In the body of work written by REH, Almuric, republished here in another fine REHFP hardback edition, stands out as being one of his very few novel-length works and also for its pulp sci-fi theme, as compared to his generally fantasy/western/boxing-orientated work. Inspired by the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories of John Carter on Mars, it’s clearly an attempt by REH to break into a new market. Written during 1936, it is, frankly, one of his lesser works, as REH is clearly distracted by real-world events that would lead to his suicide. His relationship with Novalyne Price had finally come to its long drawn-out end, and his terminally-ill mother was nearing her last days. Indeed the story remained unfinished (completed, it is believed, by Otto Binder, a friend of Howard’s agent Otis Kline, following REH’s death and serialised in Weird Tales in 1939). One can only imagine what it might have been, had the REH who wrote with the lush wordcraft of The Shadow Kingdom or the better Conan tales produced it instead. As it is, it’s a fine, rip-roaring adventure with plenty of action but it lacks the craft of his better work, both in the grammar and detail, and in the general world-building. Considering everything going on at the time though, its a miracle he managed anything of this quality at all.
Even second-rate REH is better than most, though. It’s just unfortunate that it’s clearly a great piece limited by it being written in that nightmare period near the end of Howard’s life when he just couldn’t devote sufficient time and care on it. Much of the action and sweeping rush of the tale carries the old REH hallmark, and there is plenty of REH himself in the hero of the piece, Esau Cairn. Here is a man born out of time, who doesn’t belong in our modern world, who is transported to the far-off world Almuric where he finds life, harsh and dangerous as it is, more suited to him. There are echoes here of REH himself, disenfranchised from the general populace of Cross Plains, Texas, where he lived something of an outcast, an oddball. Is there wish-fulfillment here in the life Cairn finds on Almuric, where he finds a beautiful mate, kinship with a savage but noble people? Is it more than just a simple story for a new market, more one final fantasy of escape when his life was dragging him down into suicidal thoughts? It’s a fascinating subtext to the story.
Alas, with the reality of life rushing blackly over him, REH couldn’t write with his genuine skill and poetic landscapes of his best prose. Some of it is atually painful- the evil winged creatures the Yaga dwell in a black citadel of Yugga, on the rock Yuthla, by the river Yogh, in the land of Yagg, creatured ruled by an evil queen named Yasmeena. It’s clearly rushed, lazily-thought out. It just needs another draft or the attention to wordcraft of his better work. In the hands of someone like Clark Ashton Smith, say, it might have even soared. But taking into account what was happening to REH in 1936, its understandable. I actually enjoyed it, re-reading it again so many years after buying a slim second-hand paperback copy that languishes in my loft somewhere. It left me feeling a little sad, considering how its failings likely indicated REH’s state of mind and his life at the time he attempted it. Had he lived and properly finished it, tided it up, it might have been a great book and the start of another series of REH stories. Because more than anything else, I would have loved to see REH tell of more adventures of Esau Cairn, I would have loved to read them.