Category Archives: Farnsworth Wright

Blogging Kull: The Screaming Skull of Silence

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey
trade paperback, $17.00, 317 p.

This is the first of four extremely short stories in the annals of Kull, or at least first in the order of arrangement in this volume.  This one is different from any of the Kull stories that have come before it. It was submitted to Weird Tales, but Farnsworth Wright obviously didn’t care for it since it wasn’t published until 1967 in the Lancer Books volume King Kull.

The tale opens with Kull listening to Brule, his chancellor Tu, Ka-nu the Pictish ambassador, and the slave and scholar Kathulos discussing philosophy (nothing new there).  Kathulos is saying that what we perceive as reality is an illusion.  To make his point, he gives an example of sound and silence, saying that sound is the absence of silence, while silence is the absence of sound.  Kathulos mentions that Raama, the greatest sorcerer who ever lived, thousands of years ago locked a primordial silence in a castle in order to save the universe.

When Brule mentions the castle is in Valusia and he’s seen it, the comment gets Kull’s attention.  He decides he wants to see the place.  Although the other try to dissuade him, he takes them and a hundred of the elite Red Slayers with him.  They find the castle on a hill after days of riding around looking for it.  How the kingdom continues to run or why Brule doesn’t remember the location of the castle is never explained.

As they approach the castle, Kull can sense waves of silence emanating from it.  The only door is sealed.  Next to the door is a gong, green in color and varying in its depths, sometimes seeming to be quite deep and at other times appearing shallow.  Despite the warnings carved on the castle, Kull breaks the bonds.

What rushes out is a palpable silence that knocks all but Kull to the ground.  The men are all screaming, but no sound proceeds from their mouths.  Sensing the silence wants to destroy all life, Kull tries to resist the silence but eventually staggers and falls.  As he does so, he strikes the gong.  Although he can’t hear it ring, Kull senses the silence draw back.  He takes the gong from its stand and begins to ring it, forcing the silence into the castle and eventually destroying it.  This is a pretty good trick since not even Raama was unable to destroy this silence.  The silence screams as it dies.

And that’s all there is to this one.  It has some unique points.  For starters, Kull finds his usual weapons, in this case his sword, useless against a malevolent silence.  He is forced to use his brains rather than his brawn.  For Kull that’s not too much of a stretch since he uses his brain on a regular basis.  It was nice to read that something other than a blade is needed every once in a while.

There’s nothing remarkable about the prose, at least by Howard’s standards.  It’s good, serviceable, and pulls the reader in.  It’s just not his best.  Even so, it’s still better than most of his imitators have done when they were hitting on all cylinders.

The appearance of Kathulos provided the right amount of philosophy needed as a framework to get the action moving.  Howard was reading a lot of philosophy during this period, as evidenced by his correspondence that has come down to us.  I may slow down this series of posts in order to research some of the philosophers who were influencing his work.  Or I might devote an entire post just to that.  We’ll see.  Time constraints will determine that.

This is the second and last story in which Kathulos will appear.  The sorcerer who manipulated him, Thulsa Doom, never appears again in the Kull stories, at least in none of the ones written by Howard.  (I’m not going to consider the comics here.)  For the Lancer Books edition of King Kull, Lin Carter “finished” an untitled draft, eliminated all references to Karon the Ferryman (!), had Felgar be Thulsa Doom in disguise, and called it “Riders Beyond the Sunrise”.  But the more we discuss Carter’s violations of Howard’s works, the more we legitimize them, so that’s the last we’ll  talk about Carter in this post.

Like I stated, this is one of the shortest of the Kull stories.  In some ways it’s one of the more interesting ones because of the nature of the villain Kull has to defeat.  It certainly adds variety to the series. 

The Frost King, The Frost-Giant, and Their Daughters

It’s been bitterly cold here on the South Plains of Texas for much of the last week.  Temperatures were near record lows for several days.  Just when it looked like things were going to warm up again, we got more snow Sunday.  And that made me think of “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”, which made me think of “The Frost King’s Daughter”.  And I knew what the next post on this blog would be.

