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The Savage Worlds of Robert E. Howard

Updated on December 7, 2016
Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard

Best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Robert Ervin Howard was born in 1906 in the Texas town of Paster. He was interested in reading and writing from a very early age, he particularly enjoyed reading tales of the old west.

By the time REH reached his teen years the pulps were very popular, it was the heyday of Amazing Stories, Uknown Worlds, Adventure Magazine and other publications that offered a wave of new, innovative and imaginative fiction writers like Harold Lamb with his sweeping historical sagas, Gordon Young, with his two-fisted, globe-trotting warriors; and H. P. Lovecraft, with his dark, disturbing horror stories and their stark portrayals of unspeakable evil.

In 1925 REH sold his first story “Spear and Fang” to Lovecraft’s pulp home, Weird Tales. REH along with Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith would become known as Weird Tales magazine’s three greatest contributors.

REH’s stories were perfect for Weird Tales, they were action-packed, blood-drenched, imaginative and his prose vivid and harsh. He also wrote tales of horror in the Lovecraft mould. REH invented an army of vicious, pitiless warrior heroes, such as – the puritan Solomon Kane, Cormac Mac Art, Bran Mak Morn, the Atlantean King Kull and most popular of them all, Conan the Cimmerian.

Conan lived 12,000 years ago in the “Hyborian Age”, a time of giant serpents, sorcery, demons, voluptuous women and spectacularly gory violence. REH published 17 Conan stories in Weird Tales, the series written in non-chronological order, with Conan middle-aged in one story and a young man in the next. He might be a pirate on the high seas in one adventure and a mercenary, thief or even king in another.

The first Conan story was recycled from an unused King Kull adventure entitled "By this Axe I rule!", story elements were rearranged, names changed, new subplots thrown in and the title changed to "The Phoenix on the Sword", the short story was published in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales.

In his dreams REH sometimes saw himself as a barbarian in a primitive landscape and he would identify with his heroes, this immersion into that world helped bring his characters vividly to life on the page. For the reader the result were stories that might have an intense, hallucinatory force and yet felt strangely real.

REH would draw the reader right inside those barbaric, ancient landscapes, his typewriter capturing the splash of blood and the blinding glare of flashing steel. He described places that were at once familiar and bizarre, but also three dimensional and teeming with life.

Though REH was interested in fishing, hunting and drinking, he was not a typical Texas boy at all. With his daydreaming, wild imagination and brooding, he stood apart from the people of the town of Cross Plains, and was generally thought to be something of a weirdo among the locals.

REH was devoted to his mother. He was prone to bouts of depression and his mental health seemed to be faltering but it did not seem to slow down his writing. In the spring of 1936, Mrs. Howard became gravely ill and on the morning of June 11, sitting at his comatose mother’s bedside, REH was told by the doctor that his mother would never recover.

REH went to his workroom and wrote some lines of poetry, then walked outside to the family’s ’31 Chevrolet sedan. He took out a Colt .380 Automatic from the glove compartment, placed the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

Robert E. Howard was 30 years old.

The last words he wrote were - “All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre; The feast is over, and the lamps expire.”

H. P. Lovecraft, who was a pen pal of the young writer, sent words of tribute: “Scarcely anybody else in the pulp field had quite the driving zest and spontaneity of Robert E. Howard. How he could surround primal megalithic cities with an aura of aeon-old fear and necromancy. Weird fiction certainly has occasion to mourn.”

Robert E. Howard’s brief life’s work left a legacy that endures to this day. He practically invented the sword and sorcery genre and created it’s greatest hero. Conan has become as much a cultural icon as Tarzan, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes.

A complete bibliography along with cover art to all books and magazines featuring REH's stories are in the link below.

Movies based on characters from the stories of Robert E. Howard –

1982 – Conan the Barbarian – starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow, directed by John Milus

1984 – Conan the Destroyer – starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Grace Jones and Sarah Douglas, directed by Richard Fleischer.

1985 – Red Sonja – starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Brigitte Nielsen, directed by Richard Fleischer.

1997 – Kull the Conqueror – starring Kevin Sorbo and Tia Carrere, directed by John Nicolella.

2009 – Solomon Kane – starring James Purefoy, Alice Krige and Max Von Sydow, directed by Michael J. Bassett.

2011 – Conan the Barbarian - starring James Momoa, Rachel Nichols and Stephen Lang, directed by Marcus Nispel.


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    • profile image

      walker 6 years ago

      REH isn´t really dead. His spirit lives on,and his soul exists somewhere,it still has an influence in the present and in the future.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Rob. I used to buy The Savage Sword of Conan every month, very good adaptations of some of his stories and great artwork. I still have the first 100 issues or so boxed along with my old magazines and comics.

    • Robwrite profile image

      Rob 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

      A sad but interesting life. He was a tragic figure. I grew up reading Conan comics and I've read a handful of his Conan novels. I read his short story "Shadow of the Vulture", which featured a character called Red Sonya, who would later become Red Sonja. (In the story, she wasn't a contemporary of Conan, unlike in the comics.)

      Interesting hub. Voted up. Well done.


    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      You do realise Cogerson that we now know more about Hester than we do her son Robert thanks to Al's link. Damn! :)

      I'm pretty sure Hester was domineering at times, it doesn't make her a monster. My parents were occasionally overbearing, nothing wrong with that.

      The tragedy isn't Hester it's REH taking his own life at 30.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 6 years ago from Virginia

      Wow I just checked out the link on Hester just further shows how tragic the life of the creator of Conan was back in the 1930s. But he lives on through his Conan character.

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks for the comment and the link Al Harron.

      Wikipedia already has a lengthy detailed bio on REH. I wanted to concentrate on the sword and sorcery side of his work, hence the title of the hub.

    • profile image

      Al Harron 6 years ago

      An excellent overview of Howard's fantasy, but it's a shame you made no mention of the many non-fantasy stories Howard wrote, and was very successful with: he wrote more boxing stories and westerns than all his horror/fantasy combined, as well as a great number of "true confessionals" and straight historical adventures. His comedy boxing stories of Steve Costigan alone outnumber his Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn and other fantasy series.

      I also think "domineering" is a poor choice of words to describe Hester Howard. Hester was suffering from tuberculosis, and considering Dr. Howard was frequently away for days at a time, the costs of nurses and assistants were exhorbitant in Depression-era Texas, and the fact that sanitoriums of the period were hellish, REH had to look after his mother. Taking care of someone who you know is going to die despite your best efforts and available medicine can take a truly immense psychological toll without having said person be "domineering."

      There's a fantastic essay on Hester by Leo Grin which explicates why she's so misunderstood:

    • Steve Lensman profile image

      Steve Lensman 6 years ago from London, England

      Thanks Conanson, much appreciated. Tragic stories of unbearable grief. Howard's mother died the following day and they were buried side by side. Depression is a killer.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 6 years ago from Virginia

      Wow I had no idea the creator of Conan, killed himself. How soon after did the mom die? I grew up with a kid that did the same took about a year before the depression of his mother's death finally caused him to take his own life. Great selection of art in the hub, his Conan has a chance to be the surprise hit of the summer. Haunting last words by Howard...although I had to look up the word "pyre". Voted up, beautiful and interesting....great job Steve.