Two Days in Cross Plains: The Legacy of Robert Howard

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Robert E. Howard




Two Days in Cross Plains: The Legacy of Robert Howard by Don Jolly

October 8th, 2013 reset - +

ROBERT HOWARD wrote of boxers and gunmen, demons and swordsmen. He invented continents. He fabricated races. He embroidered the planet with whole epochs of history, eras when black magic was as real as politics, and snakes still big enough to swallow men whole. “I am sometimes myself assailed by a feeling of unreality,” he confessed in a 1933 letter to the horror-fantasist H. P. Lovecraft.

Despite its penchant for the fantastic, Howard’s work radiates an unmistakable vitality. His characters live in constant heat-flash moments of ambush. His protagonists are “iron men,” perpetual outsiders with more muscle, more luck, and more panther-cunning than the environments that oppose them. His most famous was Conan, the barbarian adventurer, who cut his way through a forgotten age with blade drawn, serving as a thief, a general, a pirate, and, finally, a king. “He was concerned only with the naked fundamentals of life.” To fight, to win, to suffer pain and stay upright. “The warm intimacies of small, kindly things, the [...] delicious trivialities that make up so much of civilized men's lives were meaningless.” Civilization for Howard was a temporary circumstance. The iron man was eternal.

Howard himself lived only 30 years: 1906 to 1936. Most of that time he spent in Texas, in and around the small town of Cross Plains. These were the oil boom years, and profitable discoveries in 1921 and 1925 temporarily flushed the place with roughnecks, gamblers, and prostitutes. Even in this polyglot mixture, Howard stood apart. He was physically powerful, an amateur boxer, and a proud eccentric. A writer in a town that didn’t read, an intellectual with little more than a high school diploma and a certificate in bookkeeping. He was deliberately provocative. He took to wearing a thick black mustache and running his stories to the post office in a dark sombrero.

His father, Isaac M. Howard, was a doctor. His mother, Hester Jane Ervin Howard, was a Texas lady with frontier roots and literary passions. She was close to her son, and he, in turn, was close to her — though the price of this closeness was a proximity to illness. Around 1890, she contracted tuberculosis. It stayed with her. Howard’s professional career (and adult life) had lasted just 12 years, when, in 1936, he wrote to Lovecraft of his mother:

Her condition is very bad, and she requires frequent aspirations, which are painful, weakening and dangerous. [...] She is subject to distressing and continual sweats, and naturally has to have constant attention, so I find little, if any, time to write. [...] Sometimes we have to be up all night with her. There seems to be little we or anyone can do to help her, though God knows I’d make any sacrifice, including my own life, if it could purchase her any relief.

After stays in various hospitals and sanitariums, Hester was brought home to Cross Plains, where her husband and son attended to her difficult exit from the world. On June 8, she fell into a coma. On June 11, Howard, keeping vigil at the bedside, asked his mother’s nurse if she would ever regain consciousness. The nurse said no. Then, Robert Ervin Howard stepped out into the brilliant June and the gold-grassed town, and sat behind the wheel of his car.

He took a gun from the glove compartment and pressed the barrel above his right ear.

It must have been a dull pop, the shot. Clean through.

What was in him left. What was inside met the air. The stories — black gods, strange kingdoms, brute histories, and savage graces — all fled.

His body lived another eight hours, with a tunnel through its brain.

¤

The sky hovered over Cross Plains like a raised fist. It was the seventh of June, 2013. Heat was expected.

A little roadhouse, just outside the town, caught the mood in its dust-spackled marquee. “Pray for rain,” it said. The Cross Plains Review concurred. “Pray for rain,” it repeated, in an earnest, front-page box. The town was wincing, gritting its teeth. The sun rose flaming.

But — no. Something had unclenched in the high, clear blue. A wind was raveling the brush, rich with unexpected spring. It was a nice day — impossibly so.

Just after nine, Al Harron walked out of his room at the 36 West Motel, taking in the day from its concrete balcony. “What sorcery is this?” he asked.

Harron is a Scotsman, round of form and broad of motion, with the exception of his eyes. They’re quick birds, those eyes, darting from one thing to another, impelled by an inquisitive intellect. When I met him, in Cross Plains, he was wearing a white Stetson. His red beard spilled almost to the fifth rib.

