Texas as Character in Robert E. Howard’s Fiction
by Mark Finn
part 1 of 2
“Great literature transcends its native land, but none that I know of ignores its soil.” — J. Frank Dobie
When Texas authors are mentioned, certain names spring instantly to mind: Larry McMurtry, Cormac MacCarthy, and Sandra Cisneros are recognizable in particular for their literary accolades. With a little more prompting, the names J. Frank Dobie and H. W. Brands might emerge as authors of distinction. Popular fiction is usually ignored, even when an author’s work is far more internationally famous than the author himself.
Robert E. Howard is best known for the creation of the genre of heroic fantasy, a combination of fast-paced action and ‘weird’ or supernatural elements woven together to form a driving narrative. Sometimes less charitably referred to as “sword and sorcery,” this genre was very popular throughout the twentieth century. Even more fascinating was the fact that it was invented by a native Texan in the midst of The Great Depression.
The genre was so popular that is spawned a slew of imitators, none of whom were able to evoke the same power and joie de vive as Howard himself. As a result, the bulk of Howard’s canon has become unfairly associated with a pop cultural construct known as Conan the Barbarian, a Frankenstein-like entity that bears little resemblance to the dark and sullen creation of the author.
This association is an albatross around Howard’s neck that keeps his work in the science fiction ghetto, when in fact he should be listed with the best and brightest Texas authors. Howard’s work is fiercely regionalistic, and in the broad field of the pulp magazines, he was the most prolific author in the state of Texas to write modern westerns, featuring Texan characters, and even thinly disguising Texas history as fiction.
Robert E. Howard was born in Peaster, Texas, in 1906. The son of a country doctor, Howard lived his entire life in small Texas towns like Bronte, Burkett, and Cross Plains. Howard’s mother encouraged and supported a classical education for her son and read to him from history and literature. This education included many of the books and authors that Howard would later cite as influences on his work, from Chesterton and Shakespeare to Kipling and London.
Oral storytelling was a major influence on Howard as a child. His mother told him stories of Indian cruelty to the settlers of Texas, and he absorbed Southern ghost stories from his grandmother and other family acquaintances. Dr. Isaac Howard often took his son with him on his rounds, and young Howard listened to his father swap tall tales and ribald jokes with his friends and patients.
As an adult, Howard traveled extensively throughout the state, visiting larger communities like San Antonio, Austin, Galveston, and Fort Worth. These trips were recreational, but Howard was also an avid student of history. His visits to other parts of Texas usually included a side trip to explore battle sites, ruins of old forts, and other historical attractions. Howard read extensively about Texas history, both factual and mythical. Citing an interest in the early pioneers, he also had sympathy for Native Americans and a keen fascination with the lore of Texas gunfighters.
The unique combination of tall tale, myth and history, and classical literature can be seen in the majority of Howard’s professional work. In fact, Texas as a state plays a unique role in the development of Howard’s career. Texas provided inspiration, setting, and in many cases, a voice for Howard’s stories. Through his own exploration of Texas history, Howard crafted exciting plots that bristled with authenticity. For his humorous characters, Howard relied on the celebrated Texas tall tale tradition. For convenience, Howard made use of his surroundings and acquaintances to help flesh out his narratives. Howard’s work is inextricably hog-tied to Texas themes, values, ideals, and traditions.
Howard’s professional career began in 1925 with the publication of “Spear and Fang” in Weird Tales magazine, but Howard’s writing didn’t acquire a regional slant until years later. After experimenting with various genres, Howard attempted a semi-autobiographical novel in 1928, Post Oaks and Sand Roughs. Set in the small towns of Lost Plains and Redwood (Howard’s pseudonyms for Cross Plains and Brownwood), the novel told the story of a young writer with big dreams of a professional career while dealing with the ups and downs of living in a small town. Post Oaks and Sand Roughs wasn’t published in Howard’s lifetime and is of interest primarily to Howard scholars.
More interesting is “Spanish Gold on Devil Horse,” also set in the town of Lost Plains and making use of some local geography close to Howard’s Cross Plains home. The nearby Caddo Peaks play stand-in for the main set piece in the story, a contemporary western involving mustachioed bandits, an upstanding young man, buried Spanish gold, and a beautiful woman in trouble. The use of six shooters may seem anachronistic in a story with boarding houses and pick up trucks, but it is an accurate representation of life in West Texas towns, minus perhaps some of the melodrama. “Spanish Gold” was also unpublished at the time of Howard’s death.