The tale (or tales, if you prefer) concerns the lone survivor of a battle in the frozen north.  Having just killed the only member of the opposing army left standing, he sees a beautiful young woman wearing only a gossamer veil walking among the dead.  She taunts him with her body, and he pursues hers.  Of course, this is a trap.  After a time, she calls her brothers forth, two ice giants, to kill the man.  Instead, he defeats them, captures the girl, and is about to ravish her when she calls on her father, Ymir.  The girls is transported into the sky in a blaze of blinding light that leaves the hero unconscious.  He is awakened by a band of his allies who were delayed by an ambush.  After he tells his story, one of the older men in the group tells the warrior he saw Ymir’s daughter Atali, who haunts battlefields and lures survivors to their deaths so that she might present their hearts to her father.  The old man claims to have seen her as a youth when he was too wounded to follow her.  Everyone thinks the old man had his brains addled by a sword stroke until the hero unclenches his fist to find a veil.

This pair of stories are essentially the same, only the names have changed.  “The Frost King’s Daughter” concerns Amra of Akbitana, while the “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” is an early Conan story that was rejected by Farnsworth Wright (more on that later) and wasn’t published until the August 1953 issue of Fantasy Fiction.  Unfortunately, that version was rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp.  It wasn’t until 1976 that Howard’s version saw print in Donald M. Grant’s Rogues in the House.  This was a hardback collectible volume, not a mass market edition.  “The Frost King’s Daughter”, on the other hand, was published in the March 1934 issue of The Fantasy Fan.  You probably couldn’t afford an original copy of that little fan publication, provided you could find one.  Fortunately, the entire run has been reprinted in facsimile (details on how to order are here.)

The first mass market publication of Howard’s original version of “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” wasn’t available until 1989, when both stories were printed side-by-side in Karl Edward Wagner’s Echoes of Valor II.  If you aren’t familiar with the series, it ran to three volumes (as far as I know; if there was a fourth I missed it).  Wagner, a fan and writer of sword and sorcery who deserves to be better remembered, compiled collections of rare heroic fiction.  While many of the stories Wagner selected have been reprinted in recent years, especially the Robert E. Howard and C. L. Moore pieces, there are still some tales that haven’t seen the light of day since and make the volumes worth seeking out.

In his introduction, Wagner states that Howard wrote “The Frost King’s Daughter” first and that the Conan version, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” was the rewrite.  How he knows this to be true, Wagner doesn’t exactly say.  He supports his case by saying that “The Phoenix on the Sword” was a rewrite of the Kull story “By This Axe I Rule” (documentably true), and that “Frost-Giant” was a rewrite of “Frost King”.  We know Howard would recycle stories if they didn’t sell, at times changing the names of major characters, and we also know that sometimes the details of his stories would change from one draft to the next.  Furthermore, there is evidence that Howard was still developing the character of Conan as well as the Hyborian Age for the first several Conan stories.  Patrice Louinet, in his essay “Hyborian Genesis” (The Coming of Conan), does a thorough job of showing this development.

And here we encounter a small problem.  Louinet suggests that Howard changed the title of the story and Conan’s name to Amra when he sent the story to The Fantasy Fan.  His evidence seems to be the publication date of “Frost King” as well as an unreferenced letter from Howard to Charles D. Hornig, editor of The Fantasy Fan.  Patrice Louinet is one of the leaders in the field of contemporary Howard scholarship.  Wagner was one of the foremost authorities of his day.  So who is correct?  Was “Frost King” the rewrite, or was “Frost-Giant”?

As far as their respective texts are concerned the stories are almost identical.  I compared them, and there was only one significant deviation I found.  This one:

“Far have I wandered, from Zingara to the Sea of Vilayet, in Stygia and Kush and the country of the Hyrkanians; but a woman like you I have never seen.”

So who do you think said this, Conan or Amra?  Based on the place names, which are the settings of other Conan stories, you would probably think Conan, right?

