In Memorium–Robert E. Howard

Image3Today, June 11th, is the 77th anniversary of the death of Robert E. Howard.

Howard (or “REH”) is one of those writers who is well known by fans of a specific genre but not widely known to the general public.  Some may remember that he created CONAN and will probably think more about a certain ex-governor than they will the author.  I’d venture to say that many newer fans of fantasy and sword & sorcery fiction may know who REH is but haven’t really read much of his work.  (This is a symptom that is happening with Lovecraft as well.  Many know Lovecraft’s name but few people, even fans, have actually read his work.)

This is somewhat of a shame for REH in that his writing was often so much more than just fantasy or barbarians or even horror.  Especially powerful are his tales of his native Texas where REH’s voice is powerful and unique.

REH is truly one of the great figures in fantasy literature and one of the founders of the mini-genre of sword & sorcery with his many Conan stories.  A lost of what we see today in these genres is built upon the foundation that REH created.

But, I have a bit of a problem with REH.  (Which, if you’ve been reading my columns, you’ve probably been waiting for me to say.)

I’ve never been a huge fan of REH.  I’ve read and enjoyed the Conan stories along with the Soloman Kane tales as well as his pure adventure yarns.  But they’ve never made a big impact with me.  (To be fair, I know many people feel the same about William Hope Hodgson whom I have championed in the past and continue to do so at my other blog. Different strokes.)  I find myself mystified at the popularity of some of his horror stories particularly the often praised, “Pigeons from Hell”, which left me cold.  So, while I admire his achievements and applaud his reputation as a writer, I just don’t see it.  Which is why I only have a few REH books in my collection and will likely sit down again and see if my coolness towards him was simply an inability of me to appreciate him due to my youth.  (This has happened several times and so has the reverse.)

One of the issues I have with REH will likely not make me very popular either.  You see, REH killed himself.  At the far too young age of 30, REH blew his brains out.  A large part of that hinged upon the probably very unhealthy dependence/relationship he had with his mother who laid dying in a coma as REH sat in his car and pulled the trigger on the borrowed .380 Colt Pistol.

I am no stranger to dark thoughts.  I can safely say that one of the main reasons I am still on this planet is because I did not have access to dangerous items during particularly bad times.  So I understand some of the pain and emotions which drove him to this decision.  It is indeed a dark place when you find yourself considering this to be your only solution.

But part of me is angry too.  Angry that REH had so many other stories to tell that we will never hear.  Angry that he never got to experience so many things or the opportunity to add more to the lives of others.  Mostly, though, it just makes me sad because it was such a waste.

Our culture has a tendency sometimes to glamorize suicide.  Hemingway.  Cobain.  Even ones who die young due to their chosen lifestyle like Joplin, Hendrix and Morrison.  But there’s really nothing glamorous about this.  It wasn’t glamorous to REH’s father who had to deal with a son who now had a catastrophic head wound along with a wife dying from tuberculosis.  (REH was still alive for 8 hours before dying from his wound and his mother outlived him by not dying until the next morning.  There’s nothing noble about it despite biographers who explain Hemingway as being true to his ‘manly’ mystique.  It wasn’t ‘Conan-esque’ for REH to shoot himself.

It’s just a waste and that’s tragic.

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About Sam Gafford
My name is Sam Gafford and I've been doing critical work on William Hope Hodgson for many years. I wrote the article "Writing Backwards: The Novels of William Hope Hodgson" in which I presented evidence that WHH wrote his novels in the reverse order in which they were published. I've recently written an article on Hodgson's confrontation with Houdini and am currently working on a book length study of WHH.

One Response to In Memorium–Robert E. Howard

  1. Pingback: Jirel Meets Magic by C. L. Moore | Excursions Into Imagination

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