Volume I, Number 5, June 2003
Robert E. Howard Electronic Amateur Press Association
E-journal by Josep Parache
"My empire is of the imagination", H. R. Haggard
The article "Reflections about the Death of Robert E. Howard" was originally published as a chapter in Javier Martín Lalanda, La canción de las espadas: fantasía heroica en Robert E. Howard, Tiempo de Ediciones S. A., Madrid, 1983, p. 144-147, and appears here with the author's kind permission. Notes by the translator are enclosed between square brackets.
Reflections about the Death of Robert E. Howard
By Javier Martín Lalanda
© 1983, 2003 by Javier Martín Lalanda. All rights reserved.
English translation by Josep Parache.
The 16th June 1936 Robert E. Howard put an end to his life. His friend H. P. Lovecraft pointed out the causes of his suicide: a great depression provoked by the impending death of his mother.
Suicide is usually linked to cowardice, but this is a conventional idea of conventional people. We know that the Howard that is revealed in his writings was in no way a coward. The love for his mother and the great dependence on her have been mentioned as the causes of his suicide. However, it should be investigated if it was a murder commited by somebody who, knowing his instability, took advantage of his motherâs impending death in order to do away with him. It has been suggested that Howard carried a gun as a consequence of his paranoia because he thought his numerous enemies, who have been considered as imaginary, wanted to kill him. But the matter at issue is to think whether those enemies existed and could murder him. An investigation, not exactly literary, would then be necessary.
Considering the other hypothesis, the traditionally admitted one, the one of suicide, I have gone through a few autobiographical texts which are quite pithy because they cast light on it. In one of these writings, A Touch of Trivia, we read about his complicated ancestry:
"There is not one foot of British ground, not one handsbreadth of soil in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales that has not been drenched with blood÷my own blood÷the same that courses through my veins. In every war, I have had kin on both sides. (·) Well, I am largely Gaelic; Irish, and Scotch-Irish, and Norman-Irish, and Anglo-Irish, and straight Norman, with a touch of the Dane÷Dano-Irish, from a red-headed great-grandmother. Mainly I am Irish and Norman, with the Irish predominating." (1)
As a result of these words it is logical that the theories and longings of Howard÷who, by the way, occasionally signed in Gaelic as Raibeard Eiarbhin hui Howard÷on his Celto-Germanic ancestors took the form of the essay The Hyborian Age, whose aim was to provide the character of Conan÷his other self, as we shall see÷with his forbears.
Let us keep on reading because he goes on to dwell on an interesting question÷his dreams:
"I have lived in the Southwest all my life, yet most of my dreams are laid in cold, giant lands of icy wastes and gloomy skies, and of wild, windswept fens and wilderness over which sweep great sea-winds, and which are inhabited by shock-headed savages with light fierce eyes. With the exception of one dream, I am never, in these dreams of ancient times, a civilized man. Always I am the barbarian, the skin-clad, tousle-haired, light-eyed wild man, armed with a rude axe or sword, fighting the elements and wild beasts, or grappling with armored hosts marching with the tread of civilized discipline, from fallow fruitful lands and walled cities. This is reflected in my writings, too, for when I begin a tale of old times, I always find myself instinctively arrayed on the side of the barbarian, against the powers of organized civilization." (2)
In his works we have seen ancient societies, extinct races, decaying ages and so on, praising the quietness of primitivism versus the progress and the laws that complicate our existence. However, it is not a nostalgic remembrance of the golden age, since such an age did not exist for Howard, but the acknowledgement of a time when societies were not "corrupted" by abuse and deceit, which have been created, according to him, by civilization.