Well, you would be wrong.  Amra said this.  In the Conan version of the story (Frost-Giant), the wording is “Far have I wandered, but a woman like you I have never seen.”  Conan’s wanderings and the Hyborian geography are never mentioned.  The only reason that I can think of for Howard to add place names from the Conan stories to a rewrite of a Conan story in which he changes the name and nationality of the viewpoint character is to clue readers in that Amra is really Conan.  And since it had been established by the time “Gods of the North” AKA “The Frost King’s Daughter” was published in The Fantasy Fan that Amra was one of the names Conan was known by, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this was Howard’s motivation.  But why would he do this?  The only explanation I can come up with was that because Conan was a Weird Tales character, either Howard had an agreement with Farnsworth Wright not to try to sell a Conan story to another market (I’m unaware of any such agreement) or he felt that do sell a Conan story to another market would, in a sense, be dishonorable.  It was standard practice in the pulp days for an author’s character(s) to only appear in one magazine.Howard may have been abiding by that practice.

On the other hand, it could be that “Frost-Giant” is the rewrite.  The passage quoted above, the one with the place names, tends to disrupt the flow of the story.  Certainly, its prose is more purple than the same passage without the travelogue.  It could very well be, since as far as I know the exact composition date of either version of the story is unknown, that Howard was already working out the geography of the Hyborian kingdoms and simply hadn’t settled on a final name and nationality of his principle character.  I will be the first to admit that the evidence isn’t conclusive either way, but this is the interpretation I favor.  I’m sure if there’s information I’ve overlooked, Howard fandom will let me know about it.  Quickly.

There’s one other thing I want to address.  Wagner says Wright rejected “Frost-Giant” because it was too racy.  Considering the sexual imagery in some of C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith stories (another topic for another day), not to mention the sex implicit in some of the other Conan tales, I’m not sure I buy this line.  If Wright was that uptight, why did he publish some of those Margaret Brundage covers?  (I know, I know, racy covers on pulps had nothing to do with the contents.)  Wagner says Wright’s view of Conan was of “a noble barbarian out to perform deeds of chivalrous heroism.”  Again, Wagner doesn’t provide details to back this position up.  In fact, Wright’s rejection of the story, which Wagner quotes, simply says Wright didn’t care for the story and gives no reasons as to why he didn’t care for it.  The general consensus I’ve heard for years on this point was that Wright didn’t like the hero attempting to commit rape.

But is this what Conan/Amra really does?  In the interest of stirring up trouble taking a deeper interpretation of the story, let’s look closely at what happens, shall we?  Atali taunts Conan.  “Spreading her arms wide, she swayed before him, her golden head lolling sensuously, her scintillant eyes half shadowed beneath their long silken lashes.  ‘Am I not beautiful, oh man?’ ”  Sounds to me she’s trying to entice him to pursue her.  This is born out at the end of the story, when the old man Gorm tells Conan Atali lures men to their deaths.  Gorm also describes her as beautiful and naked.  Atali continues to taunt Conan, essentially daring him to follow her.  Conan’s reaction is described as a madness that sweeps away his pain and fatigue.  Howard makes the pursuit sound as though Conan were possessed.

Rather than trying to commit rape, I read the story as Conan being put under a spell of desire by Atali.  Only Conan is stronger than she bargains for.  When he kills her brothers, she realizes she can’t control him nor reverse the spell.  Otherwise, why would she have to call on Ymir for help?  Am I saying Atali was asking for it?  You bet.  Even a casual reading of the story would tend to show that was the case.  What I’m NOT saying is that every (or even any) attempted rape victim was asking for it, so please don’t read that into my remarks.  I don’t consider what Conan/Amra does here to be attempted rape because I don’t interpret his actions as being of his own free will.  This is a fictional story, a fantasy, in which an evil woman’s spell goes wrong and she can’t control the desires she has deliberately cultivated in a man, with the outcome being other than what she intended.  I don’t for a minute think that’s how the real world works, and in spite of some of Howard’s detractors, I don’t think Bob meant that here either.  I think he was telling an entertaining story in the best way he could with a character whose personality he was still developing and exploring.  And in that, he succeeded.

So, to sum up.  I think “Frost-Giant” is probably a rewrite of “Frost King”, and furthermore Conan has gotten a bad rap these many years, accused by some critics of attempting a crime of his own free will when in truth he had no choice about.  Those are my thoughts on this cold winter night.

