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Saturday, June 15, 1996

Conan the Barbarian Creator Remembered in Cross Plains

By Brian Bethel
Staff Writer

The memory of Conan creator Robert Howard's typewriter still lingers in the mind of Cross Plains newspaperman Jack Scott.

Scott remembers rolling the paper in Howard's Underwood No. 5 typewriter up just slightly to better read the final words the reclusive writer wrote the day he shot himself in 1936, the same day his mother later died of tuberculosis.

Rather than a saga of the muscular barbarian that would become his most enduring character, the words indicated Howard's desire for his own death - something he had long spoken of - and a sense of conviction to at last carry the deed through:

All fled, all done,
so lift me on the pyre:
The feast is over,
The lamps expire.

Faithful lovers of Howard's work gather in his native Cross Plains each year to celebrate the man some knew as the "crazy" son of well-loved local doctor Isaac Howard - a man others know as a creator of fantastic worlds that endure today.

Scott, 86, remembers the day of Howard's death, and the man himself, in vivid detail.

"I was out front, trying to get a story for the (Associated Press) wire and the newspapers I was a stringer for," said Scott, a longtime editor-publisher of the Cross Plains Review. "I wanted something for the afternoon papers, and I had enough to write it except for one thing: I needed someone to confirm for me that he had committed suicide."

Scott stood in the yard of the Howard home, becoming increasingly worried. He needed to get his news copy to the local depot agent before noon, and it was already about 10:30 a.m.

"If I hadn't gotten it to him before noon, he would have just left," he said. "So I stood there among a crowd full of people until the (justice of the peace) walked out of the house. He saw me in the crowd and said, 'Come here.' "

Sitting among the restored contents of Robert Howard's family home just off of Highway 36 in Cross Plains, Scott quietly spoke of his trek through the death-stricken house with Justice of the Peace Drew Hill to the room where Howard had his typewriter - the place where he created worlds.
"He led me in, right down this hall, into this room," Scott said, his eyes resting on the replica display of Howard's typewriter. "He said, 'What's that in that typewriter?' "

Scott read the words.

"What does that mean?" Hill asked.

He explained the meaning as best he could. Howard's grief for his mother - who he was certain would die soon - had perhaps consumed him and given him an excuse to find the death he had so often spoken of.

"All hope is gone for his mother, so 'lift me on the funeral pyre,' " he explained to Hill. "The lamps - his eyes - go out. That's his death."

Hill looked at Scott.

"He's writing about his suicide, isn't he?" he asked.

"Is that what you're going to rule it, Judge?" Scott responded.

"Well of course, that's what it is," Hill replied. "Everyone knows that."

With confirmation in hand, Scott left to write.

Ms. Howard died several hours later.

The death of Robert Howard and the subsequent death of his mother was a tragedy for the people of Cross Plains, Scott said.

His father, Isaac Howard, was the quintessential country doctor, well liked in all the country 'round. He and Scott were good friends.

"We discussed everything in the world - from politics to religion," he said. "But I was never intimate with Robert Howard, and there's really no one that I know alive now that was."

Howard was always a loner, Scott said. With only a few friends to his name, one of which owned the gun he used to commit suicide, he was considered somewhat odd by some of the townspeople.
He was about five or six years older than Scott.

"We didn't have much in common," he said. "He didn't play ball, he didn't go to dances, he didn't do most of the things that guys his age usually did."

But when Howard and his mother died, their double funeral was well-attended by mourners.
"They held the funeral in the tabernacle at the back of the Baptist church at 10th and Main," Scott said. "The people filled all the yard around. It was an enormous outpouring."

Scott ran his story as the banner on the newspaper's front page, with a reprint of one of Howard's recent tales on the back page.

Despite the suicide, Scott said he thought Howard was sane, even up until the end.

Howard's great love for his mother stemmed from the time he was battling a childhood sickness, during which she told him he would need to take care of her someday.

"He did have a strong attachment for his mother," Scott said. "Old Doctor Howard was gone all of the time, and he never had a chance to know his father as well as he did his mother."

Many Howard scholars believe his mother's death wasn't the true cause of his death - merely the occasion.

Other stories tell that he told Novalyne Price - a girlfriend of his for a brief time - that he eventually came to believe Conan himself was guiding his fingers across his keyboard.

Scott said he didn't think that was the case, but he did say it was likely that like all good writers, Howard put himself into his stories.

"If you're a good writer, I think you become enraptured with what you're doing and become a part of it," he said. "I think he probably did that."

Stories are still told of Howard shadow-boxing to get the feel for a tale about boxing or staging a scene to write later in a cape by the light of the moon.

Howard's fantasy sagas, not only of Conan but of characters such as King Kull of Atlantis and Solomon Kane, became well-known in magazines such as the venerable Weird Tales, a staple of pulp fiction until the '50s that helped launch the careers of writers such as Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and horror master H.P. Lovecraft.

He wrote stories for a wide variety of other magazines.

But while most of the people of Cross Plains knew he was a writer, many didn't read the pulp magazines that frequently carried his byline.

"I was not an avid reader of his stories," Scott said. "A lot of people in town just knew he wrote 'strange stuff,' not really what he did."

"Heroic fantasy doesn't mean that much to me," he said. "I'd rather read the sports or something. But I've talked to people from all around the world who love Howard's stories, and they sometimes have an almost worshipful attitude toward him."

And that is the gift Howard gave to Cross Plains - world-wide recognition, Scott said.

"He brought his hometown notoriety around the world that seems to grow with every passing year," he said. "A lot of people didn't know even know where it was before him. That's what he did for Cross Plains."

All content copyright 1996, Brian Bethel, The Abilene Reporter-News and Reporter OnLine

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