by Ståle Gismervik - August 6th, 2023


Robert E. Howard’s literary work was the result of hard work and the strong will of a young man in rural Texas in the early 20th century. Howard’s will and determination to become a writer against all odds, combined with his deep knowledge of history, both local and general among other fields, resulted in unique, gripping tales and enduring literary influence.

This essay delves into the influences that sparked part of Howard’s imagination, with a focus on three influential women who played a significant role in his work in the horror genre of his stories.

One of these women was Robert’s paternal grandmother. Two other women emerged during his childhood in Bagwell, Red River County, providing a rich source of inspiration for his haunting tales.

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Robert’s grandmother

Louisa Elizabeth Henry, Robert E. Howard’s paternal grandmother, played a significant role in shaping his taste for weird stories and horror.  Born July 25, 1835, in Alabama, Louisa moved to Texas in 1885.

Around 1912, she may have stayed with her son Isaac, his wife Hester, and their son Robert in Oran, Palo Pinto County. This could be where Robert listened to her telling ghost stories. Howard described his grandmother as one generation removed from South Ireland, possessing a wealth of tales, superstitions, and horrors passed down through generations.

Louisa’s stories had a profound impact on Howard, evoking in him feelings of terror and fascination.

Her influence on Robert becomes evident in a letter he wrote to Lovecraft, circa September 1930:

“But no negro ghost-story ever gave me the horrors as did the tales told by my grandmother. All the gloominess and dark mysticism of the Gaelic nature was hers, and there was no light and mirth at her.” (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Volume Two, p. 67)

In the same letter Robert mentioned one of the stories his grandmother had told him:

“As a child my hair used to stand straight up when she would tell of the wagon that moved down wilderness roads in the dark of the night, with never a horse drawing it — the wagon that was full of severed heads and dismembered limbs; and the yellow horse, the ghastly dream horse that raced up and down the stairs of the grand old plantation house where a wicked woman lay dying; and the ghost-switches that swished against doors when none dared open those doors lest reason be blasted at what was seen. And in many of her tales, also, appeared the old, deserted plantation mansion, with the weeds growing rank about it and the ghostly pigeons flying up from the rails of the verandah.”

The allure of ghostly pigeons and old deserted plantation mansions struck a chord with Howard, leaving an imprint on his work. This resonance becomes unmistakably apparent in his story, “Pigeons from Hell,” where these motifs take center stage, hauntingly creating the stage with their eerie presence during the unfolding of the tale’s grisly events.

“The old deserted house stimulated their imagination with its suggestion of antebellum splendor and ultimate decay. They left the automobile beside the rutty road, and as they went up the winding walk of crumbling bricks, almost lost in the tangle of rank growth, pigeons rose from the balustrades in a fluttering, feathery crowd and swept away with a low thunder of beating wings.” (The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, page 425)

Later in the story, the pigeons are used again in a highly atmospheric way, resulting in an unsettling and at the same time impressive image:

“They say the pigeons are the souls of the Blassenvilles, let out of hell at sunset. The niggers say the red glare in the west is the light from hell, because then the gates of hell are open, and the Blassenvilles fly out.” (The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, page 429)

Howard used these haunting images of his grandmother’s tales in his horror stories. By doing so he created not only a spine-chilling atmosphere. Furthermore, by using old, deserted houses – a sight found throughout Howard’s home region the American Southwest – he added local color as another element of his stories and hereby lent his stories strong authenticity.

His grandmother influenced Robert in other areas as well. He remembered her singing old Scottish and Irish ballads when he was a child. Howard was very proud of his Irish heritage and some of his letters contain poems and ballads. These were often dark and somber.

The dark and somber atmosphere likely resonated with Howard, as evident from his letters and accounts shared by his family and friends, suggesting that his personality was influenced by such moods. In a letter to Lovecraft from November 2, 1932, Howard provided insight into the potential origins of these dark feelings that left an impact on him:

“These moods are hereditary, coming down the line of my purely Irish branch — the black-haired, grey-eyed branch, of which, as far back as family history goes, both men and women have been subject to black fits of savage brooding, which has been, in some cases, coupled with outbursts of really dangerous fury, when crossed or thwarted.” (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Volume Two, p. 368)

Could it be that Howard’s darker side of his personality, combined with the elements inspired by his grandmother, played a pivotal role in shaping these sinister tales?