I ambushed him on the way to a drink. “Hey man! Hey!” He stopped and smiled politely. “I’m writing an article,” I explained. “About Howard and Cross Plains and — uh — everything. I’m trying to explain what’s happening here.”

“Okay,” said Harron.

“Can you?” I asked.

“What?”

“Explain.”

He paused. To go from Gourock, a sleepy town 30 miles west of Glasgow, to Cross Plains, Texas, had required 10 straight hours of flying. He may have been slightly jet-lagged. “This is my fourth year coming,” he began. “I have been a Howard fan since I was a very small boy and I read his book Almuric [...]. It wasn’t until I was 16 that I discovered Conan.”

From there it was but a short leap to Howard, and the crowd of fans and scholars fighting for his legacy.

“Right,” I said, remembering my arrival at Conan by way of Schwarzenegger, and my arrival at Cross Plains by way of jeep. “What do you think about Texas?” I asked.

“Texas is a terrifying and wonderful place,” he said. I nodded sagely. I had been born here.

¤

The Robert E. Howard United Press Association, or REHupa, was started in 1972 by a teenage fan named Tim Marion. Glenn Lord, then the owner of Howard’s literary estate, was an early member, and his presence brought legitimacy. The fans brought everything else. Six times a year, ever since its founding, the association has distributed its members’ fanzines to one another. These are homemade periodicals, ardently mimeographed, with titles like “The Highwayman,” “Steel Springs & Whalebone,” and “The Barbarian Keep.” Their subject is Howard, of course, and Howard’s pop-culture legacy.

By the 1970s, Howard’s Conan stories had come to be seen as the primordial roots of the “sword and sorcery” genre, a kind of fantasy marked by bleak morality and episodic narratives. It was, at the time, a rather big business. Marvel’s Conan comic book, which began publication in 1970, had quickly become one of the company’s top sellers. Paperbacks by Lancer Books, collecting heavily altered versions of Howard’s Conan stories alongside pastiches by the science fiction writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp, had been flying off the racks since 1966. Even their covers, by the New York artist Frank Frazetta, were echoing in the mainstream. Soon Frazetta’s barbarians, monsters, and mountains of skulls would stare proudly from the side of a million American vans.

Rusty Burke, who joined REHupa in 1980, was one of the first to make the trip to Cross Plains. I caught up with him on Caddo Peak, just outside of town, on the eighth. Burke is a tall man, white-haired and lanky, and he speaks with an easy intelligence. He still remembers his first sight of Cross Plains:

“Things were brown,” he recalled. “It seemed relatively flat. So I’m thinking, ‘Wow, what a staggering imagination Howard must have had to come up with these exotic fantasy worlds [...]. This is what he had to work with.’”

It was a feeling he wanted to share. He floated the idea to the association. In the end, about 10 Howard fans and scholars descended on Cross Plains in June of 1986, 50 years after the author’s suicide. Some came from as far away as Australia.

“When we arrived that June,” Burke recalled:

We got to meet all these people — local people who had known Robert E. Howard [...]. We had a fabulous barbecue brisket at the home of one of the townspeople. We went down to Howard Payne University [in Brownwood], which, at the time, had the Robert E. Howard Library. And we got to talk to Charlotte Laughlin, who had been one of the people who had published a listing of Howard’s library. So it was a fabulous weekend for Robert E. Howard fans. It was just amazing. But what was sort of cool about it too was that the local papers, Cross Plains Review, the Brownwood Bulletin, referred to us as “visiting scholars.”

He smiled at that.

It was the first Robert E. Howard Day in Cross Plains, Texas, by mayoral proclamation.

¤

Burke and the association returned to Cross Plains in 1989 to mark their 100th zine mailing. In the years since their first visit, the people of Cross Plains had organized a volunteer group dedicated to preserving local history: Project Pride. One of their first collective actions was to purchase the long-neglected Howard house. “We got to go in and see it,” said Burke. “And trust me, it didn’t look anything like it looks now. It was a dump. So I started coming up quite a lot after that [...] to help with the house or to interview people. I got to be really good friends with a lot of these Project Pride folks.” Working together, the REHupa and Project Pride converted the derelict house into a Robert E. Howard museum.