Long Looks at Short Fiction: Skull-Face by Robert E. Howard

Tales of Weird Menace
by Robert E. Howard
The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press
Ordering Information Not Yet Available

The Robert E. Howard Foundation has, in the few short years of its existence, done a number of good things.  Such things as helping maintain the Robert E. Howard House in Cross Plains, Texas, and providing an annual scholarship to a graduating senior from Cross Plains High School.  As part of the Foundation’s mission, a number of works by Howard are being reprinted, including his collected letters (in 3 volumes) and a giant volume of Howard’s collected poetry.  The latter title has gone through three printings and is currently sold out.  Sales of these and other books help fund the philanthropic activities of the Foundation.

Next up on the Foundation’s schedule is the volume you see to the left.  This collection contains Howard’s Weird Menace stories, as you can probably tell from the title.  We’ll look at the best known of them, Skull-Face in this posting.

But first a word about the Weird Menace pulps on the off chance some of you aren’t familiar with them.  These were a blend of horror and super science, with a dash of the hero pulps (think Doc Savage or The Spider) and a good deal of implied or explicit eroticism and gore thrown in.  Often the supernatural aspect of the villain was revealed to be mundane, although you can be sure that won’t be the case with “Skull-Face.”  The weird menace pulps were fairly popular, but censorship and the real horrors of World War II ultimately did them in.

Howard tried his hand at writing some of this type of tale, like he did with most of the pulp genres that weren’t marketed to solely to women, such as romance pulps.  While this isn’t the sort of thing Howard is best remembered for, which would be his fantasy and horror tales, Howard was a diverse writer who was successful in a number of pulp genres, such as serious and humorous westerns, as well as boxing stories, a genre that was prominent at the time but has pretty much disappeared from popular fiction.

What I don’t understand is why “Skull-Face” seems to have fallen on, well, I guess you could call it a time of neglect.  I’m not sure the work has been out of print much since the Howard boom of the 70s when Berkley featured it as the lead in a collection of related tales.  But you don’t hear it talked about much anymore.  At least I haven’t.  It has all the ingredients of a classic pulp adventure:  danger, lots of action, a beautiful and imperiled woman, not one but two heroes, and of course, The Yellow Peril, Robert E. Howard style.

And it may well be that last ingredient which has made it less popular; I don’t know.  There is certainly a great deal said about race in the story, from more than one point of view.  And Skull-Face, or The Master, or The Scorpion as he’s also known, doesn’t fit the traditional Yellow Peril mold completely.  For one thing, Skull-Face isn’t actually an oriental, but beyond that I’m not going to spoil the fun.

To most modern readers, The Yellow Peril  might be unfamiliar, and to many would certainly be offensive.  In essence, it was a trope common to much popular fiction in the early 20th century.  Basically western (read white) civilization would be threatened in some way by an oriental menace, often in the form of an evil criminal genius who often had occult or scientific powers that were beyond anything the West was capable of.  The example the casual reader would most likely be familiar with is Sax Rhomer’s Fu Manchu.

Regardless, the whole concept of the Yellow Peril would not be politically correct in this day and age.  Far from it.  As a result it would be offensive to many modern readers.  I, however, hold the opinion that when you’re reading literature from a different historical period, you do yourself and the story a disservice if you try to evaluate aspects of it through contemporary lenses.  Instead, keep in mind the cultural context in which a particular story was written.

That’s just as true in the case of “Skull-Face” as it is for any other work of literature.  However outdated some of Howard’s views on race may seem to be to the reader of the 21st century, they weren’t that far out of the mainstream in the 20s and 30s.  (A topic that won’t be discussed in any detail here.)  And if the racial portrayals in “Skull-Face” are what have caused it to be eclipsed by some of Howard’s other work, then it’s a crying shame.

