Then he told me about the fan mail he’d gotten. He had received letters from somebody in England; one from Australia; letters from several diffrent states like California, Pennsylvania, and far away places like that. He talked about writer friends of his—Price, Lovecraft, Derleth whose name I had seen in a writer’s magazine, and other people I’d never heard of. They wrote to him and he wrote to them. It all sounded interesting and was, I guess, a world far removed from Cross Plains. Although it was interesting, it didn’t make writing as a profession appeal to me. I want to write, but I also want to be in the thick of life around me.
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 116
In May of 1933, Novalyne Price graduated from Daniel Baker College in Brownwood, TX. The Great Depression had settled on Texas, and jobs were scarce—especially for college-educated women. She found a job forty miles away in a small town called Cross Plains, as a schoolteacher in English and public speaking at the local highschool. At a time when many small towns were paying their teachers with scrip, the Cross Plains paid cash…though it did come with certain expectations.
No smoking. No drinking (Prohibition had just ended). No dancing, movies, or playing bridge with members of the faculty. Teachers were expected to live in town, and go to church in town every Sunday. Her response was visceral:
I want a cigarette, and I want a glass of beer. I can’t stand the stuff. I hate it as much as the Board of Trustees do, but I want a cigarette, and I want a beer.
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 36
Above all, Novalyne Price wanted to be a writer. There was one in town. His name was Robert E. Howard.
One Who Walked Alone (1986) is drawn from the diaries Novalyne kept of Cross Plains from 1934 until 1936, when she left to begin graduate courses in Louisiana. The entries are edited, probably a little censored here or there to spare a feeling or two from those still alive at the time it was published and to keep focused on her relationship, but revealing nonetheless. The relationship was not the soul of romance; Robert E. Howard was a successful writer, and tried to help Novalyne with her writing, even putting him in touch with his agent Otis Adelbert Kline—but their interests in writing were very different things. Early on during a date, when Bob was driving her out in the country in his car, she explained the plot of the story “I Gave My Daughter Movie Fame”:
“A woman has an illegitimate child, a daughter, and she tries to make it up to her. The child is adopted by this aunt of hers. But the woman can’t give up. She keeps doing things for the girl. Finally, she helps the gil become a movie star and very famous.”
Which I was talking, I could see that Bob was trying very hard to keep from laughing. But what was even strangter to me was that the more I talked, the more it became sort of cock-eyed even to me. I didn’t knwo what it took to win movie fame. True, I read movie success stories in magazines. I went to the movies once in awhile. I knew when the acting was good or bad. Did that qualify me to write about movie fame? As for illegitimate children—Well, when I was growing up, two girls whom I knew had illegitimate children. Did that qualify me to know about things like that?
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 60
Novalyne’s memoir draws attention because of the Robert E. Howard connection, and it delivers in that regard with many colorful and critical anecdotes; though she was never his wife or even his fiance, it is more intimate and revealing in many ways than The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) by Sonia H. Davis is of Howard’s friend in Providence.
Yet the main character is Novalyne herself, and she does not blush to hide her own flaws. The Novalyne of 1934-1936 is a young woman in a world that expects everything of her except to have a life of her own. She herself has more than a few expectations, and her relationship with Bob Howard waxes and wanes as the two willful individuals circle between kissing and butting heads again and again. The prospect of marriage hangs over the relationship as it goes on, but there are obstacles: Howard’s mother, dying slowly as her disease consumes her; Howard’s status as an outsider in the small town of Cross Plains; and Novalyne herself, who also dates some of Howard’s friends at the same time, and can’t quite make up her mind who she loves.
It’s hard not to fall in love with the young Novalyne Price a little; she’s a flint that strikes sparks off Bob, able to give as good as she gets, though sometimes her barbs sting a little deep. One exchange from late in their relationship can’t help but raise a smile:
“In a way, I suppose I want to make it a love story,” I said, thinking and planning as I talked. “But I want the woman to have a man-sized man to love. I was thinking that someone—a young woman—from another state who had an illegitimate child—”
“What are you always thinking about illegitimate children?” he asked. “How many illegitimate children have you had?”
“A dozen,” I snapped. “One every thirty days.”
He grinned and relaxed a little. “I suppose if any woman could do it, you could.”
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 155-156
More serious conversations dealt with racial prejudice. Although never marked as such, Cross Plains was a sundown town in the Jim Crow days; Brownwood had an African-American population, but that was restricted to a part of the small city called “The Flat.” Howard, though more liberal and progressive in some issues, still held to racial prejudices that Novalyne did not.
“Every man has to uphold his race and protect his women and children,” Bob said earnestly. “He has to build the best damn world he can. You mix and mingle the races, and what do you get? You get a mongrel race—a race that’s not white and not black.”
It seemed to me he was leaving out something important. “Very well, then,” I said flatly. “If a man’s going to fight to keep his race pure, don’t let him go down to the flat and leave a half-white, half-black child down there.”
Bob jerked the steering wheel so abruptly that we almost ran off the road. “Well, damn it,” he groaned. “There’s something there that you don’t understand.”
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 95-96
Novalyne’s views may have been influenced in part by her own experiences; her father had been mistaken for a Native American and subject to prejudice by Texans, and Bob’s mother herself supposedly wondered if she had any Native American heritage, with the prejudice unspoken but not hidden.
