It couldn’t have been easy for Novalyne Price Ellis to write One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard the Final Years (Donald M. Grant Publisher, Inc., 1986). Price Ellis’ memoir of her relationship with Howard (roughly 1934-36) is illuminating in its raw honesty. It’s also painful, at turns disappointing and downright frustrating. We might find escape in Howard’s sword and sorcery tales but there is none to be found here.
But above all, One Who Walked Alone is brave. Price Ellis never sacrifices accuracy to save face. Howard was a successful writer and a free spirit, and told wild, vivid stories, traits that Price Ellis found irresistible. But she was also painfully embarrassed with the Texan, unable to accept his occasionally odd public behavior. She was disappointed that he didn’t conform to her own conception of manliness and began to date other men, including one of his best friends, Truett Vinson, which cut Howard to the quick. While her reactions were understandable, at times I found her to be rather shallow and unlikeable. And yet rather than off-putting I find that uncompromising truthfulness highly admirable.
Likewise Price Ellis doesn’t portray Howard as a saint in One Who Walked Alone. Brash, posturing, and foolish were some of Howard’s characteristics. Price Ellis could sense he was on a destructive path; you cannot live your life with an unrelenting “me against the world” philosophy before something breaks.
What comes across most clearly in One Who Walked Alone is Howard’s inability (or unwillingness) to fit in with the modern world. H.P. Lovecraft wrote that what made Howard’s stories stand out was that he was in every one of them. So when Conan spoke of the decay of civilization, that was Howard speaking as well. “The people who read my stuff want to get away from this modern, complicated world with its hypocrisy, its cruelty, its dog-eat-dog life… the civilization we live in is a hell of a lot more sinister than the time I write about,” Howard said. Price Ellis deduces the same in One Who Walked Alone:
Bob could not live in the world as he had found it. I had vaguely recognized it, but it was not clear to me until now. He had told me many times when he said, “Life is not worth living in this rotting civilization.” He made himself believe it. Bob was not prepared to stand on the street corners and talk with other men about the rain and the crops and the every day things that men talk about. He was different. He belonged in another century. He belonged in England, in coffee houses where men gathered to talk of the adventures of explorers in the new world, or in Ireland where men were taking part in the adventure of war for freedom.
On one of his many rides in his car through the countryside Howard casually mentions, “I was there girl, I rode with Jengiz Khan.” You feel a chill reading it. This lone incident speaks volumes about REH. His greatest passion arguably was for history, both that of Texas (which he wanted to write his Big Novel about one day), and of larger than life conquerors like Khan and Alexander the Great.
Price Ellis’ casual observations of REH reveal his more sensitive side, too. For example, this thumbnail sketch:
No other man I’d ever known had stopped to look at a beautiful sunset. But here was this big man, awkward, ungainly, who wrote and talked so knowledgeably of barbarians, of killings, wars, fighting, and death, stopping to look at the sunset. I didn’t try to talk. I watched him. I think he was deep into a story and had forgotten me.
The most poignant, memorable scene in One Who Walked Alone concerns the fateful day of February 24, 1936. With his mother’s health failing and Novalyne openly dating Truett Vinson, Howard opens up his heart to her. “I want to live! I want a woman to love, a woman to share my life and believe in me, to want me and love me. Don’t you know that?” It’s a painful, heart-wrenching scene, a soul in extremis. And at Howard’s most vulnerable, with his life literally hanging in the balance, Price Ellis fails him. She finds herself unable to respond with compassion or even kindness; all she can manage is to crack weak jokes about his moustache. It would have been easy for Price Ellis to sweep this incident under the rug, as it was a private moment between the two of them during one of their many rides in Howard’s car. But she nevertheless renders the scene unflinchingly.
There were better times, and fun times, on some of the pair’s long car rides through the Texas landscape. But of course the story must end with tragedy. When Price Ellis reads the fateful staccato telegraph of June 11, 1936 (“Bob Howard killed himself this morning. His mother was very low”) we feel the crushing loss of a young life cut short, of books unread, and of stories untold. Price Ellis suffered a terrible shock with Howard’s death and blamed herself for not doing more to prevent it.
