Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2007
Column: Lansdale Unchained #2: ROBERT E. HOWARD AND THE WORLD OF ALMURIC By Joe R. Lansdale
When I was a kid I read Edgar Rice Burroughs for the first time, and his stories blew the top of my head off and sent it into orbit. I’m pretty sure that shrapnel from that explosion is still circling the planet, if it didn’t knock it all the way to the moon, or beyond. Perhaps it’s way out there some place spinning in the black between the stars.
Before I read Burroughs, I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but after his assault of pulp sense of wonder, flashing swords and bold heroics, the die was cast. I had to be a writer. It had chosen me instead of me choosing it. I was wrestled to the floor, pinned, the demon whispering sweet nothings in my ear.
As the pulps might have put it, the shiny and wonderful doom was mine.
This reading, one of the Martian novels, led to a passion for all things Burroughs, and next, all things similar to Burroughs. I read as many stories in this vein as I could. Somewhere around 1970 or so I came across Almuric by Robert E. Howard.
Man. What a killer. There was a taste of Burroughs here, and a big ole dollop of Jack London, and some other influences as well, but there was a whole lot of a guy named Robert E. Howard. Already the things that made him unique were slipping through. Sure, the prose was often rushed and purple, some of these faults having to do with the style of the time, and some because Howard wrote for magazines that paid by the word and times were tough and he needed money.
His work was raw and savage and original and he was a lover of the primitive, or at least the primitive as he viewed it. But Howard was not a primitive talent. He was well read. This is proved by his correspondence with others, and by the discussions Ms. Novalyne Price, perhaps his one true love, reported in her book about Howard, One Who Walks Alone.
Howard was not just hammering at it. Sure, the storytelling was natural, but there was intent behind his work, even if it wasn’t of a great literary ambition, and his main concern was that of entertaining the reader. No easy thing to do, I might add.
Take for instance this section from Almuric, as his hero Esau Cairn considers the life he has fallen into on his new world.
“I was living the life of the most primitive savage; I had neither companionship, books, clothing, or any of the things that go to make up civilization. According to the cultured viewpoint, I should have been most miserable. I was not. I reveled in my existence. My being grew and expanded. 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 meaning.
“My life was not empty; it was crowded with adventures calling on every ounce of intelligence and physical power.”
There is something of the little boy’s yearning for adventure in all of this. The view that the primitive life is a good one, the whole noble savage bit. Spend a week in the woods in your skivvies trying to survive on ants and grubs, drinking creek water and hunting your food with a pointed stick, crapping behind trees with leaves as your toilet paper, and the primitive experience would most likely cause the bulk of us to long for our bathrooms and hot showers and bedrooms and soft beds, our books and our TV remote. But the idea of being free, of being eternally youthful and capable, is just the sort of thing to grab boys and young men by the throat and engage them on some level that has little to do with truth or literary criticism. Howard, like Burroughs, is reaching into that part of us that is forever Huck Finn; the wild boy free of all restraints and inhibitions, out for a ride on the world, spurs dug in, riding the bucks and the jumps like a rodeo rider.
And Howard is studied enough, purposeful enough, to do just that, give us that bucking, wild ride. In these kinds of fantasies, when well done, and Almuric is well done, you can project yourself into the main character, and fill him up, give him bits of yourself that are not in the narrative, become Esau Cairn, constantly capable, youthful, smart, and in the end, guess what?
Yep. You get the girl.
And we’re not talking the local poke or the library spinster.
You usually end up with a hot little virgin who can’t live without you. And even Howard backs off a bit, gives Altha the “gentler instincts of an Earthwoman”. He couldn’t quite go the whole hog. Womanhood in most of his stories was still that of the 1930’s Texas woman who could cook your dinner, tend you in bed, and cut your throat with a razor if you done her wrong. There is something in the ending of Almuric that makes one consider that soon, Esau Cairn may not be quite so wild, since now there is peace between warring cities, and shortly he could be carrying out the trash, walking the Almuric equivalent of old Rover, wondering why he can’t just put his feet up.
