Saturday, October 3, 2015

Nekht Semerkeht

Nekht Semerkeht by Robert E. Howard. Unpublished story fragment, edited by Steven Tompkins. Approx. 14 pages.

I had been planning on reviewing a different horror tale by Howard to kick off the October reviews, but when I was leafing through the introduction for this anthology, I stumbled on the synopsis for the story fragment Nekht Semerkeht. Having been on the lookout for a good conquistador tale ever since getting hooked on Aguirre: The Wrath of God a few months back, I decided to give it a look.

Just a quick disclosure before the review: this is a story fragment, not a complete tale. Editor Tompkins states that he combined the two existing drafts, along with outline notes, to get what we read here. I understand now that there is a version of this same tale, completed and released in 1977 by Andrew J. Offutt in his "Swords Against Darkness" anthology. I will definitely have to grab a copy of that in the future to take a look-see, but for now, we work with what we got.

Nekht Semerkeht is the story of Hernando de Guzman, an aged conquistador who has been separated from his group, and, in his lost meanderings, stumbles upon a village full of mysterious sorceries, and, possibly, the thing that truly stokes a fire in the wandering Spaniard's heart: gold. Somewhere in there as well is the titular sorcerer; an Egyptian wizard who is obviously very far from home, but possessing of immense power.

Now, I have no idea when Howard actually worked on this story, I have read that it was indeed one of his later ones. That explains a lot of the emotion contained herein. For, while what story we have is stretched across a paper-thin premise, this is one of the, if not the, most heart-felt Howard piece I have read.

The whole thing kicks off with an intense fight scene between de Guzman and an Apache warrior. The scene is taut, and well-done, showing much maturity over classic REH brawny, bloody scuffles (not that I don't love those as well). What follows from here, up until de Guzman discovers the village, is a pilgrimage of personal despondency which I cannot help but imagine somewhat paralleled what Howard was feeling in his life. There are repeated themes of not belonging, death being a true answer, the new land being too strange, but the home of your youth being an evaporating dream. Some truly heart-breaking stuff here.

When the story falls back into being more of an actioner, it does so in strong form. De Guzman is a compelling conquistador; in no ways a nice man, he is cunning, resourceful, and extremely lusty. Nekht Semerkeht has got to be one of the more sexually charged Howard shorts I have read, and that is a good thing.

Unfortunately, it is from the middle on that we can see that this is, indeed, just a fragment of what could've been. Whatever the capability of the magic being employed by those in the village, not explored. What brought Nekht Semerkeht to Mexico, and what was his rise to power like? Not expanded upon, sadly. I read some speculation that the foundation of the idea of an Egyptian sorcerer in Mexico was Howard's concept of how both areas have pyramids. That would've been great. As it is, the story climaxes with a routine duel between our primary combatants, and a long paragraph outlining what will happen next.

So now, you might be thinking, "what does any of this have to do with horror?" Well, not much. More like historical fiction with bonus sorcery, to be sure. But, there are two scenes near the climax which feature some nicely done creatures. There is a grand scene with an altar, a very naked and nubile young lady, and feeders from the sky. And, right before that, there is a very brief scene, only about a paragraph long, which presents a very creepy exchange in a pitch black corridor.

And there you have it. I am not rating this, since it is just a fragment. Maybe next year, I'll have a review of the completed Offutt version, and we can look at them side by side. Anyhow, you get one of the more emotional Howard tales, some sorcery, a little horror, and a bad ass conquistador lead. Enjoy!

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