Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Wordcraft -- Robert E. Howard Days in the heart of Texas

How many wonderful writers have come from Texas? More pertinent, how many have stayed in Texas? Among the few who toughed out Texas during some of the state’s bleakest days was Robert E. Howard, most famous now as the creator of Conan the Cimmerian (aka the Barbarian). But on June 11, 1936, Howard, then barely thirty years old and facing the imminent death of his beloved mother, ended his own life. Weirdly but reverently, fans still gather on the weekend closest to the anniversary of his death to remember him. This year that remembrance, titled Robert E. Howard Days is this Friday and Saturday, June 10-11.

Actually, there’s a preview Thursday, as Howard’s family home and museum at 625 W. Highway 36 in Cross Plains opens from 2-4 p.m. (Unlike the house’s regular open hours, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Friday and Saturday of the festival, there will not be a docent available during the Thursday hours.)

Fittingly for the remembrance of a man who hated “clock-like regularity,” REH Days activities are low key and mostly fee-free. Visitors swap stories and swag at a small pavilion adjacent to the Howard house, drop in to the Cross Plains library with its exhibits of Howard’s magazine publications, and attend whichever of the panels of Howard fans and scholars appeal to them. Among this year’s speakers is Michael Scott Myers, screenwriter for the film The Whole Wide World, based the memoir One Who Walked Alone, by Novalyne Price Ellis, one of Howard’s rare sympathetic listeners.

Other speakers include writer Mark Finn, author of the World Fantasy-nominated biography Blood and Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, and Chris Gruber, editor of Boxing Stories, a compilation of the often humorous tales Howard was actually better known for in his own time.

For a complete schedule of events, see the Robert E. Howard Days 2016 site. (link) Visitors may also drop in at the gravesite of Howard and his parents (he and his mother died within a day of each other) at Greenleaf Cemetery in nearby Brownwood, Texas. 

In some ways, it’s easy to blame the tiny West Texas town of Cross Plains where Howard lived for his entire adult life, for his death. He, like his characters, was a “fish out of water,” as described by biographer Mark Finn. 

Howard’s chronically ailing mother smothered him, his country doctor father stood aloof, oblivious to Howard’s deepening depression. Neighbors thought him at best odd, at worst annoying, as he read his stories aloud while typing them near an open window in the small Howard home. (Fortunately for modern visitors, the Howard House Museum is now air-conditioned.)

Howard himself confessed to hating his days in both school and town. He became a writer, he said, not because of the stultifying environments of school and his small town (remarking “an oil boom. . . will teach a kid that Life’s a pretty rotten thing about as quick as anything I can think of”) but in spite of them.

“I am not criticizing those environments. . . ” Novalyne Price Ellis reported him as saying. “The fact that they were not conducive to literature and art is nothing in their disfavor. Never the less, it is no light thing to enter into a profession absolutely foreign and alien to the people among whom one’s lot is cast.”

Ironically, it was the bust of Cross Plains' short-lived oil boom that helped preserve Howard’s physical legacy. While more prosperous cities tore down or built over landmarks associated with more famous in their day Texas writers such as Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) or Katherine Anne Porter (Pale Horse, Pale Rider), the Howard family home in Cross Plains was left standing until rescued and refurbished when the movie incarnations of Howard characters revived interest in his stories.

Drop in and marvel at the power of Howard’s imagination to transform the world, if not his little town.

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