Almuric by Robert E. Howard. Originally published in Weird Tales, beginning in 1939. This edition published by Planet Stories, 2008. Approx. 148 pages.
When one looks at all that Robert E. Howard accomplished in his 30 years, it is astounding to see how many original characters he created, and we marvel at his voluminous bibliography of short stories. One thing also stands out though; for all his hundreds of short stories, there are so few works by him of novella or novel length. Of course, this is a reflection of the market at the time as well.
Of Howard's longer length works, Almuric is one of the most famous (technically a novel, it was originally published in three parts in Weird Tales). It can best be described as a take on Burrough's John Carter of Mars (Barsoom) series, but with Howard's indelible fingerprints all over it. Almuric is the very pinnacle of the kind escapist fantasy and wish-fulfillment that so defined his body of work.
Our hero in Almuric is Esau Cairn, who of course is the man's man of men's men. He espouses every virtue which Howard embraced; he speaks in declarative soundbites of salt of the earth nobility, he is in prime physical form, and of course, the great equalizer in his repertoire are his superb boxing skills. As you may have guessed, there is no known match for these twin dealers of justice. One night, an altercation with a corrupt politician prompts Cairn to finally unleash the full power of one of his fists - which immediately kills the man. Now a man on the run, Cairn beats a hasty egress.
He runs to the sanctuary of a scientist friend - who is narrating the prologue and gives us what amounts to Cairn's chronicle on Almuric - who just so happens to have perfected a method of interplanetary transportation. This scientist uses this amazing technology - which he outright refuses to explain to the reading audience the details of - to send our noble pugilistic protagonist to the far off world of Almuric.
These things working out the way they do, Almuric is a planet with an atmosphere strikingly similar to, you guessed it, Earth. Their is safe water for drinking, and sustaining food to be found. The wildlife is similar too; if not a bit bigger and scarier.
Then there are the Gura. The Gura are the human equivalent on Almuric. They are a warrior race; the males are large, hairy, belligerent, yet honorable (for the most part) types. They have a simple form of civilization. They know enough about building to erect sturdy fortifications, and can fashion fine blades and serviceable carbines. However, they live a very in-the-moment, hunter/gatherer type lifestyle. They have no need for the recorded work, or displays of artwork.
The women of the Gura race, however, are hairless and demure. This is due to the fact that the men do all the physical labor and fighting, and the women stay home and do....women's stuff, I guess.
In accordance with "how these things work", Cairn finds that he can communicate with the Gura; at first he attributes this to them also speaking English, then he realizes it is due to some phenomenon which never gets explained.
And so, rickety foundation of logic in place, we move onto the story. Basically, the book follows Cairn as he hardens his body in the wilderness of Almuric, then, as he assimilates into Gura society, where he always surpasses the natives through sheer grit, tenacity, or inherent greatness, earning himself the moniker of "Ironhand". Later, we have some adventures as he falls prisoner to some rival Guras, and, finally, we get to a climax in which he must face off against the dreaded Yagas. The Yagas are cool in that they are basically those old DFC black gargoyle figures come to life.
And there you go. There are no surprises at all in how the narrative unfolds; you can guess right off the bat how any given scenario will unfold. That's just the thing, though. This was the age of pure fantasy, and the heroes we wanted to be, saving the damsel we wished we could save. Call it dated, misogynistic, marginalizing, or whatever nomenclature assigned to these concepts by the Mom's-basement-dwelling ranks of the Perennially Offended.
While I can poke fun at the absolutely ridiculous (lack of any coherent) logic that binds this story together, it really doesn't matter. What it comes down to is how it is written. Almuric is not Howard at his finest, but it is Howard at his best. True, many scenarios are resolved by the appearance of events of convenience that go beyond the pale. It's a given that any sentence that ends with an exclamation point is going to be a bad one. Also, the prose is more purple than Grimace's autopsy (and now I hate myself for Googling to see if there was already a corresponding image for that term. Because there absolutely was one). But, the earnestness with which Howard has fleshed out this world is near palpable. The finished product has a taste of sci-fi with a huge flavor of prehistoric times, with Cairn being a heroic fantasy barbarian type on par with Conan and Kull. The world isn't only populated with souped-up versions of Earthly creatures, either. There are mythical beasts, and hints at monstrous, near-spectral creatures. The end result leaves the audience wishing that either more Almuric stories had been penned, or that options for a shared universe would have been explored.
It is so plain to see the Howard put not only his whole heart into this story, but also his entire imagination. Another thing I want to mention - so often when people introduce a story from around this time, they feel the compulsion to apologize for some of the beliefs and values of the people at the time. I don't really go in for that. Especially when you realize, as silly as some of the concepts here are, Howard was such a fiercely intelligent and well-read young man. These pulp stories come alive with a quality of language that brings into stark focus how far the English language has deteriorated in the last few decades. Perhaps, instead of demanding that dead men apologize for what they believed, we should apologize for how much the spoken word has suffered under our poor stewardship.
But that's just my opinion. Check out Almuric; it's a lot of fun. You can read it on Australian Gutenberg here.
I love this cover by Andrew Hou. It really captures the mood and tone. Cairn is not made into an overly-muscled creature, and Altha is rendered beautifully. 80's style fantasy cover work at its finest.
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