Sword and Interplanetary

I am still making a slow progression through Robert E. Howard’s oeuvre having already discussed Conan (which I am slowly re-reading and will be returning to), Solomon Kane, Kull, his excellent historical fiction and most recently, the mostly unimpressive film adaptations. I did intend to cover the El Borak collection I have waiting in my endless pile of reading material but was distracted on discovering the existence of Almuric

Almuric is a short novel credited to Howard which was first serialised in Weird Tales three years after his death and later published in paperback. Much of this can be established by reading the Wikipedia page which interestingly has a note questioning the authorship though this is lacking a source for the claim. The Infogalactic page doesn’t include it and according to the history, it was only added in May, 2020. Having noticed this, I began reading with this question in mind and though I don’t claim to be knowledgeable enough of Howard’s work to make an academic claim, I do see why there is a question and I think it most likely that he didn’t write it.

The cover of my copy which was published by Sphere Books

Almuric is essentially a sword and sorcery take on Edgar Rice Burrow’s A Princess of Mars and is advertised that way on my copy which calls it a “great interplanetary epic of sword and sorcery” and that isn’t false advertising. It is a short but enjoyable read. 

Much like A Princess of Mars, the novel is introduced by someone claiming to have passed on the story of the protagonist, Esau Cairn. This unnamed scientist whisked him away to the planet Almuric to help him escape after Cairn is caught up in corrupt political machinations he refused to be part of. This refusal ended in a murder. Cairn is certainly similar to Conan being described in the opening pages as:

… 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 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.

The author spends the opening pages building Cairn up as just the man who could handle the wild savagery of the planet Almuric before we are first introduced to him. This certainly fits thematically with much of Howard’s writing. 

Almuric is a savage place full of pre-historic beasts and primitive civilisations and Burroughs’ Barsoom (Mars) is a comparatively nicer place. Cairn soon meets one of the men known as “Guras” and offers a description of them:

At my first startled glance I thought it was a gorilla which stood before me.

The head was set squarely between the massive shoulders, the neck so squat as to be scarcely apparent. The jaw was square and powerful, and as the wide thin lips lifted in a snarl, I glimpsed brutal tusk-like teeth. A short bristly beard masked the jaw, set off by fierce, up-curving moustaches. The nose was almost rudimentary, with wide flaring nostrils. The eyes were small, bloodshot, and an icy gray in color. From the thick black brows the forehead, low and receding, sloped back into a tangle of course, bushy hair. The ears were small and very close-set. 

Howard had Conan encounter quite a few creatures resembling apes. Thankfully for our protagonist, the women bear no resemblance to their men-folk:

Except in her garments she differed little from the type of girls I had known on Earth, except her slim figure exhibited a suppleness superior to theirs. Her hair was intensely black, her skin white as alabaster. Her lissome limbs were barely concealed by a light, tunic-like garment, sleeveless, low-necked, revealing the greater part of her ivory breasts. This garment was girded at her lithe waist, and came to within a few inches above her knees. Soft sandals encased her slender feet.

This fits the description of many maidens carried in Conan’s muscular arms. The implausible differences between the male and female of the species is explained as a product of evolution where the women have lived for many generations protected and safe while the men lived the same generations in savage austerity. Thus the extreme difference.

Cairn being a freak on his own planet soon proves himself to the Guras and is accepted among one of the warring tribes in time to face a larger threat from Yagas who are flying beast-men lead by Queen Yasmeena who prey on the Guras. Altha (the beauty described above), is captured by one and our hero goes in pursuit of her. Any more background would just be retelling the story and it is definitely much better to read it than have me give an abbreviated and inevitably inferior summary. 

The only real criticism of the story I have as a whole is the less-than-satisfactory explanation for Cairn’s ability to communicate with the aliens he encounters:

All this while I had stood glaring back at them, wondering anew at their speech. Now I realized that they were not speaking English. 

The thing was so unnatural that it gave me a shock. They were not speaking any Earthly language, and I realized it; yet I understood them, except for the various words which apparently had no counterpart on Earth. I made no attempt to understand this seemingly impossible phenomenon, but answered the last speaker. 

If such an important question was to be simply waved away, it would have been better not to bother to mention it at all. Burroughs’ John Carter is perhaps implausibly quick in learning the language of Barsoom but it is at least better explained how he comes to converse with Barsoom’s natives in similar circumstances. The question of communication between alien races is often a problem in science-fiction and I’m generally willing to allow for simple explanations but the one presented here is so lazy that it was pointless to include it.

This minor criticism out of the way, I want to come now to the question of Almuric‘s authorship. After reading it myself (and allowing for my bias in having the question in mind while reading), I do have a number of reasons for believing it is not written by Howard.

One is that it was published after his death and of what I have read, most of Howard’s best work was published in his short lifetime. If he’d had a short novel like this in him, I am confident it would have been published before his death. I do allow that he could have had notes or a partially finished version of this story but surely the original papers would exist? And it that was so, that would support that it was written or finished by someone else.

The next is that it is written in first-person which most of what I’ve read of Howard’s work is not — with the notable exception of his Sword Woman stories. This is admittedly a weak reason but I think it worth including as it contrasts with much of his similar work. 

The strongest reason I believe is that one of his longest works, The Hour of the Dragon (also known as Conan the Conqueror), is an obvious reworking of earlier tales and as John C. Wright explains in his review is really “a series of episodes connected only by the main character, who himself displays no character growth nor change throughout.” Almuric in contrast is concisely written with a proper narrative arc leading to a satisfying conclusion. The Hour of the Dragon loses momentum and while still a good story, it is not among the best of his work.

Robert E. Howard was a great short story writer but didn’t demonstrate any ability as a novelist in his lifetime. I’m sure he would have had he not taken his life but we’ll never know for sure. Otis Adelbert Kline is named on the Wikipedia article and looking over his relationship with Howard and the work published in his name, I think he is a very plausible choice.

Almuric certainly fits with themes Howard dwelt on and there is a good imitation of his style in places but I don’t believe it was actually written by him. I’d be more than willing to change my mind if there more evidence presented but I expect the most likely direct connection would be some unfinished notes with the title, synopsis and characters. Nonetheless, it is a great little story on its own merits and well worth reading for fans of sword and sorcery and pulp in general.

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