Category Archives: Elak

Happy Birthday, Henry Kuttner

Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

Henry Kuttner was born this day, April 7, in 1915.  He passed away far too young in 1958.

Kuttner got his start in Weird Tales, his first story being “The Graveyard Rats”, a grisly little piece.  Other stories for WT followed, and soon he was branching out into science fiction and the shudder pulps.  Legend has it that he started using pseudonyms after writing stories that appeared in the first two issues of Marvel Science Stories, stories that almost got the magazine shut down for pornography.  Supposedly no editor would buy stories with Kuttner’s byline for a while.  Mike Resnick reports in his introduction to Girls for the Slime God (in which the above mentioned stories are reprinted) that in a late 1940s poll of sf readers, two of Kuttner’s pen names came in higher than his real name.  Those pen names were Lawrence O’Donnell and Lewis Padgett.  Not surprising since his best regarded stories are under those names.

Kuttner’s best work was done in collaboration with his wife C. L. Moore.  The story is that Kuttner wrote her a fan letter, not realizing that “C. L.” stood for “Catherine Lucille.”

Kuttner wrote in a wide variety of genres, including sword and sorcery.  His tales of Elak of Atlantis (reviewed here, here, here, and here) as well as his two stories of Prince Raynor (reviewed here and here) helped fill the gap left by Robert E. Howard’s death.

It was in science fiction that he made his reputation.  Stories such “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”, “The Proud Robot”,  “The Twonky”, “When the Bough Breaks”, the Baldly stories (collected in Mutant), the Hogben stories, and countless others have remained popular and readable to this day, showing only a few signs of not aging well.  His story “What You Need” was filmed as an original series Twilight Zone episode.  Kuttner wrote a lot of what at the time was considered novel length work in the pulps, much of it still unreprinted.  A few years ago I managed to get most of the pulps containing these stories, and over the next year or two I hope to make time to read and report on them.  It’s also been long enough since I read some of them, that I need to refresh my memory.

There’s a lot of great Kuttner material that either hasn’t been reprinted or has been reprinted in such obscure places that it doesn’t matter.  For example, “We Kill People” from Astounding‘s March 1946 issue is every bit as good as the stories that are the most well-known.

Kuttner’s work was marked by a dry, cynical sense of humor and a pessimistic outlook on life, and the stories often ended on a note of horror.  As the 1940s turned to the 1950s, the Kuttner quit writing so much for the pulps.  Part of this was burn-out, part of this was Kuttner was finally getting his college degree and then a master’s.  He authored several mystery novels during this period.  He passed away from a heart attack.

I first encountered Kuttner on a hot, humid afternoon the summer before I entered high school.  I was taking a break and pulled out the SFBC edition of The Best of Henry Kuttner, which had arrived in the mail a few days earlier.  Although I don’t recall why I purchased it, I suspect it was because Ray Bradbury, who was something of a protege of Kuttner’s for a while, wrote the introduction.  The first story was “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”.  My mind was blown.  My life would never be the same.

Of all the science fiction and fantasy authors I’ve ever read, Kuttner is still my favorite.  I thank God frequently that Stephen Haffner has reprinted so much of his early work.  (I just wish he’d done it before I spent all that money tracking down those pulps.)

Kuttner (along with his wife C. L. Moore) is one of the few authors who has his/her own shelf in my library.  (The others are Ray Bradbury, Leigh Brackett and her husband Edmond Hamilton, and Robert E. Howard, who books take up two shelves.  Charles Beaumont would have his own shelf if he had written more books before he died.)

Much of Kuttner’s early work is clunky, but if you read his stories in chronological order, you can see him maturing.  He was a writer who wasn’t afraid to stretch himself, to take chances and do something different.  Just read “Happy Ending” as an example.  The story is told in reverse, Ending, Middle, Beginning, and it works.

If you’ve not read Kuttner, you should.  A large of number Big Names (Mariam Zimmer Bradley, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Robert Silverberg, Mike Resnick) list him among their influences. Find out why.

Happy Birthday, Hank.