I spoke to Arlene Stephenson, one of the leaders of Project Pride, behind a curtain in the gift shop. Stephenson is formidable. She has a gracious smile but little tolerance for wasted time. “The house came on the market, and about five people pooled their own resources, put up the collateral, and took out the loan to buy [it],” she remembered. The reasoning, at the time, was simple. “This is going to be the hook that brings the world to our doorstep.”

In 1992, with the house on its way to perfect restoration, Project Pride floated the idea of an annual event, to which REHupa quickly assented. “We just started off very, very small,” Burke remembers. “Some of the first Howard Days, we didn’t even fill up the 36 West [Motel].” What’s more, it was a disconnected crowd. “At the beginning, there’d be Howard fans here and the community people over there,” said Burke. “It’s just kind of grown together, where now you see them sitting at the tables with each other, talking and chatting.”

It’s true. The 2013 Howard Days, which spanned June 7 and 8, were marked by the convivial atmosphere of a family reunion. Burke was there, and Harron, along with REHupa’s head editor, Bill Cavalier, and Howard’s definitive biographer, Mark Finn. Stephenson buzzed about the house itself, fluttering through the gift shop and checking the display cases in the kitchen, her white hair beaming above a red docent's polo shirt. Jack Baum, one-time holder of the Howard literary estate, moved through the crowd with easy grace, smiling slowly, giving firm handshakes and greeting old friends.

Although the panels and tours accompanying Howard Days range across Cross Plains and its surroundings, the heart of the gathering is at the Howard house. In its backyard, beneath a shaded pavilion, fans whiled away the time horse-trading for rare collectibles and swapping campfire stories. There were cold cokes in a cooler of half-melted ice.

The town’s ambition appears to have paid off. This year, the 36 West was full. Total attendance, according the Cross Plains Review, was around 130. The town brought Howard, and Howard, in turn, brought it the world.

¤

 “The people in this town treat me in several manners,” wrote Howard to a friend in 1930,

[They] contemptuously ignore me, which doesn’t bother me any; go out of their way to start trouble with me, which does; and assume a sort of monkey in a cage attitude. Those who deign to notice me at all are forever on the lookout for some peculiarity, some difference that will stamp me as an eccentric. The infernal fools can’t seem to understand that a man can make his living some other way besides dressing tools or selling stuff, and still be an ordinary human being with human sensations.

Yet Burke, addressing the question of whether Howard was a “loner,” at Howard Days in 1999, reflected that the author “deliberately cultivated an image somewhat at odds with the reality.” He also had friends in Cross Plains, and at least one serious girlfriend. And his father was a doctor, a pillar of the community. Could he really feel so dejected?

“The more money I make at my trade the more strangely they eye me,” Howard continued, in the letter,

I can feel their damned lousy stares on me every minute I’m on the streets; eagerly watching for me to do something that they can garble and chatter and jabber among themselves. It’s the price a man pays for being any way different from the mob. Well, damn the mob. [...] Ninety-nine men out of a hundred are brainless fools that were born to be failures. Fools. The cringing, crawling, blind, senseless reptiles. Damn the mob! There’s only one way they can break me — and that’s what I’m afraid of all the time. That some cursed slack-jawed jackass-eyed damned fool will push me too far some day and I’ll lose control of myself. If they’ll let me alone, I’ll get along alright. It’s a cinch I’ll let them alone. [...] I’m not highly intellectual, but I realize that I have so much more brains than the average fool that if I fail, I ought to be shot. Let these swine stare and snigger. Curse their empty skulls; I’ll be a national figure with more money than they ever saw, when they’re creeping about their dull narrow ways, half forgotten by their own generation in their own township.

“To Hell with them,” he concluded.

¤

On the afternoon of June 7, this year, Howard’s fans and scholars were mingling in the Cross Plains Public Library. The first panel of Howard Days 2013, exploring the year’s official theme, “Howard in Comics,” had just concluded. A piece of space shuttle landing gear, on exhibition across small libraries throughout the state, stood nearby.

“Excuse me,” I asked a large, gray-bearded man. “Are you Flint Dille?”

The man grinned, looking at me with his half-moon eyes. “Yeah,” he said. The nametag above his heart confirmed it. He was the Flint Dille, who had made Dragonstrike — a 33-minute fantasy film sold as an accessory to a board game — back in the early 1990s. He was also the Flint Dille who once received a call from a drug-addled kid in the grip of some strange mania, demanding information, any information about Dragonstrike. “That was me,” I announced, happily.

