This Day in Texas History: Fantasy Author Commits Suicide
This Day in Texas History:
Fantasy Author Commits Suicide
June 11, 1936
On this day in 1936, author Robert Ervin Howard committed suicide in Cross Plains, apparently distraught at the approaching death of his mother.
Robert E. Howard, writer, the only child of Dr. Isaac Mordecai and Hester Jane (Ervin) Howard, was born on January 22, 1906, in Peaster, Texas, and educated in Central Texas schools, including the school at Cross Plains, where he lived most of his life. For one year, at the age of twelve, he lived in New Orleans, Louisiana, while his father did additional medical study. Because Cross Plains did not offer the final year of high school he and his mother lived in a boarding house in Brownwood while he completed his senior year. After graduating from Brownwood High School in 1923 Howard returned to Cross Plains and worked at a variety of odd jobs. In 1925 he returned to Brownwood to obtain a business certificate from Howard Payne College. He received the one-year certificate in 1927 but never used it.
During his year at Howard Payne he wrote stories for the school newspaper and for the Daniel Baker College newspaper and sold his first story to Weird Tales, a popular pulp magazine. Encouraged by his entry into the pulp market and by his friend Tevis Clyde Smith, who printed Howard’s earliest “published” works on a small portable press, Howard resolved to support himself by writing and went on to author all sorts of formula fiction including fight stories, ghost stories, historical adventures, and heroic fantasies.
In Cross Plains Howard’s neighbors complained that his typewriter kept them awake at night while he churned out stories for a penny a word. He reportedly earned $500 in one month during the Great Depression, when the local bank president earned less than a third that amount. Howard bought a new Chevrolet for cash in 1935, supposedly the only person in Cross Plains who could afford to do so.
Despite his success he was an unhappy young man with few friends. Apparently he and his mother had a neurotic dependence on each other. When his mother slipped into a coma on June 11, 1936, and the nurse told Howard that she would never regain consciousness, he went out to his car and committed suicide by shooting himself through the head. His mother died a few hours later.
Although none of Howard’s works was published in book form during his lifetime,
novels serialized in pulp magazines, in addition to collections of short stories and poetry, have since been published as books. His most influential achievement, however, lies in his characters. Among the most famous were Solomon Kane, a somber English Puritan who fought all manner of ghosts and vampires in Elizabethan England and Africa, Bran Mak Morn, a savage Pict who battled the iron legions of Rome as well as supernatural menaces, and King Kull, a warrior of fabled Atlantis. Conan the Barbarian was Howard’s most popular character; he appeared in some eighteen adventure stories.
Describing his protagonists, Howard said: “They’re simpler. You get them in a jam, and no one expects you to rack your brains inventing clever ways for them to extricate themselves. They are too stupid to do anything but cut, shoot, or slug themselves into the clear.” Decades later, Howard’s works, and pastiches based on his works and characters, sold more copies than the works of any other fantasy writer except J. R. R. Tolkien. Conan lived on in a monthly comic book and in movies, and studies of Howard’s life and work appeared with increasing frequency.