Tag Archives: Cross Plains

Road Trip: the Robert E. Howard Goblin Tree

Robert E. Howard Museum

It’s often said that writers never really quit: they just find another addiction. It’s definitely hard to get out of the research habit, or to pay tribute to those who got you started even after you’ve left. For my best friend Paul Mears and myself, a bit of that involved a nearly three-hour road trip to Cross Plains, Texas, to visit the Robert E. Howard Museum this last weekend. While Robert Ervin Howard is best known as one of the triumvirate of writers best associated with the classic weird fiction pulp magazine Weird Tales (the other two being H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith), but his contributions to other genres assured his memory as one of Texas’s most influential fiction writers. Every year, on or around the anniversary of Howard’s death, the town of Cross Plains hosts Robert E. Howard Days, a series of readings, lectures, presentations, and parties, culminating in a barbecue held on a ranch just outside of town.

National Register

Robert Howard's workspace

The trip itself is a good excuse to get out of Dallas for a while, but it’s also a great opportunity to research Texas history and natural history. Once west of Weatherford, the land switches back to its primordial charm, and civilization still attempts to keep the wilds at bay instead of attempting to dominate it. With the right kind of eyes, it’s not hard to see what the area was like back in the 1920s and 1930s, where automobiles were still relative novelties for people still using horse and buggy to get around the area. With other eyes, Howard’s eyes, it’s also not hard to see the wild wonders that filled his more fantastic stories peeking out in plain sight.

Tim Truman

You can see my problem. While everyone else was there to talk to fellow Howard enthusiasts, such as famed comics artist Tim Truman and Howard savant Mark Finn, and with good reason, I went wandering a bit to find bits of that wonder. Fossil shells in the front yard of the Museum. Viewing the converted sleeping porch Howard used as his bedroom and work area, and remembering when I was living and writing in a space not much larger than that twenty years ago. Noting fresh armadillo dig marks at the base of a pile of fresh sand around a dead tree stump. That’s about the time I noticed the goblin tree.

Robert E. Howard goblin tree

Between their natural propensity to grow in odd shapes, their tendency to heal prunings in grotesque ways, and ongoing stresses from sun and wind, Texas oak trees already stimulate the natural human tendency toward pareidolia, but this one practically came straight out of a Michael Whelan painting. The camera couldn’t capture all of them, but stretch the eyeballs a bit and see the faces, especially the profile of the turtle man in the old burl.

Robert E. Howard tree goblin

Robert E. Howard tree goblin profile

Robert E. Howard tree goblin

If it wasn’t hard to see monsters and supernatural beasts in that one tree, then it just kept coming. When joining the rest of the Robert Howard Days crew for the traditional Texas barbecue at the end of the day, I wandered off for a second and found the stump of a long-dead Western cedar tree, blasted by sun and heat for maybe twenty years or more.

Cross Plains dragon skull

If I can see the dragon skull lying in the dust, then very likely “Two Gun Bob” Howard could have, too. The difference is that I note the similarity and move on. He probably would have used that as a hook in a new story, and thrilled generations of new readers 77 years after his death. Many of his fans lament how an imagination like his was trapped in small-town Texas. Me, I think that imagination couldn’t have existed without that stimulation.

Robert E Howard Days, Addenda

Well, so much for Cross Plains.I was greeted this morning with what was for him a nearly frantic phone call from Paul Mears: the love of his life was hit with a humdinger of a migraine, probably stirred up by the truly heroic amounts of pollen and fungus thrown up into the atmosphere by our recent rains. Having myself been slammed in the skull with Thor’s hammer myself in years past, only an idiot or a Cat Piss Man (but perhaps I repeat myself) would complain about having to cancel out on our trip to Cross Plains.

Well, there’s always next year. Like his old friend H.P. Lovecraft, I don’t think Bob Howard will be too offended if I have to skip out on his party again this year.

Robert E. Howard Days in Cross Plains

Last year, my best friend Paul Mears and I did something that we’d been planning since we were freshmen in high school. Namely, we made a road trip across Texas to Cross Plains, in order to crash the Robert E. Howard Days celebration. For those unfamiliar with “Two-Gun Bob,” he was an extremely prolific pulp magazine writer of the 1930s: in many ways, he, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith completely changed the face of American literature, particularly fantastic literature, through their mutual association via the magazine Weird Tales. In fact, a few of you may have seen a little movie called The Whole Wide World starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Renee Zellweger from about fifteen years ago:

Last year, the occasion was a bit somber, as the Saturday we arrived was the 75th anniversary of Howard’s suicide. That didn’t stop fans and enthusiasts from coming to the Robert E. Howard Museum from all over the planet.
Robert E. Howard Museum in Cross Plains

What’s funny is that while I was the person who introduced Mears to Howard’s work, he rapidly exceeded me in reading just about everything Howard ever wrote. In particular, he wanted to emulate a famous photo of Howard enjoying the loosening of Prohibition:

The best promo photo for Schlitz ever taken

The best promo photo for Aquafina ever taken

This is funny to me, of course, because Mears much more closely resembles a young H.P. Lovecraft.

As mentioned previously, this is a bit of an event for Howard enthusiasts, so we’re also going to hang out with friends. Well, when I say “hang out with friends,” what I really mean is “say hello to Mark Finn.” When I say “say hello to Mark Finn,” what I really mean is “make him regret bitterly not killing me when he had the chance.” Mark and I have been friends and fellow troublemakers for working on twenty years, and he’s blessedly one of the few writer friends from the old days who doesn’t nuhdz me about coming back to writing about science fiction. Part of that is because he secretly enjoys my gardening tirades whenever we get together, and part of that is because he knows and understands that my old science fiction writing sucked the farts from dead cats until their heads caved in. Either way, it’s a good reason to hang out with him, as he’s coming out with a big pile of copies of his book Blood and Thunder, and I’ve been requested by several Day Job friends to snag autographed copies. After that, we’re going to talk about local zoology and botany for a while, because I have an idea for a container garden project that absolutely needs his assistance.

Naturally, this won’t be just about pulp magazine nostalgia and a remembrance of a life cut far too short. This time last year, Cross Plains was at the beginning of a drought that exceeded that in North Texas, and the last time the area was hit so badly was when Howard was still alive. The rains returned this year, though, so I’m looking forward to getting photos of the Edwards Plateau flora. Among many others, I hope to get an identification of this bush on the REH Museum property, seeing as how everyone had left for the day by the time I saw it.
Mystery flower
As can be seen, much like the rest of Cross Plains, there’s a lot of beauty, so long as you can get out of the blasting sun to appreciate it.
Mystery flower

Anyway, Robert Howard Days runs this Friday and Saturday, so we’ll see you out there if you’re there and lament not being able to torment you mercilessly if you aren’t. See you then.