Robert Ervin Howard, the son of Isaac Mordecai Howard--a country doctor--and
Hester Jane Ervin, grew up all over Texas. He was born in the little town
of Peaster, but moved with his parents many times during childhood, dwelling
for a while in such Texas settlements as Seminole, Bagwell, Cross Cut,
and, finally, Cross Plains. The last is where he lived during his writing
career, and is also where he died.
The nomadic quality of Howard's early life is reminiscent of Jack London's childhood. London also moved frequently, between the cities of San Francisco and Oakland and the more rural areas near those cities, and one wonders if such a kinship had any effect on Howard's choice of London as his favorite writer. This seems unlikely, but is an interesting observation.
Though all the places Howard lived fed his active mind with experiences and memories and stories that later informed his creative work, one place seemed to stand out even in Howard's mind as a shaping influence. This was Dark Valley, Texas, the tiny community where he lived out his first two years. In Howard's memory, Dark Valley existed as a somber and lonely place, with dark-ridged hills and darker woods. This "somberness" probably owed more to Howard's perceptions and thoughts than to any objective reality in the valley itself, but the transformation of Dark Valley in the young Robert's mind is illustrative. In much of Howard's writing, and in his life in general, it would appear that he often preferred to explore darkness rather than light. Perhaps for people like Howard, death is not an enemy but a vaguely familiar place that has already been partially explored.
Robert Howard sold his first short story at age 18, to a magazine called Weird Tales. The piece was called "Spear and Fang," and while it is a fine story it certainly provided only the merest hint of the power and creativity that Howard would later bring to his writing.
Howard was almost exclusively a short story writer, seldom venturing into longer works during his twelve year career. He did, however, write poetry as well as prose, and though he was untrained as a poet his verse has considerable power and a melodic sense that came naturally to the bright Texas youth.
Weird Tales proved a steady market for Howard. Though they didn't simply accept everything he sent them, the majority of his most famous characters appeared first in the pages of this "unique" magazine. His first tales of Solomon Kane, Kull the Valusian, Bran Mak Morn, and Conan of Cimmeria were published here, as were some of his absolutely best non-series stories. One example of the last is "The Valley of the Worm," a nearly perfect example of the "weird tale."
By 1930, however, Howard had begun to crack other markets, and by the time of his death he'd been selling regularly to such magazines as Fight Stories, Oriental Stories, and Top-Notch. He had also branched out beyond the weird tale to sell boxing stories, detective stories, and both humorous and non-humorous westerns. In fact, Howard killed himself at a time when his popularity among the readers of "pulp" magazines was at an all time high.
The reasons why Howard shot himself on that Thursday morning of June 11, 1936, will never be known completely. The immediate cause was the impending death of his mother, whose health had been declining for over a year and who had slipped into a coma from which the doctors and nurses said she would never awaken. Howard was extremely attached to his mother, so much so that some scholars have suggested an "unhealthy" aspect to their relationship. They are not talking about physical incest, but about Hester Howard's overprotectiveness and her jealousy toward anyone who threatened to take her son away from her.
For his part, Robert consistently "gave in" to his mother. It seems likely, however, that Robert's attachment to his mother was only part of the reason why he chose to end his life. For over a decade he had been writing about death and suicide. Seldom was there any indication that he feared to die. Quite the opposite, in fact. He seemed to like the idea of dying before he got old and lost his strengths and skills.
Among Howard's personality traits we find that, 1) he was frequently moody, and, in fact, some scholars have suggested that he suffered from bipolar or manic-depressive disorder, 2) he did occasionally drink to excess though he gave little sign of being an alcoholic, 3) he showed rather frequent paranoid thinking and even engaged in paranoid behaviors, 4) he was irritable and easily frustrated, 5) he apparently had little sexual experience and may even have died a virgin, 6) he would occasionally exaggerate or embellish his exploits, including in the drinking and sexual arenas, 7) he was conscious of having been physically small and weak early in his life and worked hard to build his body's strength, 8) he was a voracious reader, and 9) he had a close relationship with his mother that was marked by overprotectiveness on his mother's part, and probably some resentment on his.
In examining Howard's beliefs we find that, 1) he felt strong sympathy for the plight of the "wage slave," 3) he was personally an individualist who considered barbarism to be the natural state of mankind, 4) he rejected organized religion but showed evidence of holding some spiritual beliefs, 5) he accepted Darwin's theory of evolution, 6) he appeared to accept the idea of reincarnation or of having lived past lives.
Finally, in looking at Howard's writing and the themes he investigated we find that, 1) his gift for storytelling revealed itself in his teens, 2) he was disciplined in his approach to writing, though he often worked in spurts, 3) he glorified the barbarian in savage conflict against man and nature, 4) he explored the idea of past lives, 5) his stories were powerfully descriptive, and 6) he essentially created the form of modern fiction called Sword and Sorcery by combining elements of history, fantasy, horror, and adventure, and thus inspired numerous imitators.