Later that afternoon we talked at the pavilion. The cool weather had held, and there was a pleasant breeze. The lots of waist-high scrub across the road were tousled like a toddler’s hair.

“Do you know why I’m here?” he asked, smiling conspiratorially. I shook my head. “For Howard Days?” I guessed.

His smile grew wider. “Not exactly,” he said. “Have you ever heard of Ingress?”

“No,” I admitted.

“Kira!”

An eager woman with dark blonde hair and glasses appeared. “He’s never heard of Ingress,” Dille explained.

“Oh wow, oh my god,” she said, obviously excited. “Okay. Do you have an Android phone?”

“No.”

She seemed slightly crushed.

“But I’ve been meaning to switch?” I suggested.

It helped. “Okay,” she said, not blinking. “You have to have an Android phone — when you, you get the app, and it lets you detect portals.”

“Portals?” I asked.

“Like tears in reality,” Dille explained.

“There’s all these portal in our dimension,” Kira continued. “Holes leading somewhere else.”

“And it’s full of this, like ...” Dille wrapped his hands around an invisible object. “Chaotic data. We call it exotic matter, or XM. It’s being sent by these alien — thing ...”

“The Shapers,” Kira nodded. She looked into my face expectantly. Uncertain of protocol, I slackened my mouth, communicating both amusement and awe. “People ask me if this is real or fake,” she continued. “I don’t know. I don’t know. But I do know that XM has affected me in ways beyond the physical.” She offered me her wrist. It held a tattoo of an angular symbol, sketched in gunmetal green.

A solidly built man ran around the side of the pavilion. “Flint!” he called. “Come on! It’s happening!” An excited titter ran through a segment of the crowd.

“Come on!” said Kira.

I followed Dille, Kira, and the man, a programmer named Raza, as they walked quickly into Howard’s deep backyard. Someone had carved a glyph in the straw-gold grass: a design in foot-thick lines of chalk, 30 feet from one end to another. We huddled around it, joined by perhaps 20 other people, and looked skyward.

“Here it comes!” someone said.

“Whooo!” squawked someone else.

Kira waved. Dille put his hands on his hips, eyes beaming behind sunglasses.

Overhead, in the empty blue, a single-engine plane was buzzing, headed west. “That’s the Google Earth plane,” Dille explained to me. “It’s taking pictures of our glyph. They’ll be up in about a month — it’s a clue. People will find it.”

“Do you work for Google?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. Then, immediately, he clarified: “No. I’m with Niantic Labs.”

¤

The next day I spoke with Daniel Casper, a sharp young man from Garland, Texas, with clear eyes and precise enunciation. He had come to Cross Plains because Niantic Labs had told him to, and his desire to communicate information, any information, about the subject approached a mania. For a while, I let him talk.

“This is my fourth week playing,” he said. “But I am an aspiring science fiction writer. And that’s what drew me to the game.”

“So, it’s a game? Ingress is a game?” I asked.

He nodded. “The game is essentially an opportunity to get dorky people out into the world and to enjoy the city and the places that they live in.”

Ingress is played through an application for Android phones; it travels with its players everywhere, and since such devices also have a built-in GPS, it is able to tell where they are. When Casper arrived at the Howard house, his phone alerted him to the presence of a portal. When a portal is nearby, Ingress players can attempt to “capture” it. The game’s twin factions, the Enlightenment and the Resistance, accrue scores based on the “mind units,” or population, of the areas surrounding the portals they control. Conditions for victory are grandiose. “The objective of the game is to eventually control all of the people on the earth for the Resistance or the Enlightened,” Casper said.

Casper held a special reverence for John Hanke, the game’s creator. “John Hanke wanted to leave Google to create the game,” he said. “And Larry Page, himself, was like, no. Stay at Google. Do this as a startup at Google. And that’s why the game is Niantic Labs at Google.” The brand itself seemed central to the game’s appeal.

“My brother has been a huge fan of Google, like, since it’s conception,” said Mark Casper. “He follows everything they do. [...] When he learned that Google had made a game, he was all over it.”

Many of the Ingress players I met in Cross Plains had a similar view. At least one woman saw the weekend from behind the silver circlet of Google Glass, the combination smartphone/eyeglasses that is still in testing phase.

¤

I did not come to the Howard house expecting anything surreal.

