Twenty-five years later, I found myself pelted by fine mist outside the Robert E. Howard Museum — the old Howard home — in Cross Plains, and then greeted at the screen door by an old lady who was doing inventory inside in the room of the house that served as the museum’s book store. (A week earlier Robert E. Howard Days and the Barbarian Festival had been observed. A lot of the books were out of stock.) The lady gave an impromptu tour. The white one-story wood frame house is tiny, with a living room, kitchen, dining room, Howard’s mother’s bedroom, and Howard’s cramped bedroom/writing room, and not much else.
Much of the museum is a hallway of photos and paintings, and period-piece furniture, but there is a copy of one Howard’s manuscripts and a lot of memorabilia — maps of the Hyborean Age world Conan wanders, comics and movie posters of The Whole Wide World, the film starring Renee Zellweger that details Howard’s romance with schoolteacher Novalyne Price Ellis.
I liked adventuring in Howard’s real world, and I imagine it was too real of a world for Howard, especially as he took care of his mother, who, if I understood the tour guide correctly, suffered from tuberculosis. And perhaps that too real world was what placed Howard so far into his imagination, whether it overwhelmed him, or wasn’t world enough. Which, I suspect, is the condition many writers find themselves in — they are never more quite at home in the world as they are when they are re-imagining the world, even when they happen to be that “weird doctor’s boy” in the white wood frame house down the road.