“The Day of the Stranger” (1947) by Novalyne Price Ellis

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?


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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Her Letters To Robert E. Howard: Novalyne Price

Dear Bob,

Although you leave nothing for me to say, being a woman, I’ll say something anyway.

Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone 233

Novalyne Price was born to Homer and Etna Reed Price in Brownwood, Texas in 1908. Her parents’ marriage did not last through her childhood; in 1919 Etna remarried to Albert C. Sears, though this marriage would also end in divorce in the 1930s. She was two grades behind Robert E. Howard at Brownwood High, who finished high school at Brownwood because the school at Cross Plains stopped at 10th grade. She took classes at the local Daniel Baker College while still in high school, and finally graduated high school and entered as a full-time student in 1925 with a focus on Oratory and Literature.

It appears that working her way through college required her to alternate semesters, so she did not matriculate with her second diploma until Spring 1933—in the middle of the Great Depression. There were few options for educated women when it came to work; teaching was a respectable professional, but underfunded schools often paid teachers in scrip rather than cash…and had strict expectations:

“There will be no drinking, smoking, dancing, Sunday picture shows, or playing bridge by any member of this faculty.” […]

“You should not plan to go home every weekend either,” Mr. Williams went on. “You will be expected to stay here where your work is and attend church here. I want to make it clear that there will be no drinking by any member of this faculty.” He cleared his throat. “Furthermore, we want to keep the children from smoking if we can. No smoking on the school grounds or in the buildings. If they see you smoke, they will want to smoke, too. And this applies to the lady faculty members; we more or less accept the fact that men smoke, even if we don’t quite approve of it, but lady faculty members are not to smoke anytime, anywhere.” […]

“It has come to my attention that some teachers play bridge so late at night they cannot do their work the next day. You are not to play bridge, not even in your rooms at your boarding places.”

One Who Walked Alone 36

Nevertheless, Novalyne Price began her career as an educator in January 1934 in a small town outside of Abilene, Texas…but the next year she took a position at Cross Plains, closer to Brownwood where her mother and grandmother kept a farm…and where, perhaps not coincidentally, Robert E. Howard lived.

Novalyne had been aware of Bob Howard through their mutual friends in Brownwood; she had dated Howard’s good friend Tevis Clyde Smith, and he had introduced the two in 1932. Like Robert E. Howard, she was interested in becoming a writer. Now that they were both in Cross Plains, the two renewed their acquaintance…and began what would be a tumultuous on-again, off-again romance. The two dated, argued, exchanged gifts, flirted, met each other’s families, went on long drives in the country, debated, criticized each other’s fiction, quarreled and made up and quarreled again…a story chronicled in her memoir One Who Walked Alone, later made into the motion picture The Whole Wide World.

For the 1934-1935 and 1935-1936 school years, Novalyne Price lived in a boarding house within easy walking distance of the Howard home. Despite this, the two carried on their relationship in part by correspondence. While Howard was on no set schedule, he occasionally made trips for days at a time out of town, and they would keep in touch by letter; so too, Novalyne Price had to work full-time, and unpaid overtime as she worked to coach some of the school’s extracurricular activities, which left little time during the week for visits so Bob would mail her notes and letters. Ten of these letters from Bob to Novalyne survive, reproduced in Price’s memoir and subsequently in collections of Howard’s letters.

The first letter was sent 27 September 1934:

Dear Novalyne,

How about going to the show in Brownwood Sunday afternoon? I’ll be over about 1:30 p.m. Let me know by return mail.

Your friend,

One Who Walked Alone 68

Teachers in Cross Plains were not supposed to go out to picture shows on Sundays. Nor was Robert E. Howard the normal sort of fellow to date: his profession as a writer set him apart in what was still predominantly a farming and tradesman’s community, a little crossroads town that had grown up overnight due to an oil boom and was still very conservative…and Bob Howard had developed a reputation as someone eccentric. Weird.

