Friday, February 1, 2019

Forgotten Books: ONE WHO WALKS ALONE: Robert E. Howard, the Final Years by Novalyne Price Ellis (1986)

If you really want to know Robert E. Howard, you're out of luck. But the closest you'll ever get (barring the invention of a time machine) is this lengthy memoir by his almost-girlfriend Novalyne Price. 

The two became friends when she took a teaching job at the high school in Cross Plains, Texas in August 1934, and spent a lot of time together until July of the next year, when he found out she was dating his friend Truett Vinson. But their friendship continued, albeit less frequently, until he shot himself in June 1936.

Novalyne was not only a wannabe writer and a pretty smart cookie, she was a hardcore diarist, and kept detailed notes of her conversations with folks she found interesting. And lucky for us, at this time in her life "Bob" Howard was the most interesting person she knew. 

Novalyne and Bob had been introduced a year earlier by Howard's friend Trevis Clyde Smith, whom she was then dating. As a published writer, Bob was a rare animal in that part of Texas, and she was eager to further their acquaintance.

Novalyne Price

That's what One Who Walks Alone is about - Novalyne getting to know REH on a deeper, more personal and more intellectual level than anyone else who ever lived, with the possible - but not proable - exception of his mother.

The book reads like a diary, 
appearing to be a blow-by-blow account of every meeting the two had (and there were a lot of them) over the final year and half of his life. 

Though they occassionally dined out or went to movies in nearby towns, most of their dates were spent driving around the countryside, giving Bob, as he called it, a chance to "shoot his mouth off." They talked a lot about writing - his, hers and that of others. A lot of that talk was about Weird Tales and Conan, and the way they both felt about them. But their discussions ranged far beyond that, into Texas history, ancient history, politics, religion, social injustice and human nature. They also talked about family and friends, with particular emphasis on Howard's peculiar preoccupation with his mother. And thanks to Novalyne's habit of recording those conversations almost word-for-word in her diary, we get to be right there in the car with them.

Two of Howard's favorite subjects on these rides were "Jenghiz" Khan and Alexander the Great. He seems to have been very knowledgable about both, and it made me wish he written stories about them.

But this book is more than just eavesdropping on conversations. As the months roll on, we come to know REH in ways impossible in Dark Valley Destiny (HERE), in Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (HERE) or in any of his fiction, letters, or the reams of material written by scholars and fans.

One Who Walks Alone is a showcase for the many phases of his personality. We see him when he's witty and charming, sensitive, generous and caring. We see him excited, elated, playful, optimistic, and even singing "Blue Moon." And then there are those other times, when he's moody, depressed, vengeful, belligerent, mean-spirited and damning the world to hell. And then, after one of darker moods, we see him chastened and remorseful.

Novalyne, it should be noted, always saw life sunny side up, leading to many contentious discussions.

The rarer of two portraits he had taken at her request. The hat was also at her request, hiding the short-cropped hair she didn't like 

We also see Howard interacting with other people - engrossed in discussions of the Civil War and stories of witchcraft with Novalyne's mother, or talking to old men on street corners in search of story material. At the same time, we see him avoiding common social interaction like meeting her friends or attending parties.

And then there's the way he dresses, another reflection of his moods. On their first dates, he's wearing an old shirt, wrinkled high-water brown pants and high-button shoes. This outfit, he explains, leaves him free to fight or run when attacked by his enemies. With Novalyne's gentle prodding, he is soon seen in a sharp suit, tie and fedora. As as their relationship begins crumbles, he grows a frito bandito mustache and wears a sombero (complete with little balls danging from the brim), a red bandana and black high-water pants. 

Theirs wasnt' much of a romance, though REH seemed to consider it one, and it was certainly the closest he ever came. Only one kiss on the lips is recorded, and that comes far too late, when he knows he's lost her. At various times, early and late, Novalyne thinks she might be in love with him, but realizes a marriage would not work. His mood swings were probably part of that, but the main factor was the third person in the relationship - his mother. 

Novalyne has reason to resent Ma Howard from Day One, and things go downhill from there. Though they only come face to face a few times, and barely exchange a word, the animosity is always present. And Bob does not respond well to Novalyne's comments on the subject. He gets defensive, then angry, and finally just pouts.

This self-portrait substituted for a signature on one of the later letters he wrote her.

Howard's pending suicide is foreshadowed now and then, and the subject finally comes to a head late in their friendship, when she's already dating his friend Truett. When Bob complains he can't write because his mother's care is taking too much of his time, Novalyne says, "My God, you're not required to give up your whole life for her, your writing and everything."

Followed by this exchange:
     "I'm required to give up anything and do whatever she needs to have done." He pounded the steering wheel.
     "Not your life. A man's work is his life."
     Bob slammed the car onto a sandy side road, speeded up until we were in the midst of farm country away from the highway. He threw on the brakes so fast, I almost fell out of my seat. He grabbed my arm in a vice-like grip. "What's work? A man can do any kind of work." He sounded deserate. "Work is not worth a damn, unless you work for somebody you love. All my life I've loved and needed her. I'm losing her. I know that. Damn it to hell, I know that. I want to live. You hear that?" He shook me, and it angered me. "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? My God, my God. Can't you see that? I want to live and to love." 
     I panicked. I thought of Truett. No matter what happened in the future between Truett and me, I loved him in a way I could never love Bob. I was frighted at the intensity of Bob's emotion, and I said the foolish thing.
     "Well, shave your mustache and maybe you'll find one."
     "My God, you say a thing like that when everything has crashed around me? He grabbed both my arms and pulled me to him. "If you don't love me, say so, damn it. I know you loved me once. Is it over?"
     He held me so tight, and kissed me so hard, I felt miserable and frightened. I tried to push away from him. 
     "Bob," I gasped. "Your work. I do believe in you. I know you're brilliant, and you've got a great talent." I was rattling, talking as I would have to an upset student who needed encouragement. "I want to see you make something of that talent. I dont' want your work to be interfered with. I'm glad you've stopped writing for Weird Tales. They didn't pay you anyway, and you're better than that. Much better than that. You--"
     "Are you in love with Truett?" he insisted, harshly. "I want to know. I've got to know. If it's Truett you love, say it. Say it, damn it."
     "I don't love anybody," I said, half crying. "Not anybody at all."
     His arms went suddenly slack, and I moved away from him.

Novalyne then tells him she's going to Baton Rouge for the summer, to study at LSU. She goes, and isn't there long before letters come from Cross Plains, informing her of his suicide. The rumor on campus is that he killed himself over her, which she denies, but she's distraught because she thinks she could have prented it. Could she really?

From this reading, it seems a good bet, but only if she'd really loved him and said so. It's too damn bad she didn't.

The book was filmed in 1996 as "The Whole Wide World," starring Rene Zellwiger and Vincent D'Onofrio, hence the inappropriate dust jacket on later editions. I've yet to see the movie, but will.


George said...

I haven't read ONE WHO WALKS ALONE, but I have watched "The Whole Wide World," starring Rene Zellwiger and Vincent D'Onofrio. It's okay.

Stephen Mertz said...

Great review. I like the film a lot.

Mike said...

Whole Wide World is entertaining and insightful. My wife and I have seen it twice. She doesn't care for the works of REH, but thoroughly enjoyed the movie about him.

novak said...

Whole Wide World is very good movie