Two other stories are worth mentioning. “Old Garfield’s Heart” and “For the Love of Barbara Allen” are also set in an alternate Cross Plains (this time called “Lost Knob”). These modern western stories also serve double duty as horror stories. “Old Garfield’s Heart” tells the tale of an old Indian fighter and hell-raiser that makes a pact with a medicine man to be given the heart of a god. “For the Love of Barbara Allen” is a story of ghostly transference and the woman who pines for her dead lover.
These stories are steeped in their environment and include characters that fought the Comanche and died in the Civil War. These characters tend to horses, drink too much and get in fights, and in all other ways, walk and talk like small town Texans. “Old Garfield’s Heart” first saw print in the December 1933 issue of Weird Tales, but “For the Love of Barbara Allen” didn’t surface until 1966 when it was published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
The Lost Plains stories are varied in length, content, and style and represent a comfort zone for Howard’s fiction. In fictionalizing his surroundings, he borrowed a technique from his colleague H.P. Lovecraft, who turned Salem, Mass. into Arkham, and so forth. It’s no coincidence that several of the Lost Plains stories are in the horror genre. Howard never jumped headlong into new genres or markets. Instead, he created hybrid stories to transition from weird or horror stories to straight westerns. Basing stories on Texas history, concepts, and geography is a tactic that Howard would return to many times in his career.
Sailor Steve Costigan, a prizefighting sailor from Galveston was Howard’s first recurring Texan character. These were humorous boxing stories, set primarily in Asiatic ports-of-call. Costigan acts as the narrator, telling his adventures in a dialectic Texas drawl. Howard’s use of regional vernacular could be interpreted as mere tough guy patois, were it not for the presence of a few telling indicators regarding Costigan’s character. In the first story of the series, “The Pit of the Serpent,” Costigan tells a dance hall girl: “You needn’t not be afraid,” said I, kindly. “I am the soul of politeness around frails, and never pulls no rough stuff. I have never soaked a woman in my life, not even the dame in Suez that throwed a knife at me.” (Waterfront Fists, 31)
In “Sailor’s Grudge,” Costigan hears a perceived rival rebuking his current love interest, and thinks: “This was rather strong, I ruminated, and took a dislike right away to this fellow because I despise to hear a man talking rough to a woman.” (Waterfront Fists, 64) If nothing else, Costigan is infused with a code of chivalry, however roughly administered, that is not unlike a Texan code of honor.
It’s not until the ninth story in the series, “Texas Fists,” that we find out Costigan hails from Galveston, Texas. The story is full of broad-based humor in a Texas tall tale vein. For example, Costigan’s idea of training for a fight involves eating a meal large enough for four people. The cowboys who shanghai Costigan so that he can fight the rival boxer at a nearby mining camp constantly speak in exaggeration: “Golly, Miss Joan,” said Slim, kinda like he was hurt, “if you got any sympathy to spend, don’t go wastin’ it on that gorilla... Lookit this welt on my chin-when he socked me I looked right down my own spine for a second... If yore dad ever fires me, I’m goin’ to git a job with a circus, capturin’ tigers and things. After that ruckus, it oughta be a cinch.” (Waterfront Fists, 187)
These speech patterns are identical to how Costigan talks, a kind of generic Texas dialect full of “ain’ts” and “I reckons.” Once the cowboys, Costigan, and the rival boxer (an old friend of Costigan’s from Galveston) get together, the humorous exaggerations pile up quickly. “Texas Fists” is easily one of the most comical and hyperbolic stories in this long-running series, and the hi-jinks of the cowboys pave the way for Howard’s other great humorous regional character, Breckenridge Elkins. As a series, these stories were very popular and ran intermittently from 1929 to 1934 in Fight Stories, Action Stories, and Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine.
Breckenridge Elkins, Howard’s other great humorous character, came on the heels of Steve Costigan, and he is initially cut from the same cloth as the good-hearted sailor. Howard chose to locate the series in the Southwest, in Bear Creek, Nevada. Elkins is a strong but simple mountain man, a more dangerous and unpredictable version of Baby Huey. Most of his stories involve Elkins stumbling into situations and jumping to the wrong conclusions or having others mistake Elkins for being something he isn’t. Hilarity, gunfights, and fistfights frequently ensue as the truth, or lack thereof, becomes apparent to Elkins and whomever he’s mixed up with.
