Saturday, 2 January 2010

Dark Worlds Unguessed By Man: Robert E. Howard's Almuric

I’m not entirely sure why I’ve been holding off on writing about Almuric: perhaps it’s difficult for me to write about perhaps the single most important Howard work in my personal journey. Almuric was the first Howard story I read, one of a glut of adventure stories I devoured when I was still in the single digits, and so it’s obviously quite special to me. It’s one of a few books that I’m fairly comfortable in saying shaped my future reading tastes in genre fiction. As part of my New Year’s Resolution, I plan on writing about Almuric throughout 2010, chapter by chapter, discussing the themes, characters, plot, writing, and extended history of this unusual and controversial story. I’ll also be looking at the various editions of the story: Grant, Leonaur, and the recent Paizo, among others, in order to judge which is the best edition of the novel.

Although I might be victim to the rosy haze of nostalgia in some respects, I judge works like Almuric on a different level from, say, The Hour of the Dragon. Although Howard undoubtedly put a lot of effort into Almuric, it’s also clearly a draft: unfinished, roughly hewn, and it wears its Barsoomian heart on its sleeve. For whatever reason, Howard chose not to continue with it: had he lived, perhaps he would return after a time, or cannibalize its parts for use in new stories, or just leave it to gather dust in a drawer until it was rediscovered and fast-tracked into Ace covers. It’s simply not appropriate to consider Almuric on the same terms as Howard’s published and completed work, because it’s neither of those things. For the same reason, I don’t rate the untitled Conan fragments and synopses with even the finished unpublished stories, let alone those accepted into print. There’s a world of difference between strong, accomplished completed works like “The Black Stranger,” and austere works-in-progress like Almuric.

So, even though I’m not going to make a case for Almuric to be counted among the greatest of Howard’s ouvre, the great unfinished work is still full of worthy highlights. One can read “The Tower of the Elephant” for the Biblical allusions, inversion of the classic “break into the sorcerer’s tower and steal his stuff” archetype, the cosmic tragedy of Yogah, or the sheer poetry of Howard’s prose; alternatively, one can just enjoy Howard’s descriptions of the City of Thieves, boo the diabolical Yara, cheer as Conan slays the giant spider, and wonder as Yogah tells his epic story. Almuric, being unfinished, has less to offer, but even that which is there is worthwhile–more than one would suspect. First, though, a bit of history.

Sword-and-Planet, the genre to which Almuric belongs, has a long and storied history since it was crystallized by Edgar Rice Burroughs with A Princess of Mars, the first of many tales set on Barsoom. As was the case with Howard & Tolkien, many inferior writers sought to imitate Burroughs’ formula, without addressing the things that made it a success. All they take are the surface elements of an Earthman on a faraway planet, saving a sufficiently feminine native princess from the clutches of alien horrors. Yet, some might say, isn’t that all anyone wants from the genre?

The problem with reduction is anything can be rendered formulaic or derivative when distilled to a few sentences. If one describes Conan as merely “a muscular barbarian who rescues nubile wenches from evil sorcerers and horrible monsters” one could easily make a mockery of it. If one describes The Lord of the Rings as “the story of a Dark Lord who misplaces his Power Source, and the little people who journey to destroy it, encountering strange and unusual people and locales on the way,” of course it looks terrible. Thus, one can’t blame formula, since many stories that use an old formula can still be fresh and exciting, and stories that use an entirely new one can still end up staid and stale. It’s a shame Sword-and-Planet has been so marred by unimaginative aping of Burroughs, but even more of a shame that the bright spots of the genre have been all but obscured as a result.

Too many could not name any of these post-Burroughs Sword-and-Planet stories beyond John Norman’s Gor, which has a reputation as the absolute dregs of chauvinistic, misogynistic, will-fulfillment fantasies, and gives a very unfortunate color to the genre at large. However, as with Sword-and-Sorcery, there are a great many gems in the formulaic quagmire. Leigh Brackett’s style of Sword-and-Planet in the 1950s was pretty fresh over thirty years after Burrough’s A Princess of Mars was serialized, and Otis Adelbert Kline’s rivalry with Burroughs led to some ripping yarns between the two. Dan Simmons’ phenomenally popular Ilium and Olympos is, in my opinion, Sword-and-Planet for the 21st Century.

Now we come to Almuric. The impetus for Almuric‘s writing was almost certainly Denis Archer’s request for a 75,000 word novel in the style of his Weird Fiction tales for publication in Britain: Howard could not pass up the opportunity to write a book, and so he set to work. Patrice Louinet asserts that Almuric was the first attempt at such a novel, before Howard abandoned it: the Tombalku fragment appears to be a second attempt, before he finally hit the jackpot on The Hour of the Dragon. Almuric and “Tombalku” went into the trunk, while the complete The Hour of the Dragon was sent to Weird Tales. If Howard intended Almuric to be published as is, I don’t doubt he would’ve sent it too.

The major problem with Almuric, as I’ve stated above, is that it should not truly be considered representative of Howard as a writer, any more than The Mystery of Edwin Drood should be a benchmark of a Dickens library, or any of Twain’s three versions of The Mysterious Stranger should represent him. Make no mistake about it, Almuric is clearly unfinished. Leo Grin made a compelling case arguing that the entire final chapter was not penned by Howard himself. Not only that, he also argues that, like the Tombalku fragment or “Nekht Semerkhet,” as the narrative went on, Howard started to become less descriptive and more brisk, until eventually, it may have dwindled into a mere synopsis. Leafing through my dog-eared copy, it’s a strong argument.

