Robert E. Howard, the gentle giant of Cross Plains

Through unpublished texts and critical contributions, the seventh issue of "Zothique" (magazine of fantastic and weird literature published by Dagon Press) portrays one of the greatest contemporary authors in all his human and literary dignity.

di Lorenzo Pennacchi

They burned my soul with a proverb,
They burned my back with a rod,
And they bade me bow to my elders,
For that was the word of God.

KING Howard, Life

Robert Ervin Howard is one of the undisputed masters of the contemporary fantastic. The main cycles of him are extensively studied by experts and enthusiasts. Solomon Kane, Kull of Valusia and above all Conan the barbarian they need no introduction, but Howard's story goes beyond the protagonists of his most representative works. The seventh issue of the magazine zothique, as always skillfully looked after by Peter Guarriello, retraces its traces through unpublished texts, direct testimonies and critical contributions. The volume opens with a short article by the lamented Joseph Lippi, which sums up the Howardian vital tension well:

The single human being can choose two paths: to become gregarious, to try to assimilate to civilization and to established values, or to free himself from every yoke and isolate himself, fighting against everyone. The path chosen by Howard and his characters is the second, and it is philosophically justifiable by the contempt for civilization (seen as ancient, decadent, corrupt).


Howard was born on January 22, 1906 in Peaster to the doctor Isaac Mordecai Howard and Hester Jane Ervin, both authoritarian personalities to whom he will be strongly attached. The following year the family moved to Cross Plains, also in Texas, where Robert will spend most of his life. Thirty years of toil, hardship, rewarded only in eternity. Also for this reason, trying to draw a portrait of him is moving. This robust man, with simple tastes and a sweet voice, boldly sought freedom away from ease and social constraints. In its Autobiography confesses:

I finished high school gritting my teeth. I've always hated school [โ€ฆ] I hated any kind of job. My idea of โ€‹โ€‹real existence was to gallop across the country on a Steeldust racing mare or Spanish mustang, steal melons, hunt possums, trap varmints, swim, play horse racing and wrestle with my friends.


A good, pure giant, unwilling to come to terms with a degenerate society. From the numerous letters selected, translated and commented on by Guarriello, some essential aspects emerge to understand his multifaceted personality. In April 1926, to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith, he admits that he is not particularly interested in women. After all, Howard leads a lonely existence, morbidly linked to her mother, embellished with provocative excesses of all kinds, as Mariano D'Anza underlines in his long essay. Commenting on the poem Rebellion, D'Anza recalls the "thick and very black" mustache, the Confederate officer's jacket, the Mexican sombrero, the sword fights with his friend Truett Vinson and the habit of reciting songs aloud wherever he was. [3]

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Robert E. Howard (1906 - 1936)

To his other correspondents Robert Ervin talks about his great passion for boxing and reveals his political ideas: ยซI will not vote. I will not vote for a Catholic and I will not vote for a goddamn Republican. Maybe I've said that before. My ancestors were all Catholic until recently. And I have reason to hate the church " [4]. Attracted by the past, disinterested in the future, disheartened by the present, has turned its gaze to barbarism to escape the champions of false values, which in poetry Life are identified with the elderly:

And the elders named me hero,
But more than their words and ire
Was the scent of a strange wild flower
There where I died in the aim.


Still inAutobiography it lashes out against the hypocrisies of civilization. Recalling the various odd jobs, he dwells on the months spent in a gas office and concludes:

I lost my job because I didn't want to bow to my employer and say "yes" to him overnight. This is one of the reasons I have never been very successful working for others. Many men think that an employee is some kind of servant. I am good-natured and easy-going, and I hate and flinch from all kinds of fights; but it is not good for a man to swallow everything.


Conan in an illustration by Frank Franzetta.

For Howard, the path to freedom has always been that of writing. Friend and correspondent of Howard Phillips Lovecraft e Clark ashton smith, estimated the ability to "make the unreal seem very real and terrible" of the former and the 'vivid and rich' style of the latter [7]. His writing is primitive, but not for this crude, able to best represent the warning received by Conan at the end of the story Beyond the Black River: ยซCivilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstances. And barbarism, in the end, must always triumph ยป. After all, the Cimmerian he is the most representative character of Howardian fiction, an explosive condensation of literary suggestions and personal experiences. In a letter dated July 23, 1935, he reveals to Smith:

Some mechanism in my subconscious took the dominant characteristics of various boxers, gunmen, smugglers, oilfield bullies, gamblers and honest workers that I came into contact with, and combining them all, produced the fusion I call Conan the Cimmerian. .


