A couple of years after Bob’s death, I was standing on a street corner in Houston and I saw a man coming across the street that looked exactly like Bob. The incident stayed with me for several years. Finally, it wrote itself when I needed to hand in a radio script at LSU. I like the script, and it has briefly, some of the things we talked about almost as we talked them.Novalyne Price Ellis to L. Sprague & Catherine Crook de Camp, 8 Jun 1978
Every biography ends the same way. A person dies, and whatever is left of them in this world is in the memories of those who knew them. A very few, however, take the next step. From memory to myth, from reality to fiction. Today, Robert E. Howard is as much a literary character as his creations and has appeared as versions of himself in stories (“Far Babylon” (1976) by L. Sprague de Camp, “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg), novels (Lovecraft’s Book (1985) by Richard Lupoff, Shadows Bend (2000) by David Barbour), comic books & graphic novels (The Adventures of Two-Gun Bob (2007) by Jim & Ruth Keegan), and even films (The Whole Wide World (2006), portrayed by Vincent D’Onofrio)—and that only begins to scratch the surface of Robert E. Howard’s many posthumous incarnations.
Though those characters shared Howard’s name, their characters differed. None of the writers knew Bob Howard; they had to work from letters and memoirs, biographies and anecdotes. Yet one of the earliest, if not the first, fictional character based on Robert E. Howard was drawn from the memory of one who knew him well: the eponymous stranger in Novalyne Price Ellis’ radio play “The Day of the Stranger.”
In 1947, my husband [William W. Ellis] and I were attending LSU, and my professor in radio assigned a script to be written and handed in for a semester’s grade. While I was trying to think what to write about, I remembered that incident (seeing Bob Howard get on the bus in Houston, when he’d been dead two years […]). I wrote it up as if it happened in New Orleans, got my grade, directed it for the school radio program, and sold it to a group producing amateur radio scripts.
It was copyrighted in 1949 by J. Weston Walch—Publisher of Portland, aine. I’m not sure he’s still publishing things. He published it in a book called Radio Player’s Scriptbook. It was for amateurs looking for scripts to produce. . . . The Stranger is Bob and it was as much of his regular talk as I could get it. The cry in Jeanne’s heart for a second chance was my cry. Jerry was Truett [Vinson]. The girls in the drug store were just necessary character to help put the story across.
THey changed my original title, which I thought was good. However, at that time, they were afraid that to say ‘New Orleans’ would be to give it a regional slant, and so they changed ‘New Orleans’ to ‘This.’ I’m sure they wouldn’t change it now, and I prefer the use of the city’s name.Novalyne Price Ellis to Rusty Burke, Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 31
In 1936 when Robert E. Howard died, his sometime girlfriend Novalyne Price was attending school at Louisiana State University. She returned to Cross Plains to teach school, and for much of the next decade she continued teaching and attending courses in Texas and Louisiana. Novalyne had planned to write about Howard’s life, using her journals as material for the book—but life always got in the way. By the time of her marriage to William W. Ellis in 1947, Novalyne had extensive experience with drama, and even radio plays (“Daniel Baker College To Offer Enlarged Speech Program,” The Commanche Chief, 24 Aug 1945). “The Day of the Stranger” would be, in a sense, an early effort to capture some of the words and tone of Robert E. Howard’s character, decades before she could complete her book One Who Walked Alone (1986).
In an interview with Howard scholar Rusty Burke, she went into more detail about the play and the experience that inspired it:
BURKE: A lot of people who may read this interview may not know that there are other things you’ve written about Bob. In fact, a number [of] years ago you wrote a play in which Bob is a character, called “Day of the Stranger”. One of the things the stranger does is that, when he sees someone, he begins telling you what the person is like, what’s on his mind as he sits on the streetcar, and what he’s thinking about. Did Bob do that kind of thing?
