Texas as Character
|Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
One event in Texas history provided Howard with a lot of grist for his personal mill: the Texas Oil Boom. Howard was a teenager when oil was discovered in Cross Plains. He had a first-hand knowledge of the rapid and depleting changes that occurred in the small cattle and cotton town. Watching the town’s population swell with the colorful panoply of characters that accompany an oil boom greatly influenced Howard’s beliefs about the rise and fall of civilization in frontier settings.
Howard’s most famous creation, Conan the Cimmerian, is the literary encapsulation of Howard’s personal philosophy on civilization and barbarism. One story in particular, “Beyond the Black River,” made extensive use of Texas history. Written in 1934 (around the same time that he was working on the El Borak stories), Howard changed the story’s setting from the usual gleaming cities amid crumbling ruins to the harsh frontier wilderness.
In “Beyond the Black River,” Aquilonia, the symbol of civilized power in Howard’s Hyborian Age, is expanding its territory into the last patch of untamed wilderness, bordered by two rivers, Black River and Thunder River. The land is peopled by the Picts, painted savages who are also fierce warriors. Throughout the story, the reader walks the knife-edge between the settlers and soldiers in the log fort and the united Pict tribes bent on wiping them out as the settlers encroach on the Pict’s lands.
The allusion to the plight of the early Texan settlers couldn’t be more obvious, particularly when considering this letter written to H.P. Lovecraft in August, 1931:
A student of early Texas history is struck by the fact that some of the most savage battles with the Indians were fought in the territory between the Brazos and Trinity rivers. A look at the country makes one realize why this was so. After leaving the thickly timbered litoral [sic] of East Texas, the westward sweeping pioneers drove the red men across the treeless rolling expanse now called the Fort Worth prairie, with comparative ease. But beyond the Trinity a new kind of country was encountered — bare, rugged hills, thickly timbered valleys, rocky soil that yielded scanty harvest, and was scantily watered. Here the Indians turned ferociously at bay and among those wild bare hills many a desperate war was fought out to a red finish. It took nearly forty years to win that country, and late into the (18)70’s it was the scene of swift and bloody raids and forays — leaving their reservations above Red River, and riding like fiends the Comanches would strike the cross-timber hills within twenty-four hours... Some times they won, and outracing the avengers, splashed across Red River and gained their tipis, where the fires blazed, the drums boomed and the painted, feathered warriors leaped in grotesque dances celebrating their gains in horses and scalps... (Burke, unpublished?)
This, in essence, is the plot and conflict of “Beyond the Black River, with the titular river disguising the Brazos River and Thunder River serving as the Trinity. At the story’s conclusion, the Picts have won, and although Conan has saved the lives of the settlers, many soldiers were slaughtered, including the point of view character for most of the story, Balthus. One of the remaining woodsmen asks Conan if Aquilonia will rebuild the decimated fort, and Conan says that “the frontier has been pushed back. Thunder River will be the new border.”
After a somber moment, the woodsman tells Conan, “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.” (Ultimate Triumph, 65) This theme runs like Thunder River through the Conan series and colors other Howard stories.
Toward the end of his life, Howard turned to the western genre and embraced it, producing what many consider to be among his finest stories. These westerns were either set in Texas, featured Texas characters, or both. Again we see Howard borrowing on his vast store of regional history and gunfighter lore for his set pieces, tropes, and plots.
When discussing Howard’s western stories, “The Vultures of Wahpeton” always comes first. While it doesn’t break any new literary ground, it nevertheless covers all of the usual bases and with great panache. Borrowing a theme from an earlier Kull story, “The Shadow Kingdom,” Howard returns to a familiar theme of civilized and bureaucratic corruption — in this case, the officers of the law — and the moral man who stands among them to protect the innocent civilians. One of “Vulture’s” famous scenes was inspired by a famous gunfight involving Hendry Brown and his efforts to tame the town of Caldwell, Kansas in the early 1880’s. Howard wrote, in 1934:
The way they generally trapped the deputy was to start a commotion in a saloon. Ordinarily, the deputy ran in and saw one drunk — apparently — standing in the center of the saloon and shooting at the ceiling, while a large gang looked on from the bar. When the deputy started to arrest the drunk, the lights suddenly went out, and when they were lit again, there was a deputy with several lead slugs through them. But Brown was wise...
