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Texan Celtic Twilight of Robert E. Howard Part Two

I can hear them now as clearly as I did then: the voices of my dad and brothers echoing down Time’s corridor as they called for me to put that book down and join them in the ocean.  

I love the sea and would normally have been splashing about and making big waves with the rest of them; but on that shining, swelteringly hot day in 1971 I was all of twelve years old and lost in the literally fabulous high adventure of a tale called The People of the Black Circle by Robert Ervin Howard ( 1906 - 1936 ). This was full-blooded, in-your-face writing - writing that took on a life of its own and tore screaming from the page - set in an imaginary world that supposedly existed before recorded history began. It was of a type of fiction that became known as ‘sword and sorcery’ or ‘high fantasy’ and would find its most popular incarnation as mainstream entertainment with George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series.  But Howard was the original and he was the best.

And that twelve-year-old kid thought that someone had set his brain on fire!  

I had to find out more about this guy, no easy task in those pre-internet days. But I had a bit of pocket money and I was working Saturdays from seven until seven as a van delivery boy, so pretty soon the shekels were being spent on ordering books and scouring the amateur fanzines.  And that’s how I knew that Howard hailed from Texas, spent most of his life in the small town of Cross Plains — which even today only has a population of 1,000 — , looked more like a barroom brawler than a writer and had died at 30, which seemed to me then a good age.

I liked the fact that he was a big bruiser like his characters and his love of boxing and weight training gave me an interest in the same.  But while that eventually faded, my keen curiosity about how the man had lived never did. And I was rightly chuffed to find that he and some of his friends took great pride in their Irish heritage. As previously pointed out, in the words of Harold Preece, ‘our minds were fixed on the hills of Wicklow we had never seen.’

Lord, how I would have loved to have been at one of their drinking and brainstorming sessions!  I’m not normally one for any kind of paddywhackery nonsense, but - imagine! - just to have joined in their talk of history, pseudo history and plain old tall tales:

‘...my memories of him are still so keen from that evening when we first met to that last time, some months before his death, when I ran into him in the Alamo Plaza of San Antonio on St. Patrick’s Day, with an enormous cloth shamrock sprouting from his chest.  [ I can just picture him! ]

‘From Bob I first learned so much of the Celtic Mythos which would later figure in my folklore.  From him, also, I learned the legend of the Heather Ale - he was the only man I met who had my absorption in Irish history...He believed - it is partially true perhaps - that the Celts had come into Europe during the Stone Age and that their language was as old as that period itself.’

One remark of Howard’s that puzzled me for a long time was his assertion that ‘the last Celt should have died a thousand years ago’; but Preece has as good an explanation for it as I’ve come across:

‘I think he was expressing the impatience of Ossian, coming back from underground revels - you know the incomparable Tannhauser myth - to find the land of the Fianna become a country of canting piety.
‘His Ossian was Connaire, or Conan. Whether or not such a demi-god ever actually lived seems to be rather unimportant.  But it is immensely important that Bob Howard lived and created - and pinned his own fantasized adventures on this somebody from some never-never pantheon. Nietzsche used the legendary Zarathustra in the same manner...’

If Bob could come back today and see the way that we’ve rolled over to successive corrupt government chancers then I’ve no doubt that he would have doubled down on his wish. But...let’s keep it country, folks. Calm down, Brady. Onwards.

The other writer I had stumbled across in that same period was H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and you can just imagine my delight when I discovered that they were correspondents.  On the surface this is astonishing as it’s hard to imagine two more different men.

Quite apart from their physical differences Lovecraft despised the Irish as much as Howard loved them.  He also had quite a thing for the Roman Empire, another of Two-Gun Bob’s many pet hates and I get the feeling that Lovecraft liked winding him up in that annoyingly bloody superior way he had. Certainly he knew who he was riling because the Texan wasn’t exactly too sane and even-tempered at the best of times and never met a grudge he couldn’t hold forever, leading to one slightly OTT moment when he declared that if he ever found out he had a single drop of Roman blood in his veins he would take a knife and let it out.  

Uh yeah, Bob; steady on there. I can see a remake of The Odd Couple with these two.

Yet their mutual respect for the other’s work combined with their vast philosophical differences was good for both of them, as Lovecraft later admitted.  

Each could be equally entrenched in their thinking and to my mind the long correspondence between them - they died within a year of each other - was the most interesting either man had, although they never met in the flesh.  Perhaps for the best,eh?

Quite apart from the work, I could read Howard’s letters all day. I just loved the way in which the past was as real to him as the present and the manner in which he would suddenly take off and go haring down a sidetrack like a mad thing:

‘Another town I went through was Paint Rock, in Concho County, so named because of Indian paintings on rock cliffs near the town.  It was to John Chisum’s ranch on the Concho River that the survivors retreated after that bloody fight on Love Creek, where five hundred Texans fought three thousand Comanches for a day and a night in 1864.  It was from Concho County in 1867, that John Chisum started for New Mexico, with ten thousand cattle, and though he did not know it, the shadow of the bloody Lincoln County War went with him, and the stalking shadow of Billy the Kid.’

Such names!  Paint Rock, San Luis de Las Amarillas, the Lost Bowie Mine.

Sam Peckinpah - mentioned in the first part of these musings - also loved putting such towns and names in his films and you can almost hear both men rolling the sounds on their tongues.  

When that twelve-year-old kid on the beach thought that Robert Howard had ‘had a good innings’ because he made it to thirty, he couldn’t have imagined nor would he have believed that when he was more than twice that age he would still be reading the Texan’s stories, tall tales and the overlooked, often quite brilliant poetry.  For such a young man he left an enormous wealth of material behind.

I’ve neither space nor inclination to go into it here, but Bob Howard - always given to extremes - shot himself dead on June 11, 1936. He had moved away from the fantasy field the previous year and I have no doubt that he would one day have written a sprawling epic of Texas or perhaps a novel set in an idealized Ireland, as were several of his short stories - but we’ll never really know.

He was a commercial writer, doing it for money during Depression years and as a consequence much of his stuff is forgettable ( if always interesting ); but when he was at the top of his game and had something that grabbed him, he touched genius. Certainly to me, Beyond the Black River deserves to be classed with the best of James Fennimore Cooper.  It’s also the story which contains the bleak dictum he’ll probably be remembered for: ‘Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural.  It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism will always ultimately triumph.’

Those empty elitist souls who decide these things have taken it upon themselves to decree that he doesn’t deserve the academic attention that has been given to his old metaphorical sparring partner, Lovecraft; but I would argue that any examination of the correspondence between them would show that Robert Howard is at least as worthy of that consideration; and it’s certainly past time for a reconsideration of the poetry.

As to the stories themselves, I am fully behind Mark Cerasini, who believes that he properly belongs with the ‘hard boiled’ writers and should be mentioned along with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. What we are lucky enough to have, however, is a rather wonderful film called The Whole Wide World, starring the great Vincent D’Nofrio, pitch perfect as Howard; and with Rene Zellweger as Novalyne Price, his only known love interest. So he is a rare example of a pulp writer getting a fair and even treatment of his life.  Little enough thanks for sparking the imagination of a small boy on a long ago beach.

‘...he saw the beautiful around this old country of stunted postoaks.  His agile imagination transformed that drab old country into beautiful landscapes. He saw beautiful skylines along the low squat hills down in Brown County. He often gazed at them from our home and talked about them to me... But to most people here he was just a story writer.’

— Dr. I. M. Howard, Robert Howard’s father.
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