This movement was further explored by Morgan Holmes, in his essay “The First Posthumous Collaborator” for the final issue of The Cimmerian. Morgan’s essay is a solid piece of investigation, and the conclusion–that Otis Kline hired Otto Binder to complete Almuric–is practically watertight. Morgan cites many documents from the time that strongly suggest that the piece which would become Almuric was based on two untitled drafts: early Weird Tales advertisements speak of the story as a work Howard was “working on,” including a “rough draft” and a “nearly completed revision.”
We might not know exactly when REH wrote Almuric, but as Morgan reveals, we have a pretty damn good idea, courtesy of the tireless efforts of scholars like Patrice Louinet and Rusty Burke. All signs point to February 1934–two years before Howard died. Not juvenilia, not an early experiment that didn’t work, it was exactly what it appeared to be, and what the writers and readers of Weird Tales already knew–a rough, unfinished draft never intended for publication.

True, there is no smoking gun to point to a “second hand” completing Almuric. However, I don’t see exactly what’s so unusual about the idea. The circumstantial evidence is all but overwhelming. Otto Binder worked for Kline, who was Howard’s agent, and had the manuscript. Advertisements from the time period of its original Weird Tales run refer to it as being in “unfinished” status. Comparisons of the final chapter to typical Binder vocabulary and style show far more similarities than comparisons to other Howard examples–even within the same story.

The first nineteen pages of the chapter are completely free of dialogue, which is unprecedented in a Howard story, who often made use of dialogue to spice up his narratives. Words that cannot be found anywhere else in Howard’s hundreds of stories and poems–catamaran, carbineers, annealed–appear all of a sudden within the story: words that Otto Binder did use. Far too much time is spent describing the catamaran’s journey along the river. The last chapter’s siege has none of the fire and thunder of Howard’s best battles, with descriptions of formations, actions and events unlike Howard’s usual methods and description. The demise of the Ultimate Horror is unlike any similar battle between Man and Monster in the Howardian canon I can think of, despite the creature’s similarities to the beast of “The Valley of the Worm.” The final paragraph is perhaps the most jaw-droppingly un-Howardian thing ever put to page, all the more shocking, considering Howard is supposed to have written it.

Unfortunately, the original drafts Howard wrote have been destroyed (dammit Farnsworth), so the answer will never be known.

However, I’d like to flip the question: what is the proof that Howard wrote the story in its entirety in the first place? I know the burden of proof is not on the “all Howard” side of the argument, but just as an exercise, is there any way to prove that this was entirely Howard? The answer, really, is no: for without the original typescripts, how can we say with absolute certainty what was Howard, and what wasn’t, when we can’t prove Howard wrote Almuric at all, when it comes to cold, hard evidence. The evidence for a ghostwriter of the final chapter far, far outweighs the evidence against. The only reason I see for thinking Howard wrote the final chapter of Almuric is that, because it’s been asserted so long, why even challenge the idea?

For whatever reason, Howard abandoned Almuric to work on “Tombalku,” and then The Hour of the Dragon, leaving only a few drafts. Much as I would love to see Howard’s final, polished tale of Esau Cairn, the only Conan novel is by no means a mere consolation prize. The Hour of the Dragon underwent eight rewrites, the first being a mere synopsis–as happened with most Howard tales–before being expanded and refined. If Howard did decide to go through with Almuric, it’s entirely likely that it would’ve undergone a similar number of rewrites, rather than the one-and-a-half drafts that Almuric consists of. If one were expecting “Beyond the Black River,” “The Shadow of the Vulture,” “Vultures of Wahpeton,” “Worms of the Earth,” “Pigeons from Hell” or The Hour of the Dragon I wouldn’t be surprised at finding Almuric disappointing. Not least because it’s an unfinished work, and should not be judged on the same terms as his finished, published, greatest work.

So why bother with it at all? As crude and protozoan Almuric is, it offers some insight into Howard’s writing process. Although I would love to see a “History of the Hyborian Age” collecting all Howard’s drafts and documents, in the style of Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth series, it’s unlikely we’ll be seeing such a collection any time soon. We have some examples, such as the Del Reys’ inclusion of drafts of “The Phoenix on the Sword,” and “Red Nails”: Almuric is less useful due to the hand of the unknown Posthumous Collaborator, but there’s little denying there’s enough Howard in there to ruminate over.

There are elements in Almuric which are unique to the story, and are not to be found in any other tale. In all Howard’s hundreds of stories and poems, not a single one I can think of–with the exception of his bombastic chapter of “The Challenge from Beyond”–takes place on another planet. That alone makes it of great interest. The obvious Burroughsian and Lovecraftian elements are also interesting to compare and contrast, especially Howard’s combination, adaptation and even subversion of those traits. While the Hyborian Age and Thurian Age are undoubtedly secondary worlds on a par with Middle-earth, the planet Almuric is an example of a more literal secondary world, where Howard invents not only societies and peoples, but fauna, flora, and geography.

There’s still plenty worth exploring in the harsh, exotic, and mysterious world of Almuric.
Life was a door opening upon two black, unknown worlds–and how many races of men with their hopes and fears, their loves and their hates, had passed through that door–on their pilgrimage from the dark to the dark?
–Robert E. Howard, “The Dark Man”

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