When I first walked in, entering through the back door, I was immediately greeted by two red-shirted docents — cheerful volunteers from Project Pride. They offered to answer any questions I might have; I thanked them very much, but preferred to poke around alone. To the right, in a room added to the house since the 1930s, a gift shop was appropriately stocked with t-shirts and collections of Howard memorabilia. Ahead, the hall was lined with family photographs and ephemera from the production of the 1996 film The Whole Wide World, which starred Vincent D’Onofrio as Howard. The kitchen, gleaming with refurbished appliances, housed two glass cases of art books, maps, and artifacts. The newest addition was a recovered glasses case, which once belonged to Robert’s father.

The kitchen docent excitedly pointed to a postcard, propped up on the room’s main display. “This is an actual postcard Bob [Howard] got from H. P. Lovecraft,” she said. “The real thing.”

“Man,” I said, appreciatively. The handwriting was a cramped scrawl, in blue ink, and still, surprisingly, vital.

“I let the visitors read it,” she laughed. “It’s not exactly the kind of thing I’d put on a postcard!”

Somehow, Lovecraft had managed to fit what seemed to be two paragraphs and a footnote onto the several-inch rectangular card. Quebec, he said, reporting on his trip, was both cyclopean and ancient beyond all human reckoning.

“Me neither,” I lied, smiling.

The living room was packed with rich antiques, including a shelf of books from Isaac Howard’s personal collection. From there, the master bedroom beckoned. This room, with its neat floral wallpaper, is where Hester Howard spent her final days. School children from the local districts make a visit to this bedroom every year, to see how their grandparents might have lived. As I examined Isaac’s books, I grew increasingly conscious of the house’s cleanliness. I thought of night-sweats and aspirations. I thought of a woman dying for no reason at all. And I thought of that spot in the yard, just feet from the registration booth, where Robert had walked out, and sat in the car.

I began to think, in some grunting, animal way, that if I were to walk into the bedroom I would see it all — fluids and bedpans, wadded up sheets, stains the colors of spilled sauces. There were docents everywhere: back in the hall, in the kitchen, the bedroom. All of them smiling, and pleased, so pleased, to have so many visitors from so many places. And I, the visitor, was pleased in turn, so pleased — I was smiling, too, and, after all. It was a nice day, and such a very nice thing to be doing on it.

I moved on to Robert’s old room. Entrance to this area is barred by friendly rope, and its contents are kept in artificial disarray. A brief bed, a bookcase, a rough-fashioned desk with ink stains beside the spidery Underwood at its center. Vintage covers announced Burroughs, Lancelot, the Arabian Nights — books Howard had read and reread in his 30 fleeting years. The intended effect is one of momentary absence: as if Howard had simply gone out to post a story, planning to return.

I spent half an hour in the entrance to that room. How many nice days had Howard blotted out at that desk, filling his interior skies with smoke and clashing steel? I wasn’t looking at a typewriter, I realized. It was a cliff, and I was atop it, taking in vast breakers, vaster sky.

The REHupa stalwarts, the unaffiliated fans, the Ingress cultists, and Project Pride volunteers had all been drawn together by a singular need to see this spot, raised and remote, where a young man had made a running leap and landed, somehow, in a hotter, stranger world. Here every battle had raged, every cataclysm sounded, every laughing God had died.

We had all come to gawk at a man’s escape route — either because we wanted to escape ourselves, or because we recognized the rarity in pulling it off, for good or ill.

¤

Between panels, I stopped in at the Staghorn, a restaurant on Main Street. The place was empty except for a man eating with his two small children, a son and a daughter, and his girlfriend, who manned the counter. I asked for coffee but they were fresh out. I got a Dr Pepper.

“You here for the convention?” asked the man, after a period of silence.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Where from?” he asked.

“New York,” I answered.

He was stocky, muscular, with short hair and eyes like commas. He narrowed them at me.

“But I was born in Texas,” I clarified. His face relaxed. We took to trading stories, reflecting on the state.

“I went to Vegas once,” he said, “for about a month. And lemme tell ya — I got sick. Sick as a dog, the whole time. Finally I came back to Texas and — y’know what?”

I didn’t.

“As soon as we crossed the border, I felt fine. Swear to God.”

“Makes perfect sense,” I said, “It’s a beautiful and terrifying place. I want to be buried here myself.”

