Friday saw what would have been the 110th birthday of Robert Ervin Howard, who was born in 1906 and died in 1936. The man lived his entire life in the backwaters of central Texas, at a time when it was even more a backwater than it is now. His life was short, and would pass unremarked except for the body of work he left behind. Howard was a prolific and brutally talented writer, self-taught and with a limited education. He read voraciously, seeking - one imagines - escape from the harsh world he grew up in.
His life was not a happy one. He was a loner, a misfit, and a man who struggled with a pull toward an intellectual and artistic life in a place and time that did not value it. He had few close friends, and only one real romantic relationship that ultimately ended unhappily. He was close with his mother, who was sickly and protective of him. He fought with depression seemingly his entire life, passing in and out of down cycles like clouds passing over the sun.
Suicide was something he talked about a lot, and by modern standards the lead-up to his death was pretty easy to see, even from 70 years in the future. He seems to have stayed only for the sake of his mother. He felt she needed him, and did not want to cause her pain by ending his life. Thus, when he was told she was dying and would not regain consciousness, he could not get out of this world fast enough.
I have been to the house he lived in at the end of his terribly short life. I sat in the room where his mother died. I got up and walked out, down the hall and out the back door. I got in my car, as he did. I looked at the back of the house, plain and small and white, the endless Texas sky behind it. There would have been less there, then, and I tried to picture it. What was the last thing he looked at?
His legend has grown over the years since he took his own life that June day. When he died, I would not be born for another 36 years. And yet he speaks to me, and to so many others. He was an active, working author for just a dozen years, but in that time he created a legacy that very few 20th century writers have surpassed. Of his contemporaries, only Lovecraft casts a longer shadow, most of the rest of them forgotten save by aficionados. Most popular novelists of his day have declined into utter obscurity.
But Howard endures. His later fiction was often blisteringly funny, but that is not what we remember. The works he created that have endured are all of a kind: grim, bloody, filled with larger-than-life characters and detailed, exotic settings. He fused the spirit of adventure fiction with fantasy and horror and created something that refuses to die. It is hard to believe, if you have seen the little room he slept and worked in. The Hyborean Age was born in such a small place.
And I think that is part of why he endures. Howard has inspired authors for generations now, because you read his sharp, vivid worlds and you want to go explore them. He always creates the sense of a much larger world beyond the boundaries of the story, a world more colorful and exciting and rewarding than this one. I can think of few better motivators for such a wide-ranging imagination than that mean, narrow room where he spent his days. He would not be confined by walls or rules or conventions, he would not be held to work a job like a serf on a manor. In that place he worked his wonders, and even now they sparkle.
He did not want to stay. Suicide is often derided as an easy way out, but for some, the work of remaining in this weary life is too much. We can’t judge that choice, because we do not bear the burdens of those who make it. He wanted to go, and so he went. It was not Bob Howard’s way to dither about it.
It is likely he thought the world would never miss him, and yet it does. He has shaped our imaginings and art for most of a century, and I see no sign of that ending. He is one of the giants of fantasy fiction, and yet he is the shadow side. His domain is not the bright, clean allegories of High Fantasy, but the dark places behind it. If Tolkien is the kindly old grandfather of fantasy, then Howard is the brooding uncle who lurks in the background, but he has the best stories, if you ask him to tell them.