ELLIS: All the time. That was his interest in people. Oh, ys. Fantastic stories. I remember very vividly one time, we passed a man—there was a very cold norther blowing—and we passed a man on a horse, riding along, and the man was all humped up over the saddle, trying to get away from the cold—you can imagine sitting ona saddle in a Texas norther—(shivers)—cold, yes—well, I don’t remember the story, but I remember that it was a fantastic story—pretty soon I knew everything that man thought. “Day of the Stranger” was the first thing that I had been able to write about him. I had to hand in a radio script, and all of a sudden it occurred to me. It came from an incident that had happened to me in Houston about two years after Bob’s death. It was a cold, rainy, drizzly day, and I had gone to Houston with some of my teacher friends. I was supposed to meet them somewhere, I’ve forgotten where, but it was in downtown Houston. It was time to go meet my friends. I was standing on the sidewalk waiting to cross a street, ready to step down off the crub. I looked up and there came Bob! Dressed in his brown suit with that tan hat—big man, heavy-set—and I couldn’t cross the street. There was Bob coming toward me! I’m sure, from the way people looked at me, that I made some kind of sound. But I backed up all the way across the sidewalk against a store window, and stood there until the man crossed the street. He stood on the edge of the sidewalk about 8 or 10 feet from me, and I still couldn’t get away from the fact that this was Bob. He turned around and looked at me, and I told myself I could see differences, but I couldn’t. That was Bob. He looked at me for a few minutes—I don’t know whether I was making a sound or not. Then he turned around, turned his back on me, and looked down the street. In just a moment his bus came down the street. Came down, stopped at the corner, and he got on the bus. I watched it. I watched as it went on, and I saw him take his money out and put it in the slot for the fare, and start toward the back of the bus. Then the bus moved on further. I watched it till it was out of sight. I stood there for a few minutes until I could get myself together. Then I went over and met my friends. That was a very vivid incident!
BURKE: That would certainly shock a person.
ELLIS: It shocked me! As I think about it now, I’m shocked by it, I can remember the strange feeling I had. TO see somebody coming across the street that you know has been dead about two years! When I got ready to write my play, I thought about that. I wrote “Day of the Stranger” in order to say some of the things I was still worried about—in order to get some of the old frustrations out of my mind. You say, “Now, in 1947 you were happily married and you had one beautiful child”—I just hadn’t gotten over the feeling of guilt. It’s a feeling that I think everybody who knows a friend or a family member who commits suicide feels. The feeling of guilt has this to do with it—you say, “If I hadn’t said thus-and-so, if i’d been more sympathetic, if I hadn’t sent that book back to Bob, if I’d gone by that morning, if I’d answered his letter”—all these things that you say. It doesn’t matter that maybe your reasoning mind can tell you “Oh, well, this would not have done it”—you still think it. I wrote that play to relieve my own heart. I used that play myself. It was produced a good many places, but after writing it, I felt better. After you were here earlier I read it again, while making the copy; I hadn’t written nearly as much about his Egyptian beliefs as I thought it had.Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 19-20
At least by 1956, Novalyne had adapted the radio play into a script for a one-act play or dramatic reading suitable for high school dramatics:
Lafayette High School’s Dramatics department has been experimenting with the “Readers’ Theatre” technique since the 1956-57 school year. That year they presented a drama quartet called “The Day of the Stranger,” a radio play written and adapted to the new medium by Novalyne Price Ellis. The quartet, composed of Celia Guilbeaux, Marilyn Montgomery, Gerald Hernandez, and Pauline Harding, performed for the Louisiana State University Workshop in drama and interpretation and at the Northwestern Theatre Festival at Natchitoches.“Lafayette Drama Class To Present Five Readings,” The Daily Advertizer, Lafeyette, LA, 15 Nov 1966
At least one dramatic reading was directed by her husband William Ellis (The Daily Iberian, New Iberia, LA, 18 Nov 1957), and it it is likely there were several more, either carried out by the Ellises over the years or various amateur groups using the script in Walch’s book.