In addition to that instinct that makes him side with the barbarian, there is more, as we can observe reading the letter to Clark Ashton Smith of 14th December 1933:
"While I donât go so far as to believe that stories are inspired by actually existent spirits or powers (though I am rather opposed to flatly denying anything) I have sometimes wondered if it were possible that unrecognized forces of the past or present÷or even the future÷work through the thoughts and actions of living men. This occurred to me when I was writing the first stories of the Conan series especially. I know that for months I had been absolutely barren of ideas, completely unable to work up anything sellable. Then the man Conan seemed suddenly to grow up in my mind without much labor on my part and immediately a stream of stories flowed off my pen÷or rather, off my typewriter÷almost without effort on my part. I did not seem to be creating, but rather relating events that had occurred. Episode crowded on episode so fast that I could scarcely keep up with them. For weeks I did nothing but write of the adventures of Conan. The character took complete possession of my mind and crowded out everything else in the way of story-writing. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldnât do it. I do not attempt to explain this by esoteric or occult means, but the facts remain. I still write of Conan more powerfully and with more understanding than any of my other characters. But the time will probably come when I will suddenly find myself unable to write convincingly of him at all. That has happened in the past with nearly all my rather numerous characters; suddenly I would find myself out of contact with the conception, as if the man himself had been standing at my shoulder directing my efforts, and had suddenly turned and gone away, leaving me to search for another character." (3)
It seems that at first Howard thought that his characters were a consequence of his dreams and of an ancestral memory that was revealed by them. The text firstly quoted is analogous to another, Turlogh OâBrienâs dream, but above all to the description of the land of the dead, according to the Cimmerian religion, which Conan made to Belit in Queen of the Black Coast (4) and which was discussed above. The dates of composition of Conanâs description, Turloghâs fragment and the letter to Clark Ashton Smith must be almost coincidental: the first days of 1934, a date near to the composition of The Valley of the Worm (5), the main and also the first James Allison story to be written. However, in the letter, the echo of a certain amazement of its author regarding the possession which his character Conan took of him can be observed.
Some time afterwards, in another letter addressed to the same writer, Howard seems to deny what he had previously told him, resorting to rationalizations that seem naïve. Thus he wrote to him the 23rd July 1935:
"It may sound fantastic to link the term "realism" with Conan; but as a matter of fact÷his supernatural adventures aside÷he is the most realistic character I ever evolved. He is simply a combination of a number of men I have known, and I think thatâs why he seemed to step full-grown into my consciousness when I wrote the first yarn of the series. Some mechanism in my sub-consciousness took the dominant characteristics of various prizefighters, gunmen, bootleggers, oil field bullies, gamblers, an honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian." (6)
We have the feeling that Howard is contradicting himself. His words sound false. Of what is he afraid? It seems obvious that an invisible force acts on the writer. There is a desire for death, symbolized by the return to the origins, manifest in his dreams and in his characters, who go backwards in time until they catch up with Conan, whose world Howard struggles to realize, writing his essay on the Hyborian Age. What has been said about the necromancers and magicians who tried to recreate death, in the chapter dedicated to the Cimmerian, can be claimed for Howard, for his essay The Hyborian Age could be regarded as induced by delirium. It has clearly been seen÷Howard himself wrote it÷that the author was in conflict with himself, with one of his parts. This imbalance could have led him to his death.