If I date Bob, some people will tease me. Others will think I’m crazy or peculiar. So what?

You pay a price for everything in this life. You have to decide for yourself whether the price is reasonable or too high. […]

I went to my room, sat down at the typewriter and wrote three lines to Bob to tell him I’d be glad to go to Brownwood to see a show and that one-thirty would be fine. I took the letter out of the typewriter, got up, and told Ethel I was going to the post office to mail it. She thought she ought to go with me, but I insisted on going alone.

Outside, the stars were dim and far away. A soft wind touched my face. I ran most of the way to the post office.

One Who Walked Alone 69-70

The impression from Novalyne’s memoir is that there were more such notes, because sometime around October 1934 she writes:

The only letter in my box was from Bob. I didn’t have time to read it, but I glanced at it and burst out laughing right there in the post office. He didn’t write “Dear Novalyne” as he usually did. Instead he began: “My Cherished Little Bunch of Onion Tops.”

The letter was nearly two pages, typed, single spaced, and I knew it was going to be mostly about the story I’d gotten back which he had taken home to read.

One Who Walked Alone 106

Novalyne’s early stories aren’t known to survive but appear to have been mostly realistic stories aimed at the confessional or romance pulps, dealing with subjects like a woman with an illegitimate child. With her busy schedule at school, grading papers, and with extracurricular projects, Novalyne had little time for writing or revising her fiction to meet editorial standards…yet she was eager to see what a professional could tell her to improve her writing.

First, he explained that men made a terrible mistake when they called their best girls thier rose or violet or names like that, because a man ought to call his girl something that was near his heart. What, he asked, was nearer a man’s heart than his stomach? Therefore he considered it to be an indication of his deep felt love and esteem to call me his cherished little bunch of onion tops, and, judging from past experience, both of us had the highest regard for onions.

The rest of the letter was about my story—”Vixens CLimb Trees.” He said that he’d gotten the best laugh he’d had in a long time, for he understood perfectly the girl’s discomfiture riding a rough, ornery cayuse like the one I had described in the story.

Something he really liked, he said, was the background for the story. It was just there.

One Who Walked Alone 106

Howard offered to write to his agent Otis Adelbert Kline to look at the story, which he apparently did as later on Price writes about receiving an answer from Kline. This was, though she may not have known it, more than a friendly gesture on his part: like many agents, Kline could demand reading fees for work. Presumably, he didn’t charge Novalyne Price as a favor to Howard, who was on his way to becoming a good client.

Writing was like eating onions; the more you did, the better you liked it. Some day, soon, he was sure I’d find an appreciative editor. But the secret, he said, was to write, write, write.

That was discouraging. How could I write and write? I am behind with my paper grading and Enid is on my back constantly. But working with individual students after school, then going back at night to rehearse plays, how could I write more and more. These diaries and journals, of which he is so skeptical, take about all the time I have to give. Here it is after twelve o’clock, and I’m tired. All I want to do is go to bed and forget everything.

One Who Walked Alone 107

There were several disconnects like that between Novalyne and Bob. He had already made the leap and committed himself to be a full-time writer, and could write twelve hours a day if he had to. His advice was no doubt honest, as it had been what he himself had done: learn by doing. Yet Novalyne had a career already and struggled with her schedule as it was. She couldn’t afford to write like Bob did.

Bob Howard did encourage her, and busy as she was he also doted on her in his own fashion. Presumably, during the week she was often too busy to go out for a drive, see a picture, or even have a fizz at the soda fountain; probably they couldn’t spend hours on the phone either. Yet there was always the post office.

The only bright spot in the whole week has been the cutre little notes or letters I’ve gotten from him every day. All of them ebgin with “My very dear little Bunch of Radishes,” or “My very dear Beans, Cornbread and Onions,” or “My dear Sausage and Big, Brown, Fluffy Bisquits [sic].” He’s still on the kick that a man ought to call his girl names that are close to his heart—his stomach.