The script itself is very brief, for five characters with some bit parts and direction for music, appropriate for dramatic radio production. The crux of Novalyne’s eerie experience is retained, but the scene was shifted to a drug store on Canal Street in New Orleans. The character based on Novalyne was named Jeanne, the Robert E. Howard equivalent in the story was named Craig Blair…although it is only the Stranger who gives his voice.
MARY: Why, early this morning when there weren’t many customers in here, I was getting a chocolate malt ready for a fellow. I had my back to the bar. (SOMEWHAT DRAMATIC) Then all of a sudden a voice said: “Hey, my little bunch of onion tops, give me a cup of black coffee, the blacker and stronger the better.” (POINTED) WEll, you know who’d say it like that, don’t you?
JEANNE: (SUDDENLY ALARMED) No. No. I don’t.(t)
MARY: Well, honey, you could have knocked me over with your little finger because when I turned around…well, Craig Blair was sitting in that chair.
JEANNE: (EMOTIONAL) That’s not true. You know that’s not true.Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 34
The real Robert E. Howard didn’t drink coffee, generally; but the line about “my little bunch of onion tops” could have come straight from his letters to Novalyne Price. Fact and fiction are thus mixed together in this scenario, but readers familiar with Novalyne’s later One Who Walked Alone or the film The Whole Wide World based on it can see many parallels between things the Stranger says in the play. For another example:
JEANNE: (WONDERINGLY) So you still think people live more than one life?(t)
STRANGER: (LAUGHS) Oh, well, I’ve always thought it was possible, if that’s what you mean. Who knows for sure? NOw, I didn’t go to school much—just to the eighth grade, but I’ve read a lot. The Egyptians used to believe you kept being born over and over until you got all your hopes and desires attended to. Pretty confusing thought, I think.
JEANNE: That’s a crazy thing to think, and you don’t really believe. You used… (CONFUSED) …that is… Craig Blair used to say the same thing, but he didn’t believe it. People talk and talk, and they never believe half of the things they say. I think—Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 36
Robert E. Howard wrote many stories about reincarnation and past lives, from the James Allison tales like “The Valley of the Worm” and “The Garden of Fear” to the Conan the Reaver story “The People of the Dark.” How much he himself believed in reincarnation has always been and probably always shall be an open question. Novalyne Price Ellis would interpret such ideas through her own experiences.
ELLIS: TO me, what Bob said about that was just a fascinating idea. Just another fantastic story to weave. I was down in the dumps. So he says, “Now here I was in Brownwood. I met this man, and we disliked each other the minute we saw each other. Maybe way back yonder somewhere, maybe he stole my woman or the bear I’d killed for food”—which was the most important to him I don’t remember. How could anybody take him seriously? I mean, that was spur-of-the-moment.Day of the Strange: Further Memories of Robert E. Howard (1989), 21
Whether or not the Stranger is the ghost or reincarnation of Robert E. Howard—or Craig Blair in the setting of the play—it is indubitably an effort to capture something of Howard’s character and mannerisms.
As a piece of drama, “The Day of the Stranger” has legs: the identity of the “stranger” is never revealed, and all of the conflict is in Jeanne’s head, the tumult of emotions as she is torn between the memory of a dead man and the more unimaginative man she’s dating now. Yet on another level, for those familiar with the outlines of Novalyne and Bob’s relationship, it reads as a kind of catharsis—a way for her to work out many of the lingering emotions she might have had, to put a sense of closure on a relationship which ended on an unresolved chord.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
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2 thoughts on ““The Day of the Stranger” (1947) by Novalyne Price Ellis”
An even-more-juicy-than-usual “Deep Cuts”!
(I’ve actually got a copy of that “Further Memories” booklet pictured…cover by Robert Knox, as I recall.)
What a shocking experience of Novalyne’s…and she sure tells the tale well.
For people who — intentionally or not — “self-mythologize” (as Lovecraft often did) or are so withdrawn that people tend to speculate about them, aren’t they made into fictional characters while still alive?
Depends on if anybody picks up on it; Robert E. Howard did a fair bit of self-mythologizing too, of course…but I think it’s different when someone takes that idea of you and runs with it.