Robert E. Howard, the prolific pulp fiction writer who invented the character Conan the Barbarian and inaugurated the “sword and sorcery” genre, died by suicide on June 11, 1936, at the age of 30.
Howard lived his whole life in small Texas oil towns with his father, a country doctor who Howard did not get along with, and his mother with whom he had a close, some have even suggested emotionally unhealthy, relationship.
Howard’s mother suffered for much of her life from tuberculosis, and his father was frequently absent. His parents’ marriage was stormy and sometimes violent. Howard became his mother’s primary care giver in her later years.
She slipped into a coma on June 10, 1936. Howard was told the next morning that she would never recover. He went to his car, took a pistol from the glove box and shot himself in the head. His father and another doctor tried to give him first aid, but he died. His mother died the next day.
Howard’s biographer, Mark Finn, believes that Howard had long suffered from what we would now diagnose as clinical depression. Despite his success as an author Howard often spoke of feelings of inadequacy and persecution and of thoughts of suicide.
He once wrote “Death to the old is inevitable, and yet somehow I often feel that it is a greater tragedy than death to the young…I don’t want to live to be old. I want to die when my time comes, quickly and suddenly, in the full tide of my strength.”
Howard was bullied as a child and as an adolescent he made a concerted effort to remake himself into a bodybuilder and amateur boxer. He later claimed that brute force is the only way to deal with aggressive behaviour, and this attitude permeated his fictional creations, who became the embodiments of “uncivilized” power.
In his story “Beyond the Black River” Howard writes, “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.”
Howard wanted to be a writer from childhood and began submitting stories to pulp magazines when he was 13. He had his first acceptance at 15 and by his early twenties was making his living solely through his stories. He published about 160 in his short life.
He studied the pulp market carefully to see what was popular and wrote in many different styles. Mostly he wrote in what was then called “weird fiction,” a mix of fantasy and sci-fi. He was greatly influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, who he corresponded with at length.
By the time Howard created the character of Conan and his invented “Hyborian” world, he had explored many other heroes and exotic locales mixing “barbarian” violence and the supernatural.
Howard’s mostly posthumous success spawned many imitators, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the genre was given the collective name “sword and sorcery,” a genre that lives on today in the enormous popularity of Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings.