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Texas history: A house of pulp fiction at the Robert E. Howard Museum

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Before his death in 1936, Robert E. Howard wrote hundreds of pulp stories from this narrow room, once a sleeping porch, in Cross Plains, Texas.

CROSS PLAINS — Austere circumstances fed a fantastical interior life.

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

As staged at the Robert E. Howard Museum, the now-enclosed room is dominated by a black dinosaur of an upright typewriter. The scene also encompasses a narrow bed — too small for a tall man — covered with a thin quilt, a bulky trunk, oversized dresser, blocky desk, spindly chair, desk lamp, notepad, writing pen, what looks like an ornate pipe, as well as some period apparel.

And books. Worn and well read. Upright or in piles. Howard devoured them.

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Near the typewriter in his old room lie crumpled pages of prose, and two copies of popular magazines, the kind that the Texas writer conquered during a 12-year career through crackling action and adventure stories featuring characters such as Conan, Kull of Atlantis, Solomon Kane, Sailor Steve Costigan, Bran Mak Morn and Breckinridge Elkins.

Often credited with summoning up the modern "sword and sorcery" genre, Howard wrote — in the breathless, inflated style of the day — about all sorts of fictional subjects, including westerns, mostly informed by his love of history.

"He read everything under the sun," says Arlene Stephenson, president of Project Pride, which operates the Robert E. Howard Museum in this town of 1,000, southeast of Abilene. "He really was not accepted in Cross Plains. It was an oil town at the time. He was an odd ball among the rough and tough oilfield workers of the day. He didn't have a lot of love for Cross Plains."

Into the white cottage in the park

Over the decades, armies of fantasy lovers who encountered Robert E. Howard's fiction through magazines, books, movies and television became ardent fans.

I am not one of them.

The Robert E. Howard Museum sits in Butler Park at 625 N.W. Fifth St. in Cross Plains. A block away find the unrelated Woody's Classic Cards and Baseball Museum.

Oh, I lapped up science fiction and fantasy in my youth. I recently reread J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Hobbit," then binged all six movies from the Peter Jackson franchise. (They hold up.) I was even tickled when Elijah Wood, who played Frodo, moved into a historical house a few blocks from where we live in South Austin. (He has since moved. I calmly nodded and smiled when we crossed paths.)

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My casual disinterest in Conan and his half-clothed cohort — similar to my blithe ignorance of the universes of Marvel and DC comics — does not disqualify me from being awed in the presence of a mighty storyteller. 

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

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

So Howard's papers sit alongside those of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez. Not bad company.

Robert E. Howard in front of his parents' home in Cross Plains. Here and in Brownwood, Howard came up with fantastical pulp fiction, 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 during a recent West Texas road trip, I had never considered visiting the museum.

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

I didn't make it to the Brownwood cemetery and the library was closed — a chunk of Howard's young adult life was spent in Brownwood, where he attended Howard Payne College — but I now I absolutely had to see the museum in Cross Plains.

Not as easy as it sounds. A group called Project Pride purchased, renovated and nurtured the house, but it is open for set hours only during Robert E. Howard Days each year. Otherwise, it is shown by appointment.

For somebody who spends a lot of time researching, I had trouble finding out how to schedule an appointment — the quickest route, I later discovered, is through the Robert E. Howard Foundation website, rehfoundation.org — but a Scandinavian fan of Howard's sent me to Stephenson of Project Pride. She met my traveling buddy and me at the house and turned out to be an excellent guide.

"When we bought the place, it was run down, no paint," Stephenson says. "The lumber 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 set up with period furniture, decor and memorabilia. Howard's father, a country doctor often on the road, seems to have been able to maintain a reasonably comfortable, if cramped life for his family. Howard, however, was devoted to his mother, whose imminent death prompted the writer's suicide.

There are photos and other images of "REH" — that's what his fans call him — and his family, along with samples of his writing and a radio that spun out stories that fired his imagination.

At this point, I should say that I don't know how much of the physical material actually belonged to Howard family. Yet it is so artfully and intelligently staged, that doesn't much matter.

The reach of pulp fiction

The jump from obscurity to worldwide fame could hardly have been predicted.

Howard was born in tiny Peaster in Parker County in 1906. He father was a roving doctor, often not at home; his mother, a lover of poetry, was sickly and needed a lot of attention. After moving around West Texas, they settled in Cross Plains during the 1920s. Howard was a reserved student who read everything, especially adventure stories. His friends remembered that he liked to share and act out those stories.

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He wrote to H.P. Lovecraft, whose pulp fiction was more systematic than Howard's, that he started writing at age 9 or 10. He sold his first story at 18. Along with writing at a mad pace, Howard put himself through rigorous physical training, as if training to be a boxer like his idol, Jack Dempsey. Though it paid miserably, he was making a living as a writer by the time he reached his late 20s.

In 1936, when his mother slipped into a coma, Howard asked the nurse if she would survive. The nurse said no. He shot himself hours before she died, and they were buried at Brownwood's Greenleaf Cemetery in a double ceremony.

His suicide encouraged the belief that Howard was not just eccentric, but mentally ill. His friends repudiated that notion.

And his stories lived on.

They were revived in magazines during the 1940s and the Conan stories came out in hardback in the 1950s.

"In the 1960s, Conan paperbacks, with dynamic covers by Frank Frazetta, brought Robert E. Howard a measure of fame equal to that of J.R.R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs," writes Rusty Burke in a short biography published on the foundation's website. "In the 1970s, shepherded by Glenn Lord, a ‘Howard boom’ erupted and readers became aware of the tremendously varied 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 others of his characters were reworked. More fans became interested 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 seriously as literature," Burke writes, "rather than dismissing it as mere escapist fare."

One room at the museum, which doubles as a gift shop, is given over to the 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 "Conan the Destroyer." As usual, Jones steals the show.

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 schoolteacher in Cross Plains, that includes excerpts from her journals, diaries and essays. Ellis aspired to be a writer, too, and the couple spent many an hour tooling around the countryside discussing whatever interested them at the time. In the book, she tries to personalize Howard.

The book was turned into a 1996 indie movie, "The Whole Wide World," that starred a young René Zellweger as Novalyn and Vincent D'Onofrio as Robert. It is a quiet film with doomed mood, beautifully shot in Austin, Bartlett, Bastrop and Rockne. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Sundance Festival, but in the end, a talky courtship between a distracted loner and an empathetic schoolteacher doesn't exactly burn up the screen.

So what is it about Howard's reputation that keeps his memory alive through remakes, extended franchises, multiple archives, a memoir and a biographical movie, as well as an expertly arranged museum in his hometown?

"Robert E. Howard contributed his most celebrated work to the pre-eminent fantasy pulp magazine of the era, Weird Tales," Burke writes. "However, his stories also appeared in such diverse publications as Action Stories, Argosy, Fight Stories, Oriental Stories, Spicy Adventure, Sport Story, Strange Detective and a number of others. That his stories were a consistent hit with readers of the time is not surprising, for he created thrilling, vividly realized adventures populated by colorful, larger-than-life characters."

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.