The Long Road to Dark Valley – Introduction

Man is greatly molded by his surroundings. I believe, for instance, that the gloominess in my own nature can be partly traced to the surroundings of a locality in which I spent part of my baby-hood. It was a long, narrow valley, lonesome and isolated, up in the Palo Pinto hill country. It was very sparsely settled and its name, Dark Valley, was highly descriptive. So high were the ridges, so thick and tall the oak trees that it was shadowy even in the daytime, and at night it was as dark as a pine forest – and nothing is darker in this world. The creatures of the night whispered and called to one another, faint night-winds murmured through the leaves and now and then among the slightly waving branches could be glimpsed the gleam of a distant star. Surely, the silence, the brooding loneliness, the shadowy mysticism of that lonesome valley entered in some part into my vague-forming nature. At the mouth of the valley stood a deserted and decaying cabin in which a cold-blooded and midnight murder had taken place; owls called weirdly about its ruins in the moonlight, and bats flitted about it in the twilight.

Howard was apparently sincere when he wrote the above in an October 1930 letter to HP Lovecraft. He expressed similar feelings in a poem titled “The Dweller in Dark Valley,” which concludes: “I go no more to Dark Valley which is the Gate of Hell.” In my “Hyborian Genesis” (in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, Del Rey, 2003), I make the case that Conan’s gloomy homeland Cimmeria and Howard’s Dark Valley were closely linked in the author’s mind. In short, there is no denying the psychological importance of Dark Valley in Howard’s psyche.

This probably explains why Catherine and Lyon Sprague de Camp chose the place as the title for their much-maligned biography of Howard: Dark Valley Destiny. Born in so sinister and haunted a region, Howard’s life could only be tragic, its dark conclusion foretold from the very place where he was born. Here are the opening lines of the De Camp’s first chapter of Howard’s life:

Robert Ervin Howard was born on January 24, 1906, in Peaster, Texas, a village in Parker County, ten miles northwest of Weatherford and thirty-five miles due west of Fort Worth. The Howards at that time lived in Dark Valley, a community of some fifty souls in Palo Pinto County, near the Parker County border, but Dr. Howard had taken his wife to Peaster, a larger settlement, in the adjacent county, as her confinement drew near. He wished, presumably, to ensure adequate medical facilities for her lying-in, as well as the services of Dr. J. A. Williams, the physician who attended Mrs. Howard on the birth of her only child. [p. 18]

Not being a Texan, and not even an American, I have long been in the habit of getting a map when discussing anything pertaining to Howard and his family, and his/their various moves/visits/etc. Which gives us this:

There is of course no question that Dark Valley was a very small community, and thus that it would have been wise on the part of Dr. Howard to find a larger place for his wife to give birth. But a mere look at the map above shows that Peaster makes absolutely no sense here. The de Camps probably sensed they were on shaky ground, timidly implying that Dr. Williams was perhaps a close colleague/friend of Dr. Howard, which he wasn’t: he was simply one of the physicians of Peaster. If Dr. Howard wanted to “ensure adequate medical facilities” for his wife, Peaster would not have been his first choice, but more likely the much larger Weatherford. Or even halfway from there, Mineral Wells, where physicians would be numerous.

And since we know for a fact that Howard was born in Peaster, the only – startling – conclusion that suggests itself is that Dr. Howard didn’t bring his wife from Dark Valley to Peaster simply because the Howards didn’t live in Dark Valley in the first place…

Go to Part 1