Category Archives: Kull

Blogging Conan: The Tower of the Elephant

Of all the Conan stories, this one, “The Tower of the Elephant”, is arguably the best.  It’s one of the shortest, but it contains some of the strongest writing Howard ever did.  For example, from the opening paragraph, in which Howard describes the the Maul, the part of town smart people don’t go into after dark:  “Along the crooked, unpaved streets with their heaps of refuse and sloppy puddles, drunken roisterers staggered, roaring.  Steel glinted in the shadows where wolf preyed on wolf, and from the darkness rose the shrill laughter of women, and the sounds of scufflings and strugglings.  Torchlight licked luridly from broken windows and wide-thrown doors, and out of those doors, stale smells of wine and rank sweaty bodies, clamor of drinking-jacks and fists hammered on rough tables, snatches of obscene songs, rushed like a blow in the face.” 

That’s only three sentences.  Yet Howard managed to pack more description in those three sentences, more atmosphere and sense of place, than most writers do in three paragraphs.  He does more than paint a word picture.  He places the reader in the middle of the scene.

It’s into this scene that a young man named Conan comes. 

The plot is pretty straight forward.  Conan overhears a kidnapper bragging in a tavern.  The man mentions a tower known as the Elephant’s Tower.  He questions the man, who tells him that somewhere in the tower, guarded by more than human guards, is a priceless jewel known as the Elephant’s Heart.  The tower is the domain of the sorcerer Yara. 

When Conan says that courage is what is keeping the local thieves from stealing the jewel, the man attacks him.  Conan kills him, then decides to rob the tower himself.  While doing so, he encounters another thief named Taurus, who has been planning the heist for months.  They decide to team up. 

Taurus is killed by one of the guardians of the tower, and Conan proceeds alone.  Normally in these posts about Conan, I would have stopped summarizing by this point, but I’m going to make an exception here.  It’s what happens when Conan finds the jewel that makes “The Tower of the Elephant” stand out among Howard’s work and among works of twentieth-century fantasy.

Conan discovers the chamber containing the Elephant’s Heart is occupied by a creature with the body of a man, green in color, and the head of an elephant, with the head being disproportionately large for the body.  The creature is blind.  He’s also been tortured for centuries by Yara. 

At first Conan is horrified, then as he realizes the creature, who we learn is named Yogah or alternatively Yag-kosha, is no threat he feels a great sense of pity for him.  Yogah explains how he came to be trapped there (mentioning Valusia and Kull’s world, although not specifically naming Kull), then asks Conan to aid him in his revenge against Yara.  Conan does as he’s asks.  He kills Yogah, then squeezes his heart out on the jewel he’d come to steal.  The blood soaks into the jewel as if it were a sponge.  Conan takes the jewel to a lower level in the chamber, where Yara is in a trance.  He awakens Yara and gives him the jewel along with a verbal message from Yogah.  He then makes his escape from the tower.

What?  You think I’m going to tell you all the details of Yara’s demise?  You’ll have to read the story for that.  It’s short, and more than worth your time.

It’s Conan’s reaction to Yogah, even more than Howard’s prose, that lifts this story above most others.  Howard did a lot with the Conan stories to establish the trope of the thief stealing an ensorcelled item, yet in one of the earliest Conan stories he breaks the very stereotype he’s establishing by adding a layer of depth and feeling and having the thief willingly give up the item he’s come to steal. 

The popular misconception of Conan is that he’s a ruthless killer with little or no empathy for the pain of others.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yes, there are stories in which Conan’s bloodthirsty streak is the characteristic that is displayed most prominently.  But Conan is a three dimensional character.  The compassion he shows here, while harsh, is still compassion.  He acts out of mercy, not bloodlust.  Only by killing Yogah can Conan free him from the torment he’s suffered and allow him to take revenge on Yara.  Conan genuinely feels compassion for Yogah.

It’s easy to see why “The Tower of the Elephant” is considered a masterpiece.  If you haven’t read it, or read it recently, you owe it to yourself to do so.  Then compare the storytelling you find here with what you’ll see in the movie when it comes out this week.  See if there’s a difference.  We’ll talk more about that when I review the move.