In one letter, Bob talked about how much it was raining and that neither man nor animal could keep his feet dry. But all this proved, he said, that he’d walk through floods for me. Then, in the postscript, he said he’d be over Saturday afternoon if it didn’t rain. That was the letter in which he called me sliced red beets with butter over them. […]

I wrote Bob, and he wrote me another goofy note to tell me he’d be over tonight, and we’d ride around and he’d shoot his mouth off. I had told him in th eletter that I loved to walk in the rain, and he said maybe I’d just as soon walk.

One Who Walked Alone 110

His “goofy note” came in an unsealed envelope; Novalyne chided him on this, which led to a small argument:

He was emphatic. “I did not forget to seal that letter. I never forget to seal a letter. That’s the damndest thing I ever heard of. Those bastards in the post office opened that letter and read it.”

My nerves were on edge, but I managed not to sound too irritable. “Oh, Bob, you know better than that. It’s against the law to open a letter and read it.”

“What makes you think people in the Cross Plains post office know what the law says?” he raged.

I laughed without mirth. “Just be sure you seal the next letter you write me.”

One Who Walked Alone 110

And on in that vein. Bob was sensitive to slights, real and perceived; Novalyne was sensitive to appearances. Small misunderstandings have a way, in Novalyne’s memoirs, to turn into more serious and sometimes ongoing arguments. Of course, in this case after their date, Bob went home, wrote her a letter, posted it, and then spent the rest of the night writing. Novalyne got the letter the next day…in an unsealed envelope. It began:

Dear Novalyne and Members of the Cross Plains Post Office Staff

One Who Walked Alone 118

The next letter we have the actual text for is a short note, c. December 1934, which included a poem from a fan (“Echo of the Ebon Isles” by Emil Petaja), and two of Howard’s own poems, “To A Woman” and “One Who Comes At Eventide” which had been published in Modern American Poetry 1933.

Though fahtoms deep you sink me in the mould,
Locked in with thick-lapped lead and bolted wood,
Yet rest not easy in your lover’s arms;
Let him beware to stand where I have stood.

I shall not fail to burst my ebon case,
And thrust aside the clods with fingers red:
Your blood shall turn to ice to see my face
Look from the shadows on your midnight bed.

To face the dead, he, too, shall wake in vain,
My fingers at his throat, your scream his knell;
He will not see me tear you from your bed,
And drag you by your golden hair to Hell.

Robert E. Howard, “To A Woman” (1933)

Not perhaps the most romantic poem to share, but she had asked for it. Their relationship continued in that vein, and perhaps there were weeks when they wrote more than they saw each other because in March 1935 Bob had to take his mother to Temple, Tx. to receive medical treatment. Hester Howard’s illness, probably tuberculosis, was one of long duration and which allowed periods of outward good health; medical care was expensive, and Bob’s doting on a mother that Novalyne couldn’t see physically ailing was another point of misunderstanding.

Bob is coming home. I had a card from him, saying that his mother was getting better, and he was bringing her home. I wanted to write him a letter, telling him how my students did, but he probably will be home before the letter could get to him.

One Who Walked Alone 182

On the way home from a County Meet (22 March 1935) where her students performed, Novalyne Price collapsed and was taken to the hospital at Brownwood (30-31 March 1935). The nature of the illness is unclear; Novalyne’s memoir indicates she was eating little and sleeping little, and had gone down to eighty-five pounds, but never reveals what precisely the diagnosis was (One Who Walked Alone 187). Dr. Dougherty, who treated Novalyne, recommended as part of her treatment she leave Texas for a time—recommending graduate studies out-of-state, which suggestion Novalyne Price would eventually take him up on.