As a diarist, Novalyne Price was no Samuel Pepys; and we may assume that many of the incidental details of life were quietly edited out. Sometimes, this leaves little mysteries. In April 1935, Novalyne was briefly hospitalized following acute nausea, vomiting, and weight loss; the exact nature of her illness is never discussed in detail, leaving readers to make their own conclusions.
As a young woman, and never becoming truly intimate with Howard’s homelife, there are things that Novalyne gets wrong. She is an accurate reporter of facts, with many of the details she gives being verifiable by Howard’s letters (most of which had not been published at the time One Who Walked Alone was out), and newspaper articles in the local paper, the Cross Plains Review. Interpretation, however, doesn’t always follow: the illness of Hester Jane Howard was much more severe and fraught than Novalyne guessed—and frustration at Bob’s doting on his mother’s health is one of the key issues in their relationship.
Howard himself wrote very little about Novalyne in his letters. His local friends would no doubt prefer to hear about it in person; most of his writer friends simply didn’t share details of their relationships at all. H. P. Lovecraft never appears to have told his Texas friend that he had been married, during all their six years of correspondence.
Several times, Bob has shown me letters he’s gotten from fans of his. He had one from Providence and one from New York just the other day. They have all been nice letters, and I can understand his pride.
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 128
One thing that might frustrate those who pick up Ellis’ book with the intent on getting a behind-the-scenes look at how Robert E. Howard wrote, or his relationships with other pulpsters, is that this is specifically the part of Bob’s life that Novalyne seemed to have the least interest in. There are a few anecdotes scattered about, proof of Lovecraft’s influence on Howard, but Novalyne’s interests in literature were so vastly different that the Weird Tales and Sports Story material seemed to be completely out of her sphere.
“Bob,” I interrupted him. “Do you mean that writer friend of yours—that Lovecourt—”
“Lovecraft,” he repeated, still emphatic. “One of the greatest writers of our time. Now, girl, I’ll bring some of the things he’s written for you to read if—”
“Oh, no,” I said hurriedly. “That’s perfectly all right. I don’t want—I don’t really have time to read very much right now, with teaching and trying to get kids ready for interscholastic speech contests.”
He looked at me without speaking as if he were trying to make up his mind if I meant what I said.
“All I wanted to know was what kind of comment about life does he make?” I asked. “And I want to know what kind of comment you make about life in your Conan stories.”
—Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone (1986) 116
The book ends, as all memoirs of Robert E. Howard end, with his sudden suicide. However, as this is Novalyne’s story, things do not end right at the moment she got the news. As with all suicides, the story continues on with the survivor, the loved ones and friends, who must carry on until they find some kind of closure. So did Novalyne Price.
The unspoken epilogue is what happened after. Novalyne Price received her master’s degree, got married, adopted a son, taught school, and wrote a little when she could. She was an excellent teacher, and her students often won awards. Robert E. Howard’s star began to shine brighter posthumously; a series of hardbacks from Gnome Press in the 1950s gave way to an immensely popular series of paperbacks with covers by Frank Frazetta, the “Howard Boom” of the 60s which inspired dozens of sword & sorcery novels and ushered in a new wave of fantasy. Marvel Comics began adapting his characters to comic books in the 1970s, and in 1982 Conan the Barbarian hit movie screens.
The study of his life and letters slowly picked up. Novalyne Price Ellis was one of those interviewed by the de Camps for Dark Valley Destiny (1983), a biography of Robert E. Howard. As with Sonia H. Davis and H. P. Lovecraft, Novalyne’s views of Bob were not universally welcomed by the biographers:
If the lady you mention published a well-documented book, On Sinning with R.E.H., she might outsell you, unless the oafery seize & destroy her scurilous volume. It is to laugh! I knew him when is not sufficient. One must also write for other than dizzy fans.
—E. Hoffmann Price to L. Sprague de Camp, 7 Apr 1978
in The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 308
E. Hoffmann Price (no relation to Novalyne) was a fellow pulpster and correspondent who had visited Robert E. Howard twice in Cross Plains (neither time meeting Novalyne), and wrote extended memoirs, published in several places. De Camp appears to have used his recollections to “check” Novalyne’s own assertions, much as August Derleth used Lovecraft’s letters to “check” the claims made by Sonia H. Davis.
Letters never tell the whole story. Especially the parts that the writers don’t care to tell.
One Who Walked Alone was published in 1986. Novaylne Price Ellis stayed in touch with some of the Howard scholars, and a briefer and rarer reminiscence was published titled Day of the Stranger: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989, Necronomicon Press), now quite scarce.
A former student of hers, Michael Scott Myers, was so taken with her memoir that he optioned the rights from her for a film. The result was The Whole Wide World (1996), with Renee Zellweger playing the part of Novalyne Price, and Vincent D’Onofrio as Robert E. Howard. A second edition of One Who Walked Alone was published in 1996, with Zellweger featured prominently on the cover, though they are effectively identical.
In 2018, an Index with notes to the book was produced, and given away free at Robert E. Howard Days, which is held at the Robert E. Howard House and Museum in Cross Plains. It is available online for free here.