Cimmerian Collection

Cover by Ken KellyAlmuric

Published (in a different form) by Ace in 1964
First published in this form in 1975
Berkley Medallion edition/ December 1977


(out of 5)

Almuric is an unusual Robert E Howard story in several ways.  For one thing, along with the Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon, the El Borak novel, Three-bladed Doom, and the Breckinridge Elkins novel, A Gent from Bear Creek, it is one of only four novels REH wrote (and with some we are really stretching the definition!).  Then, it was really Howard's only foray into the genre of "planetary romance", showing obviously Edgar Rice Burroughsian influences.  And finally, there is even some debate as to whether it was written by Howard himself, or by his agent Otis Adelbert Kline.

Not much seems to be known about the origin of Almuric.  The manuscript apparently just sort of turned up in the office of Otis Adelbert Kline shortly after Howard's death, whereupon Kline submitted it to Weird Tales.  It was published in that magazine in three instalments in May, June-July, and August in 1939, fully three years after its author's death.  All sources I have consulted claim it was written in 1936, and was left as only a first draft, waiting to be rewritten when Howard died.  But what evidence there is for any of this, or whether it is just speculation, I don't know.

Certainly, science fiction author, David Drake (who edited Baen's Robert E. Howard Library) was only speculating when he suggested that he believed Almuric was really written by Howard's agent Kline.  His argument has some merit, though, since Otis Adelbert Kline was himself a well-known author who was considered the only author to write Burroughs imitations that were nearly as good as Burroughs himself.  Kline had close ties to Weird Tales, helping with the editing chores in the early days, seeing many of his own stories appear in its pages, and later acting as agent for several of its writers.

I will further admit that, reading Almuric with that theory in mind, I was unable to come across any idioms or phrases characteristic of Howard which might serve to settle the issue one way or the other.  I did, however, find some features in the plot and some use of names which suggest it was written by REH.  For example, as I noted in my review of the Conan story, "The Tower of The Elephant", in that story the names for the sorcerer and the trans-cosmic being are quite distinctive and similar -- "Yara", "Yag-kosha" or "Yugah".  As is the being's home planet, "Yag".  In Almuric we find the winged baddies are called "Yagas" from the Black Citadel of "Yugga", on the rock "Yuthla", by the river "Yogh", in the land of "Yagg".  It could be that Howard felt those Y-based names said "outer space" to him.  Surely Kline wouldn't have thought of something like that...would he?

As well, the name of the queen of the Yagas is "Yasmeena", which was the name of the heroine in Howard's El Borak story, "The Daughter of Erlik Khan".  Also, the Gura city is described as being made of green stone -- another Howard fave.  (I always wondered if he was a big fan of the Emerald City of Oz.)  Finally, Almuric was clearly based on two earlier Solomon Kane stories, as I indicate further on in this review.  But, more important than any of these clues, Almuric seems so distinctly Howard, so clearly molded by his particularly unusual interests and pessimistic attitudes, it is difficult to believe it could have been written by anyone else!

Almuric is particularly fascinating to read if you have read a lot of Burroughs' John Carter of Mars books.  It is clearly modelled closely on the John Carter books, but with the whole thing mutated through Howard's own distinctive world view.  Whereas John Carter was the ultimate good guy hero, master sword fighter and clean-cut gentleman, here we find Esau Cairn, the ultimate misanthrope, a man so strong and brutish, he has literally spent his life avoiding sports (or, we may assume, any human contact) for fear he will accidentally kill someone -- a situation which isn't helped by his uncontrollable temper.  This fellow definitely has issues!  It is this combination of temper and brute strength which launches Cairn on his planetary adventure when, having killed a crooked politician, now fleeing one step ahead of the police, he encounters a scientist who -- lucky boy -- is just looking for someone to test his planetary transportation dohickey out on.  Cairn makes the ultimate getaway and is teleported to the planet Almuric which, again, evokes Burroughs -- this time his Pellucidar books with its brutish cavemen and prehistoric wilderness milieu.  The first half of the book details how Cairn gradually wins his way into the brutish hearts of the Neandertal-like Guras, and especially the heart of a definitely non-Neandertal female Gura named Altha.  (The Guras seem inspired by yet another Burroughs creation -- Tarzan's lost city of Opar, whose men were apes and whose women were Eurobabes.)  The second half then describes how a race of winged black men called the Yagas kidnap Altha to their nearly unreachable citadel and Cairn leads the Guras in rescuing her and wiping out the evil Yagas forever.

