December 1, 2021

A pulp fiction house at the Robert E. Howard Museum

CROSS PLAINS – Austere circumstances nurtured a fantastic inner life.

Before his suicide on June 11, 1936, Texan author Robert E. Howard, inventor of Conan the Barbarian and other popular novels, lived for many years on a 6-foot-wide porch in his cottage. parents at Cross Plains.

As staged at the Robert E. Howard Museum, the now closed room is dominated by a black dinosaur representing a vertical typewriter. The scene also features a narrow bed – too small for a tall man – covered with a thin duvet, a bulky trunk, an oversized chest of drawers, a block desk, a spindly chair, a desk lamp, a notepad. , a pen, which looks like an ornate pipe, as well as period clothing.

And books. Worn and well read. Standing or in a heap. Howard devoured them.

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Beside the typewriter in his old bedroom are crumpled pages of prose and two copies of popular magazines, the genre the Texan writer has conquered in a 12-year career through action and action stories. crackling adventures starring such characters as Conan, Kull of Atlantis, Salomon Kane, Sailor Steve Costigan, Bran Mak Morn and Breckinridge Elkins.

Often credited with invoking the modern genre of “sword and witchcraft,” Howard wrote – in the breathless, puffy style of the era – on all manner of fictional subjects, including westerns, informed primarily by his love of the story.

“He was reading everything in the sun,” says Arlene Stephenson, president of Project Pride, which operates the Robert E. Howard Museum in the town of 1,000 people, southeast of Abilene. “He really wasn’t accepted at Cross Plains. It was an oil town back then. He was a weird ball among the tough, tough oilfield workers of the day. He didn’t have a lot of money. love for Cross Plains. “

In the white cottage in the park

Over the decades, the armies of fantasy enthusiasts who have encountered Robert E. Howard’s fiction through magazines, books, movies, and television have become avid fans.

I am not one of them.

The Robert E. Howard Museum is located in Butler Park at 625 NW Fifth St. in Cross Plains.  One block away is the Woody's Classic Cards and Baseball Museum.

Oh, I lapped up sci-fi and fantasy in my youth. I recently reread “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” by JRR Tolkien, then read the six films in the Peter Jackson franchise. (They’re holding up.) I was even tickled when Elijah Wood, who played Frodo, moved into a historic house a few blocks from where we live in South Austin. (He has since moved. I calmly nodded and smiled when we passed each other.)

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My casual disinterest in Conan and his half-clothed cohort – akin to my cheerful ignorance of the Marvel and DC comic book universes – doesn’t stop me from being impressed in the presence of a powerful storyteller.

What I knew about Howard’s life came down to a handful of articles published in Texas Monthly, Houston Chronicle, Abilene Reporter-News, and Brownwood Bulletin. The Austin Chronicle published a story on the museum in 2006, and a 2012 article in the American-Statesman fleshed out some details.

A little more research determined that in 2013, literary agent, editor and publisher Glenn Lord donated a collection consisting of 15,000 pages of Howard’s manuscripts, sketches and ephemera to the Ransom Center of the ‘University of Texas.

Howard’s papers therefore rub shoulders with those of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez. Not bad company.

Robert E. Howard outside his parents' house in Cross Plains.  Here and in Brownwood, Howard has invented some fantastic pulp fictions, including Conan the Barbarian.

Yet to tell the truth, until “Think, Texas” reader Jeb Boyt advised a detour of about 35 miles from Brownwood to Cross Plains on a recent road trip to West Texas, I had never considered visiting the museum.

“REH’s grave is at Brownwood,” Boyt wrote. “On Main Street, the library has some of REH’s manuscripts and correspondence.”

I didn’t go to Brownwood Cemetery and the library was closed – part of Howard’s young adult life was in Brownwood, where he attended Howard Payne College – but I absolutely had to see the Cross Museum Complain.

Not as easy as it sounds. A group called Project Pride bought, renovated, and maintained the house, but it is only open at set times during the Robert E. Howard Days each year. Otherwise, it is presented by appointment.

For someone who spends a lot of time researching, I had a hard time figuring out how to schedule a date – the quickest route, I found out later, is through the Foundation website. Robert E. Howard, rehfoundation.org – but a Scandinavian Howard fan sent me to Project Pride’s Stephenson. She met my travel companion and I at home and turned out to be a great guide.

“When we bought the place it was run down, no paint,” Stephenson says. “The wood was eroded. But we knew the world would come to us. Now you have to know Robert Howard to find us. The people who come here are real Howard fans.”