If these explanations of psychoanalytic character are not accepted, we can have recourse to a different point of view, which will suit more those who say that what should be applied to Howard are the so-called "traditional" methods, since he was a traditional man, with more knowledge on the old than on the modern. Well then, in the work of Julius Evola, which bears the thought-provoking title of Rivolta contro il mondo moderno÷where the question is analized of why man is now different from what he was in the past, and where the author uses a great deal of borrowings from magic, mythology, history and other sciences, which are all put together in a synthesis in comparison with which The Hyborian Age does not seem so far-fetched at all÷particularly in chapter 8 of the first part, "Le due vie dellâoltretomba" ("The Two Paths in the Afterlife"), we can find similarities to what we read in the letter we are discussing
Evola says that according to all cultures (but Christianity), man was made up of body, the conscious "I" (which was called personality), and a third part analogous to the latter, which the Greeks called "daemon" and which has nothing to do with the Christian demon:
"When man is considered from a naturalistic point of view, the demon, could be defined as the deep force that originally produced consciousness in the finite form that is the body in which it lives during its residence in the visible world. This force eventually remains "behind" the individual, in the preconscious and in the subconscious dimensions, as the foundation of organic processes and subtle relations with the environment, other beings, and with past and future destiny; these relations usually elude any direct perception. In this regard, in many traditions the demon corresponds to the so-called double, which is perhaps a reference to the soul of the soul or the body itself; this "double" has also often been closely associated with the primordial ancestor or with the totem conceived as the soul and the unitary life that generated a stock, a family, a gens, or a tribe, and therefore it has a broader sense than the one given to it by some schools of contemporary ethnology. The single individuals of a group appear as various incarnations or emanations of this demon or totem, which is the "spirit" pulsating in their blood." (7)
In his cryptic way Evola goes on to explain how after death this part of the individual, the daemon, is integrated itself with the totem, and thus it reaches a kind of immortality linked not to the individual but to the species. This is what has been designated as the "path of the ancestors".
In addition, in all traditions it is hinted at the possibility of reaching, by means of a deed of heroic nature, a bodiless immortality, since the body always disappears after death. This immortality could be reached as long as a strong linkage between the "I" and the daemon existed, the double being the location or body of the "I". The old Germans thought that way when they thought that after dying in battle they were led to Walhalla. Obviously this kind of immortality is within the sorcererâs reach. We wonder whether Belit, who supposedly died heroically in her fight against the winged being, reached immortality and could in that way return in order to help her lover.
To comment further on the results of this investigation based on the "traditional" point of view, it could be said that Howard was controlled÷we do not know the reason÷by his daemon, which was closely linked to his ancestors, and this was useful for him in the creation of his characters. However, from that moment on when these characters began to prevail over him÷particularly Conan, whose entity he wanted to reject÷his suffering and imbalance began. Thus when his mother died, just an accident in the drama, he killed himself.
It is not a coincidence that one of his last stories, maybe the very last one, is Red Nails (finished in 1935), in which one could feel the smell of death, maybe his own death. We have already seen how in it the two factions of Xuchotl ended up destroying each other. The city eventually remains deserted. The end for Howard is death as well.
Is not the weapon used by Tolkemec, the only firearm that can be found in the Conan stories penned by Howard, a bit out of context, an image of the gun that he used to put an end to his life? In addition, Tolkemec, almost a devil, who comes out of the graves, learning from the secrets and the knowledge of his ancestors, reminds us of the daemon. Does the partition of Xuchotl into two areas, East and West, correspond to the partition of Howard into Howard the man and Howardâs double, the writer? If it was like that, Howard would have behaved like his heroes, fighting without mercy to the death. His suicide would have been the result of his fight.
(1) [Glenn Lord, The Last Celt, Berkley, New York, 1977, p. 34.]
(2) [From "On Reading ö and Writing", in Lord, p. 51. Originally it was a passage from a letter of Howard to Lovecraft of circa late May-early June 1932.]
(3) [Lord, p. 57. Letter dated in Sprague de Camp, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, Arkham House, Sauk City, 1976, p. 297.]
(4) [Queen of the Black Coast, published in Weird Tales, May 1934.]
(5) [The Valley of the Worm, published in Weird Tales, February 1934.]
(6) [Lord, p. 58. Letter dated in Sprague de Camp, Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers, Arkham House, Sauk City, 1976, p. 296.]
(7) Rivolta contro il mondo moderno, Ed. Mediterranee, Roma, . It has been recently reprinted [1974, 1976, 1982, 1984 and 1993]. It has only been translated into French with the title of Révolte contre le monde moderne, Les Éditions de lâHomme, [Montreal-Brussels, 1972], distributed by Hachette. [There is an English translation: Julius Evola, Revolt against the Modern World, Inner Traditions International, Rochester, 1995. The quotation is from p. 47-48.]