Once back in Cross Plains, Novalyne and Bob’s relationship continued with its ups and downs. As the 1934-1935 semester wound down, a stack of papers that included many of Bob’s letters to her was mistaken for trash and burned. The timing was almost symbolic; in a downturn in her relationship with Bob, Novalyne had begun to date his friend Truett Vinson, without telling Bob. The fact came out while Bob and Truett had driven out to New Mexico (19-24 June 1935); Bob had punctuated the trip with two postcards to Novalyne.

I wrote to Bob in Cross Plains a very short note, telling him that I had gotten his cards and enjoyed them, except for the snake swallowing the rabbit […] The note I wrote was friendly, nothing more nor less.

One Who Walked Alone 229
A common tourist postcard

This was followed by a longer letter from Bob, dated 4 July 1935, that seemed to hint that he knew Novalyne had been hanging out with Truett. She debated how or if to answer him.

I wasn’t quite sure how to answer the letter or even whether I should answer. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to write him and be very sweet and cut him as he had cut at Truett and me. It began to irritate me […] One other thought bothered me. No matter how irriated I became with Bob, I had enjoyed being with him, and I thought Cross Plains without him might be pretty dull.

Finally, I wrote him a short letter, and I tried to be as casual as I could possibly be. I even told him I was looking forward to seeing him again. His answer to that made me so mad I couldn’t see straight.

One Who Walked Alone 230

Robert E. Howard’s letter of 9 July 1935 to Novalyne Price while she was staying with her mother and grandmother in Brownwood is aggrieved: he sees himself as the butt of a cruel joke from two people he had seen as friends, but had concealed that they were going together from him for their own amusement. Novalyne, for her part, could not fathom this attitude: she had all but told him she was dating Truett. The “all but” is probably the heart of the break here, no doubt Bob was honestly hurt at the perceived betrayal, and Novalyne in not wanting to hurt him by telling him outright had worsened the miscommunication. Whatever the case, she did not take it well.

I had to read that letter twice to believe it. I was furious. […] My first impulse was to tear the letter up and go throw it in his face. I sat down at the typewriter and wrote him a letter, telling him to go to hel and take his mother with him! I told him that no other woman in the world but me would have put up with him, and that the only reason I did was because I could appreciate a person who had talent and a profession which he worked at hard enough to make the kind of success he had made. I told him I never wanted to see or speka to him again.

After I wrote it, I read it to Mother and Mammy. […]

“What do you think, Mother?” I asked.

“You’ve said it now,” she said quietly. “Tear it up.”

One Who Walked Alone 231-232

She did, eventually. Then, when she had calmed down a bit, Novalyne Price sat down to write Bob another letter, dated 12 July 1935. It begins:

Dear Bob,

Although you leave nothing for me to say, being a woman, I’ll say something anyway. You said that you didn’t care whom I went with. I know that, Bob. During the time that I went with you, I realized perfectly how you felt about women. Women chain a man down. You always wanted to be free and independent. Such an idea as being chained to a woman was obnoxious to you. Self-preservation was the first law which you recognize. Strange as it may seem, I, too, demand my freedom; self-preservation is also a law of my life. I’ll do anything which gives me pleasure and consider myself under no obligation to tell my friends my personal business.

One Who Walked Alone 233

There was more, about her relationship with Truett Vinson and Tevis Clyde Smith. For all their dates, Novalyne and Bob had never, apparently, defined their relationship. Though they obviously cared for one another, neither had been ready to commit to one another, at least not at the same time. Novalyne’s tone is still hurt, but perhaps not as angry as her first letter. She mailed it.

When I went to the mailbox this morning, I found an envelope with Bob’s name on it. I frowned. It really didn’t seem to me that my letter had had time to get to Cross Plains, yet here was a letter back from Bob, or else, I thought, as I walked slowly toward the house, this one had been written before he got mine. […]

Surprise! It was not a letter from Bob! It was my letter, the one I wrote last Friday! My letter was in the envelope; he had sent it back to me! There was not a single word or line from Bob…just my letter!

