No, I’m not comparing my writing to Howard’s. Regarded as one of the greatest pulp fiction writers of all time, Robert E. Howard is among my key inspirations as an author. His vibrant, visceral prose was driven by a ‘galloping pace’ and took place in fantastical settings. True, his heroes can come across as one-dimensional, but one key component of his tales is the existentialist nature of his characters. They are responsible for their own actions—not gods, kings, lovers, or any other outside force. Howard’s heroes alone, and no one else, brave the dangers because they want to.
This ‘lone wolf’ mentality reflected Howard’s own alienation from society. Growing up in several Texas towns, it’s easy to see how that could happen for a man who wrote about demons, wizards, scantily-clad temptresses, and forgotten gods. I’ve heard that the short story is an ‘expression of loneliness’, and as a writer myself, I can relate. The existentialist concepts of despair, angst, and of giving one’s own life meaning, are rife in Howard’s work. I too have explored these concepts in my own fiction.
Being a writer is an exercise in seclusion, of stepping out of the world for a time to write about another. There is no greater feeling than when I’ve just completed a story, but there is also no greater burden than when a writer can never truly connect to the outside world. I’m speaking from my own experience; it may be different for other writers. Robert E. Howard called himself the ‘one who writes alone’. There is a certain mystique surrounding such a person: one wonders at what their imagination and intellect creates in the small hours of the night. Behind this mystique often resides a sensitive, lonely person who can be socially inept. Howard, I think, was such a person.
Sometimes I am myself. There is nothing romantic about it.
The 1996 film about Howard and his erstwhile romance with Novalyne Price, ‘The Whole Wide World’, illustrates this in a wonderful fashion. Set against the backdrop of 1930’s rural Texas, its understandable how someone like Howard would write such tales. Writing to escape the boredom and loneliness surrounding him. Though this film dramatizes actual events, it nevertheless evokes a sense of kinship within me every time I view it.
Like Howard, I grew up (and still reside) in a rural area with a conservative population. Like Howard, I too once hung swords on the wall, constructed ship models, drew maps of imaginary lands, and studied history and philosophy. We both wrote frontier stories about the region in which we lived. We both feature life’s gritty, hard realities in our work. And like him, I also loved a woman who never could see what I saw, never could come to terms with who I really was and continue to be. I understand this is my side of the story, but it’s what I feel. I don’t know how else to describe it.
There’s a scene in the film, drawn from an actual conversation, where Howard tells Novalyne he just ‘wants a woman to love and believe in him’. I think we all want someone similar, but for a writer it’s harder to make one understand. In this society, those who aren’t making a fortune with their art (read: writing) aren’t taken seriously by certain people. It’s regarded as a strange hobby, even a vacuous dream. Having support behind you is important for everyone regardless of ambition or vocation, but when it comes to something as personal as one’s writing, the need seems to be reinforced. At least for me, this need strengthened once I took my own writing seriously. I’m not sure why; perhaps in turning emotions into prose, a vacuum is created within that can only be filled from without.
One of the film’s best scenes is when Howard asks Novalyne to imagine an ‘Indian brave’ watching her from the forest, and for her to imagine what happens next. In contrast to Howard’s adventurous mind, Novalyne says ‘I’d tell him to get a haircut, wash off the war paint and come with me to Sunday school’. This alone doesn’t mean they were incompatible; it reveals the existentialist freedom of Howard’s thinking, compared to Novalyne’s preconceptions of what a person should be—the antithesis of freedom.
I think in being a writer, Howard thus gave his life meaning. Some critics might say, instead of writing about the life of a fictitious character, one should live life instead. Yet, in writing, the author subsists in myriad lives; some may be different, but all ultimately return to a certain commonality regarding their creator. In my own fiction I have explored the existentialist concept of ‘finding one’s self’. Such an exercise often reveals things about me I hadn’t realized before, good and bad. In this way, not only the writing itself, but also my personal exploration during the writing process, gives my life meaning.
Robert E. Howard committed suicide in 1936 when he was thirty years old; his mother had entered a coma following complications from tuberculosis. The two had been very close; some claim he even possessed an Oedipus complex. Before shooting himself in the head while in the car, Howard wrote on his typewriter:
‘All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre,
The feast is over and the lamps expire.’
He once stated he did not wish to grow old; to my knowledge none of his protagonists were elderly figures. Even King Conan was still a robust character in late middle age. This adds a romantic layer, just as it has for others like Alexander the Great, James Dean, and Jim Morrison: that of eternal youth. We never got to see Howard grow old and wither. He died in his prime, which is how we remember him. None of his key characters—Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, El Borak, Bran Mak Morn—are ever slain in a story; they too live on forever in our imaginations.
Some have said the capability for human beings to commit suicide makes everyone an existentialist. The fear of freedom, and of having to give this freedom meaning when society, religion, or emotion fails to do so, is at the center of this theory. Though I’m not a proponent of suicide, and I regard Howard’s death a tragedy, one of my stories mentions the concept of suicide as the ‘ultimate freedom’—the power of choice to destroy oneself, even if that choice provides no benefit to that person. One of my unpublished novels is about a protagonist who commits suicide as an escape, but he enters a hellish afterlife where he remembers nothing. This also ties in with the existentialist concept of angst, when the fear of one’s own freedom imbues that person with the power of life and death over oneself.
I admit this parallel with Howard is, as I stated in the beginning, eerie. Maybe, true to existentialist form, in thinking it eerie, I make it so. Nothing has value other than what we give it.
Again, I’m no Robert E. Howard. I can only dream to achieve the impact his work has had over the decades. But the loneliness, alienation, and defining of oneself through one’s work, are things I think I share with him. I’m not unique; many other writers share this as well. I will close in saying that, unlike Howard, I plan to continue to ‘find myself’, and revel in the freedom of the individual, rather than end my life when despair drowns reason or meaning. Just like Conan, Solomon Kane, and other Howard creations, meaning is defined through one’s actions. I only hope my actions are considered meaningful, long after the lamps have dimmed and I am placed on the pyre.