Well, that night in Caldwell, Brown entered the saloon with his long easy stride, unhurried, unruffled. He seemed to be watching the pseudo-drunk staggering about in the center of the saloon; in reality, he was watching the crowd, and the three desperados who crouched back among their fellows with their hands on their guns. Without warning and quick as a striking-rattler, he wheeled and his guns were out and roaring death before the slower-thinking outlaws realized that the new deputy knew their play. (Vultures of Whapeton, 95)
While “Vultures” makes good use of gunfighter lore, it works better as an analogy for paranoia and intrigue. The hero of “Vultures,” Steve Corcoran, is outnumbered and alone, and doesn’t know who to trust. He is hired by the villains to play sheriff, thinking that he won’t interfere with the plans and schemes of the eponymous gang. Corcoran doesn’t like being played, and soon put himself between the Vultures and the town. The loner alone is a pose that Howard’s heroes often strike. Howard often used his fiction to address perceived societal ills. Howard wrote to H.P. Lovecraft, November 2, 1932:
“It isn’t law-enforcement I resent, but the vandals that parade under the cloak of law...There are many fine men in Texas ranks of the law; without them chaos and anarchy would result. But surely it is not fanaticism or outlawry to wish to eliminate the worst spots of corruption and injustice.” (Selected Letters, 41)
Howard mixed his themes and subjects well in his westerns, trading out notions of personal vengeance to paying off societal debts. The majority of these westerns featured Texas characters, Texas settings, or both. In “Boot Hill Pay-Off,” a man comes back to the town of San Leon to right the wrongs perpetrated by his four outlaw brothers, only to be confronted with new bandits in the guise of his dead siblings. The plot of “Gunman’s Debt” revolves around an old frontier feud, something that Howard was keenly interested in. Texas even shows up in character motivation, such as in this passage from “Vulture’s Sanctuary”:
Get even with a woman? Such a thought had never entered his mind. His code, the rigid, iron-bound code of the Texas frontier, did not permit of retaliation against a woman, whatever the provocation. (Last Ride, 111)
Howard wasn’t content with Texas history. Just as he fictionalized the town of Cross Plains and other locations for his stories, he also drew from modern events. The best example of this is “Wild Water,” a modern western set in the middle of the most dramatic flood ever in Central Texas.
The story is one of vengeance, and righting with bullets a wrong done with banking and paper. An old gunfighter, the last of his kind, avenges the wrongful persecution of his kin, only to find that there is a larger menace at work. An insane farmer is threatening to blow up the newly-built dam (with snarky asides as to the graft that occurred to make said dam) and flood the town, killing thousands of innocents. With a fantastic thunderstorm playing out around them, in what has to be the grimmest fight Howard ever wrote, the gunfighter pays for his own killing by saving the lives of the town he hates — at a cost of his own life.
More amazing is that the flood Howard wrote about was an actual event in his lifetime. Lake Brownwood was a manmade endeavor, engineered for recreation and farming. Once completed, the average rainfall for the area was calculated and it was estimated that the lake would take three years to fill up. Never bet long odds on Texas weather. In the Summer of 1932, ferocious flash floods attacked the area and what was supposed to take three years occurred literally overnight. This, then, is the set piece for “Wild Water,” as written by Howard to H. P. Lovecraft in June, 1932:
Yesterday I spent most of the day in the flooded district south of here. In that flood, the worst ever experienced in Central West Texas, the devastation to crops and fields has been almost beyond belief...Fences were torn up for miles and washed clean out of sight, or left tangled among trees along the banks. I don’t know how many cattle and horses were drowned. The most impressive sight, however, was the Brown County lake. I can not describe the sensations of seeing that gigantic body of water where for so many years I have been accustomed to seeing dry-creek beds, or semi-dry creeks, winding among arid post-oak ridges. It has changed the whole aspect of the countryside...Where bridges and ranch houses stood, water eighty feet deep ripples instead. It is so strange, seeing a big body of water in the midst of this drouth-haunted country of post-oak hills... It is but the work of men, who stretched a dam between the hills, yet it seems like a miracle. And more so when one recollects that it literally filled itself overnight. 145 miles of shoreline — and one torrential rain filled and overflowed it. For days the floodgates have been left wide open, and still all the rivers leading into the lakes are backed upstream for miles. It is the greatest project ever put forward in this part of the country...