Yet it’s hard to say how much she could have helped. Throughout the book Howard describes himself as old and in physical decline even at age 30; the phrase he uses (taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth) is “in the sere and yellow leaf” of his life. He frequently slipped in and out of depression, perhaps in part due to his self-imposed obligation to care for his sick and dying mother. Price Ellis observed that Howard was “a man chained” by obligation and duty.
Howard also struggled with the changing times and what he saw as degenerating societal values. He expressed a belief in reincarnation and longed to return to a more rugged, simpler past when life made sense, and you could carve out your own destiny with a strong sword arm. He was in many ways a stranger in a strange land; the title of Price Ellis’ book is rather fitting. And yet the same traits that likely played a hand in his self-destruction were what made Howard uniquely Howard. Without them, it’s unlikely he would have been possessed of the same creative spark.
Although the Howard-Price Ellis relationship is at its heart, One Who Walks Alone also portrays what life was like in Cross Plains, a small, insular Texas town (and as Mark Finn points out in his highly recommended biography Blood and Thunder, to fail to account for the influence of Texas in any portrayal of Howard is limiting, and a disservice). Understanding Howard’s place and time is critical to understanding him. Many of Howard’s critics want to judge him by modern 21st century standards but fail to realize he was living in a time in which the wounds of the Civil War were still fresh. Howard regularly spoke with old men who had participated in the taming of the West and fought Indians. Certainly, by any modern standard, Howard was racist. One Who Walked Alone contains an uncomfortable scene in which Howard talks about blacks as lesser men. But for his place and time Howard’s views on race were rather typical, and he showed signs of enlightenment as he matured. Later in the book he discusses in endearing terms a Negro slave who escapes from his masters in Alabama, made his way to Texas, and became “a damn good cowboy.”
For all its indispensability, One Who Walked Alone is not unassailable and should not be construed as the definitive portrait of REH. It’s two years of his life by someone who knew him fairly intimately. But Price Ellis rarely saw Howard at his most vulnerable, nor at his freest, when he was able to travel with his friends without encumbrance. Her story contains contradictions as well. For example, Price Ellis deduces that Howard couldn’t write “real” characters or portray real emotions because he was a loner and a recluse. And yet later she relays how Howard would stop and speak with old timers at random and regale them for old stories. There are also numerous instances of Howard listening with passion to Price Ellis’ grandmother, who grew up during the Civil War (REH called these long talks “filling the reservoir” of his creativity).
Price Ellis couldn’t understand why Howard spent so much time caring for his sick mother. She was disgusted that he changed his mother’s bedclothes, a job she believed suited to his father. “For God’s sake, Bob, that’s not your job.” But Howard thought it was, and who are we to argue? Howard’s answer strikes me as truth: “I do it because I have to … It’s my job. Damn it. You do what needs to be done.” Price Ellis wonders “what perversity in him kept [Howard] from real life?” to which I would answer: what is “real life?” Perhaps it was Howard who lived life as it should be, shunning conformity and following his heart although it led him down the lonely path of the writer. Ultimately I believe that the young Price Ellis didn’t really understand Howard; only years after his death, when she gathered up her rigorously kept journal entries and set pen to paper to write One Who Walked Alone, did she discover the truth. Or more accurately, one part of it.
Today we’re still putting the pieces together. The L. Sprague de Camp biography Dark Valley Destiny has numerous well-documented problems, though it’s still worth reading (with care) and mining for information. Blood and Thunder righted some of Dark Valley Destiny’s wrongs, and perhaps the revised edition will prove definitive. But I think we’ll always view Howard as through a glass darkly, finding bits of illumination in his letters, the biographies, and his poems and stories themselves, but never the entire picture. Who was Robert E. Howard? One Who Walked Alone might be the closest to the truth we’ll ever get.