Copyright 1976, by Glenn Lord
Zebra edition published 1976
Berkley edition published November 1979
Swords of the Red Brotherhood
Black Vulmea's Vengeance
The Isle of Pirate's Doom
(out of 5)
This book was part of a series of Robert E. Howard collections put out by Berkley in the late '70s (reprints of the Zebra Books series).
Terrence "Black" Vulmea, we are told, was an early seventeenth century pirate, who learned his woodcraft amongst the natives of North America. Next to Conan himself, Vulmea is my favourite Robert E. Howard character, perhaps because he is so very similar to the barbarous Cimmerian. So many of REH's heroes were grim and brooding, while Vulmea seems to be having a lot more fun -- in a buccaneering sort of way.
Unfortunately, Robert E. Howard only wrote two tales featuring Vulmea, neither of which saw print during his lifetime. I'm not sure why the character was so unsuccessful. Perhaps there was a bias against pirate stories?
Of the two Vulmea stories here ("The Isle of Pirate's Doom" is a non-Vulmea pirate yarn), it is a toss-up which is the better. In "Black Vulmea's Vengeance", Vulmea concocts a scheme to revenge himself on a British officer who had tried to hang Vulmea as a child purely because Vulmea was Irish. Making up a story of hidden treasure, he leads the officer, Wentyard, into some ruins, where, surrounded by hostile natives, there is no way out (except for Vulmea, of course). The natives fear to actually enter the ruins, for, as we soon learn, a very good reason...
This is a very atmospheric piece, with steadily building suspense as Wentyard begins to suspect he may not be alone in the shadowy ruins. At the same time, it has (for REH) some unusual character twists. While Vulmea is very similar to Conan, there is a subtle difference between them: Vulmea, for all his bluster, seems slightly softer, more human. When Vulmea learns that Wentyard has a wife and daughter back home, he reluctantly takes pity on the officer. In Howard's stories there is rarely room for forgiveness, and the ending here sticks in the reader's mind. (REH used a similar ending in the Solomon Kane poem, "The One Black Stain".)
As far as I know, this is the only time "Swords of the Red Brotherhood" has ever seen print, but many readers will find the story familiar, since it is a rewrite of the Conan story, "The Black Stranger" (retitled "The Treasure of Tranicos", by L. Sprague de Camp).
Here, Vulmea plays a more peripheral role in a yarn largely told from the viewpoint of Francoise, the niece of a French count, Henri d'Chastillon. The Count has fled to the west coast of America to escape the revenge of a slaver/witch doctor. A pirate, Harston, shows up, mistakenly believing the Count came to this coast looking for treasure. Then the witch doctor arrives and the Count, terrified, offers his niece to Harston if Harston will help him escape. Finally, Vulmea puts in an appearance, having located the treasure which Harston wanted. A deal is struck with each party trying to double-cross the other, natives attack, and...well, let's just say, the Count probably should have stayed in France.
For all the swordplay, this story reads more like a gothic melodrama than a pulp adventure, with the isolated location, the count with the deep, dark secret, the tormented and abused niece, and the plots and counter-plots lending the whole thing a Wuthering Heights ambiance. Apart from Francoise, however, the characters are not especially fleshed out or complex. Each is driven by a single impulse -- the Count by fear, Harston by greed, Vulmea by...greed, too, I guess. Nonetheless, the story is very compelling, and, as usual, REH tells it as a mystery, with two central questions: who is the "black stranger"?; and what was it that attacked Vulmea in the cave?
Depending on who you believe, "Swords of the Red Brotherhood" was either a rewrite of "The Black Stranger" or vice versa. Karl Edward Wagner insisted that evidence in the original manuscript proved the former was the case.
It may seem strange to say, but, having read both versions, I find I don't really care for the Conan story. Partly, this is because the Vulmea story is slightly shorter. All the scenes are the same, but Howard trimmed a sentence here, a phrase there, producing a tighter, more effective narrative. Another reason may have to do with the milieu, which works for Vulmea, but doesn't work for Conan. For a more thorough discussion about this, see my review of "The Black Stranger".
The final story, "The Isle of Pirate's Doom", is a weaker offering, told more as a romance than an adventure, but nonetheless still pretty good. Told from the first-person point-of-view, our hero, shipwrecked on an island, encounters a female pirate, Helen Tavrel, and together they search for a lost treasure in a swamp. The hero is unusually sensitive for a Robert E. Howard character, and frankly, not very heroic. Helen Travrel is somewhat better, but also, for a blood-thirsty pirate, seems surprisingly prone to tears. By the climax she has pretty much lost any credibility as a seadog, being reduced to a fairly standard damsel in distress.
In 1977, Zebra Books put out a Vulmea pastiche called The Witch of the Indies, by David C. Smith (co-author of the Red Sonja books, etc.). I don't know if any other books followed, but I'm afraid I can't recommend this one.
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