Henry Kuttner’s Prince Raynor: Cursed be the City

Elak of Atlantis
Henry Kuttner
Planet Stories
trade paperback, 221, $12.99

In addition to the four Elak stories collected in this book, the only two stories Kuttner wrote about Prince Raynor are also included.  These stories were published in Strange Stories, a rival of Weird Tales published by Better Publications.  Started in 1939, this pulp was often seen at the time as a dumping ground for stories rejected by Weird Tales.  It only lasted until 1941.

In a way I prefer the Prince Raynor tales to those of Elak.  They are set in a more recent prehistory, one in which the ancient kingdoms we know existed are beginning to take shape, rather than some mythical past. As a result, any anachronisms are less glaring.  Also, the prose is leaner and more polished than in some of the early Elak tales, especially the first one, “Thunder in the Dawn”.

Both “Cursed be the City” and its sequel, “The Citadel of Darkness”, open with quotes from something  called “The Tale of Sakhmet the Damned”.  What this is exactly, we’re never told, nor does anyone named Sakhmet ever appear.  It’s a nice touch, though.

The story opens with the fall of Sardopolis, capital city of the kingdom of Gobi.  The king is killed by the conqueror Cyaxeres, and the king’s son Prince Raynor is taken to the dungeon to be tortured.  Cyaxares has a companion and adviser, Necho, who may not be human.  Raynor is rescued by his Nubian friend and servant Eblik.  Together they make their way to the temple of Ahmet.  There a dying priest tells them that when Sardopolis was founded, a great forest god was displaced, but it was prophesied that he would one day return to set up his altar again in the ruins of Sardopolis.  That day is at hand.  Raynor and Eblik are given the task of going to a group of bandits led by the Reaver of the Rock and informing them of the fall of Sardopolis.  They’ve been waiting for generations for the old god to return.

Cyaxares’ men follow them.  The Reaver and his men stay to fight.  Raynor and Eblik, guided by the Reaver’s daughter Delphia, a formidable fighter in her own right, take a talisman to free the forest god.  Most readers will recognize the name of the forest god.

The story moves well and has a satisfying, if not exactly upbeat, resolution.  In fact, the story ends on a pretty dark note.

Kuttner continues to break from pulp conventions here.  Eblik is more than just a black sidekick, and Delphia takes an active role in the events.  The tone and feel of this story, as well as that of “The Citadel of Darkness”, is much more Howard-esque than the Elak stories.  In those, Kuttner tended to play the sidekick Lycon for comic relief.  None of Howard’s fantasy heroes had true sidekicks, although at times they had companions, who were treated as equals.  In the Prince Raynor stories, while Eblik may be a servant, and upon occasion is reminded that he is, he’s still portrayed as a companion, not a stereotype to be played for laughs.  This was an uncommon portrayal of someone of African descent in the pulps of this era.

By this time C. L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry had made her appearance, so a strong active woman wasn’t exactly groundbreaking.  Still, to cast Delphia as a competent fighter and one of the leaders of the bandits was a departure from the typical standards of the day.

So to sum up, if, as some have stated, Kuttner was trying to fill the void in sword and sorcery stories left by Robert E. Howard’s death, I think he succeeded more with Prince Raynor than with Elak.  It’s unfortunate that he only wrote two stories featuring the character.  We’ll look at the other tale in a future post.

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Kuttner’s Elak of Atlantis: Dragon Moon

“Dragon Moon” from Elak of Atlantis
Henry Kuttner
Planet Stories – Paizo Publishing
Trade Paperback, $12.95, 2007

“Dragon Moon” is the last of the Elak stories Henry Kuttner wrote.  It got the cover of the January 1941 issue of Weird Tales.  I was browsing recently on the Dark Worlds site and discovered that all but “Thunder in the Dawn” got the cover.  I shouldn’t say “discovered” so much as I was reminded.  I had seen all three of the covers featuring the Elak stories before and should have remembered them.  Rather than reproduce the rest of them here, I’ll let you view them over at Dark Worlds.  G. W. Thomas has put together an interesting website, and you owe it to yourself to check it out if you haven’t already. 

