Conan in Space!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Okay, I lied. Robert E. Howard's Almuric, the latest release from Planet Stories, isn't actually a Conan novel. But it sure feels like one.

No, as a piece of literary history, Almuric is actually far more fascinating. Best-known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Robert E. Howard was one of the most distinctive and well-regarded voices of the pulp era. His brutal, might-make-right take on fantasy inspired generations of books, films, and games, almost single-handedly popularizing the sword and sorcery genre in the 1920s and 30s. His friendship with H. P. Lovecraft led to contributions to the vast and intricate Cthulhu mythos. His work has been called "so highly charged with energy that it nearly gives off sparks" by none other than Stephen King himself. Even his personal life has become legend, having been turned into the award-winning movie "The Whole Wide World." And who knows how much more he might have accomplished had he not infamously taken his own life at the age of 30.

Yet for all of his extensive achievements and hundreds of stories, Howard wrote very few actual novels, of which Almuric is by far the largest and best-known. Within its pages, a Conan-esque brute named Esau Cairn, dissatisfied with life on earth and running from the law, finds himself transported to another world, where his natural strength and savagery make him a powerful captain of men. On this planet of beautiful maidens and their Neanderthal-like warrior consorts, strange beasts and black-winged men, Esau carves out a place for himself with bared steel, and in so doing rescues a valiant civilization from the oppression of sadistic masters. In short—classic Howard.

Or is it? Therein lies the mystery that's one of the most fascinating things about Almuric.

You see, Almuric was first published three years after Howard's death in 1936, supposedly from a complete manuscript discovered among his personal documents. Yet while most of the manuscript has been universally accepted to be original Howard material, the last few chapters have long been a source of controversy. Did Howard, indeed, finish the last section? Or was the story instead, as some personal letters from Howard's father hint, finished by another author as part of a shrewd financial move? For those historians who believe the latter theory, the chief suspect responsible for wrapping up Almuric is none other than Otis Adelbert Kline, Howard's literary agent and himself a prominent Weird Tales author (who, incidentally, will be seeing print in Planet Stories this September). In addition to veiled references to shady arrangements, theorists who believe Howard never lived to see a complete Almuric draft point to the novel's ending as uncharacteristic of Howard's style, whereas others accuse such conspiracy theorists of jumping at shadows. The debate rages on to this day.

So pick up a copy, breeze through its action-packed story, and see which camp you fall into. And once you've made up your mind, post on our messageboards and let us know where your suspicions lie!

And now, a sample:

Of all the forms of life I had encountered on that strange planet, none filled me with as much loathing as these dwarfish monstrosities. I backed away from the mangled heap on the earth, as a nauseous flood poured through the rift in the wall.

The effect of those vermin emerging from that broken wall was almost intolerably sickening; the suggestion was that of maggots squirming out of a cracked and bleached skull.

Turning, I caught Altha up in one arm and raced across the open space. They followed fleetingly, running now on all fours, and now upright like a man. And suddenly they broke out into their hellish laughter again, and I saw we were trapped. Ahead of me were more emerging from some other subterranean entrance. We were cut off.

A giant pedestal, from which the column had been broken, stood before us. With a bound I reached it, set the girl on the jagged pinnacle, and wheeled on the lower base to take such toll of our pursuers as I might. Blood streaming from a score of gashes trickled down the pedestal on which I stood, and I shook my head violently to rid my eyes of blinding sweat.

They ringed me in a wide semicircle, deliberate now that their prey seemed certain, and I cannot recall a time when I was more revolted by horror and disgust, than when I stood with my back to that marble pillar and faced those verminous monsters of the lower world.

James Sutter
Editor Planet Stories

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Tags: Almuric Otis Adelbert Kline Planet Stories Robert E. Howard
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