A donated bust of the late Cross Plains author Robert E. Howard on display in his former home, which is a museum.

Several of the rooms are furnished with period furniture, decoration and memorabilia. Howard’s father, an often-traveling country doctor, appears to have managed to maintain a reasonably comfortable, albeit cramped, life for his family. Howard, however, was devoted to his mother, whose impending death resulted in the writer’s suicide.

There are photos and other images of “REH” – as his fans call him – and his family, as well as samples of his writing and a radio that told stories that ignited his. imagination.

At this point, I have to say, I don’t know how much of the physical material actually belonged to the Howard family. Still, he’s so skillfully and cleverly staged that it doesn’t matter much.

The scope of pulp fiction

The leap from obscurity to world fame could not have been predicted.

Howard was born in Peaster, Parker County, in 1906. His father was a traveling physician, often absent from home; her mother, a poetry lover, was sickly and needed a lot of attention. After moving to West Texas, they settled in Cross Plains in the 1920s. Howard was a reserved student who read everything, especially adventure stories. His friends remembered that he loved to share and act out these stories.

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He wrote to HP Lovecraft, whose pulp fiction was more systematic than Howard’s, which he had started writing when he was 9 or 10 years old. He sold his first story at 18. In addition to writing at an insane pace, Howard underwent rigorous physical training, as if training to be a boxer like his idol, Jack Dempsey. While it paid off miserably, he was making a living as a writer by the time he hit his late twenties.

In 1936, when her mother fell into a coma, Howard asked the nurse if she would survive. The nurse said no. He committed suicide hours before his death and they were buried at Greenleaf Cemetery in Brownwood in a double ceremony.

His suicide encouraged the belief that Howard was not only eccentric, but mentally ill. His friends repudiated this idea.

And his stories have survived.

They were picked up in magazines in the 1940s and the Conan stories came out in hardback in the 1950s.

“In the 1960s, Conan’s paperbacks, with vibrant Frank Frazetta covers, brought Robert E. Howard a fame equal to that of JRR Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs,” writes Rusty Burke in a short published biography. on the foundation’s website. “In the 1970s, led by Glenn Lord, a ‘Howard boom’ erupted and readers became aware of the extremely diverse range of the prolific writer’s output.”

In the 1980s, Conan was adapted for films that helped establish the career of bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger, while other of his characters were reworked. More and more fans took an interest in the author’s life.

“At the same time, a growing movement among writers and critics of fantasy fiction had begun to take Howard’s work as literature seriously,” Burke writes, “rather than dismissing it as mere escape fare. “.

A room in the museum, which also serves as a gift shop, is reserved for fans. Snapshots of visitors from around the world are arranged around a wall map. T-shirts, books and videos are for sale.

Robert E. Howard's pulp fiction eventually catapulted his characters into popular movies and TV shows long after his death in 1936. Here, Arnold Schwarzenegger teams up with Grace Jones in

I purchased a copy of “One Who Walked Alone: ​​Robert E. Howard the Final Years”, a 1986 memoir compiled by Howard’s girlfriend, by Novalyne Price Ellis, a Cross Plains teacher, which includes extracts from his diaries, diaries and essays. Ellis also aspired to be a writer, and the couple spent many hours traveling the countryside discussing anything that interested them at the time. In the book, she tries to personalize Howard.

The book was made into a 1996 independent film, “The Whole Wide World”, starring a young René Zellweger as Novalyn and Vincent D’Onofrio as Robert. It’s a quiet movie with a doomed vibe, beautifully shot in Austin, Bartlett, Bastrop and Rockne. He won the Jury Grand Prix at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996, but ultimately a chatty court between a distracted loner and an empathetic teacher doesn’t really burn the screen.

So what about the reputation of Howard who keeps his memory alive through remakes, extensive franchises, multiple archives, a memoir and biographical film, as well as a cleverly arranged museum in his hometown? ?

“Robert E. Howard contributed his most famous work to the era’s greatest fantasy magazine, Weird Tales,” Burke writes. However, his stories have also appeared in publications as diverse as Action Stories, Argosy, Fight Stories, Oriental Stories, Spicy Adventure, Sport Story, Strange Detective and a number of others. That his stories have been a constant hit with readers of the time is not surprising, for he created thrilling and vividly performed adventures, populated by colorful and larger-than-life characters. “

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be contacted at [email protected]


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