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.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.
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.
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.