“Me too,” he agreed, wistfully. “Me too.”

His son was refusing to eat. The man said his name once, quickly, in an attitude of reproach. “This Howard guy,” he said, at last. “I don’t get it.” He made a sour-candy face. “He was in love with his mother and then shot himself? Really? Really?” The unspoken question: who cares?

¤

Nice days make for nice nights. On the seventh, the sky was velvet black, shot through with diamond stars.

At the pavilion, beneath green fluorescents, Dille was speaking to a REHupa table over the warbling of crickets. His job on the Ingress team is to direct the game’s fictional mythology, which is delivered to players by way of weekly electronic dispatches, short videos, and the occasional paperback novel. Taken together, this work is a secret history of the planet, embroidered through the real and visible only to the right people with the right technology. That night, Dille explained where Howard fit in.

“Everyone agrees that he killed himself,” Dille began.

What nobody can decide on is why. My theory is that it has something to do with XM, with the portal here. Like, he communicated — somehow — with the Shapers, and it drove him insane. He’s just a guy and, whoa, all of a sudden there’s these alien thoughts in his head, put there by something outside.”

This was met with general approval. The REHupa crowd seemed a little confused by Ingress, of course, but the idea of alien interference was at least within the realm of Howard’s fiction. For them, it worked.

“I was worried,” Dille said to me, when the group dispersed. “These are like the dyed-in-the-wool Howard guys, y’know, and if they’re okay with it then — yeah.”

He shrugged. “You don’t want to offend anyone.”

“Well, right, but aren’t you kind of deliberately blurring the lines between what’s real and what isn’t?” I asked. “I mean, if this game really takes off, then ...”

Dille was philosophical. “People react more to our fiction than whatever reality is,” he said. “That’s the whole world, right? Intersecting realities. Alternate universes. My universe and your universe and his universe and hers.” He paused, and shrugged. “If people like it, what’s the problem?”

We got fresh beers from the cooler and walked around the house, stepping over the place where Robert Howard’s brain escaped his skull.

¤

“It’s gone,” said Raza. “No signal.”

“Yeah,” Dille agreed. “Me either.”

“No bars,” said the man from Google’s PR department. He offered his phone to Hanke, creator of Ingress, who was sitting beside him. “No bars,” he repeated.

It was late afternoon, on the seventh. We were sitting in the Cross Plains Community Center, at the table farthest from the door, waiting for the official commencement of the Howard Days Awards Banquet and Silent Auction. The space itself was large and low-ceilinged, with the fluorescent lights and off-eggshell walls of a public school. All around us the REHupa crowd was mingling with town luminaries, packing the air with pleasant murmuring. The Ingress people kept to themselves.

It was my first substantial interaction with Hanke. I knew his work, as it turned out, but not his name. In the 1990s, Hanke had been part of the development team behind the massive multiplayer computer game Meridian 59, the grandfather of amusements like World of Warcraft. In the next decade, he “ran the geo part” of the Google Earth team, handling “map-surfable street view and all that.” After seven years, he felt like a change. He started Niantic Labs at Google, and Ingress.

His appearance, in an odd way, gives the impression of having seen a different world, and maybe a better one, a few miles up the road. Hanke is a man who looks to be in his early 40s, with friendly creases spreading from his eyes, and lips set in a tentative smile.

“This is where I had my prom,” he said thoughtfully, looking around at the Center. That memory did not improve our cell reception, and so he retrieved a device from his car that did.

The connection was necessary because an event was underway across town, at the Howard house. The visiting Ingress players were engaged in a tug of war over the portal there. The Resistance, it appeared, was losing.

I struck up a conversation with another John, sitting a few spaces away. He looked like the man to play Hanke in the inventible biopic: resembling the original but with cleaner lines, less distracting detail. He was a voice actor, as it turned out. I asked him about it.

“Whoa,” laughed Dille, overhearing us. “Your name is Hank, remember?”

“Oh yeah,” remembered Hank.

“And you’re an archaeologist, not an actor,” Dille continued. “There’s no actors here!”

“Right,” nodded the archaeologist.

I was, again, confused. “Nobody’s allowed to break character,” Hanke explained. “It’s more fun if —” Something flashed across his phone. His eyebrows rose. “Our troops are starting to rally,” he said, referring to the Resistance.

