The unique Robert E. Howard tried his hand at quite a few fiction genres, from detective stories to oriental adventure to his humorous westerns about Breck Elkins. He virtually invented heroic fantasy featuring mighty roughneck barbarians, of course, as exemplified by Conan. His historical adventures with the characters Turlogh Dubh O’Brien and Cormac Fitzgeoffrey (that less than idealistic crusader) are memorable.
He tried his hand at interplanetary adventure at least once, too – with his novel Almuric.
(Damon mentioned in the first “Nemedian Dispatches” for 2011 that “A new trade paperback edition of the often reprinted REH planetary adventure (Almuric) was recently published by Wildside Press, sporting a cheesy computer generated cover.”)
As always, REH gave it his own individual touch. The protagonist, Esau Cairn, the Earthman who finds himself in an alien world, is a misfit on Earth, a powerful throwback to the kind of epoch that produced characters like Niord in “The Valley of the Worm.” This mighty fellow can’t even make a satisfying career of boxing or football — because he’s just too strong and fiercely vital. Without even meaning to, he injures all who compete against him. “Cairn was not a great sluggish lethargic giant as so many powerful men are,” REH informs us, through the mouth of the scientist who introduces the tale; “he was vibrant with fierce life, ablaze with dynamic energy. Carried away by the lust of combat, he forgot to control his powers, and the result was broken limbs or fractured skulls for his opponents.”
Nearly killing a sparring partner finishes his hopes of a boxing career. His license is revoked. Thwarted and restless, he gets involved with a crooked political machine that tries to make him a fall guy, and when the city boss tries to intimidate Cairn, he gets killed by one furious blow. By a typical pulp-magazine stroke of incredible luck, before he’s trapped and shot by the coppers, Cairn meets a scientist with a device that can transport him to a distant planet far beyond the reach of the political machine’s vengeance. Or the law.
Esau Cairn, like some other Howard characters (Francis X. Gordon, or “El Borak,” for instance) was “born in the Southwest, of old frontier stock … whose traditions were of war and feud and battle against man and nature.” Some of the warriors of the old west described in “Murder Ranches and Gunmen” would have appreciated Cairn, no doubt, and he them. But Cairn was actually born for a much more ancient, savage epoch, and on the world of Almuric he finds an environment that suits him.
His name is significant. Esau, in the Old Testament, was a hairy roughneck of a hunter who was conned out of his true birthright by his smooth-skinned, persuasive brother Jacob – a perfect symbol for the modern civilization that suits Cairn so poorly. In an ironic bit of role reversal, when Cairn arrives on Almuric, the apish Gura males see him as the smooth-skinned freak. The first one he meets asks him contemptuously if he’s a man or a woman. Cairn, typically, socks him on the jaw at once.
Later, captured in the city of Koth, he hears himself described as “a freak, a damned, smooth-skinned degenerate misfit which should not have been born, or allowed to exist.” By one of the men, naturally. The girl Altha finds him not only interesting, but evidently attractive, from the first. She’s something of a misfit herself, though, in that she longs for a gentler world than the one she knows, something that “is not, and never was,” so far as she’s aware. Cairn, happy for the first time in his life on lusty, crude Almuric, is baffled by this attitude.
It’s an odd world, to put it mildly. It appears to have no history, no development of cultures to compare with the way Byzantine culture, for example, grew out of the fading Roman Empire, or Spanish, Italian and French developed from their common precursor, the Latin language, or the culture of Timbuktu in Africa was imported by Arab conquerors. There’s nothing like that. The race that first attacks and then adopts Cairn, the Guras, inhabit huge plains in crude stone cities they apparently heaped up in a sudden switch from nomadic habits and then never developed further. Cairn says the males evidently did this to protect their women, not because they had any inclination to comfort or shelter from the elements themselves.