These stories are entirely propped up by Howard’s use of regional dialogue and his penchant for exaggeration, and humorous feints. This is the opening paragraph from “The Scalp Hunter”:
The reason I am giving the full facts of this here affair is to refute a lot of rumors which is circulating about me. I am sick and tired of these lies about me terrorizing the town of Grizzly Claw and ruining their wagon-yard just for spite and trying to murder all their leading citizens. They is more’n one side to anything. These folks which is going around telling about me knocking the mayor of Grizzly Claw down a flight of steps with a kitchen stove ain’t yet added that the mayor was trying to blast me with a sawed-off shotgun. As for saying that all I done was with malice afore-thought-if I was a hot-headed man like some I know, I could easy lose my temper over this here slander, but being shy and retiring by nature, I keeps my dignity and merely remarks that these gossipers is blamed liars, and I will kick the ears off of them if I catch them. (Complete Action Stories, 107)
Elkins’ ability to absorb and dispense punishment ventures into the realm of cartoonish. Both Costigan and Elkins are the narrators of their own misadventures and in doing so, they allow themselves the luxury of bloated exaggeration, even as the reader recognizes the limited faculties inherent in the characters themselves. These humorous cowboy stories were easily as popular as the Costigan series and ran for several years in Action Stories. Howard must have enjoyed writing them, because he created two additional humorous cowboys, Pike Bearfield of Wolf Mountain, Texas, and Buckner J. Grimes, of Knife River, Texas. Now based in Texas, they endured similar adventures in the pages of Argosy and Cowboy Stories, respectively.
Francis X. Gordon, also known as “El Borak,” or “The Swift,” was the next prominent fictitious Texan to roll out of Howard’s prolific Underwood typewriter. Conceived when Howard was still just a boyhood reader and fan, he rescued the character from adolescent fantasies and gave him life in a series of stories set in the Middle East. Originally a gunfighter from El Paso, Gordon found his way to the Orient and went native, moving among the desert nomads and bandit chiefs, adopting their ways and customs along the way. El Borak made his first appearance in the December 1934 issue of Top Notch magazine, in a story called “The Daughter of Erlik Khan.”
A cursory glance of the story and the character might draw comparisons to the works of Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb, and T.E. Lawrence, with Gordon navigating tribal politics, dueling with swords and rifles, and racing through the desert to ward off treasure-hunters and mercenaries. Certain plot elements do carry over, but what is missing from Howard’s tales of Oriental adventure is the Jingoistic Imperialism of many of the British writers and soldiers-of-fortune who sent in non-fiction articles and stories to Adventure magazine.
Of Gordon’s motivation, scholar Morgan Holmes said this: “There is a hard-bitten cynical side with Howard’s approach. It is not about extending British domination; it is about preventing the next would be Genghis Khan or Tamurlane from emerging in Central Asia.” Howard’s Gordon stories have as much to do with keeping the region’s native resources from being plundered as they do keeping despots in check — not for any nationalistic reason, but usually because Gordon’s friends wind up in the crossfire.
In fact, these stories bear a strong resemblance to the American fiction convention of scouts on the edge of the frontier, or learned woodsmen who are so familiar with the ways of the Native Americans that they may pass for one of them. It’s not hard to see that the conflicts presented in these stories revolve around treachery, the control of resources, or get-rich quick schemes. Howard wrote this to H.P. Lovecraft in June 1933:
Returning to our discussion of barbarism, you say the trouble with Texas is, she isn’t civilized enough. Yet nine tenths of her troubles arise from attempted exploiting of her resources — and her citizens — by individuals and corporations from those very sections which you praise so highly as examples of true civilization. If those individuals and persons of corporations are possessed of the virtues you ascribe to highly civilized people, the actions of many of them have certainly been inconsistent. Please realize that what I say of the state’s exploiting by alien individuals does not apply to those good and honest citizen of many other states who have come and settled in Texas and adapted themselves to their new environments and made fine citizens of the state...but there are vandals and vultures who would bankrupt the state to fill their purses, and practically all of them are from the very sections you speak of as being so highly civilized. (Selected Letters, 51)
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Finn