Robert E. Howard's Black Vulmea

The first of the two Black Vulmea stories aroused a feeling that there might be something about the 17th century pirate as a character. The second story, on the other hand, was just disappointing from the reasons I'll dive on later.

Black Vulmea's Vengeance has the titular pirate being captured by a British navy officer. In order to save his life, he leads the brits to a treasure hunt, which he knows will end badly, as there's a savage tribe living near where he's leading the troops. But saving himself is not his only goal, as he has recognised the officer in charge as Wentyard, a soldier who tried to hang him when he was but a child.

This is a setting for an atmospheric tale, where a lot is told from Wentyard's perspective, him being held at bay in old ruins, where the natives are afraid of entering. There the man sure of his impending doom tries to make peace with himself in the midst of the shadowy ruins.

It doesn't take long to be revealed that it was Vulmea playing tricks with the man, as he wants to kill him personally. Vulmea knew that the savages wouldn't enter the ruins, so he figured it would be a perfect place to toy with the Wentyard. Before he manages to wreak his vengeance upon the man, he finds out that the officer is a family man. Starting to feel pity towards his daughter and wife, Vulmea ends up saving him and helping him escape the deathly trap.

All in all, Black Vulmea's Vengeance is a well-written story, that keeps you captivated to the end. Vulmea comes out as a bit more complex character than you'd expect when he shows traits of compassion and a capability to see a bigger picture besides his own need for a revenge. It really is one of the more memorable stories Howard wrote.

So, then, what is wrong with the second Vulmea story, The Swords of the Red Brotherhood? It's simply the fact that it's not an original story at all. It is almost 1:1 rewrite of Howard's own Conan story The Black Stranger. Not that the story is bad, and in many ways, the story might even work better as a Vulmea story, but the fact remains, that I've read the Conan story first, so I could not but feel disappointed about it.

If you've read The Black Stranger, the story of  The Swords of the Red Brotherhood is more than familiar: it begins with Vulmea running from Indians before he manages to escape in a cavern where 12 skeletons sit dead around a table, guarding their treasure. The main focus of the story is, however, Francoise, a nice of a self-exiled count Henri d'Chastillon.

The count, his family and his men have made a fortress along the coast where Vulmea found the treasure. Two other pirates arrive at the scene, believing the count has the treasure, despite he hadn't even known of its existence, he himself being on the run from a dark ju-ju man from the Slave Coast, as he betrayed his slaving companion on his younger days.

This all is mixed into a delicious soup of betrayals and uneasy alliances. Like I said, the story itself isn't bad and in many ways, it works better as a pirate story than it does as a Conan story. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the Black Vulmea story was written first. But still, as I knew the basic story as a Conan story first, there's the feeling of a disappointment, especially after the great first story.

Vulmea is not a very well known character, which isn't really a surprise considering Howard managed to pen only two stories where he was in and in both of them he's not really even the main character. The perspective is never really on him, but on others and how they see him. In many ways, he comes out as an antagonist rather than the protagonist, despite he has a softer, more humane side in him as well.

If you're into pirate stories, I don't think Vulmea is a bad pick. And if you haven't read the original Conan story The Black Stranger before, the changes are that you'll like The Swords of the Red Brotherhood more than I did. Either way, if not both, the Black Vulmea's Vengeance is, at least, worth reading.