It has frequently been pointed out that the bat-winged Yagas were obviously based on the bat-winged "akanaas" in Howard's Solomon Kane story, "Wings in the Night".  What has not been mentioned is that, just as The Hour of the Dragon was heavily based on two previous Conan stories, Almuric is clearly based on another Solomon Kane story, "The Moon of Skulls".

"The Moon of Skulls" involved Kane being captured by a race of black men (in an unforgivably racist portrayal) whose queen is smitten by him and offers him his freedom if he will love her.  Kane has come to the city to rescue a girl who is going to be sacrificed to a dark god named the Moon of Skulls, and he does so using a plan which partly involves a secret passage into the temple which was used to dupe the religious supplicants.  Of course, the queen is jealous of his attentions lavished on the girl, adding to the danger to them both.  By comparison, Almuric has a race of black men ruled by an evil queen (in both stories she is described as a "vampire") who is smitten with Cairn and is jealous of Altha, whom she decides to sacrifice as one of the "virgins of the moon".  Cairn rescues Altha using a plan which involves a secret passage into the temple which was used to dupe the religious supplicants.

I confess to having mixed feelings about Almuric.  I read it years ago and didn't very much care for it.  (David Drake called it "a terrible book".)  At the same time, I had fond memories of the Epics comic adaptation, of which I had only the final half -- that is, the stuff involving the Yagas.  For this review, I read Almuric again, this time having bought myself the Berkley Medallion edition with its cool Ken Kelly cover (rather than the older Ace edition, with the more stylized cover, which was the one I originally read).  The second time I enjoyed it all a lot more.  That may be because I simply liked the cover painting more.  Nonetheless, I still felt the first half was fairly weak (which may explain why I liked the Epics comic version, where that section was missing).  The first half tries to imitate Burroughs in presenting a hero shucking off the thin veneer of civilization, going wild and loving it.  Howard, too, explicitly indicates that the planet Almuric is a freeing experience for Esau Cairn.  But for Howard, boxing enthusiast that he was, his ideal environment seems modelled after a sort of planet-wide men's locker room!  He presents non-stop brawls, in which Cairn is hideously mauled and mangled again and again by big, dumb, hairy men, all the while, apparently, loving it!  Esau Cairn is an interesting character, certainly, but to this reader it was impossible to identify with him.

But then, halfway through (in fact, when Cairn sees Altha fleeing from a giant bird), REH shifts into high gear, takes off like a bat out of Gehenna, and doesn't let up until the very final line.  In short, the rest is some damn fine writing and the main reason I gave Almuric four out of five stars.  Finally Cairn starts acting the way a hero should act, whether worrying about the kidnapped Altha, or hating Yasmeena, or struggling to unite the warring Gura factions against a common foe.  Finally the reader can identify with him.

Altha is a particularly interesting female character, and far superior to anything created by Burroughs himself.  She is portrayed as Cairn's counterpart, for she too is an outsider on her world, who would be more happy somewhere else.  But, in her case, she is the opposite of Cairn's mercurial disposition.  She is civilized and rational and gentle.  It has been suggested to me that Cairn and Altha could be seen as representing the two sides to Howard's own conflicting personality.  On the one hand, as a big, strong, Esau Cairn-like bruiser from a small Texas town, he felt out of place communicating with intellectuals like Lovecraft; on the other hand, as a bookish, learned, Altha-like author, he felt out of place among his small town friends.  It's an interesting thought.

One final point -- without giving too much away, the ending to Almuric may be the first use of that plot device which cropped up in everything from the James Bond movies to Forbidden Planet...the ever-popular self-destruct device which the villain uses to blow up his hidden base when everything has gone south!

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