Male Guras are massive, apelike fellows with big jaws and receding foreheads. Fighting, drinking and bellowing crude ballads are their chief pastimes. The women, on the other hand, look like earthly women. Physically, they and the men might as well belong to different species.
“Stupid pigs,” the queen of the demoniacal Yaga race says at one point, of the Guras, and some might agree.
The Yagas are about the only creatures the Gura men fear. They are winged, which of course gives them a huge tactical advantage against wingless victims. Cairn describes them as “tall and rangy in build, sinewy and powerful, with ebon skins. They seemed made like ordinary men, except for the great leathery bat-like wings which grew from their shoulders. They were naked except for loincloths, and were armed with short curved blades.”
They have no inhibitions about eating human flesh. They regard themselves as superior beings, if not gods, so it’s not as if they were eating each other; just the lower orders. When Cairn eventually meets their queen, Yasmeena, he finds she’s the most cruel of the lot, like a combination of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed and Howard’s own immortal vampire princess, Akivasha, in The Hour of the Dragon. She’s also the only female Yaga to have retained her wings. The others all have them amputated when young, in order to keep them in a subservient role, it seems. Nasty people.
“Men and women, the Yagas were open and candid in their evil,” remarks Cairn. “Their utter cynicism banished ordinary scruples of modesty and common decency. Deeming themselves gods, they considered themselves above the considerations that guide ordinary humans.”
They remind me strongly of winged semi-human devils in other REH stories, such as “The Garden of Fear.” It features one of James Allison’s former primitive incarnations, who tracks the last survivor of an ancient, pre-human winged race, because it has stolen his mate. He finishes it off in the “garden” of the title, the creature’s lair. Again, in one Solomon Kane story, “Wings in The Night,” the Puritan rover meets the last survivors of the legendary harpies, in the depths of Africa. They too are fiendish winged raptors with bat-like pinions. Cruel beyond measure, they prey on a peaceful black tribe that Kane fails to protect from the monsters, to his personal anguish.
Come to think of it, the Yagas aren’t unlike Michael Moorcock’s Melniboneans in the Elric stories. Theirs is a “sophisticated, brilliant, and cruel culture.” Returning stealthily to Immryr, the last Melnibonean city, Elric prowls through the thoroughfares, now and again hearing “a frenzied, idiot’s yell as some wretch of a slave died in obscene agony to please his master” (“The Dreaming City“). Such sounds would have been common in the Yagas’ inaccessible hold atop a sheer five-hundred-foot crag, also, the way Howard describes them.
The Yagas steal Esau Cairn’s girl, Altha, and carry her to their city of Yugg on the tall rock Yuthla. (In passing, those names are bloody awful.) Esau follows them, even though it’s an unheard-of thing, on Almuric, to defy the dreaded winged monsters. Esau doesn’t just defy them, he resolves to destroy them. He unites the different, feuding tribes of Guras to that purpose, for the first time in the history of Almuric, and overthrows the Yagas in their own citadel, upon which Yasmeena turns loose her private pet monster and completes the destruction. That’s a climax much like the way John Carter of Mars destroys the degenerate Holy Therns and the “goddess” Issus.
We’re all probably seeing echoes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Barsoom in Almuric by now. The lost city of Opar in Africa, which Tarzan discovered, ruled by the priestess La, had a peculiar race of inhabitants. The men were apish, the women normal, like the Guras of Almuric. Burroughs’ John Carter, like Esau Cairn, is transported to an alien planet by mysterious means the details of which are never explained. From the time he arrives, he finds himself battling monsters and cruel degenerate elitists to save beautiful women. The fierce Black Pirates of Mars (who call themselves the First Born) prey on other races in aerial raids, though they use flying warships instead of natural wings. They too are ruled by a cruel woman (Issus, their living goddess). They too, like their unwitting subordinates the Holy Therns, eat human flesh and maintain that this is allowable since they are divine, a superior order of being. They too have their ancient “divine” order overthrown by the hero.
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