As the jacket copy on the lovely little Donald M. Grant edition of Almuric explains, Robert E. Howard took his only novel-length foray into the sword-and-planet subgenre at the urging of his literary agent Otis Adelbert Kline, who was a chief proponent of the form. Howard’s protagonist is rather different than the paradigm of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter, though. Esau Cairn is not a gentleman warrior, just a murderous thug. The documentary foreword in the voice of the fictional Professor Hildebrand provides even less of a rationale for interplanetary travel than is usually present in a school of fiction that often demands heroic levels of suspension of disbelief.
Before Cairn can be built up into the barbarism of his adoptive society on the planet Almuric, he is first reduced to an entirely feral existence. In this condition he waxes philosophical, by the standards of an REH hero: “I tell you, the natural life of mankind is a grim battle for existence against the forces of nature, and any other form of life is artificial and without realistic meaning” (38).
Other than the peculiar savagery of the protagonist, Almuric is highly conventional pulp-era sword-and-planet fare. Cairn ends up uniting two tribes of Guras (the hairy ape-men to whom he assimilates) against the citadel of the sadistic Yagas, devilish winged humanoids. He single-handedly defeats their secret weapon, a giant electrified slug. There is a happy ending of considerable predictability and triteness.
I’ve previously remarked the salience of ideas of gender in sword-and-planet literature. Almuric features extreme sexual dimorphism and rigid gender roles among the Guras. Cairn’s clean-shaven face causes the first Gura he encounters to ask “with unbearable scorn … ‘By Thak, are you a man or a woman?'” (21) This affront is grounds for a combat to the death.
I am an avid reader of both Robert E. Howard and sword and planet, so I was delighted to discover this book and felt compelled to read it. It didn’t take me very long. But it is neither one of Howard’s better efforts, nor an especially rewarding example of its sub-genre.