But the Barbarian is not alone in embodying the spirit of Robert Ervin. Few authors have proved so versatile in their production and in zothique there are many examples of this. Matteo Mancini presents the adventures of Steve Harrison, the iron-fisted detective. Even in these stories of pure entertainment, written for divertissement and small commercial implications, a representative protagonist of its creator emerges, like the others "lonely men, at odds with society, sometimes even rebellious, on the edge of legality and in league with shady individuals, yet always oriented towards an ethics aimed at good [9].

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Giovanni Valenzano reconstructs the strange publishing story of the novel Almuric, which culminated in the absurd first Italian translation freely reworked by Gianluigi Zuddas. Michele Tetro follows in the footsteps of the Gaelic raider Cormac MacArt, whose raids make up, together with those of Bran Mak Morn and Turlogh the Black, the Celta cycle. In these stories, Howard's profound aversion to the Roman Empire is clear, for "the inherent decay and degeneration of behavior, the relaxation of a strong culture to the lure of ease and comfort that undermine its combative nature" [10]. Guarriello presents three stories of science fiction, or rather of scientific fantasies, of which The Supreme Moment offers the most interesting ideas. Closes the volume The Iatromancer, a Howardian tribute by Andrea Guido Silvi, which is added to the cycle Rhodes. The smile of the colossus.

Over the course of its short life Robert ervin howard he tried to challenge monotony and social hypocrisy with his uncompromising characters. Hard and pure, as he would have liked to be too. Instead, behind bundles of muscles and firm principles, a fragile personality has always been hidden, crushed by economic difficulties and existential problems. In an October 1930 letter to his friend Harold Preece he highlights the pessimism that torments him:

All that is deep, dark and Norse in me goes up in my blood. I would go east, towards the sun and the winking palms, but I resistโ€ฆ the dream of the twilight of the gods is upon me, the dreams of cold and misty lands and all the ancient pessimism of the Vikings.


The conflict deep inside his soul, weighed down over the years by the magazine's missed payments Weird tales and from the modest income from his works, he definitely explodes following the irreversible deterioration of his mother's health. In early 1937 he published the poem for the newspaper Cross Plains Review The Tempter, in which these verses are read:

I am rest from Hate and Pride.
I am friend to king and beggar,
I am Alpha and Omega,
I was councilor to Hagar
But men call me suicide.


As D'Anza points out, Howard is plagued by a conflict between fascination and horror for life. The good giant of Cross Plains exalts the primitive aspects of humanity, but is overwhelmed by an unbearable pain, sedimented in an unnatural and degenerate society: ยซI don't want to live to become old. I want to die when my time comes, quickly and immediately, in the fullness of my strength and vigor ยป, he wrote to August Derleth on May 9, 1936. A month and two days later he shoots himself in the temple in the middle of the desert.

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[1] Giuseppe Lippi, The world of Robert E. Howard, in Pietro Guarriello (edited by), Zothique / 7, Dagon Press, 2021, p. 10.

[2] Robert E. Howard, Autobiography, in Zothique, p. 14.

[3] See: Mariano D'Anza, The Romantic Roots of Robert E. Howard's Poetry, in Zothique, pp. 152-153.

[4] Letter to Harold Preece, 20 October 1928, in Zothique, p. 49.

[5] "Hero" said the elders / but more than their words, or their anger / there was the scent of that wild flower / There where I died in the mud. Howard, Life, in Zothique, pp. 154-155.

[6] Howard, Autobiography, P. 15.

[7] Cf: Letters in Zothique, pp. 52, 55.

[8] Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, in Zothique, p. 64.

[9] Matteo Mancini, Steve Harrison: Iron fist against River Street degradation, in Zothique, p. 118.

[10] Michele Tetro, Portrait of the marauder Cormac Mac Art, in Zothique, p. 184.

[11] Letter, p. 53.

[12] I am what remains of hatred and pride, / I am a friend of kings and beggars. / I am the Alpha and the Omega, / and I was minister of Hagar / but men call me suicide. Howard, The Tempter, in Zothique, p. 161.

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