“Dragon Moon” opens very much like “Thunder in the Dawn”, with Elak and Lycon becoming involved in a brawl over a tavern wench in the port city of Poseidonis.  Once again the druid Dalan saves Elak and tells him his home kingdom of Cyrena is in danger.  At this point, the two tales diverge in their similarities.  An alien presence, not a demon or a spirit, but an alien presence (Dalan is quite clear on this point) called Karkora the Pallid One has taken over the mind of the ruler of the neighboring kingdom of Kiriath.  Karkora had begun to take over the mind of Elak’s brother Orander.  In order to prevent this from happening, Orander has taken his own life.  Elak is now heir to the Dragon Throne and the kingdom of Cyrena.  Kiriath is assembling an army to invade Cyrena.

Elak has no interest in ruling and sends Dalan away.  That night Elak has a strange dream in which he finds himself on a cold mountaintop being assaulted by a presence.  He is only able to escape by calling on the aid of his god.  This is a complete departure from Conan, who is well documented in his practice of not calling on gods and whose deity Crom hates weaklings.  Elak doesn’t give it a second thought.

This is the first dream sequence (or dream-like at least) in the story and is fairly short.  Unable to find Dalan, Elak and Lycon hire a skiff to take them to a boat that is just setting sail for Cyrena.  Upon climbing up the side and over the rail, they discovered the ship is captained by a man named Drezzar.  The same Drezzar Elak was fighting in the opening scene of the story.  He and Lycon are immediately taken captive and put to work at the oars as slaves.

This sequence, in which Elak is captured and eventually leads a slave rebellion, is the part of the story that most reminded me of Conan.  It’s a straight action-adventure sequence which ends with Elak assuming the captaincy of the vessel.

The next truly weird part of the story occurs after Elak has been instructed by Dalan in a dream to leave the ship at a certain location.  He eventually ends up seeking aid from a sorceress named Mayana.  She is the mother of the current Kiriathan king and a descendant of Poseidon.  In reaching her, Elak has to swim across a lake inhabited by the shades of a drowned city.  This is the closest Kuttner comes to including a bizarre otherworldly sequence of the intensity of the ones seen in the earlier stories.

Mayana is by far the most interesting character.  She fell in love with the former king of Kiriath and bore him a son with the aid of a sorcerer named Erykion.  He’s ultimately responsible for the Pallid One possessing the current king of Kiriath, who is Mayana’s son.  She holds the key to stopping her son, but is reluctant to aid Elak because it will mean her son’s death.  Yet, she also realizes that this is the right thing to do.  She withholds her aid but promises to give it to Elak in his hour of greatest need.  Mayana, in spite of being a child of the sea and not human, has fallen in love with the forests and fields of the land and longs to be able to walk them once again.

There’s more, but I won’t spoil it for you, except to say this.  It appears that Kuttner was intentionally ending the series with this installment.  Elak ascends the Dragon Throne and agrees to change his wandering ways, to settle down and rule.  While kings can certainly have adventures, (Kull and Conan did, after all) the tone implies Elak the king will have a more quiet reign than his predecessors in Weird Tales.  The ending of the story is the most bittersweet one of the entire series.

Whatever reasons Kuttner had for terminating Elak’s adventures, he ends the series on a high note.  The writing is probably the most polished of all the Elak stories.  The action flows smoothly.  I found the characters to be better developed, especially Mayana, who is by far the most complex of any of the characters in the series, especially given the amount of time she is actually in the story.

“Dragon Moon” was published in the January 1941 issue of Weird Tales.  “Beyond the Phoenix” made its appearance in the October 1938 issue.  That’s a gap of over two years.  All of the preceding Elak stories were published in 1938.  I’m not sure why there was such a long break.  The two Prince Raynor stories were published in Strange Tales during those two years.  It appears as though Kuttner left the character and came back to him, although that’s entirely speculation on my part.  Did Kuttner feel that his writing had matured since the first Elak story (it had) and want to try his hand at a different sword and sorcery setting?  Did Raynor not connect with the readers?  Did Kuttner submit “Dragon Moon”  in late 1938 or early 1939 and Farnsworth Wright delayed in scheduling it so that Kuttner had to create Prince Raynor for another market?  Hard to swallow considering all but one of the Elak stories got covers and Wright published Conan in a number of consecutive issues.  I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they’re interesting to think about.  If anyone out there knows why “Dragon Moon” was published later, I’d like to hear the answer.

