Our Real Life Adventures series takes a look at unique sights, interesting places, and curious landmarks in that most fabulous of realms . . . the real world! Whether they be tours of spots directly related to gaming’s rich history, or places that are just flat out amazing or weird, our Real Life Adventures can serve as inspiration for your own tabletop gaming — be sure to check out the other articles in this series for more!
Real Life Adventures: A Recap of 2023 Robert E. Howard Days
by Brian Murphy
That Saturday morning long ago remains fresh in my mind. The day I stumbled across a hoard of Savage Sword of Conan magazines.
The moment I became spellbound with the worlds of Robert E. Howard.
Savage Sword spoke to me on a level my then-favorite Avengers or Captain America could not. It was dangerous, barbaric, sexy, violent. Adult, with articles and photography to accompany the gorgeous black and white interior art, welcoming 10- or 11-year-old me to the savage Hyborian Age.
This wonderful, fortuitous find set me on a lifelong love of Howard and the subgenre of fantasy he founded, sword-and-sorcery. Little did I know that 40 years later it would also lead to an unforgettable trip to his hometown.
Last month I traveled to Cross Plains for 2023 Robert E. Howard Days, an annual gathering at the home Howard (1906-1936) spent his entire adult life until his untimely death at age 30.
This was not a lightly-made decision. I live in Massachusetts, some 1600 miles from the small town in West Texas that Howard called home. With a wife and family, domestic obligations, and a busy professional career to manage, there is never a good time to do something like this, even though Howard Days had been on my bucket list for years.
But this year the stars and planets aligned. Two dudes whom I knew mainly from online interaction, Deuce Richardson and Ken Lizzi, had rented a house in neighboring Cisco, so I had company and a place to sleep.
The time had finally come to head to the mecca of all things Howard and sword-and-sorcery.
Thinking this could be a once in a lifetime trip, I wanted to see it all—the town, the house, the gravesite, the panel sessions. I also wanted to give myself adequate time to hang out and talk to the throng of Howard fans and Howard Days volunteers that make this event so special.
Balance was the key. So, I gave it my best go to honor the man and explore the town while also spending time with as many attendees as I could. I feel pretty good about the balance I struck.
Meeting Rusty Burke, Fred Blosser, Patrice Louinet, Chris Gruber, Mark Finn, Jeff Shanks, John Bullard, Gary Romeo, Will Oliver, Dierk Gunther and others was incredible. I felt like I already knew many of them from YouTube videos, articles, and podcasts and the like, but talking and shaking hands with them all made it tangible. It was wonderful meeting fellow S&S aficionados Jason Waltz, Keith West, Jason Ray Carney, Aaron Cummins, Chuck E. Clark, and many, many others whose names I’ve unfortunately forgotten or failed to ask.
Far too few know the name Robert E. Howard and the opportunity to talk shop and swap REH nerdity comes very infrequently. At Howard Days it’s endless. “What’s your Howard origin story?” “What’s your favorite Conan tale?” “Have you read his westerns?” These spontaneous conversations happen in line to get your barbecue, perusing the tables at the silent auction, and especially in the evenings at the pavilion. It’s glorious.
I thought for my first trip I’d simply soak it all in, but instead found myself serving on two speaker panels: The Glenn Lord Symposium, where I presented “In a far country: The Frontier Fantasy of Robert E. Howard,” On Saturday I served on a second panel at the pavilion, “Sword-and-sorcery revival,” an informal, impromptu discussion of the recent upsurge in S&S publishing and authorship.
I enjoyed listening to experts like Bobby Derie, Finn, Shanks, Louinet, guest of honor and former Weird Tales editor John Betancourt, and others at the panel sessions. The theme this year was “100 Years of Weird Tales” (founded 1923, still publishing) and the panelists were deeply informed experts and a pleasure to listen to.
So, a lot of socializing and hanging out. But it’s also important to honor the dead.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the first view of Robert E. Howard’s home and ultimately the humble bedroom where did the majority of his writing. Others have made the same observation many times, but its stunning that Howard was able to birth and deliver such vivid creations to the world from such small, prosaic quarters. It’s a testament to his unique genius.
We also folded in a visit to Brownwood to visit the family gravesite. We timed our trip just right, pulling into the sprawling cemetery in the golden sunlight of the late afternoon and paid our respects to Howard and his parents, laid side-by-side. Someone had left behind a book and figurine; I wish I had thought to do something similar.
Only the incredible dedication of the volunteers makes Howard Days possible. The Cross Plains community rallies together to do wonderful things, and preserve Howard’s legacy is a year-round effort.
Robert E. Howard Days 2023 proved to be a quirky, fun, charming, welcoming, and utterly unique event that every Robert E. Howard fan ought to attend at least once in their lifetime.
I wish I could have done more, but 2 ½ days pass quickly. And I suppose that’s what return trips are for. Many prophesized that if I came once Howard Days it would be forever in my blood, and I’d be back again. I suspect one day I will.