One Who Walked Alone 235

Readers today may argue whether or not Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price were ever in love, but they certainly knew how to piss each other off. Because of Bob’s gesture, this is the only letter from Novalyne Price to Robert E. Howard that survives.

While they may have wounded each other with things said and left unsaid, this was not the end of Novalyne and Bob’s relationship. Her memoirs for the 1935-1936 school year at Cross Plains are less detailed; a bit of the bloom had come off the rose, and Bob Howard had made some long trips as he ferried his mother to hospitals and healthcare facilities in Marlin and San Angelo, Tx., and so he was sometimes away from Cross Plains for days or weeks at a time. But they had managed to forgive each other a little, if not forget. That was part of their dynamic. Novalyne doesn’t write much of their correspondence during this period, but in an entry dated 13 February 1936 she wrote:

“The way to interest a writer, I said to my roommate, “is to ask him about his writing. After you find out what he’s doing and selling, you ask him to help you with your writing.” […]

“So you’re going to ask him about his writing?” she laughed.

“The letter is written and mailed. I asked him where and how much he was selling these days. Then I asked if he had any suggestions about markets I might sell to.”

He answered so promptly Mary Beth put her hand to her mouth and began munching away—to show me I had him eating out of my hand.

One Who Walked Alone 261-262

Bob replied in a good-sized letter dated 14 February 1936; noting the date he added near the end:

This being Valentine Day, I suppose I should make the conventional request for you to go and join the army. That may sound a bit wobbly, but look: Valentine comes from the same word from which “gallant” is derived; a gallant may be a suitor, but is also a cavalier; a cavalier is a knight; a knight is a cavalryman; a cavalryman is a soldier. To ask one to be one’s Valentine is equivalent to asking him, or her, to be a soldier. And one can’t be a soldier without joining the army. So, a request to become a Valentine is approximately a demand to go and join the army.

One Who Walked Alone 264

Yet beneath the surface, all the same issues that had driven them apart before remained. Hester Howard’s health continued to decline, Novalyne continued to harp on Bob about his appearance—she made a particular point of impugning his mustache—and there were other little misunderstandings that often cropped up into disagreements. For all their mutual admiration, Novalyne had no understanding of the seriousness of Hester’s illness or how her decline weighed on Bob; nor did Bob seem to understand why when he was feeling so blue she would pick on him about his mustache of all things.

In late February Bob once again took his mother to Marlin, Tx. for further medical treatment. It meant standing up Novalyne for a date…and he wrote her a letter to apologize for it and explain why, but quickly broke down into a torrent of words over their last date (“My God, arguing over a mustache when my whole life is crumbling to powder under my hands!”), until at the end he summed up with “[…] all I ever wanted was to be allowed to enjoy your company, and I always did, when you gave me any kind of chance. Your friend, Bob” (One Who Walked Alone 274).

I read the letter twice. Then I went into the bathroom, sat down and cried with anger and frustration. He did a beautiful job of blaming me for being foolish and mean when his life was breaking up around him! I admit I handled the situation badly! Should I write to tell him I loved Truett and that it nauseated me to death to hear him say about his mother: “I changed her gown and bed three times last night.” I think that’s his dad’s job. Not Bob’s.

One Who Walked Alone 274

At this point, it’s worth recalling that we really have only Novalyne’s memoir to describe her relationship with Robert E. Howard. Bob wrote almost nothing about his relationship with her: why would he mention such things to H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth, or Clark Ashton Smith? They were peers at Weird Tales, but not intimates of that sort. Many of the incidental details of Novalyne’s memoir can be verified in other details of Howard’s letters, like the fact that in January 1936 Hester Howard suffered from terrible night sweats that required changing her gown and bedding.

Novalyne’s honesty in her memoir is presenting it “warts and all”—she does not come across as the sympathetic party, being honest about her own mistakes and feelings at the time, including her lack of understanding and empathy for what the Howards were going through.