So, to sum up the Elak of Atlantis series.  While the first has some definite flaws, the quality improves over the series.  While comparisons to Conan are inevitable, and most of them will probably be unfavorable comparisons, Elak is his own character.  He seeks help from the gods.  He is an adventurer by choice.  You can argue that Conan is as well, but the backgrounds of the two men are vastly different.  Elak turns his back on a throne before ascending it.  Conan, who has no such prospects due to his birth, makes his own opportunity.  This series, while maybe not a major sword and sorcery series, is certainly one worth reading.  Kuttner was expanding the genre, giving it a more weird and bizzare feel through the scenes where Elak goes to another realm, be it extra dimensional or in a dream.  To my knowledge, at this time only C. L. Moore had done that with her Jirel of Joiry adventures.  So, in conclusion, if you haven’t read the Elak stories, check them out, especially the second, third, and final tales.

We’ll look at the Prince Raynor stories next and see how they compare to both Conan and Elak.

Kuttner’s Thunder in the Dawn: A Review

“Thunder in the Dawn”
from Elak of Atlantis
Henry Kuttner
Planet Stories – Paizo Publishing
Trade Paperback, $12.95, 2007

Following Robert E. Howard’s death in 1936, a number of other writers tried to follow in his footsteps by creating heroic fantasy characters for Weird Tales.  One of these writers was the young Henry Kuttner.  Kuttner created two sword and sorcery series.  The first was Elak of Atlantis, who had four adventures published between 1938 and 1941.  The second was Prince Raynor, published in Strange Stories in 1939, and the subject of a later post on this blog.  All the stories of these two characters are included in this volume from Planet Stories, an imprint of Paizo Publishing.

“Thunder in the Dawn” is the longest of the Elak tales.  The story opens with three men eyeing each other in a tavern in the city of Poseidonis on the southeast coast of the continent of Atlantis.  A fight ensues between Lycon and an unnamed stranger.  Lycon, a habitual drunk who has been waiting on Elak to show up for an appointment, holds his own at first.  When the bartender tries to intervene on behalf of the stranger, Elak shows up just in time to save him.  The stranger calls Elak by name, tells him to wait, then reaches into his tunic and throws a winged snake.  The third stranger gets involved at this point, Dalan, a druid, who saves Elak’s life.  He tells Elak, who we learn is really Prince Zeulas, that his home kingdom of Cyrena has been overrun by Vikings and his brother Orander taken captive by the evil wizard named Elf. 

Throughout the story Kuttner uses a lot of names from history, apparently to lend a sense of verisimilitude to the story.  Unfortunately for me, it mostly shatters the suspension of disbelief.  I’ll discuss this more later.

Since Elak has kept his past life secret from Lycon, Dalan informs Lycon that Elak had to leave Cyrena after he killed his stepfather in a fight.  Orander became king, and one of the things he did was to forbid Elf from practicing his black arts and human sacrifice.  Elf has sought revenge by forming a treaty with the Vikings to overrun Cyrenia, to be followed by the rest of the Atlantean kingdoms.  He has imprisoned Orander and begun to prepare for the next phase of his plans.  The only people standing in his way are Dalan and Elak.

Elak and Lycon agree to help Dalan rescue Orander, defeat Elf, and free Cyrena.  Dalan wants to leave immediately, but first Elak wants to say goodbye to Velia, the young wife of Duke Granicor, with whom he has been having an affair.  Of course, the Duke is waiting for Elak.  After a brief scuffle, Elak flees with Velia.  She isn’t taken as a hostage, but instead insists on going along of her own free will.  Her father had sold her to the Duke, and Velia hates him. 

The geography of Atlantis comes into play in the next part of the story.  A river from a central lake flows to an inland sea and then to the northern ocean, passing through Cyrena.  Dalan has a boat ready, but as they make their way north, Elf uses magic to slow them down and allow Duke Granicor to catch up with them.  Elak is washed overboard in the ensuing battle, and when he awakens, he discovers he is the prisoner of the Pikts, who inhabit an island in the inland sea.  Dalan locates Elak through his crystal ball.  While Dalan, Lycon, and Velia organize the oarsmen for a rescue, Elak has his hands full.  Managing to free himself from his bonds, Elak has to jump into a pool to escape a shadow being worshipped by the Pikts.  What he discovers is a doorway into a shadow dimension.  While there he meets a fawn-like creature named Solonala, who is part deer, part human, and with feline facial features.  She is from a third dimension and was exiled to the shadow world by Elf when he conquered her kingdom.  Pursued by the shadow creature, who is a pawn of Elf, Elak manages to escape with the magical help of Dalan and the physical help of Solonala, but not before she sacrifices herself so he can continue the fight against Elf.

