Robert Ervin Howard (January 22, 1906 – June 11, 1936) was an extraordinary writer who achieved achieved more in his short lifetime than many who lived to be two or three times his age. Nowadays he is best known for his character Conan the Barbarian and for virtually creating the sword and sorcery genre, spawning a raft of imitators and giving him an influence in the fantasy field rivalled only by J R R Tolkien. What he is less well known for are the many strange tales of horror and suspense that he penned but these should not be disregarded, especially given that they have earned him comparison with other American masters of supernatural fiction, such as Edgar Allan Poe and his great friend and contemporary H P Lovecraft. The great tragedy of Howard’s short life is that, because he died so young, he never lived to see his works published outside magazines. It is also worth noting that in many ways Howard’s premature death remains a mystery, much like that of Poe and Lovecraft before him.
A voracious reader and prodigious writer from childhood, it did not take long for Howard to get published in the pulp magazines of the day, firstly Adventure and then, with greater renown, Weird Tales. The scope and quality of Howard’s work was tremendous – he wrote historical fiction, westerns, fantasy, thrillers, high adventure, romance, mythic fiction and horror. Some of Howard’s most famous non-Conan tales concerned foul sacrifices made to a reptilian god in Hungary, a werewolf prowling the corridors of a castle in strife-torn Africa, criminal masterminds on both sides of the Atlantic vying for world domination and an enchanted ring exerting a terrible influence upon its wearer. Some of the finest examples of Howard’s tales of mystery and the supernatural have been collected recently in two Wordsworth anthologies – The Haunter of the Ring and The Right Hand of Doom – both of which are well worth a look for all fans of horror. The latter anthology in particular is of note for the fact that it features Howard’s second most famous creation after Conan – the dour witch hunter and anti-hero Solomon Kane.
Howard’s involvement with Lovecraft began in 1930, when he wrote him a letter praising one of his stories Rats in the Walls. By virtue of this, Howard quickly became a member of ‘The Lovecraft Circle’, a group of writers and friends all linked via Lovecraft, a prodigious letter writer who made it a point to introduce his many like-minded friends to each other and encourage them to share stories, utilize each other’s invented fictional trappings, and help each other to succeed in the pulp field. In this sense the Lovecraft Circle shared many similarities with other literary conclaves such as The Inklings, the Bloomsbury Group, the Beats and, in the field of horror, the James Circle on the other side of the Atlantic. It was as a result of his membership of the Lovecraft Circle that Howard contributed several stories to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos (see my separate blog post on The Horrors of H P Lovecraft), beginning with The Black Stone (click to read!).
Howard’s reputation and success gradually grew until by the start of 1936, the year of his death, it appeared that he might finally break into the mainstream and have one of his longer works published. Unfortunately, this coincided with the virtual collapse of his personal life. Howard never married and lived with his mother, who had been ill with tuberculosis his entire life. By 1936 however, after decades of struggle, his mother was finally nearing death and the constant interruptions of care workers at home, combined with frequent trips to various sanatoriums for her care, made it nearly impossible for him to write. Upon learning that his mother had entered a coma from which she was not expected to wake, Howard, for reasons that are not entirely clear, walked out to his car and shot himself in the head. Howard’s suicide and the circumstances surrounding it have led to varied speculation about his mental health; from an Oedipus complex, to clinical depression, to no mental disorders of any kind. As a writer, however, Howard’s legacy only grew after his death and he can rightly be considered to sit among the greats of American genre fiction.