The Cross Plains Thought Police

Every year at Howard Days, there is always one or two residents who resent the presence of Howard fans and attempt to make us feel unwelcome in somewhat hysterical fashion. This year, one church had a sign outside it:


Pretty innocuous and not immediately connectable to REH Days, until you remember what the theme of the 2005 Howard Days was advertised as: "’Let His Name Not Fade…’: Interpreting Robert E. Howard in Books, Films and other Media." This particular phrase was riffing off of Howard’s poem "Lines Written in the Realization that I Must Die," which is filled with verse drenched in Howard’s depressive nature. One stanza of the poem reads:

Drums of glory are lost in the ages,

Bare feet fail on a broken trail—

Let my name fade from the printed pages;

Dreams and visions are growing pale.

Twilight gathers and none can save me.

Well and well, for I would not stay;

Therefore, the meaning of titling the Howard Days theme "Let His Name Not Fade" is to challenge Howard’s bitter hopelessness with a celebration of his Life and Talent. To my mind, that’s a fairly wholesome and positive message. But as you can see, one of the local churches disagreed. That’s par for the course at Howard Days, although most people are kind and understanding, and they see Howard for what he ultimately is: a talented adventure writer. The library carries his books, Howard signs are painted around town, etc. Such silent protests are merely the sour grapes of a few ne’er-do-wells, and needn’t concern Howard fandom overmuch.

I deal with the Cross Plains Review fairly often when setting up publicity for Howard Days, and I know many people in Cross Plains and speak their lingo, so I wrote a letter that was part honest sentiment and part damage control. This letter was ultimately printed in the June 23 issue, and I received compliments and thanks from my contacts in town for sending it in:

Dear Vanda:

On behalf of all of the guests who came to town last weekend, I’d like to thank residents for their hospitality and many kindnesses. I have been coming to The Caring Community for six years straight, and I never tire of Cross Plains.

This year, one of the highlights of the weekend was having the opportunity to visit the Cross Plains Cemetery and pay my respects to the many friends I once knew who have left us, including Morris Cavanaugh, Joe Hanke, Jack Scott, Billie Ruth Loving and Joe Howser. I miss them all.

And a special thank you to the church that responded to the theme of the Howard weekend, "Let His Name Not Fade…" with a sign that read "Jesus Christ, Name Above All Names, Lord Over Cross Plains." While no doubt intended as a slap in the face to godless Howard fans, it may surprise you to know that many of us are devout Christians and agree heartily with those sentiments. We come to your lovely town to celebrate the words of a favored author, but never at the expense of The Word.

God bless Cross Plains and its people.

Leo Grin

Los Angeles, California

All of this leads into the contents of several issues of the Cross Plains Review which appeared this June. The Review has been spotty the last few years, even since it was hijacked by a fundamentalist Christian editor—the aforementioned Vanda—who has turned the paper from a solid news mouthpiece into a blend of hard news and a strange concoction of bland self-help spiritualism. In particular, the nice drawing of the Howard House that used to be displayed on the masthead:


was replaced with a childish picture by one Deborah Lowitzer, which depicts a crucifix slamming down into Cross Plains on a map of Texas, like so:


Combined with the endless articles offering crude faith-based inanities written by the editor and others, the effect is more than a bit suffocating, and the paper has suffered as a result. Whereas before I used to read the majority of the paper, these days I am forced to skim through the empty calories. I’m a Christian myself—Roman Catholic, to be specific—and have great sympathy for like-minded people, but the least they could do is reprint some good apologetics for a change. Perhaps C. S. Lewis or G. K. Chesterton pieces, something that doesn’t smack of Oprah on a narcissistic soul-saving bender.

In any case, on June 16, 2005, the Thursday after Howard Days, a nice article briefly describing the event was printed in the paper, along with a reprinting of [redacted]’s laudable short biographical essay about Howard that originally appeared in the debut issues of the Dark Horse Conan comic, and which was reprinted in the hardcover edition of those same issues.


This was followed by a large ad taken out by Project Pride which read:

Project Pride would like to thank each organization or individual who helped to make the Robert E. Howard Days 2005 such a huge success. Howard enthusiasts from at least seven states, Washington D. C. and London, England were here for the weekend and all had very positive comments about the hospitality extended them.

All in all, a nice battery of positive coverage. Everyone who has read Finn’s piece knows it is positively harmless in terms of how it portrays Howard, describing him in glowing adventure-writing terms that you would think no one could take true offense or exception to.

