In Memoriam: Robert Ervin Howard

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Szerző: Howard Phillips Lovecraft • Év: 1936

The sudden and unexpected death on June 11 of Robert Ervin Howard, author of fantastic tales of incomparable vividness, forms weird fiction’s worst loss since the passing of Henry S. Whitehead four years ago.

Mr. Howard was born at Peaster, Texas on January 22, 1906, and was old enough to have seen the last phase of southwestern pioneering—the settlement of the great plains and lower Rio Grande valley, and the spectacular rise of the oil industry with its raucous boom towns. His father, who survives him, was one of the pioneer physicians of the region. The family have lived in south, east, and west Texas, and western Oklahoma; for the last few years at Cross Plains, near Brownwood, Texas. Steeped in the frontier atmosphere, Mr. Howard early became a devotee of its virile Homeric traditions. His knowledge of its history and folkways was profound, and the descriptions and reminiscences contained in his private letters illustrate the eloquence and power with which he would have celebrated it in literature had he lived longer. Mr. Howard’s family is of distinguished southern planter stock—of Scotch-Irish descent, with most ancestors settled in Georgia and North Carolina in the eighteenth century.

Beginning to write at fifteen, Mr. Howard placed his first story three years later while a student at Howard Payne College in Brownwood. This story, “Spear and Fang”, was published in Weird Tales for July, 1925. Wider fame came with the appearance of the novelette “Wolfshead” in the same magazine in April, 1926. In August, 1928, began the tales dealing with “Solomon Kane”, an English Puritan of relentless duelling and wrong-redressing proclivities whose adventures took him to strange parts of the world—including the shadow-haunted ruins of unknown and primordial cities in the African jungle. With these tales Mr. Howard struck what proved to be one of his most effective accomplishments—the description of vast megalithic cities of the elder world, around whose dark towers and labyrinthine nether vaults clings an aura of pre-human fear and necromancy which no other writer could duplicate. These tales also marked Mr. Howard’s development of that skill and zest in depicting sanguinary conflict which became so typical of his work. “Solomon Kane”, like several other heroes of the author, was conceived in boyhood long before incorporation in any story.

Always a keen student of Celtic antiquities and other phases of remote history Mr. Howard began in 1929—with “The Shadow Kingdom”, in the August Weird Tales—that succession of tales of the prehistoric world for which he soon grew so famous. The earlier specimens described a very distant age in man’s history—when Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu were above the waves, and when the shadows of pre-human reptile men rested upon the primal scene. Of these the central figure was King Kull of Valusia. In Weird Tales for December, 1932, appeared “The Phoenix on the Sword”—first of those tales of King Conan the Cimmerian which introduced a later prehistoric world; a world of perhaps 15,000 years ago, just before the first faint glimmerings of recorded history. The elaborate extent and accurate self-consistency with which Mr. Howard developed this world of Conan in his later stories is well known to all fantasy readers. For his own guidance he prepared a detailed quasi-historical sketch of infinite cleverness and imaginative fertility—now running in The Phantagraph as a serial under the title “The Hyborian Age”.

Meanwhile Mr. Howard had written many tales of the early Picts and Celts, including a notable series revolving round the chieftain Bran Mak Morn. Few readers will ever forget the hideous and compelling power of that macabre masterpiece, “Worms of the Earth”, in Weird Tales for November, 1932. Other powerful fantasies lay outside the connected series—these including the memorable serial “Skull-Face”, and a few distinctive tales with a modern setting, such as the recent “Black Canaan” with its genuine regional background and its clutchingly compelling picture of the horror that stalks through the moss-hung, shadow-cursed, serpent-ridden swamps of the American far South.

Outside the fantasy field Mr. Howard was surprisingly prolific and versatile. His strong interest in sports—a thing perhaps connected with his love of primitive conflict and strength—led him to create the prize-fighting hero “Sailor Steve Costigan”, whose adventures in distant and curious parts delighted the readers of many magazines. His novelettes of Oriental warfare displayed to the utmost his mastery of romantic swashbuckling, while his increasingly frequent tales of western life—such as the “Beckenridge Elkins” series—shewed his growing ability and inclination to reflect the backgrounds with which he was directly familiar.