Louisa died in 1916 and is buried at Mount Calm, Hill County.

Old Aunt Mary Bohannon

In the early 1900s, Bagwell was a small railroad town in Red River County, Texas. In 1914 this small town had a population of circa 500. This included 170 voters, eight to ten stores, two banks, a hardware company, three hotels, and two drug stores. The Bagwell school had once been a residential house, which at a point was converted into an educational institution.

Early in 1913, Robert’s father, Dr. Isaac Howard, took over Dr. Stephen’s medical practice in Bagwell, and the family settled in this small community, moving into what was known as “the old Baker House”. Robert attended school when he was eight.

It was in Bagwell, where Robert met Mary Bohannon who became another influence on the horror fiction which Howard wrote later in his life.

Mary was born into slavery in Kentucky1On Mary’s census records her place of birth is listed as Kentucky. Only her death record states the place of birth as Tennessee which is believed to be incorrect. The true date of her birth also varies on different documents. on February 23, 1821. She was owned by Henry C. Bohannon and his wife Pauline, who, according to Howard seems to have treated the slaves horribly. Howard wrote about Pauline:

“I should say. Mistreatment of slaves is, and has been somewhat exaggerated, but old Aunt Mary had had the misfortune, in her youth, to belong to a man whose wife was a fiend from Hell. The young slave women were fine young animals, and barbarically handsome; her mistress was frenziedly jealous. You understand. Aunt Mary told tales of torture and unmistakable sadism that sickens me to this day when I think of them.” (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Volume Two p. 66)

In the 1850s the Bohannons moved to Red River County. Pauline died in 1861 and Henry two years later. Mary then became the property of Bohannon’s son-in-law.

Marriage between slaves was usually not recorded. On Mary’s death certificate, she is listed as married to Wyatt, a black farmer, who was born in Kentucky[1] The couple lived east of Clarksville with the white Bohannon’s on their property in Red River County. The certificate also states that Mary and Wyatt later divorced.

When the American Civil War ended, all the white Bohannon’s left the Red River Country, but Mary, then free, chose to remain. She also adopted her former master’s name2It is unknown why Mary kept her previous owners last name as she was free to do as she wanted. There may be several reasons this. Family ties: If as a former slave she felt she had established family connection and a sense of identity to other individuals who shared the last name; for practicality. Changing one’s name could be a complex and bureaucratic process, and some individuals might choose to avoid the hassle by keeping their known surname. Tradition: In some cases, certain families may have formed strong bonds with their owners over time, and adopting the owner’s surname could be a way of acknowledging that relationship.. It also appears that Wyatt and Mary were not the only Bohannon slaves to keep their owner’s surname.

Most of the information we have about Mary Bohannon comes from research conducted by Sharon Black. In her essay, “Mary Bohannon of Bagwell, Red River Co., Texas,” Black provides detailed insights into Mary’s life.

According to Robert, she was “nearly white – about one sixteenth negro.” (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Volume Two, p. 66). Mary was a cook by profession and listed as a housekeeper. While there are no surviving sources to confirm, it remains a plausible scenario that Mary might have been employed in one of these capacities for the Howards, which could have brought her into contact with Robert.

Mary possessed a wealth of stories from her experiences as a slave. These tales were raw, haunting, and filled with instances of cruelty and sadism due to her mistress’s jealousy.

“Jealousy” emerges as a recurring theme in Howard’s works. In his Solomon Kane story, “The Moon of Skulls,” Howard skillfully explores this theme with an intriguing twist that echoes Mary Bohannon’s experiences under Pauline Bohannon’s cruelty. However, in “The Moon of Skulls,” Howard reverses the roles of the abuser and the abused. Here, it is the black queen, Nakari, who experiences jealousy towards the beautiful white girl, Mara, leading to mistreatment in form of being whipped by Nakari.

