The catastrophic failure of Disney’s John Carter might give you some pause when I tell you this, but Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom stories are some of the most beloved science-fantasy tales ever put to paper. Beginning with A Princess of Mars in 1912, Burroughs created a whole new subgenre of fantasy that eventually came to be known as “sword and planet” or “planetary romance,” and influenced whole generations of writers in the 100 years that followed. There’s really no telling how many people were inspired by the Barsoom novels, though the sheer number of imitators — there was more than one magazine dedicated exclusively to sword-and-planet stories in the years after A Princess of Mars — should give us some idea.
Almuric is one of those imitators, though its pedigree is better than most. Many sword-and-planet authors came and went without leaving so much as a ripple, but the author of Almuric was none other than Robert E. Howard, himself a giant in the field of fantasy, who created the inimitable Conan the Cimmerian and inspired his own legions of followers in the subgenre called “sword and sorcery.” First published in three parts in the magazine Weird Tales in 1939, some three years after Howard’s death by suicide, Almuric is a love letter to Burroughs, though it contains all the elements that make a Howard story a Howard story.
One thing almost all sword-and-planet stories have in common: an outsider (usually an Earthman) is transported by some means to a mysterious alien world. Once there, the newcomer must use the skills and abilities granted to him as an exemplary member of the human race to outfight, outwit and outlast all and sundry enemies that stand in his way. And, yes, we’re talking exclusively about men here, as these tales come from a time and place where a female hero just wouldn’t get the same kind of traction.
As with most, though not all, stories of this variety, Almuric is told in the first person by its superhuman narrator. In this case the man in question is not an inherently noble or socially enlightened individual, but a brutal and murderous fellow named Esau Cairn. Cairn is the sort of guy who will beat another man to death with his fists because the guy happened to flip Cairn’s switch somehow. He has minimal control over his passions and murderous affinities, making him suitable only for the wild and untamed life of the caveman. In other words, this is a very Howardian hero, perhaps not too removed from Howard himself, who had temper and social issues throughout his entire, tempestuous life.
On the run from the authorities, Cairn stumbles across the experimentations of a scientist who has discovered a distant world much like our own. The scientist has named it Almuric and he has designed a device that will allow a man to travel the vast expanse of the stars to Almuric’s surface. The catch: it’s a one-way trip. Faced with severe penalties at least, and death at worst, should he stay, Cairn agrees to be the test subject and away he goes.
If you know anything about Robert E. Howard at all, you know that his worlds are always savage, untamed places full of terrifying beasts, appropriately threatening enemies and (let us not forget) beautiful women. Almuric is no exception to this rule. Naked and with no weapons, Cairn is called upon to survive in the wilds against all manner of deadly animals and, when he first arrives on the planet, he is also faced with one of the brutish inhabitants, a hairy quasi-aboriginal man who sees violence as his first and only resort.
Eventually Cairn connects with the natives and new threats are discovered, but a surprising amount of the very thin book is given over to Cairn’s assimilation into the ways of Almuric, not plot per se. One could say this is a holdover from Burroughs’ work, since especially in the early going the Barsoom novels consisted largely of one cliffhanger after another to the exclusion of most plot machinations. Once Almuric gets going there’s a reasonable amount of development in that area, but there’s nothing especially complicated about any of the situations Cairn gets into throughout the course of the book.
I suppose there are a couple of ways to approach Almuric and I’ll do both here. First there is the sword-and-planet issue. Does Almuric work as a representative of the subgenre? Yes and no. For the most part Howard is extremely faithful to the structure of such stories and it’s clear that he’s trying to write his own Barsoom with this book, but Esau Cairn is not of the mold of the Burroughsian hero. Yes, he’s an Earthman with abilities far beyond those of the natives of Almuric, but he’s a brutalist sort of protagonist that Burroughs never would have written. Even Tarzan, who was raised by apes, had more civilized tendencies than Esau Cairn has. If you’re a dedicated Howard fan, this won’t bother you a bit, but I imagine it’ll be somewhat more difficult to accept for people coming from the Burroughs angle.
The second way to examine Almuric is how it succeeds as a Howardian piece of work. For good or ill, depending upon your perspective, Robert E. Howard stories feel like Robert E. Howard stories. Despite the fact that many followed in Howard’s footsteps with their own barbaric heroes, Howard was something of a genre unto himself and there’s no mistaking when you’re reading his work. Given that this is the case, Almuric is something of a departure because he’s deliberately trying to evoke the feeling of someone else’s writing.
I’m pleased to say that even though this is Howard by way of Burroughs, Almuric does not lose its Howardian charm. The women are lovely, the hero is violent, the bad guys are very, very bad. Sure, Almuric lacks some of the cleverness of the best Howard stories, but even masters are allowed to slip from time to time. It helps that Almuric is over in a flash, so whatever reservations you may have are quickly left behind as the story rockets to its conclusion.
All of this aside, I would only recommend Almuric to those who feel like they must read everything Howard ever wrote. The story is so particular in its goals and construction that unless you have some footing in both the Burroughsian and Howardian worlds, much of its impact will be lost. It’s still a worthwhile read, but it’s best consumed with the whole bibliography of both authors in mind.