So it was a small surprise to get a message from Project Pride, saying that someone had written a letter into the Review that criticized Howard and Howard Days in strong terms, specifically using elements of Mark’s essay. I looked forward to reading it—my letter was appearing in the same issue—but once in front of me the argument against Howard was a letdown. When comparing the hilarious overreaction of the woman who wrote it against the sheer inoffensiveness of Finn’s original piece, one comes to the conclusion that a few people in Cross Plains have way too much time on their hands. Here is the letter:

Dear Editor:

I read with great interest the chilling expose of Robert E. Howard’s true sentiments and outlook regarding humanity and death in last week’s paper. The quote, “Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must ultimately triumph,” is particularly disturbing.

It saddens me that Howard was drawn to the dark side of the underworld, of demons, sorcery and horror, and that the ultimate end to embracing this dark philosophy catapulted him into the inevitable pit of suicide. It seems Howard’s life was a short story of hopelessness, depression and finally death. It appears he lived a frustrated tragic life and his legacy is washed with darkness and despair.

I find it strangely satirical and perplexingly paradoxical that this wonderful city, that was given the name Cross Plains, (the representation of ultimate life, joy, hope and triumph over all death and destruction), holds a festival each year to honor and uphold a man whose life and writings defiantly manifest every belief and action contrary to those values. The irony of that is staggering and deserves to be re-evaluated.

The community of Cross Plains is worthy, valuable and deserves a yearly celebration that promotes life, not death. What kind of legacy are we unknowingly passing on not only to our children, but to our children’s children about the sacredness of life, or lack thereof?

I know that this will not be a popular letter, and I apologize for any offense that it may trigger, but let’s at least be willing to take a deeper look at the underlying current here and decide if promoting barbarism is really what we want to be known for as citizens of Cross Plains.

Mrs. Deborah Lowitzer

Yes—that’s the same Mrs. Lowitzer whose primitive sketch replaced the Howard House on the masthead a few years ago. Like the church sign ploy, the weak arguments made above aren’t worth worrying about. In fact, in the succeeding weeks a few townspeople I had never met rose to the defense of the event, basically chiding Mrs. Lowitzer for taking her disturbance at the “chilling” aspects of REH a bit too seriously. What’s next? Implore Tarzana, CA to rename their city after someone more godly than Burroughs’s iconic character? And my Texas Handbook tells me that the name "Cross" Plains came to us because a series of Army trails crossed there and not because of any religious significance. In light of this, the attempt of Mrs. Lowitzer to use the word as a scion of her argument is just plain weird, not unlike psychotic minister Louis Farrakhan using kooky numerology to prove his various theological points. But this shows how year after year, there is always someone trying to make mountains out of molehills and derail the best tourist attraction the town has going for it.

This letter reminded me of an experience I had in Cross Plains several years ago. Michael Scott Myers (the screenwriter of the Hollywood movie about Howard’s relationship with Novalyne Price, The Whole Wide World) and I had walked into the local barbershop in Cross Plains to look at some old pictures posted there. If you are ever in town I recommend it: there are pictures of the oil derricks, old pictures of main street, even pictures of Howard friends like Lindsey Tyson. Anyway, while in there an old crazy-looking man asked us in a shrill preacher’s howl, "Are y’all some of them fans of that fella Bob Howard?" When we answered in the affirmative, the man proceeding to harangue us in a fire-and-brimstone yell: "Robert Howard kilt hisself and went  straight to hell, and you will to if y’all don’t stop reading that devil’s business!" The barber, Ray Purvis (who serves double duty as the town mayor) told the old man to shut up, and told us to pay him no mind. "He’s just the town kook," Ray said, probably in an attempt to make us feel better. We left without taking the guy seriously, but it made an impression in one sense: it gave us a taste—just a taste mind you—of the kind of forces Howard was up against when writing for the pulps in an old-school western town.

Cross Plains has come a long way over the last seventy years, but vestiges of Howard’s time—not all of them palatable—still remain.

Howard Gets Some Good Press

The Brownwood Bulletin published not one but two nice articles about Howard Days, the first one preceding the event and the second one in the wake of it. Unfortunately, the newspaper archives their articles after a few days and charges ridiculous amounts of money for access. For anyone who is interested, the text is reprinted below. Each included several photographs of the house, Howard’s grave in Greenleaf Cemetery, and one of the panels in the pavilion.

Incidentally, Era Lee Hanke, President of Project Pride in Cross Plains, had a hand in popularizing the event this year, not only getting a commercial on television played sixty times in the lead-up to the weekend, but also getting coverage in local papers, including helping attract the Bulletin, urging the paper to write the articles. Howard has had few friends in the last few years as dogged, inventive, and worthy of praise as Era Lee. However, Era Lee gets it all wrong when she states that Howard fans “don’t come here to see us. They come here to see each other.” I for one look forward to seeing the ladies of Project Pride each and every year, as much if not more than seeing the Howard marvels the town offers. One of the greatest things about Howard Days is all the new friends I otherwise would never have met.