Howard was captivated by Aunt Mary’s narratives, some of which he described as sickening and still haunting him years later. In one instance, for example, Mary told Robert about how a blast of hot wind once swept over the slaves in the fields, signaling the death of their cruel mistress. This may be another reference to Pauline Bohannon. Mary explained that while a cool breeze follows the passing of a good spirit, an evil spirit’s departure is marked by a hot wind from the open doors of hell.

Another of Mary’s stories featuring supernatural elements caused an especially strong reaction with Robert:

“(Mary) told many tales, one which particularly made my hair rise; it occurred in her youth. A young girl going to the river for water, met, in the dimness of dusk, an old man, long dead, who carried his severed head in one hand. This, said Aunt Mary, occurred on the plantation of her master, and she herself saw the girl come screaming through the dusk, to be whipped for throwing away the water-buckets in her flight.” (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Volume Two, p. 67)

Among the many stories Mary seems to have told Howard there is one that shows strong similarities to a story also heard from his grandmother.

“Another tale she (Mary) told that I have often met with in negro-lore. The setting, time and circumstances are changed by telling, but the tale remains basically the same. Two or three men — usually negroes — are travelling in a wagon through some isolated district — usually a broad, deserted river-bottom. They come on to the ruins of a once thriving plantation at dusk, and decide to spend the night in the deserted plantation house. This house is always huge, brooding and forbidding, and always, as the men approach the high columned verandah, through the high weeds that surround the house, great numbers of pigeons rise from their roosting places on the railing and fly away. The men sleep in the big front-room with its crumbling fire-place, and in the night they are awakened by a jangling of chains, weird noises and groans from upstairs. Sometimes footsteps descend the stairs with no visible cause. Then a terrible apparition appears to the men who flee in terror. This monster, in all the tales I have heard, is invariably a headless giant, naked or clad in shapeless sort of garment, and is sometimes armed with a broad-axe. This motif appears over and over in negro-lore.” (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Volume Two, p. 67)

This is basically the plot of his horror story “The Pigeons from Hell” and features all the elements Mary had told Robert: Two men, who arrive at an abandoned plantation house and decide to spend the night inside the house and a “terrible apparition”. It is in “Pigeons from Hell”, one of Howard’s most prominent stories, that the influence of Mary Bohannon becomes especially obvious.

Besides her personal experiences, Mary also shared African folk tales with Howard, adding a unique perspective to his representation of supernatural horror. By sharing these tales, Mary provided Howard with insights into a different cultural and folklore background, one that he might not have been exposed to otherwise. This unique perspective allowed Howard to incorporate elements and themes from African folklore into his horror stories, enriching his depiction of supernatural horror beyond the conventional Western influences. It exposed him to myths, creatures, and beliefs that were decisively different from European or American folklore which Robert encountered more frequently in his rural Texas environment. This infusion of elements from African folk tales into Howard’s works, lent them a unique flavor.

After living a long and eventful life, Mary passed away of skin cancer in Bagwell, Texas, on February 27, 1921, just a few days after her 100th birthday. She was laid to rest at Becknell Cemetery, in an unmarked grave3The unmarked grave is located on James Miller’s land just off County Road 2111, about two miles northeast of Bagwell, in what is now called “Bagwell Cemetery”. Bagwell Cemetery is an old abandoned Afro-American Cemetery having its first recorded burial on 23 Mar 1895 with the last burial taking place on 28 Nov 1963..

Arabella (Belle) Davis Bohannon

Another influential woman in Howard’s life was Arabella Davis, a laundress who also was born into slavery. Arabella lived near Mary Bohannon in Bagwell and caught Howard’s attention as he observed her going about town collecting washing. Howard described her in a letter to Lovecraft:

“And there was one Arabella Davis, I remember, whom I used to see, when a child, going placidly about town collecting washing — I mean when I was a kid, not Arabella. She was a black philosopher, if there was ever one. Her little grand-daughter tagged after her, everywhere she went, carrying Arabella’s pipe, matches and tobacco with as much pomposity as a courtier ever carried the train of a queen.” (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Volume Two, p. 68)

Howard did not elaborate on why he regarded Arabella as a philosopher. It is one particular story told by Arabella that left a lasting impression on Howard – Arabella’s spiritual conversion story.

