Thursday, May 9, 2013

Avarice makes for Credulity

We'll look at one last Robert E. Howard story in which the hero and the villain are forced by circumstances to team up with one another.

"Black Vulmea's Vengeance" was published in the November 1938 issue of Golden Fleece--a couple of years after Howard's death. The main character is an Irish pirate who has had a lot of success looting both British and Spanish ships.

It's the British who finally catch up to him--at a time when his entire crew is drunk from an all-night bender. Black Vulmea manages to take out a few of the Brits with a blast from a swivel gun, but the broadside he receives in return leaves him unconscious and wipes out his drunken crew.

("They'll wake up in Hell without knowing how they got there," eulogizes Vulmea a few pages later.)

The commander of the British ship is the snooty and brutal John Wentyard, who years ago had hanged a ten-year-old Vulmea when he put down a peasant's rebellion in Ireland. Vulmea, being an REH hero, survived the hangman's rope, became a kick-butt pirate, and now brought in chains before the man who killed his friends and family years ago.

Vulmea at first figures he'll leap forward and bash Wentyard's skull in with his manacles--an act of vengeance he figures is worth giving up his life to obtain. But then he gets a chance to run a con on Wentyard, telling him about a treasure hidden in the ruins of an ancient civilization on a nearby island. Looked at objectively, Vulmea's story should have been an obvious and desperate lie. But Vulmea knows that "avarice makes for credulity" and Wentyard indeed falls for it.

They travel to the island and go ashore: Wentyard, Vulmea and 15 marines. They're attacked by natives, which allows Vulmea to make a break for it. Events soon leave the marines dead, while Wentyard and Vulmea end up both hiding in some ruins that the natives are frightened to enter.

Vulmea is good at being sneaky, so he can slip out of the ruins and escape pretty much at will. So his initial plan is to first watch Wentyard starve to death. But then he decides it would be more satisfying to bring Wentyard food and water, then kill him in a fair fight. This plan is spoiled, though, when he abruptly discovers Wentyard has a wife and five-year-old daughter that will be left destitute. In fact, Wentyard was anxious to find treasure mostly to provide for them. "I can't be the cause of a helpless woman and colleen starving," says Vulmea in disgust.

This situation is what makes the character interactions particularly interesting, adding depth to an already cracking-good action tale. In our previous looks at reluctant Howardian team-ups, the goal was always either mutual survival or obtaining a treasure, after which the hero and the villain would go back to killing each other. This time, it's an act of compassion from a normally brutal pirate that brings the two characters together. It's clear that Vulmea still hates Wentyard and doesn't trust the man at all, but he'll save the Englishman (and even share a bit of treasure they stumble across) for the sake of a woman and child whom Vulmea himself will never meet.

But surviving has become more difficult. The natives won't enter the ruins, but a band of former African slaves (whose ship wrecked near the island) has no problem doing to. And these guys have no reason to love any white man--whether Irish or English. Also, there's a reason the natives avoid the ruins---a really, really creepy reason.

It's a great adventure story, with Wentyard's character arc and his changing attitude towards Vulmea giving it an interesting level of emotional subtlety. Robert E. Howard was quite capable of subtlety in his characterizations--something that he did a lot more often than casual critics of his work realize. "Black Vulmea's Vengeance" is perhaps one of the best examples of this.

That's it for our look at REH tales that force the hero to team up with an enemy. There's probably some other examples I'm not thinking of, so I may return to the idea in the future. Next week, though, we'll return to Edgar Rice Burroughs and visit with the Lord of the Jungle.

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