It is truly remarkable how much work pulp author Robert E. Howard managed to accomplish during his brief 30 years of life. Indeed, a look at his bibliography, on a certain Wiki site, should surely flabbergast any reader who knows the Texan writer only as the creator of Conan the Cimmerian, King Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane and, essentially, the entire genre known as Sword & Sorcery. Hundreds upon hundreds of titles can be found there, in such variegated categories as boxing, Westerns, Oriental exoticism, sword & sorcery (natch), horror, fantasy, crime, historical tales, detective stories, adventure … even comedy, “spicy stories,” essays and poetry. But of all these myriad story types, one salient fact emerges: Most of them are just that — short stories. Howard, despite his superhuman output, wrote very few (four, I believe) longer pieces during his brief career, and indeed, thinking back, I could only recall having read a single one, The Hour of the Dragon, aka Conan the Conqueror, which first appeared as a five-part serial in the 12/35 – 4/36 issues of Weird Tales. But I hadn’t read this great fantasy work since high school (more years ago than I’d care to admit), and thus felt that it was high time for me to finally read his posthumous, stand-alone novel, Almuric.
Almuric initially appeared in Weird Tales, as well, as a three-part series in the May, June – July, and August 1939 issues, three years after its author’s suicide in 1936. In hindsight, it seems remarkable now that this work, now deemed a fantasy classic of sorts, never copped the cover illustration for any of those three issues. It saw its first release in book form as a 1964 Ace paperback (F-305, for all you collectors out there), with a cover price of 40 cents. The version that I recently read, from Paizo’s Planet Stories series, cost more than 30 times that, but turned out to be a worthy investment, nevertheless, as Almuric has revealed itself to be a very solid, at times relentlessly gripping fantasy work, told with an incredible amount of panache.
In the book, a scientist, Prof. Hildebrand, introduces us to a man named Esau Cairn, an individual of extraordinary dynamism and physical brawn, who feels discontent with his life on Earth and who has inadvertently injured many an opponent in the boxing ring and on the football field. Cairn showed up at the professor’s laboratory after killing a crooked political boss, and the professor convinced the big lug that his only chance was to utilize Hildebrand’s latest scientific wonder to materialize himself onto a planet that the inventor has dubbed “Almuric.” This is soon done, and the rest of the book is narrated by Esau himself. And what a narration it is! After living by himself in the planet’s highland wilderness for many months, fighting off an assortment of nasty beasts and Almuric’s troglodytic inhabitants, Cairn is taken prisoner by the residents of the city of Koth. He fights the mightiest Kothan, Ghor the Bear, and, narrowly besting the Alley Oop-like brute, is made a citizen. But Esau Ironhand’s (as he is now known) troubles are just beginning. When the lovely Kothan maiden Altha is captured by the bat-winged black men of distant Yugga, Cairn follows in hot pursuit, ultimately doing battle with a host of dog-faced apes, a monstrous spider, and an electrified and tentacled slug creature (!) … not to mention uniting the hereditary enemy cities of Koth and Khor to do epochal battle against the Yagas’ fortified cliff city and their evil queen, Yasmeena…
Almuric, to be sure, is a red-blooded (in the figurative and literal sense; the book is extremely violent), rousing action yarn that never lets up and that grows increasingly bonkers as it proceeds. Indeed, the book’s final battle sequence is absolutely gripping; you won’t be able to turn those pages quickly enough, I assure you. Howard’s imagination must surely have been working overtime as his story proceeded, especially as regards Yasmeena’s “Ultimate Horror,” as wackadoodle a creation as anything Conan ever had to face. The story is a true fantasy of sorts, and not just as regards the amazing monstrosities that Esau Cairn (a great name, that, isn’t it?) encounters. Perhaps the novel’s most glaring fantasy element is this notion of Almuric’s male residents being hairy, ugly cavemen types, while its women are all smooth skinned and beautiful; a development that arose, Howard tells us, because the females were spared the onerous work and hardships in general that the men allowed themselves to endure. Uh, okay. Putting aside that small matter, though, the reader should happily find himself/herself immersed in one mightily entertaining page-turner. It’s nothing deep, to be sure (I couldn’t agree with Greg more, when he mentions the novel’s “appealing lack of depth”), but it sure is fun, and wonderfully atmospheric … perhaps never more so than when the sun is blotted out, the world turns impenetrably dark, and some monstrous Thing passes over the landscape. (Howard was perhaps influenced here by the truly mysterious, unseen monsters in William Hope Hodgson’s 1912 classic The Night Land.)