“She often told of her conversion, when the spirit of the Lord was so strong upon her that she went for ten days and nights without eating or sleeping. She went into a trance, she said, and for days the fiends of Hell pursued her through the black mountains and the red mountains. For four days she hung in the cobwebs on the gates of Hell, and the hounds of Hell bayed at her. Is that not a splendid sweep of imagination?” (The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Volume Two, p. 68)

It is obvious in Howard’s letter, that Arabella’s report of extraordinary experience impressed Howard. Arabella’s experience – or rather the story she had made up – showed Howard, himself a writer of fantastic fiction, the potential, and importance of unfettered imagination when it came to writing fantastic fiction.

While there is no concrete evidence linking Arabella Davis’s storytelling to specific works by Howard, the impact of her spiritual conversion story on the young author’s mind is a noteworthy testament to her influence.

Arabella’s “splendid sweep of imagination,” for which Howard expressed admiration in his letter to Lovecraft, holds the potential to be an up to now unnoticed influence on his approach to writing fantastic fiction. Arabella’s story of her conversion may have affirmed Howard’s own belief that only imagination fully unleashed could produce not only fantastic fiction but also be a means to freedom.


In this essay, a previously overlooked aspect of Howard’s horror stories was discussed: the influential role played by three women on Howard and how this influence can be found in his horror stories.

Howard’s grandmother, Louisa Elizabeth Henry, introduced him to the dark mysticism and eeriness of Irish and Gaelic folklore, an atmospheric trademark that permeated not only his horror fiction but also his work in other fantastic genres.

Secondly, Aunt Mary Bohannon’s raw and haunting narratives of slavery left an indelible mark in Howard’s work. Elements from her stories, such as the setting of deserted, old plantation houses, found their way into one of his most famous tales. Additionally, the exposure to African folk tales expanded Howard’s cultural horizon, enriching his horror tales with a unique atmosphere within the field of pulp fiction horror.

Arabella Davis emerged as a source that reinforced Howard’s belief in unleashing imagination without limitations to write authentic and fantastic fiction.

Given these facts and considering these significant influences, Aunt Mary Bohannon, Arabella Davis, and Howard’s grandmother, Louisa Elizabeth Henry, can aptly be deemed as “three dark muses” who inspired and helped Howard craft his distinctive brand of dark fantasy and horror.


Thoughts Concerning Potentially Offensive Language in Howard’s Letters and Excerpts Used for this Essay.

It is essential to address the presence of racist language in some of Robert E. Howard’s letters while providing the necessary context to better understand the historical backdrop in which they were written. During Howard’s time, racist language and attitudes were unfortunately prevalent, and many writers of that era, including Howard, used such language without necessarily holding explicit racist beliefs.

In exploring Howard’s correspondence with different individuals, such as Lovecraft, it becomes evident that he adapted his writing style and tone depending on his audience. This adaptation might have included the use of language that, by today’s standards, is considered racist. It is crucial to recognize that the use of such language was common in the social and cultural milieu of that era.

It is important to read Howard’s letters with a nuanced understanding, considering the time in which they were written and the context of his correspondence. While some passages may be unsettling to modern readers, they offer valuable insights into the prevailing attitudes and language of the past.

The inclusion of these passages in the article is not an endorsement of racist views but rather an acknowledgment of historical reality. By providing this contextual background, the focus of the article remains on the main topic, which is the influence of three influential women on Howard’s writing style and the creation of his dark fantasy or horror genre.

Understanding the historical context of the language used in the past is crucial for both analyzing literary works and appreciating the evolution of societal norms and attitudes over time. By acknowledging these complexities, we can celebrate the influence and inspiration these women had on Howard’s work while maintaining an awareness of the historical language usage.


I would like to thank:

  • Dierk Günther of Gakushuin Women’s College, Tokyo/Japan, for encouragement, invaluable expertise, input, time, and patience.
  • Patrice Louinet for providing Sharon Black’s article.
  • Rusty Burke for providing information and dates regarding Louise Elizabeth Henry, Robert’s paternal grandmother.

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