But thank goodness Howard doesn’t go that far. He leaves us in our bubble, in this false but seemingly perfect world, or at least perfect to that aforementioned eleven-year-old boy, or the eleven-year-old boy inside of most men.
Again, Howard was very much aware of what he was doing. Even the name of his hero, Esau Cairn, brings up certain images. In the bible, Esau was the hairy one, not thought capable of carrying on the civilization he was, as the elder son, supposed to inherit and push forward. He was the outcast, the rough one, the savage. Howard saw this not as a loss, but as a positive, so it strikes me that the name is a purposeful connection. And Esau Cairn is not only savage, he is dangerous. Doesn’t the name Cairn strike close to Cain, the man who killed his brother, Abel? When God asked him where his brother was, Cain replied: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
One gets the impression that Howard wanted to be free of all responsibilities, even the keeping of one’s brother, or in his case, his ailing mother. It was all a double-edged sword for Howard. Sure, he loved his mother and was attached to her, but on some level he just wanted to be free. And in 1936, shortly after he knew she would never regain consciousness, had fallen into a death watch coma, he, not so much out of depression, but out of sense of no more responsibility, a lust for dark freedom, lit a blue steel candle that threw him out of this world and unchained him. Perhaps that snap of gunfire tossed him across the black void of space to one of his created worlds like Almuric.
My guess is he hoped so, or wished to be reincarnated in some other time, more savage, more in need of a man of brawn and quick wit.
And if you throw out this idea of his character’s name being a connection to the biblical Cain, the name of the ultimate outcast, just leave the last name as it is, Cairn, and you still have an interesting and dark connection. A cairn is a pile of stones erected by someone to mark something of significance, often to mark a burial site or to stand as a memorial to the dead. Death was never far from Howard’s mind, and it is interesting that his hero’s name bears both the mark of the outcast, Esau, and a tribute to the dead, and if you want to carry the idea of Cain into it, which I admit might be stretching it a bit, but I believe it, you also have yet another reference to the outsider, an outcast, someone who has shirked the responsibilities and the actions of polite society and is living from moment to moment.
I bring this up, and perhaps belabor the point, to show that Howard was fully aware of what he was doing, had literary technique, even if it is with a small “l”, and that he was tapping into our knowledge of words and images and archetypes. He was not a primitive creator of tales, a savage genius, but was a clever man of letters with a little boy’s heart.
Burroughs was perhaps more able to suspend my belief quickly, but only slightly, for Howard was just gaining his chops with this one. A few pages in, and I was as hooked as a bass on a handmade fly, right through the gills. Soon I was with Esau Cairn, and in an even shorter time, I was him; a civilized man that didn’t fit in and who all his life had held back his energies and physical powers for fear of hurting someone; I was him, loose now on a world that was designed for me, a world where mortal combat was the order of the day, a world where strange monsters slipped, slid, walked, and flew over the landscape; a land where I was forever vigilant, forever in top physical shape and something for the ladies, who I might add, were also primitives, always good looking and secretly lustful minus the pesky problems of real primitives, ticks, fleas and body odor; beautiful maidens who have saved themselves for me to ravish, with, of course, the aforementioned “gentler instincts of the Earthwoman”, therefore not carrying the male reader too far from mama.
Howard, like Burroughs, had that ability to make you believe anything, even when the writing went off a little. I think Almuric has some of Howard’s most convincing and natural writing, but there are moments when he strays, when the night oil has burned too long and the fingers have flexed too much on the typewriter keys; little moments any commercial writer will have, but they were blips, nothing more, and sometimes they were interesting blips. But the true measure of Howard was when he strayed we could forgive, because his internal storytelling compass constantly pointed true north.
This also has to do with the method he used to tell this specific tale. It was not a method Howard used as much as Burroughs, but I must admit up front that for me the first person method of telling a story is the best, the truest and the purest, and in the end the most convincing. It is in one way the easiest way to tell a story, and the hardest to do well.