After the auction, as usual, there was a program of brief speeches. The $1,000 scholarship usually awarded to a Cross Plains high school senior was, regrettably, given in absentia (the girl was buying a steer), but the invocation, courtesy of Don Clark, was heartfelt. Clark, a debonair older man with a smart white mustache, took the lectern confidently. “I was born in Cross Plains,” he began. “I moved away in the 1950s, then came back. Which puts me one step below the people that never left.” Appreciative laughter. He had seen Howard many times, when he was still alive. Clark remembered spotting the author in his sombrero, stalking strangely from his house to the post office. Since then, things had changed.

“We ain’t a sleepy little town anymore,” he said. “We’re a little city. We’re the location of six Christian churches and we’re the home of Robert Howard.”

The applause was warm, but mostly from visitors. The girl from the Staghorn, busy laying out chicken fried steak dinners on the buffet counter, didn’t even look up. It was clear she’d been on her feet all day.

Those at the end of my table kept their fingers to their phones.

¤

I woke up early on the eighth of June, drank two cups of coffee, and wrote a letter to New York. The weather of the previous day had held, somehow. It was still breezy, still cool. The only change was that monstrous clouds were now slouching toward us from the North.

“I feel pursued, Elizabeth,” I wrote. “I feel like people are spying on me here, or that they can see things about me that I can’t. I feel like we are moving very far from the truth of things, into fantasy — and not the kind of fantasy I like, with wizards.”

I kept thinking about something Raza had said to be the previous day, outside a panel. “First you make the switch,” he said, meaning the switch of brands from Apple to Android. “Then you make the change,” from non-player to player of Ingress. “Then,” he continued, “the change changes you.” He spoke with the settled calm of a true believer.

“Have you ever read A Scanner Darkly?” I jotted down. “I feel like it’s relevant, here, somehow. Maybe Dick had it wrong — maybe there was never a chance for our technology to see clearly. We could just be shopping for the most attractive lie.”

I began to ramble. “Anyway,” I concluded. “Sorry to go on. Good luck with your internship at FSG. I, too, am a big reader. Do you like boxing stories?” I had the front desk slip it in the mail.

When I arrived at the Howard house, a few hours later, I spoke with Hanke, sitting in the shade of two wind-blown cedars. He had a peculiar way of speaking, carrying himself with a palpable attitude of distance. He explained Ingress as a way of exploring the “intersection” between location, society, and gaming:

It’s an experience designed to get people outside. It’s an experience that’s based around [...] museums and libraries. I guess the higher objective of the game is really just to get people out into their local communities — to encourage people to walk around and bike around, see new things, have new experiences; maybe some of them will become a little bit enlightened by some of those experiences. That’s really the heart of it. Within the game itself, it’s based around a concept that there’s this exotic matter leaking into our world. It’s concentrated around these places of artistic or historic significance.

Cross Plains, for instance.

“I grew up here,” Hanke said, meditatively. He related stories of small-town, nerdy isolation. His mother, still a resident, volunteers for Project Pride. For Hanke, Howard was a perfect example of the Ingress mission. By placing a portal near his house, the game was highlighting something that made Cross Plains different and special. “Once you know [about it], it changes the way you look at the town,” he said. Multiplied by the size of the game, he figured, such shifts in perception will “make the world a bit of a better place.” They put “this veneer of intrigue and mystery onto things that people thought were mundane.”

I was unsure.

“You’re playing with reality,” he acknowledged. “It adds color and excitement and intrigue to everyday — [or] what might otherwise be everyday.” The divide between the real and the digital is dissolving, anyway, he maintained. Soon, it will disappear completely.

Wouldn’t it be better if we were having this conversation, [which] you’re recording it on your iPhone, [through wearable devices?] [...] You have to hold your hand out [now]. We both kind of look at [the phone] from time to time [...]. If you could just look at me and have an augmented memory of what happened later on, it’d just get that all out of the way. We would have a much more natural conversation.

He shrugged. “It would be better, right?”

“It would be a different kind of life,” I conceded.

We talked facing the house. The idea of it being mundane unless perceived through a smartphone depressed me.