By Gene Deason
Thursday, June 9, 2005
Brownwood Bulletin

CROSS PLAINS — The legacy of fantasy writer Robert E. Howard will be celebrated this weekend as Cross Plains hosts visitors from around the world for tours, auctions and programs.

Marcelo Anciano of London, with Wandering Star, publisher of the Robert E. Howard Library of Classics, will be attending this year’s events Friday and Saturday. He will speak on “Let His Name Not Fade: Interpreting Robert E. Howard in Books, Films and Other Media” at a banquet Friday night and participate in a panel discussion with other Howard scholars Saturday afternoon.

“Brownwood is very tied to this event,” said Era Lee Hanke, president of Project Pride, the Cross Plains organization which owns the Robert E. Howard House and Museum and hosts the annual event. “Bob Howard attended his final year of high school at Brownwood. We have a 1923 Brownwood High yearbook with his picture in it. And then he took some classes at Howard Payne. He is buried in Greenleaf Cemetery.”

Many of those attending from outside the immediate area will also be staying in Brownwood, she said. More than 200 guests are expected, including 90 who have made reservations for the casual banquet at 7 p.m. Friday.

“This is quite a thing for Cross Plains,” Hanke said. “We have people come and have their pictures taken at the Howard house. They say ‘Bob Howard actually stood at this spot.’ Word has really spread about this event, and interest has really taken off in the last few years.”

Howard is best known for his creation of the literary genre known as “Sword-and-Sorcery,” featuring Conan. His fantasy fiction character came to the attention of the general public when the movie “Conan the Barbarian” starring a youthful bodybuilder named Arnold Schwarzenegger took the box office by storm in 1982.

“Howard also wrote quite a bit of other types of literature,” Hanke added. Those include historical adventure, suspense, detective stories, gothic horror, sea stories and Western burlesque.

Howard, born in 1906 in Palo Pinto County, was the only son of Dr. and Mrs. Isaac M. Howard. The family lived in several different Texas communities—including Cross Cut in Brown County—but by 1919, they had settled in Cross Plains. Most of Howard’s writing was done in their home on West Highway 36, a building which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been restored by Project Pride as a museum. He died in 1936 of a self-inflicted gunshot as his mother faced his own death because of illness.

The public is invited to attend a variety of events scheduled Friday and Saturday, including tours of the Howard home and panel discussions on his work. The pavilion on the museum grounds will serve as a headquarters for visitation by those attending, and a variety of Howard books—including new volumes published by the University of Nebraska Press—will be available for purchase.

“They don’t come here to see us,” Hanke said of the guests arriving from long distances. “The come here to see each other.”

A special postal cancellation noting the occasion will be available at the Cross Plains Post Office Saturday morning.

Anciano, the featured speaker at Friday night’s casual banquet, has been a promoter for the rock group Duran Duran, and director and producer of music videos and feature films. He has been publisher of the Robert E. Howard Library of Classics for eight years. Tickets to the dinner were sold in advance.

On Friday, tours of the Howard home will be available from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. A walking tour of the Cross Plains Cemetery is set from 10 to 11 a.m., and lunch will be served at the pavilion from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. with donations as the cost of the meal. Bus tours will be offered from 12:30 to 2 p.m. from the pavilion, and the Cross Plains Library will feature a collection of Howard items from 1 to 5 p.m.

Paul Herman will lead a program on caring for a Howard collection from 2:30 to 3 p.m. Friday at the pavilion, and a book-signing is set from 3 to 4 p.m. Rusty Burke and [redacted] will offer a seminar from 4 to 5 p.m. at the pavilion on writing a Howard biography. The banquet is set for 7 p.m. at the community center.

On Saturday, the stamp cancellation is set from 8 to 10 a.m. at the post office, and the Howard house will be open for tours from 9 to 11:30 a.m., and again from 2 to 4 p.m. The Barbarian Festival will be under way on Main Street from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., and a screening of “Pigeons from Hell” with commentary by Burke, Anciano and Michael Scott Myers is set from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the high school.

Bus tours will leave from the pavilion at 12:30 p.m. Howard items will again be shown at the library from 1 to 3 p.m. Bill Cavalier and James Reasoner will speak on “What Would Robert E. Howard Have Done Had He Lived” from 2 to 2:30 p.m.

A Wandering Star panel featuring Anciano, Burke, and Jim Keegan is planned at the pavilion from 3 to 4:30 p.m. The Saturday evening meal will be at Caddo Peak Ranch, and those attending will meet at the pavilion at 5 p.m.

A group of about 10 people are involved in Project Pride throughout the year, but Howard Days requires as many as 40 volunteers, Hanke said.

By Gene Deason
Monday June 13, 2005
Brownwood Bulletin

CROSS PLAINS — Fans and experts alike agreed Saturday that Robert E. Howard, the Cross Plains fantasy writer who took his own life at the age of 30, would have become a giant in his field if he had lived. The question, though, is exactly what field that might have been.