The day after he mailed that letter ot me from Marlin, he wrote me a card, a fairly cheerful card, saying his mother seemed to be doing well, and he, too, was feeling better. I didn’t answer. I wasn’t ready to say anything else to him. I had already written him a letter, trying to excuse myself for the silly things I’d said. In some ways I chickened out and said I was unhappy.

One Who Walked Alone 275

Bob’s reply is dated 5 March. A certain strain of fatalism runs through it, beginning with the first paragraph:

Dear Novalyne;

I just not read the letter you wrote me Monday, February 24th. None of my mail has been forward to me at Marlin and this letter was with the rest I got out of the post office this morning. I’m sorry I didn’t get it before I left. If I had, I wouldn’t have written you in what must have seemed like such a bitter strain, though I did not mean it that way. I can’t blame you for not answering the card I wrote you from Marlin. It’s hard, in the last analysis, to blame anyone for anything. We are all caught in a mesh of circumstances we cannot break.

One Who Walked Alone 276

The Cross Plains school year ended 22 May 1936; these were their last days together, as Novalyne had already applied for and been accepted at Louisiana State University for graduate school over the summer, though she would be back in Cross Plains for the 1936-1937 school year. In packing her things to leave, she returned one of the books Bob had given her as a gift…and he wrote what turned out to be his final letter to her, dated 27 May 1936:

Dear Novalyne,

You needn’t have bothered about returning the book. I intended for you to keep it, if you wanted it. I hope you enjoy your vacation, and that you’ll find Louisiana all you hope it to be. I’m sure the courses of study you’re taking will be interesting and helpful. With the best wishes for your health, prosperity and success, I am, as I always was,

Your Friend,

One Who Walked Alone 297

Two weeks before this, Howard had written to H. P. Lovecraft that he had “renewed an old love affair and broken it off again” (A Means to Freedom 2.953). On receiving the letter, Novalyne Price wrote:

Tomorrow, I promised myself, when I finish packing for LSU, I’ll write Bob a friendly letter—one that will make things all right between us again.

One Who Walked Alone 297

She never wrote that letter. Robert E. Howard would commit suicide on 11 July 1936, while Novalyne Price was at Louisiana State University; she would not return to Cross Plains until time for the 1936-1937 school term.

The correspondence of Novalyne Price and Robert E. Howard shows us how limited our understanding of relationships can be, not just because we have only an incomplete correspondence—ten letters and postcards from Bob to Novalyne, and one letter from Novalyne to Bob—but because so much of their relationship existed outside of that correspondence. While Robert E. Howard only ever interacted with C. L. Moore and H. P. Lovecraft through the mail, Novalyne and Bob would have interacted mostly face-to-face, talking, laughing, arguing, kissing, and enjoying a quiet moonrise as the case may be. For them, the letters were a buttress to their relationship, mostly during times when they couldn’t enjoy such facetime because of Novalyne’s busy schedule or because they were separated by distance (Novalyne going home to Brownwood during the school breaks, Bob’s trips around Texas and into New Mexico and Mexico).

We don’t have Robert E. Howard’s perspective on the relationship, but in comparison to his letters to friends and peers, his letters to Novalyne seem more intimate and unguarded; it was not unusual for Howard to shift his tone to display humor or pathos and self-recrimination, but the letters to Novalyne do seem to have a quality of pouring his heart out, at least as much as he can. Novalyne’s sole letter, and description of her other letters, show both honesty and her fierce independence. It was not a relationship where either Novalyne or Bob was solely at fault, both had flaws that prevented them from coming together…and punctuated, at last, with a single unanswerable letter.

It’s a feeling that I think everybody who knows a friend or 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.

Novalyne Price Ellis, Day of the Stranger: Furhter Memories of Robert E. Howard 20

For more information on Novalyne Price Ellis and her relationship with Robert E. Howard, please see:

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

One Who Walked Alone (1986) by Novalyne Price Ellis

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.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).