Just now there is a great deal of resentment among the farmers and stockmen who live up the rivers, who consider the dam the main reason for their ruin in the flood, though in reality much of the damage would have been done, dam nor not. But they should be paid for their fields along the rivers, for with the lake full, any kind of a rise will back the water up over these fields again. There is much hard feeling, and talk of guarding the dam against possible dynamiting. Though I hardly think anyone would be mad enough to do such a thing. The town of Brownwood lies directly below the dam, only ten miles away, and should the dam burst, the havoc wrought there could hardly be concieved [sic]. (Unpublished letter)
In the course of his legendary correspondence with other pulp writers, chief among them H.P. Lovecraft, Howard spoke freely and often about Texas. In doing so, he managed to allay many misconceptions about the state, and on several occasions, defended her honor. In the course of a lengthy discussion on civilization vs. barbarism, Howard defended his home state (which undoubtedly contributed to his opinions of same) against the learned Lovecraft, extolling the virtues of its citizenry even as he openly despised the changes occurring in big business and bureaucracy:
You need not fear that there is any lack of fair play in Texas. I doubt if you will find it more highly developed in any region. I never saw a helpless individual beaten up without a chance to defend himself; not by ordinary citizenry, anyway. What the police do, is not our fault; and every region has its thugs and sluggers. I remember, for instance, a big fellow called Red, who was going down a street in a western town, and saw a couple of thugs abusing a weakling — something that might happen anywhere, since hoodlums are not confined to Texas. Red had never seen the victim before, but without hesitation he stepped in with both fists swinging, and knocked the thugs for a loop, getting, in the process, a knife stab that lacked only about an inch of finding a vital organ. Could any man, even in the “civilized” sections, have shown any more chivalry? (Selected Letters, 50)
Thankfully, not everyone was as obstreperous about Texas in writing to Howard. August Derleth, for example, was fascinated with the legend, lore, and myths that Howard sent his way and reciprocated with his own stories of Wisconsin folklore.
Howard never traveled far beyond the borders of Texas, and certainly never went abroad to ancient, history-soaked Europe and Asia. However, it can be argued that Howard used his writing career to venture beyond his home state, traveling via his imagination to every time and place he would have liked to see. But wherever Howard’s imagination roamed, he took Texas with him.
Howard was a product of Texas, and it showed throughout his professional career. The Lone Star State wove its way into his plots, his themes, and his characters. That Howard isn’t studied in schools, or mentioned in textbooks such as Texas Our Texas, is mildly appalling. Howard’s vivid prose and poetic, muscular writing style have inspired and influenced generations of other writers. He was a Texas author, prolific and popular to this day. “I was the first to light a torch of literature in this part of the country,” Howard told Lovecraft. “I am, in my way, a pioneer...In the last few years large numbers of youngsters have taken to writing; some of them show real merit; some have already far surpassed me. But I was the first writer in post oak country.” (Selected Letters, 53)
Howard was one of the greatest adventure writers of the 20th century and that’s no idle boast. With Howard’s Centennial Year rapidly approaching, it is high time for Texas to claim its black sheep and give him the honors and accolades he is due.
De Camp, L. Sprague and Catherine. Dark Valley Destiny. New York, NY: Bluejay Books, 1984.
Herron, Don. “The Dark Barbarian.” The Dark Barbarian. Ed. Don Herron. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, 2000.
Howard, Robert E. Selected Letters: 1931-1936. Ed. Glenn Lord with Rusty Burke, S. T. Joshi, and Steve Behrends. West Warwick, R. I.: Necronomicon Press, 1991.
—. The Complete Action Stories. Ed. Paul Herman. Carrollton, Texas. Hermanthis, 2001.
—. “For the Love of Barbara Allen.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August, 1966. 82-88.
—. The Last Ride. New York, NY. Berkeley, 1978.
—. The Lost Valley of Iskander. New York, NY. Zebra, 1976. (Daughter of Erlik Kahn)
—. Pigeons From Hell. New York, NY. Ace, 1979 (Old Garfield’s Heart)
—. Post Oaks & Sand Roughs. Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, Donald Grant, 1990
—. The Ultimate Triumph. Ed. Rusty Burke. London, England.: Wandering Star, 1999. (Spear & Fang, Beyond the Black River)
—. The Vultures of Wahpeton. New York, NY. Zebra, 1975. (Wild Water)
—. Waterfront Fists: the Complete Fight Stories of Robert E. Howard. Ed. Paul Herman. Holicong, PA: Wildside Press, 2003.
Lord, Glenn, ed. The Howard Collector. New York, NY. Ace, 1979 (Spanish Gold on Devil Horse)
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Finn