We got up and walked back to the pavilion together. In the shade, the REHupa crowd was talking quietly, alongside veteran members of Project Pride. The Ingress players — Kira, the Casper brothers, the girl with Google Glass — were all out in the yard itself, standing in the harsh, if not uncomfortable, sunlight, faces to their phones. In their world, of course, there was a battle raging — a secret war, with lives in the balance. It was an expensive fantasy — requiring time, travel, and, most important of all, the correct telephone.

Howard took the hard way out. These days, if you don’t like the world you can just buy a new one.

¤

Back on the seventh, feeling desolate after touring the house, I walked to the end of the Howard lot, taking a position in the center of the Ingress glyph. The weeds in the field beyond were blowing, grown up around fallen buildings and rusted machines. Sparse trees colored the horizon.

If it had been June 1935, Howard would have been sitting less than a soccer field away, hammering at his typewriter, conjuring some fantasy while I stood, plainly, in the center of his window’s view. In 2013, Howard’s vista is blocked by a gift shop, and the spot on which I stood was one of those sad spaces that have been annexed by the internet. I was assailed by a feeling of unreality.

As I watched, a young girl, perhaps 14, staggered out the door of an adjacent home. She hobbled away, soon followed by a man I assumed to be her father. He had a boxer’s build and tattooed arms.

“Candice!” he yelled. “Candice!”

A worried mother appeared on the porch. “Come back!” she said, but the girl kept moving.

The man caught up with her, placing the kid in a confining hug. “Don’t touch me!” squealed the girl, trying to get away.

If I’d said anything just then, they would have heard me. I was less than 50 feet away.

“Don’t make me kick your ass,” the father said, retaining his hold.

Maybe it was her red face, or a condition of distress — but the kid seemed drunk to me. Before long, she stopped struggling.

The family filed inside. “I love you,” said the mother, as they disappeared.

No escaping that, I thought.

¤

“When people say, ‘Where are you from?’ I say, ‘Cross Plains, Texas,’” began Rusty Burke. It was sunset at Caddo Peak, and Howard Days was nearly over. He continued:

I love this place so much [and] I feel so at home here [...]. This thing has taken root and I don’t think it’s going to stop any time soon [...]. It’s a wonderful mix of people — even just among the Howard fans. Park yourself at any table and you’ll get completely different set of perspectives.

I began to ask another question, but Burke was looking were over my shoulder. “Speaking of Cross Plainsians,” he smiled, “I’ve gotta give somebody a hug.” He did.

I looked after him, towards the laughing crowd. Flint Dille was talking to a couple of Ingress players from Lubbock. Al Harron, still in his Stetson, was in line for food. The man from Google PR was playing a spirited game of catch with a visiting freshman from Texas Tech.

I sat by myself for a moment, watching them together. There seemed to be no barriers left — somehow, over the course of two days, every person there had clambered to a piece of common ground. Howard? No, not exactly — Howard Days. I still wanted someone to explain it, but there was no one left to ask.

There are no fighters left, no monsters. Not if you have the necessary equipment. We’re so connected, so systematized, that the last truly lonely men have become mysteries, prophets of a fast-vanishing pain. Cross Plains has the world now, and the world has Cross Plains. A fair exchange, maybe — but neither side has yet received the bill.

¤

It rained on the ninth. Before leaving, I visited the grave of Robert Ervin Howard. He is interred in the nearby town of Brownwood, along with his mother and father. Why remains unclear. “There’s speculation that Hester didn’t like Cross Plains,” Burke had suggested, with a shrug.

I stared at the stone for a long time.

“Life is power,” Howard wrote, in a 1928 letter. “Life is electricity.”

You and I are atoms of power, cogs in the wheel of the Universal system. [...] [W]e are sparks of star dust, atoms of unknown power, powerless in ourselves but making up the whole of some greater power that uses us as ruthlessly as fire uses fuel. [...] We are merely phases of electricity; electrons endlessly vibrating between the magnetic poles of birth and death. [...] We do not, as individual entities, really exist, we do not live. [...] What is life but an uncompleted gesture, beginning in oblivion and ending in oblivion? [...] There is no beginning, nor will there ever be an end to the thing.

Life — it sounds exhausting.

¤

 

Special thanks are due to Kevin Jolly, Ann Neumann, Max McDermott, Jeff Shanks, Rusty Burke, Brian Rose, and Flint Dille, without whom this article could not have been written.

¤

Don Jolly is a Texan visual artist, writer and academic; he lives alone with the Great Fear, in New York City.

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