Because “Skull-Face” is fine story.  It was serialized in three parts in the October, November, and December 1929 issues of Weird Tales.  The first Solomon Kane stories were beginning to see print at this time, and Kull would had made his debut earlier that same year, with Bran Mak Morn appearing the next year.  The coming of Conan was still a few years in the future.  While Robert E. Howard had not yet reached the peak of his output, in both quality and quantity, he was no slouch either.  The prose was much more crisp and less purple than I was expecting.  The pace is the headlong rush with plenty of action we’ve come to expect in a Howard yarn.  Howard doesn’t shy away from violence or the seedy underside of the Chinese ghetto in London where much of the story takes place.  He shows us, through the eyes of Stephen Costigan (not to be confused by the boxing sailor of that name in other Howard stories) what life is like for the addict in an opium den.

And that may be another reason the story isn’t as popular as it once was.  Drugs are a constant fixation of the story (pardon the pun).  Costigan is an opium addict when we first meet him, and the cure of his addiction comes at the price of addiction to a more potent drug.  The fact that drug use plays a prominent role in the tale will make some of today’s readers immediately reject for that reason.  Which is another shame.  Because drug use is in no way gloried or romanticized at any point in the story.  Instead, Costigan at one point curses the weakness in himself that drove him to become addicted in the first place.  And the noble and wealthy patrons who visit Yun Shatu’s Dream Temple are not portrayed positively.  Anyone who gives the story more than a casual reading can’t help but come away with the distinct impression that Howard probably didn’t think much of drug usage.

Costigan is a wounded veteran of the Great War, who has fallen into his addiction in an attempt to ease his pain.  Noticed by the girl Zulieka, herself a slave of The Master as she refers to him, Costigan is given the chance to break free of opium and perform certain tasks for the Master, who at this point remains hidden behind a screen.  Trying to stop Skull-Face is British agent at large John Gordon.  Ultimately, Skull-Face’s demands are more than Costigan is willing to commit to.  He and Gordon join forces.

If you want any more information, you’ll have to read the story yourself.  There are indications that Howard may have been planning to create a series character with Skull-Face.  The Berkley edition has two associated stories plus “Taverel Manor”, an unfinished sequel.  Richard A Lupoff finished “Taverel Manor” for Berkley.  While he’s a good writer, Lupoff is not Howard.  The REH Foundation volume will contain “Taverel Manor”, presumably in its unfinished form, just the way Howard left it.

And Lupoff is probably right.  Howard may very well have been trying to develop a series character.  Weird Tales published at least two that I know of, Dr. Satan (whose adventures as far as I know have never been reprinted) and Jules deGrandin, whose adventures have.   Lupoff holds the opinion that editor Farnsworth Wright didn’t think much of “Skull-Face” and gave it only one cover.  He may well be correct in this as well.  Howard knew from experience that series characters were what sold, especially if they were popular.  His attempts to find a sustainable series character can be seen in Kane, Kull, and Morn, as well as his sailor Steve Costigan series, not to be confused with the Costigan who is the protagonist of “Skull-Face.”  And these aren’t the only series characters Howard created.  Why Howard didn’t develop this series further is a matter of speculation.  Howard’s most successful character would be, of course, Conan the Cimmerian.  It’s fun to speculate on what a “Skull-Face” series would have been like.  Too bad we’ll never know.

One of the names of Skull-Face is Kathulos.  Astute readers will immediately wonder about a connection to H. P. Lovecraft’s C’thulhu.  Considering how Howard and Lovecraft corresponded with each other to the point that their correspondence fills two volumes, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a deliberate reference here.  However, I haven’t had the time to do the research, so I won’t speculate further.

I’m just glad “Skull-Face” is getting some attention again.  Wildside Press has collected the fantasy/weird stories of Howard in a 10 volume set, and “Skull-Face” was the lead story in volume 2.  The first time “Skull-Face” made hardcovers was in 1946, a decade after Howard’s death, in Skull-Face and Others.  This was the first volume of Howard’s works published by Arkham House and the first published by an American publisher after his death.  Previously, only A Gent From Bear Creek had seen hardcover, and from a British publisher if memory serves.   Conan wasn’t collected until years later.  It’s good to see “Skull-Face” collected again.

This is one worth reading folks, especially if you like adventure, peril, and fast paced action.  Check it out.