Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
The pulp magazines that flourished from the 1920s through the 1950s were one of the great trashy entertainment mediums of our century. I got in at the end of the period, as the big-format classic pulps like Thrilling Wonder Stories were being pushed aside by television, and replaced on the newsstands by more respectable digest-sized mags like Analog, Galaxy and F&SF. But I haunted used book stores and brought home old pulps in cardboard boxes strapped to the back of my bike, and late into the night I'd read their breathless stories, and feel faint stirrings of unfamiliar emotions as I examined their covers, on which desperate women in big titanium brassieres squirmed in the tentacles of bug-eyed monsters.
The great pulps came in four flavors: Science fiction, Westerns, romance, and crime. Of these, the brand-new genre was sf, baptized by Hugo Gernsback in his pioneering magazine Amazing Stories. The skilled pulp writers could move from one genre to another, sometimes using pseudonyms because they had more than one story in an issue. The crime mags gave birth to film noir and the great writers like Hammett, Chandler and their heirs. They also gave rise to the image of the writer as romantic loner, slaving at his typewriter in a rented room, a cigarette in his mouth and a bottle on the floor, working for peanuts.
Robert E. Howard bought that image lock, stock and truncheon. He was by his own admission ''the greatest pulp writer in the whole wide world,'' a mainstay of the famous fantasy/horror magazine Weird Tales. The best of his creations was Conan the Barbarian, who had a rebirth in the 1970s in two Schwarzenegger movies and in some 50 Conan paperbacks written under license by modern-day hacks. By then Howard was long dead, by his own hand.
"The Whole Wide World" is based on a 1988 memoir of Howard, written by a woman named Novalyne Price Ellis, who was a retired Texas school teacher when the Conan boom came along. Disturbed by portraits of Howard as some kind of loony loner, she wrote the book to recall her own romance with Howard more than 50 years earlier. Her memories have served him well, even though he probably was loony, and a loner given to statements like "the road I walk, I walk alone,'' which are not designed to inspire confidence in the bosom of a potential fiancee.