“That’s what I love about Robert E. Howard speculation,” artist and long-time Howard enthu­siast Bill Cavalier said during a panel discussion on what Cross Plains’ most famous resident might have done. The program was one of several panel discussions held Friday and Saturday during Robert E. Howard Days, an annual cele­bration of his works which draws international attention.

Howard is best known today for establishing the fantasy fiction genre, which was headlined by the character Conan who was brought to life on the movie screen by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the early 1980s. But by the time of his death in 1936, Howard had left that part of his career behind and was moving into other types of

Parallels between Howard’s writing and his Conan charac­ter, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ career and his Tarzan charac­ter, were raised in an attempt to project what direction Howard’s career might have taken. Burroughs, while 25 years his senior, was also a pulp fiction story writer who developed into an international celebrity. However, author James Reasoner, the other member of the panel, was not confident that Conan would made a similar leap into other literary forms as Tarzan did. It wasn’t Howard’s style.

“The only thing that makes me think that is, Howard tend­ed to leave his characters behind,” Reasoner said. “That was his professional history, and he was talking about writ­ing westerns primarily.”

That raised speculation that his interest in movies might have taken him into a career as a script writer for films.

“I would have to think with Howard’s great love for the movies, it would be a natural progression,” Cavalier said.

He noted that western movies in the 1930s are con­sidered poor, and that Howard’s death came three years before the release of what is considered the first great western, John Ford’s Stagecoach. That evolution could have been what it would have taken to turn Howard in that direction.’ Based on mutu­al acquaintances, it is probable that Howard would have teamed with Ford.

Reasoner said Howard’s approximately 100 articles, published primarily in pulp magazines of the era, were basically styled in a form of a movie script.

“You don’t find page after page of what a character is thinking,” Reasoner said. “His work is very external. That’s what a film is. He was one of those writers who expects the reader to meet him halfway, and that’s what a movie does.”

Reasoner agreed that Howard had a great future as a western writer.

“He would have been a big name in the western genre had he lived,” he said. “He was writing westerns. He was just five or six years ahead of his time. All he had to do was walk out his back door, and there was the West.”

Cavalier said there is also evidence to support those who think Howard may have become a great novelist.

“Later in his career, his sto­ries got longer,” he said.

Howard had also expressed delight with the vast number of stories available to him as a pure fiction writer, and com­parisons to Mickey Spillane’s gritty prose were offered. However, Reasoner said Howard had shown no interest in detective stories.

Members of the audience wondered if he might have become a battlefield corre­spondent in World War II, as a few pulp writers did. His inter­est in international affairs had been documented; in the 1920s, he wrote in letters in which he expressed worries about Japan and his hatred of Adolph Hitler.

One person suggested he probably would have traveled extensively if he had lived past his mother’s death. There would be nothing holding him from leaving Cross Plains.

Questions arose concerning Howard’s mental state during the final days of his life, before he took his own life on June 11, 1936.

“Was this something that was inevitable, or was it just a bad time in his life?” a mem­ber of the audience asked, alluding to the bouts of depres­sion many highly creative peo­ple often battle.

Most seemed to think his suicide was the result of sever­al personal setbacks which occurred at the same time. The consensus was that Howard would have been able to deal with them if they had not all hit him at the same time—the fatal illness of his mother, who died the day after he took his life, along with the break-up with his girlfriend and difficulties in his work.

“If any of those other things hadn’t been happening, he might have survived,” Reasoner said.

Reasoner marveled at Howard’s grasp of the publish­ing business and the richness of his stories, which would have been a key to major suc­cess in later years.

“For somebody who was stuck out in a small town in Texas, he knew his markets and he knew his editors,” Reasoner said. “No matter how long he lived, I think he would have continued doing very well.”

“It’s a never-ending debate,” Cavalier observed of the speculation. “He died at such an early age when his career was just about to take off. In the 12 years he worked, he wrote some good things, and he wrote some bad things. What direction would he have gone? He liked writing history, and he was getting away from fantasy. He wrote in 1933 that he might live the rest of his life writing history in the guise of fiction.”

“He wrote that he wished he had a century to write his­torical fiction,” he said. “He wrote a lot about history in everything he did. If he didn’t have any history, he made it up.”

“He was just on the verge of making the big time,” Cavalier observed. “It’s such a shame he had to leave us.”

Also participating in the discussion from the audience were Rusty Burke; prominent Howard researcher and author, and Michael Scott Myers, who co-produced and wrote the screenplay of the 1996 movie The Whole Wide World.

The film is based on the book One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard, The Final Years by Novalyne Price Ellis, a memoir of Howard’s final two years from the eyes of his girlfriend. The film stars Renée Zellweger and Vincent D’Onofrio.