Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) is the pulp fiction writer who found fame in the pages of “Weird Tales” that first published his stories of Conan the Cimmerian. His other creations are well-known and too numerous to list; he also wrote in other genres that showed his individualistic style. A man of vast contradictions, irascible temper, he committed suicide on June 11th when he knew his mother would not recover from her final illness. Howard survived for eight hours after shooting himself in the head. His mother, Hester, died the following day. Mother and son were buried in the same grave on June,14th. An extract from the play” A Drifter off Hyperborea” is printed below. We are interested in this one-act play that explores Howard’s last hours, exploring his different ideals, and offers a perspective on why he took such a course of action.
Howard: I am asleep even when I am awake. Nothing makes sense anymore. Arrangements were made weeks ago and I have forgotten them. They came to me then! (Stares around his bedroom). There are memories here. Lovecraft defines his stories by the fictional setting of his home in Providence. (Looks at his right hand that is trembling). I should not have forgotten. I set such store by memory. Father said these words when he stood near the area where Patch was buried. I was never there that day. Left for over a week until I came back. I stood by his side and I followed his glances as he took in our neighbour’s house and the garden as he thought of the old dog. He said wearily: “Death cannot be avoided, Bob. You see things differently when you get older. Mind you, you never get wiser! Events have a way of catching you unawares and it is not clear what is intended. When there is a death, unexpected as it can be, a way of life folk understood is gone forever and people are left with understandings that the actions they took will blight their lives forever more. Their misery should end when they reach their three score years and ten, but the unhappiness persists for those not yet born.” He was embarrassed by his words and, indirectly, he was speaking about me. I accepted that and put my hand on his shoulder. He was never this demonstrative. (Pauses). These walls I now stare at defined me. They shared my fears and disappointments. All that I have become is because of the years spent at home here, writing stories. The stories are worthwhile, but it is my correspondence with others that will define me. My pig-headedness got me through. I see myself throughout different periods: gauche and defiant. I would not have had it any other way. Incidents I have long forgotten come back to me, without warning, and I laugh. (Pauses). Sitting here, I was thinking of that painting of Charles Dickens, when he was seated in his hideaway at Gad’s Hill, working on the plot of another book, and all the characters he created were drawn around him by the artist. Mine are watching me now, in the darkness. They take on an existence of their own when their creator has been neglectful. My last words are already typed and on the paper in the typewriter. People can make of them what they will. I will do something with the verse by morning. Let the others sleep before then. The night time air is bearable. I have created worlds within worlds on an imaginary tabula rasa and they alter according to my slightest whim. Nothing changes, does it? No-one will know we have been here a century from now. All that has happened will be fragments of memory people recall that observers will not understand. Worse than the last conflict in Europe, the next one that I know will come will be a catastrophe for the world. All that I have written of will be true. I have lived simply and honestly. Here is the only place I have felt safe. People cannot take that away from me. The last weeks have tired me more than I can say. How could I watch as the vitality leaves her, her breathing hoarse and her lungs frothing with fluid? That black torment I will never suffer. Self-sacrifice is the only option as I told father. He knows I will go through with it. On an impulse more than anything else before the doubts begin. I am so tired and there will be no more stories. I have exhausted myself in thought and action. Emotion and instinct, I have thrived on. That is my true voice. No more rages for me and my ire become tainted toward people who have done me no wrong. Character, as one wise sage remarked, is determined by environment. Wealth means so little to me. All I ever wanted is a meal to eat, never to suffer starvation, or thirst, and the financial benefits of employment are relative. Money never brings happiness. Only a false dawn. I still dream the dreams of the reincarnated and await its consequences. These dreams may cease or begin once more. (Sighs). The British spell their vocabulary differently to ours and I have always liked their words and phrases which most over here would not understand. I read a book years ago that mentioned this character had bats-in-the-belfry. This confused me for a moment and then I understood. The laughter brought mother into my room and she wanted to know what was so funny. I showed her the passage and she said dismissively: “That means, Bob, the man is nuts.” (Pauses). I always thought of that phrase when I think of when Hoffman Price and his wife came to visit. My behaviour may have seemed peculiar to them and I should have told them I had bats-in-the-belfry, not to be trusted with whatever I said. Hoffman Price would have seen the joke, as would have Lovecraft who could be prudish on times if my letters became risqué or he disliked something I had written. I did improve with my technique after we corresponded. The point is all writing is derivative and nothing is truly original. Genius is a rare commodity . . .
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