The journey continues with more action and fights, on large and small scales, including a return of Duke Granicor.  The final defeat of Elf takes place in still yet another dimension.  Throughout the story is the action is swift, and the pace relentless. 

Kuttner was trying to branch out at this point in his career.  Up until this time he had mostly written in the vein of Lovecraft for Weird Tales as well as a number of tales for the weird menace and spicy pulps.  (Collected in the forthcoming Terror in the House from Haffner Press.)  It would be easy to dismiss this story as a cheap imitation of Howard.  But further consideration is warranted.  Kuttner was a versatile writer, at least as versatile as Howard.  Whereas Howard wrote fantasy and horror, boxing stories, humorous and serious westerns, and historical adventure, Kuttner expanded his skills in different directions.  Mystery, humorous fantasy, and humorous as well as serious science fiction would be what Kuttner would eventually be known for. 

Also, Howard’s most famous fantasy characters were created after he was well established in his career.  Howard sold his first story, “Spear and Fang”, to Weird Tales in 1924.  Solomon Kane and Kull were created in 1927, Bran Mak Morn at about the same time, and Conan’s first adventure was penned in 1932.  Time from acceptance to publication in those days was on the order of a year.  So if Kuttner’ first story was published in 1936, then he had probably been writing professionally (defined as selling on a regular basis) for about two years when he wrote “Thunder in the Dawn”.  While both men never stopped learning their craft, Kuttner was not as far along when this story was written has Howard was when he introduced his more famous heroes, especially Conan.  That Kuttner eventually became one of the best writers of his day is evidenced by the stories that would eventually make his reputation, “Mimsy Were the Borogoves,” “The Twonky,” “A Gnome There Was,” and Fury, just to name a few.  The first was these was still half a decade in the future when “Thunder in the Dawn” saw print. 

Does the first of the Elak stories have flaws?  Certainly.  The anachronistic use of historical names, like I said earlier, jarred me out to the story a number of times.  Howard certainly used historical names in his fiction, but most of the time he altered the names slightly, such as changing India to Vendya, to give a familiar yet exotic flavor to his work.  The prose is a bit purple in places and lacks the power of Howard’s best work.  But to compare Kuttner’s apprentice work to Howard’s best seems, to me at least, a bit unfair.  Kuttner was learning.  A reading of his work in chronological order showed he wasn’t afraid to take chances and grow any more than Howard was.  Kuttner grew to be one of the most highly regard writers of his day and a master of his field.  It’s just that whereas Howard is best remembered for his sword and sorcery, Kuttner made his mark on science fiction.

A final note on the role of women in the story.  Sword and sorcery and similar heroic fiction are often accused by their detractors of using women as little more than sex objects or objects to be rescued by the hero.  While neither Velia nor Solonala are fleshed out to any great depth, they are far from being fragile flowers or screaming women.  Both take active, martial roles in the story.  Kuttner develops their characters about as much as he does any of the male characters.  Elak is only successful in his attempt to defeat Elf because of the assistance the ladies give him at various points in the story, up to and including saving his life.  Howard also wrote his share of strong women.  If Elak was an imitation of Conan, well, this is one area where the imitation should be applauded.

So, while Elak isn’t Conan, and Kuttner wasn’t writing at the level of Howard at this point in his career, the story is still worth reading.  It moves well, has good action scenes, and the descriptions of the other dimensions are truly eerie in places.  Even if it isn’t a major work, “Thunder in the Dawn” is an important story in development of modern sword and sorcery as well as the growth of one of the most versatile writers of fantastic fiction in the mid-twentieth century.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time all the Elak stories have been included in one volume, although they’ve all been reprinted at least once in various anthologies.  In the next installment, I’ll look at the second in the series.