Monday, March 7, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Almuric

Robert E. Howard's Almuric is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it's one of REH's longest works and is generally considered one of his few novels. Second, it is a sword-and-planet tale, a genre not usually associated with Howard. Finally, Almuric was not published until three years after his death, appearing as a three-part serial in Weird Tales, beginning with the May 1939 issue. Consequently, there has been speculation in some quarters that Howard either did not write or at least did not complete Almuric as it appeared, being instead the work of his literary agent, Otis Adalbert Kline. Kline was himself a published author, best known for his planetary romances, so it's understandable some might make this speculation. And while I am no literary scholar, I have read enough of both Howard and Kline to doubt that the latter had a hand in Almuric's composition.

I suspect the real truth is that Almuric is a rough draft, lacking the polish of REH's other tales, and that this roughness accounts for its seeming "un-Howardian" qualities in places. Taken as a whole, though, it's hard to credit anyone other than Robert E. Howard as the author of Almuric. The novel is often derided as a Burroughs pastiche and, on some level, that's a fair criticism, but, on another level, it fails to do justice to the many ways that it differs from its Barsoomian antecedents. Take, for example, its protagonist, Esau Cairn, who's about as different from John Carter as I can imagine. In the foreword to the novel, written from the point of view of a Professor Hildebrand, first describes Cairn as "a hunted man, with the blood of a human being on his hands," but he quickly adds that
whatever the appearances against him, Esau Cairn is not, and never was, a criminal. In that specific case he was merely the pawn of a corrupt political machine which turned on him when he realized his position and refused to comply further with its demands. In general, the acts of his life which might suggest a violent and unruly nature simply sprang from his peculiar mental make-up.
Hildebrand goes on to explain the nature of Cairn's "peculiar mental make-up" and it is, to my mind, one of the most interesting ideas advanced within Almuric's pages.
Science is at last beginning to perceive that there is sound truth in the popular phrase "born out of his time." Certain natures are attuned to certain phases or epochs of history, and these natures, when cast by chance into an age alien to their reactions and emotions, find difficulty in adapting themselves to their surroundings. It is but another example of nature's inscrutable laws, which sometimes are thrown out of stride by some cosmic friction or rift and result in havoc to the individual and the mass.

Many men are born outside their century; Esau Cairn was born outside his epoch. Neither a moron nor a low-class primitive, possessing a mind well above average, he was, nevertheless, distinctly out of place in the modern age. I never knew a man of intelligence so little fitted for adjustment in a machine-made civilization ...

He was of a restless mold, impatient of restraint and resentful of authority. Not by any means a bully, he at the same time refused to countenance what he considered to be the slightest infringement on his rights. He was primitive in his passions, with a gusty temper and a courage inferior to none on this planet. His life was a series of repressions. Even in athletic contests he was forced to hold himself in, lest he injure his opponents. Esau Cairn was, in short, a freak -- a man whose physical body and mental bent leaned back to the primordial.
Esau Cairn is, for lack of a better word, a barbarian in a civilized time -- an spiritual inhabitant of the Hyborian Age who had the misfortune to be born in the 20th century. Judged a misanthropic misfit by the standards of the times in which he lived, he was thus all too keen to flee this world for the alien one of Almuric by means of the device Hildebrand had constructed in his observatory, his "Great Secret," he calls it.

Once on Almuric, the novel's story truly begins. Like Burroughs's Barsoomian stories, Almuric is told entirely in the first person, from the perspective of Esau Cairn (with the exception of the aforementioned foreword). For my money, it's this fact that truly elevates Almuric above the level of mere pastiche. Certainly Almuric is one of Howard's lesser works. I find it both derivative and dull in places, lacking in much of the poetic inventiveness that characterizes Howard's best works. Cairn's learning to survive on Almuric, his initiation into the society of the primitive but noble Guras, his winning of the love of the beautiful Altha, and his eventual war on the despicable Yagas -- these are all right out of the Burroughs playbook.

Or, rather, they would be if it weren't for the Cairn is no John Carter. Cairn is no Virginia gentleman; he's a rough-and-tumble brawler, a man perhaps not unlike those Howard knew in Depression era Texas, who inspired his portrayal of Conan. This alone makes Almuric feel very different from a Burroughsian one, even if the bare facts of its plot seem strangely familiar. And while I can't say that I specifically identified with Cairn, I nevertheless had a great deal of sympathy for him. I'm sure most of us have, at one time or another, felt we were "born out of time." As someone who's frequently told he has "an old soul," I know I have. Consequently, there's an undeniable pleasure in seeing Cairn, a fellow time-lost soul, liberated from the prison of his physical birth to find his true spiritual home on "wild, primitive, and strange" Almuric.

8 comments:

  1. I completely agree with your critique of "Almuric" James. Even as a life long Howard fanatic, I still found myself bored at certain points in the novel.

    That being said, I also share your appreciation for the concept of Cairn and his journey.

    It's definitely a worthwhile addition to any Howard fan's library.

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  2. What I find so curious about sword-and-planet stories is how they so often rigidly conform to Burroughs's original plot. I'm sure it's possible to write sword-and-planet stories that don't seem like simple variations on A Princess of Mars, but I don't understand why so few writers attempt it.

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  3. Almuric was *definitely* an unfinished fragment, as it was advertised as such in Weird Tales. Morgan Holmes' "The First Posthumous Collaborator" makes the case clear that, although we don't know exactly who finished Almuric, it wasn't completed by REH. Going by other examples, it's likely Howard's tale started out strong, then dwindled into briefer descriptions of events, and finally became little more than a synopsis by the end. This is, in my opinion, the case for the final chapters.

    Your assessment of the novel pretty much echoes my own, but because the text is clearly unfinished, I don't think it should be considered on the same lines as his finished work. Rather, it should be compared to the likes of "Nekht Semerkhet," "Mistress of Death," and the various Conan fragments. Unfortunately, we'll never be able to truly judge it knowing the original manuscripts were destroyed, and thus we can't truly appraise which elements are REH and which are the Unknown Hand. Of course, there are still elements that are distinctly Howardian.

    That said, seeing as Almuric was my introduction to Robert E. Howard, I undoubtedly have a soft spot for it, not least for the fantastic fauna - some familiar, some a bit more out-there. I still think the hopping pigs are great, for all their brief appearance, and I love the Indrik-esque "Unicorn."

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  4. What I find so curious about sword-and-planet stories is how they so often rigidly conform to Burroughs's original plot. I'm sure it's possible to write sword-and-planet stories that don't seem like simple variations on A Princess of Mars, but I don't understand why so few writers attempt it.

    For the same reason so many Sword-and-Sorcery stories seem incapable of breaking beyond the Conan Formula, I guess. I have my own Sword-and-Planet novel written, and let's just say it owes more to Olaf Stapledon and Clark Ashton Smith than Burroughs (though there are some elements of the latter).

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  5. EDIT: By "written" I meant "sort of mapped out": I don't have a whole story ready for publication by any means!

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  6. I thought it was pretty Howardian, especially the debased Yagas and their employment as a familiar civilization-is-decadent theme. Almuric wasn't as notable as "Worms of the Earth" by any means, but it's fun and it's solid.

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  7. A comics adaptation of this novel appeared in the magazine Epic Illustrated in the early 1980s.

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  8. I love the fight Cairn leads against the Yaga; its one rip roaring battle and fires the hell out of my imagination. If that fight scene wasn't written by Howard, it should have been!

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