The Newcomer's Guide to Robert E. Howard

Everything you need to know

Robert E. Howard and the Ghost of Conan

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I heard that Howard boarded up his windows at night because he feared his “enemies” would come and get him, and that he actually believed the ghost of King Conan was coming to him at night, forcing him to write his adventures at axe-point or he’d kill him, leading to Howard writing all night and collapsing exhausted at the typewriter in the early morning. What’s that all about?

Most of these misconceptions can be traced to “Conan Unchained,” a documentary charting the making of Conan the Barbarian. It is not a great source for accurate information on Robert E. Howard.

…He was convinced that, you know, the town wanted to exterminate him, this kind of thing, and he’d go home and board up his windows and load rifles — complete nut! But the best part, is he’s alone one night, and he feels a shadow overtake him from behind, and he knows that Conan is standing behind him with a large axe. And Conan tells him, “Just stay there and write, and if you don’t do exactly what I’m gonna tell you, I’m gonna cleave you down the middle.” And so, he’s so terrified, because Conan just exudes such power and fear, and he could just see the axe glinting in his peripheral vision, you know, that he just writes all night! And of course with the coming of dawn, he turns around finally and Conan is gone. So he falls upon the floor completely spent, and he realises “I only have to sleep for a few hours, because then I must fortify myself – for when darkness comes again, so will Conan.” And of course, Conan did, and he would, almost all these stories, in a very short period of time because Conan was standing over him with an axe – and I’ve always felt that way myself!”

—  John Milius (Starting 7:10 of the above video)

The first anecdote is completely made up. There is no evidence or suggestion for Howard doing anything of the sort among the letters or hearsay of the time,* and there’s certainly no physical evidence for boarded-up windows at the Howards’ house. Complete fantasy.

The second anecdote may be a misinterpretation of several sources, where Howard recounts the creation of Conan in his mind:

I’m rather of the opinion myself that widespread myths and legends are based on some fact, though the fact may be distorted out of all recognition in the telling. While I don’t 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 storywriting. When I deliberately tried to write something else, I couldn’t 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.

— Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, December 14th, 1933

Here, Howard is clearly speaking figuratively and not literally: Conan seemed to grow up in his mind, Howard only seemed to be relating events, as if the man was standing over his shoulder. Nowhere does Howard say anything about actually experiencing the presence of an antediluvian ghost-king looming over his shoulder, and in fact, he specifically discounts any sort of supernatural occurence being involved – though he agnostically refuses to outright deny anything.

Howard produced a biographical sketch for Alvin Earl Perry, which includes the following paragraph:

Conan simply grew up in my mind a few years ago when I was stopping in a little border town on the lower Rio Grande. I did not create him by any conscious process. He simply stalked full grown out of oblivion and set me at work recording the saga of his adventures.

— To Alvin Earl Perry, ca. early 1935

On its own, that last sentence might be construed as ambiguous — if one ignores the first sentence, where Howard notes that Conan grew up in his mind.

Howard returned to the creation of Conan in a later letter to Smith:

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 that’s 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, and honest workmen I had come in contact with, and combining them all, produced the amalgamation I call Conan the Cimmerian.

— Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, July 23, 1935

Once again, seemed to step full-grown into his consciousness.

There is also the possibility Milius read a little too much into similar statements recalled by Novalyne Price in her memoir:

“That Conan’s the damndest bastard I ever saw. He gets himself into all kinds of scrapes. I sure don’t try to give him advice when he tells me all that junk. I just sit back and listen.”

“Do you know what he’s telling you?” Clyde said to me. “He’s telling you that a real character has a mind of his own, even in a story.”

One Who Walked Alone, page 20

He talked on for nearly a page about stories in general–something, he said, I might think about. One thing he wanted to stress was that stories had to be real and important; the characters-real people with real problems, important problems. He was sure, he said (and he was right), that I wondered how Conan could be a real person, but I needed to remember that deep inside every man there was something of the barbarian, something that civilization could not destroy. A man reading his story about Conan, then, would feel again in the depth of his being those barbaric impulses; consequently, Conan acted as they felt they would act in similar circumstances.

One Who Walked Alone, pages 106-107

It’s easy to imagine in the first excerpt how Milius may have read the first line, and concluded that Howard was, in fact, saying that he believed Conan was a real person, even though Smith quickly clarifies it.

Nonetheless, with the letters and Price’s recollection, there is no reason to suppose that Howard ever actually considered Conan as anything but his own literary creation, and that the verisimilitude of the character is purely borne of his writing skills, not a delusion of literary agency.

*Paul Herman points out that Howard appeared to have quite an arsenal of weapons, including rifles, which Dr. Howard was seen handing out the window to his friends by Kate Merryman. So while Howard did indeed amass quite a collection of weapons, there’s no evidence that he kept them loaded for some coming onslaught like Robert Neville of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend.

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Written by alharron

22 December, 2010 at 7:21 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] release. From a Howard fan’s point of view, one can only hope that this new DVD updates the deeply flawed chapter on Robert E. Howard in “Conan Unchained,” or perhaps they’ll create an entirely […]

  2. […] of the film marred by the creation of one of the most persistent and irritating of Howard myths: the idea that Howard was actually hallucinating the ghost of Conan. This is probably not a result of any mean spirits on Milius’ behalf – after all, he […]


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