625 West Highway 36, Cross Plains, Texas, 76443.
A tiny room in a tiny house in a tiny town …
And from it came a whole wide world.
It’s a neat house, surprisingly small, freshly painted, with a knee-high picket fence around its front yard, and a sign: The Robert E. Howard Home. A local group called Project Pride bought it in 1989. They’ve repainted and refurbished Dr. Howard’s home with period pieces and what genuine family possessions they could find. There is no charge for admission, nor any rules. The sweet grandmotherly lady – how un-Hyborian can you get? – let us carry Jesse as she escorted us through the five small rooms.
Mrs. Howard’s bedroom had a bed, the tubercular lady’s own black iron sewing machine and a chifferobe – a near-duplicate to the actual furniture. Across the hall, the living room, an art deco bust of Cleopatra (purchased by Robert, in New Orleans, no less) sitting atop an upright piano. The room’s other genuine Howard artifacts were seascapes on the walls. One wondered, did they impart a sense of adventure to the home’s imaginative child?
On display in the dining room, adjacent, was the manuscript of an unpublished (!!!) short story. One page, 7, was original, the rest xeroxes. Howard typed in 10 point pica, with 1½ line spacing – and without margins! And he did his typing right across the hall.
A tiny room in a tiny house in a tiny town …
Decades ago, an owner with no concept of the greatness of that little closet had walled up one of its windows. Project Pride, with every concept of the room’s greatness, had restored the window frame and placed a painted panorama behind it: the flat fields that the occupant would have seen when he rose from the narrow cot, or turned from his work at the adjacent desk. That was about all there was to the room: a steel cot, a chest, a chest of drawers piled with early editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a chair and a table, bedecked with a beautiful Underwood typewriter. Wadded paper was scattered around the table, as if the author had just risen from his chair, and around the platen was wound a single sheet. On it was typed
All fled—all done,
so lift me on the pyre—
The Feast is over,
and the lamps expire.
“This couplet,” says the website, “once thought to be a paraphrase from Ernest Dowson’s poem ‘Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae’, is actually from a little-known poem entitled ‘The House Of Cæsar’ by Viola Garvin.” They found it in Robert E. Howard’s pocket, outside in his car, on the day he learned that his dear mother was moribund, and ended his life.
John Guidry recently leant us a DVD of The Whole Wide World, the film about Howard’s relationship with Novalyne Price (a special guest at Nolacon II). The Vincent D’Onofrio/Renee Zellwegger movie was shot in a larger house, but here I could understand the film’s depiction of Howard and his care for his dying mother. The obsessiveness of that care baffled us during the movie, but inside this tiny house, it made perfect sense. Robert E. Howard was no Conan. He was a sad – probably bi-polar – and insecure young man. Though he made plenty of money, with renown in distant cities, who understood or appreciated him in this tiny house in this tiny town – besides his mother? Robert could not bear the thought of life without her. Thirty years old.
Strangely, though, as we stood in the hallway and looked over the family photographs (and an excellent local portrait made from the famous snapbrimmed hat picture), we couldn’t pity the tremendous – and tragic – fantasy genius. Instead, we felt exhilarated by the imaginative majesty that bloomed from that flawed man in that lonely little home. If there is one thing this trip taught us, from that day through to the very last, it’s this: What amazing things people can achieve even though they are imperfect.
On display in the kitchen, a photo of publisher Glenn Lord and a group from REHUPA, the apa devoted to Howard and his work. I knew three of them: Nancy Collins, Vern Clark, and Rusty Burke. It’d give them a boost to know where their faces were on display. As we left, the ladies of Project Pride loaded us down with fabulous freebies: postcards, magnetized Conan page-markers (that’s one on my cover), a copy of the Howards’ funeral notice – mother and son, together forever – and four prints of the Howard portrait. I gave one to Hank Reinhardt, Conan fan supreme, at L.A.Con, and donated another to DUFF. One I keep for us. The last? It’s for sale – the price, less postage, to be donated to Project Pride.
Outside, from the very spot where Robert E. Howard left this planet, we called John Guidry. I think he appreciated it.