At this point, I don’t think I need convince anyone what a wonderful, natural storyteller Howard was, with a great command of pulp style and verbiage. Just take this wonderful Almuric sample, however, from the scene in which Esau battles that giant spider:
…Catching up a heavy block of masonry, I poised it for an instant, and then hurled it straight into the onrushing bulk. Full among those branching hairy legs it crushed, and a jet of nauseous green stuff gushed into the air from the torn torso…
Or howzabout this wonderful bit of pulp verbiage, as Cairn describes the Yagas:
…I believe they represented a separate branch on the tree of evolution, and that it is only an incredible freak of coincidence which cast them in a mold so similar to man, instead of the shapes of the abysmal, howling, blasphemous dwellers of Outer Darkness…
Whew! And speaking of language, this might be as good a place as any to mention that this posthumous novel was, it has long been assumed, put together by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, utilizing Howard’s completed first draft and incomplete second draft, and that the slightly unpolished feel of the book might have something to do with that provenance. To be sure, there are many who believe that Howard did not even write the book’s concluding section, ending as it does with a happy, almost domesticated note, one very atypical for this author. However, if you will go to YouTube and type in the word “Almuric,” you’ll find a 30-minute dissertation by a Howard scholar who has used the author’s known writing samples, as well as samples of a half dozen other possible suspect Almuric contributors, fed into a computer, to prove that Howard was, indeed, the book’s sole writer. This YouTube clip, by the way, demonstrates that my love of Robert E. Howard pales into insignificance when compared to some others’, a fact that does my heart a great deal of good.
But pleasing as it is, Almuric does come freighted with any number of small problems. Frustratingly, Hildebrand not only refuses to tell us the nature of his transporting gizmo, or how he has received Esau Cairn’s incredible narrative, but also why he has named this discovered world “Almuric” to begin with. We never learn how it is that the residents of the planet happen to speak perfect English (a conundrum that Esau ponders, at one point), and we never even get a sense of the evil Yasmeena’s ultimate fate. On a side note, oddly, the author tells us that the men of Koth worship a being named Thak, which was also the name of the ape creature that Conan battled in the 1934 story “Rogues in the House.” Another bit of oddness here: the fact that the only Yaga female to have wings is the queen, Yasmeena; to keep their females subservient, all the other females quite literally “have their wings clipped” at birth.
Still, minor problems and bits of strangeness aside, Almuric stands, mainly due to its author’s overwhelming storytelling gusto and unbridled narrative sweep. The Paizo edition contains more typos than any book should reasonably be allowed to have, especially with its $13 price tag, but better to read a faulty edition of a true fantasy classic than not to read it at all. As author Joe R. Lansdale says of the book in his enthusiastic introduction, “Man. What a killer.”
Greg’s previous review:
Call me shallow, but I just connect to Robert E. Howard’s yarns.
Esau Cairn is a man born in the wrong age. His freakish strength, athletic prowess, and berserker tendencies only make him an outcast in modern society, where he eventually ends up on the wrong side of the law. So when a scientist who is a sympathetic friend offers him an escape to another planet, it seems like a good alternative to going down fighting.
Once on Almuric, Esau soon regresses to a savage state in order to survive the wild and untamed land. Before long, he runs across a barbaric race of Neanderthal-like men and fair women. Esau’s fighting skills and untamable spirit win him a place among a clan and put him on the path to becoming a warrior-hero. Once Almuric gets rolling, it’s chock-full of the raw action that nobody can do like Howard.
Almuric is a typical Robert E. Howard story, and is also typical of the time in which it was written. A he-man hero wins glory and saves the damsel in distress. The world of Almuric is populated by brutish cave-men, but somehow the females evolved to be no less than beautiful. The story is told in the first person by Esau, who is near-invulnerable and by no means modest.
Despite the lack of depth, Almuric appealed to me like most all of the late-great Bob Howard’s stories. There is always a high level of entertainment value in a Howard yarn (even if it’s in a guilty-pleasure, popcorn kind of way) and he should be acknowledged as one of the pioneers of fantasy. He greatly influenced the genre, both directly and indirectly.
Howard’s work romanticizes barbarianism and by-gone ancient ages in which “men were men,” so to speak. Almuric touches the core of his fascinations and is also autobiographical in a way. Esau Cairn was born in the wrong time, and Howard was known to say the same about himself. I got the sense that Almuric was like a personal daydream of Howard’s.
I’ll be the first to admit that maybe I read just a little too much into Howard’s stuff, but for some reason I always feel like I just “get” what he was trying to say.
I feel no desire to recapture my Robert E. Howard reading days, but I’d glad you guys had fun. It’s convenient that the planet of Almuric has English speakers, as you both noted, and somewhat surprising that bears also evolved there. Sounds like vintage REH.