Mr. Howard’s poetry—weird, warlike, and adventurous—was no less notable than his prose. It had the true spirit of the ballad and the epic, and was marked by a pulsing rhythm and potent imagery of extremely distinctive cast. Much of it, in the form of supposed quotations from ancient writings, served to head the chapters of his novels. It is regrettable that no published collection has ever appeared, and one hopes that such a thing may be posthumously edited and issued.

The character and attainments of Mr. Howard were wholly unique. He was, above everything else, a lover of the simpler, older world of barbarian and pioneer days, when courage and strength took the place of subtlety and stratagem, and when a hardy, fearless race battled and bled and asked no quarter from hostile Nature. All his stories reflect this philosophy, and derive from it a vitality found in few of his contemporaries. No one could write more convincingly of violence and gore than he, and his battle passages reveal an instinctive aptitude for military tactics which would have brought him distinction in times of war. His real gifts were even higher than the readers of his published work could suspect, and had he lived would have helped him make his mark in serious literature with some folk-epic of his beloved southwest.

It is hard to describe precisely what made Mr. Howard’s stories stand out so sharply; but the real secret is that he himself was in every one of them, whether they were ostensibly commercial or not. He was greater than any profit-making policy he could adopt—for even when he outwardly made concessions to Mammon-guided editors and commercial critics he had an internal force and sincerity which broke through the surface and put the imprint of his personality on everything he wrote. Seldom if ever did he set down a lifeless stock character or situation and leave it as such. Before he concluded with it, it always took on some tinge of vitality an realty in spite of popular editorial policy—always drew something from his own experience and knowledge of lite instead of from the sterile herbarium of desiccated pulpish standbys. Not only did he excel in pictures of strife and slaughter, but he was almost alone in his ability to create real emotions of spectral fear and dread suspense. No author—even in the humblest fields—can truly excel unless he take his work very seriously; and Mr. Howard did just that, even in cases where he consciously thought he did not. That such a genuine artist should perish while hundreds of insincere hacks continue to concoct spurious ghosts and vampires and space-ships and occult detectives is indeed a sorry piece of cosmic irony.

Mr. Howard, familiar with many phases of Southwestern life, lived with his parents in a semi-rural setting in the village of Cross Plains, Texas. Writing was his sole profession. His tastes in reading were wide, and included historical research of notable depth in fields as dissimilar as the American Southwest, prehistoric Great Britain and Ireland, and the prehistoric Oriental and African world. In literature he preferred the virile to the subtle, and repudiated modernism with sweeping completeness. The late Jack London was one of his idols. He was a liberal in politics, and a bitter foe of civic injustice in every form. His leading amusements were sports and travel—the latter always giving rise to delightful descriptive letters replete with historical reflections. Humour was not a specialty, though he had on the one hand a keen sense of irony, and on the other hand an abundant fund of heartiness, cordiality, and conviviality. Though having numerous friends, Mr. Howard belonged to no literary clique and abhorred all cults of “arty” affectation. His admiration ran toward strength of character and body rather than toward scholastic prowess. With his fellow-authors in the fantasy field he corresponded interestingly and voluminously, but never met more than one of them—the gifted E. Hoffmann Price, whose varied attainments impressed him profoundly—in person.

Mr. Howard was nearly six feet in height, with the massive build of a born fighter. He was, save for Celtic blue eyes, very dark; and in later years his weight averaged around 195. Always a disciple of hearty and strenuous living, he suggested more than casually his own most famous character—the intrepid warrior, adventurer, and seiner of thrones, Conan the Cimmerian. His loss at the age of thirty is a tragedy of the first magnitude, and a blow from which fantasy fiction will not soon recover. Mr. Howard’s library has been presented to Howard Payne College, where it will form the nucleus of the Robert E. Howard Memorial Collection of books, manuscripts, and letters.

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