Cross Plains Public Library

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The Works of Robert E Howard - A Review

I have been living between Cottonwood and Admiral for 18 years and have been visiting Cross Plains since A. C. and Mabel Halsell moved here in 1950, and this year I finally read a book written by Robert E. Howard. Two of them, in fact. I now understand why we get visitors from all over the globe coming to pay homage to our hometown author. He is really good. Why haven’t I read him? Cross Plains citizens have almost totally ignored his writings because the word Conan is always associated with him and the Barbarian is seen as some sort of nemesis. I still haven’t read a Conan book. I did read ALMURIC, a science fiction fantasy where the hero is transported to another planet by time travel and has to cope with a neolithic type culture. It was an excellent book for that type of genre. But attending the sessions looking at the Texas connection in Robert E. Howard’s writing in June whetted my appetite for reading Howard’s westerns.

I have just finished reading THE LAST RIDE, which is a compilation of seven of Howard’s short stories written in 1935 and 1936 just before his death and published in magazines that served the western fiction market. So much has been made of the Barbarian theme that it seemed to turn off people locally, and no one here had ever mentioned his westerns that I remember. Billie Ruth probably did and it went over my head, but I was captivated by the first story titled THE LAST RIDE, but originally published in October 1935 under the title BOOT-HILL PAYOFF in the magazine Western Aces.

Recently I reviewed Wheeler’s RESTITUTION for this paper, and I wondered if Wheeler got his plot from Howard. THE LAST RIDE has the hero being the youngest son in a family of robbers whose duty during the robberies was to hold the horses, exactly the same role as the hero in RESTITUTION. Both vowed to make restitution to the people that had been robbed. From there the stories diverge but I hadn’t seen that theme in other westerns. I haven’t read all of them, I admit. In all of Howard’s stories the hero is a straight shooting, hard fighting, honest cowboy who has been wronged and gets the bad guys in the end. The stories are page turners full of action written so well you can taste the dust, smell the gun smoke and hear the horse hoof beats. Complicated twists and turns keep you wondering what will happen next. The language is not offensive. I saw one damn and hell-buzzard being the closest to vile language. There is romance but more like one would find in a 1940 western movie where the cowboy appreciates his women at arm’s length. The hero gets the bank loot returned to town, but only after being chased by a posse trying to hang him, set up by the bad guys who are trying to take over all the ranches in the country. The plot is as complicated as a Hillerman mystery novel and is played out with a lot of action.

THE EXTERMINATION OF YELLOW DONORY is a story worthy of O. Henry. The protagonist tries to commit suicide by calling out the worst gunman in town and becomes a hero when the gunman backs away because he figures there must be trickery to such a challenge. The Sonora Kid is introduced in KNIFE, BULLET AND NOOSE. The Kid is a favorite Howard character, probably his alter-ego who has to use his six guns against the buffalo hunters and cheating cow dealers while trying to take the large sum of money delivered at the end of a cattle drive ending in Kansas. The story doesn’t describe the drive, but does describe the saloons and squalid conditions of the town at the end of the trail.

THE DEVIL’S JOKER is another Sonora Kid story that could have been set in Cross Plains, where the Kid thinks he has killed someone accidentally, runs away to keep from being tried and joins an outlaw gang. It could have been set somewhere west of Callahan county. One of the characters says he knew the Kid on the Pecos. Not being an outlaw at heart, he has a problem with his situation, but in the end helps capture the gang and later finds that the man he shot accidentally didn’t die and he isn’t wanted for murder. The other two stories are equally spell binding stories of western adventures with characters including buffalo hunters, gamblers, bank robbers and lawmen. If you like westerns, you will find that Robert E. Howard is as good as if not a lot better that L’Amour and Zane Grey. I am looking forward to reading his full length western novels. Remember the Cross Plains Library houses more Howard books than any where else and even has some for sale.