Like Burroughs with his tales of John Carter of Mars, as well as others, Howard uses a foreword to set up the story, and by the time Esau Cairn starts talking, the narrative becomes smooth and swift, and because of the first person narration, believable, at least for the time it takes you to read the book. That’s an achievement, friends.
But, it’s not all about storytelling, or first person narrative, it’s also about the prose, and Howard could turn a phrase, or several of them. He could engage you, excite you, and still stay on target with his theme—shallow perhaps, but constant.
Take this example:
“On his rude throne above us, old Khossuth lifted a spear and cast it earthward. Our eyes followed its flight, and as it sheathed its shining blade in the turf outside the ring, we hurled ourselves at each other, iron masses of bone and thew, vibrant with life and the lust to destroy.”
This scene is the theme of the novel, and Howard never loses this thematic intent in his adventure. It is front and foremost, the idea that being close to nature and our basic impulses is the way men and women are meant to live, though there’s no doubt that Howard’s world is mostly a masculine one, a manly wet dream where one can constantly prove himself through combat.
When I was a kid, I ate that up. It allowed me, the youthful reader, to feel powerful. More powerful than I really felt, and that is the secret to this kind of fiction’s success. Again, I belabor, but I am caught up in the spirit, so back off brothers and sisters, stand down and listen to me testify.
Howard gave me happiness.
He gave me adventure that went beyond my own part time Huck Finn experiences.
He gave me lust; what could be better than those savage dolls he portrayed in his fiction. Women who could be feminine one moment, and run with the wolves the next.
Yes, brothers and sisters, I say it once again unto you: Howard speaks to youth, speaks to the youth inside all of us, the frisky part of us that is tired of electric bills and water bills and phones that ring and children that need braces.
It takes a storyteller to truly take us away, to lose us inside the pages of his tale, and what makes a great storyteller is the ability to tell you a bald faced lie and make you believe it, make you part of it, make you the character.
Sure, his characters weren’t Ahab or Nick Adams or Augie March, but they were in some ways better, for they were archetypes, and Howard could make us become them. When you get right down to it, some of our finest writers fail to do that. What Howard had was something that is often overlooked. He had the ability to make the narrative the character; it was the totality of the book that was the character, all else was there to serve the story, and to finally create this wonderful, bumpy faced novel with blood in its teeth.
Ray Bradbury, a more literary writer for sure, is still a writer of this ilk. His characters are not to me true characters, no more than his dialogue is real dialogue. What he does is sculpt out a story where a little of this, a little of that, bits of business we don’t understand in pieces, but only as a whole, come together to create the story as character.
Burroughs did that. And Howard did that.
This, as well as the ability to convince, is more of an inborn talent than a skill, and it serves a writer well if he or she has it, not to mention it’s helpful to politicians as well. Because it is not only necessary to lie convincingly to make your stories work, but on some deeper level, the good storyteller, or politician, must somehow believe his or her own lies to the extent that they become, well, characters of a sort, a thing you can embrace that somehow goes beyond mere words.
When Howard was writing Almuric, or the bulk of his tales, I don’t doubt that he entered into a kind of trance that put him right where he was writing about. Made those worlds so real to him that they became real to us.
Maybe Almuric fails to be quite as convincing as John Carter’s journey, but there was a similarity in approach, in conviction, and had Howard continued to write in this vein, which is just slightly to the left of his Sword and Sorcery, he would have been very successful. In fact, a series of short books continuing in this style might actually have solidified his career better, at least earlier on. But Howard was all over the map. Sword and Sorcery, Westerns, crime stories, horror stories, you name it, he wrote it. Unlike his peer, H. P. Lovecraft, he thought being a writer meant you wrote, meant you could write when you needed to, not just when you wanted to. He was all about making a living, being able to look any sonofabitch in the eye and tell them to go to hell, because he didn’t need them. It was, in a strange way, as close as Howard, the good ole boy writer from Texas, could come to the freedom of the savage.