Blogging Kull and Conan: Of Axes and Swords

And so we reach the end of our look at the Kull stories (almost; I’ll have some general comments in a separate post) and the first of the Conan posts.  I’m looking at both of these because the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword”, is a rewrite of an unsold Kull story, “By This Axe I Rule!”.

“By This Axe” isn’t a bad story, but it isn’t a particularly good one, certainly not be the standards Howard had set in some of the other Kull installments.  There are two main aspects to the plot.  First, a group of dissatisfied men, two noblemen, a guard captain, and a poet, have recruited a former diplomat turned bandit, Ascalante, to help them overthrow Kull.  This portion of the story is the better half. 

The second portion of the plot concerns a young nobleman who wishes to marry a young slave girl who happens to be owned by one of the conspirators.  This type of situation seems to be a recurrent theme in the Kull series, mostly in stories not published in Howard’s lifetime.  Kull’s Councilor Tu insists that for a nobleman to marry a slave is simply not done; it would violate a centuries old law.

Kull sneaks out of the palace to wander the woods for a few hours.  He feels like a slave himself.  There’s a great deal of discussion on Kull’s part at various places in the story about how holding a throne is much more difficult than taking it.  During his walk in the woods, he encounters a young girl weeping.  Not recognizing him, she tells him that she’s a slave in love with a nobleman, who went to the king to request permission to marry.  Kull is sympathetic, but argues the king has to abide by the laws himself.

The rest of the story concerns the conspiracy attempting to assassinate Kull and failing.  In the end, he uses his axe to smash the stone tablet on which is written the law forbidding slaves and nobility to marry.  He declares that he is the law.

It’s easy to see why Farnsworth Wright rejected this story when Howard submitted it to Weird Tales.  The whole romance subplot basically ruins the story.  The slave girl comes across as both childish and childlike.  She speaks of being spanked as punishment by her master at one point.  She’s weepy and clingy.  And her dialogue reminds me of early Shirley Temple movies or child characters in Victorian novels, all sweetness and earnestness.  There’s was no way I was buying that this girl and the nobleman were madly in love.  That whole aspect of the story had an almost pedaeophilic tone to it.  I’m sure Howard didn’t intend anything of the sort.  It’s just a combination of his still developing skill as a writer and my twenty-first century cultural concerns coming together.  Still, the whole thing gave me the creeps.

One thing did make me wonder just what Howard was dealing with in his own life when he wrote this story. At one point the girl deeclares: “Why should laws not change? Time never stands still! Why should people today be shackled by laws which were made for our barbarian ancestors thousands of years ago-” It sounds like Howard may have been feeling a little bit shackled and enslaved by the culture he was living in. I know from first-hand experience that small towns in that part of Texas can be extremely conformist in their outlook, and in the 1920s I’m sure it was much worse. Howard was in his early 20s when he wrote this, and I suspect was still feeling some of the natural rebellion of youth that questions why things have to be the same as they were. This is entirely speculation on my part, but it fits with what I know about Howard and my experiences in similar environments.

“The Phoenix on the Sword”, while not one of Howard’s best stories, and certainly not the best of the Conan tales, is clearly the work of a more mature writer.  Howard drops the whole romance subplot, and instead introduces a villain whose hand would be felt in a couple of other stories, the Stygian sorceror Thoth-amon.  He’s a slave to the bandit as the tale opens, having lost a ring by which he maintains his power.  Of course he finds it, and uses it to wreack his revenge by sending a creature from the Outer Darkness against the bandit.  This is the only thing that saves Conan.  The creature attacks during the assassination attempt.  In the Kull story, it’s the nobleman who saves the day.
There’s also a new scene in which Conan in a cream meets a wise man who died fifteen hundred years earlier.  This man tells Conan that his fate and that of Aquilonia, the kingdom Conan rules, are entertwined.  He places a phoenix emblem on Conan’s sword, which is what allows Conan to kill the supernatural creature.
The scenes retained from “By This Axe”, portions of the conspiracy, Conan complaining about the duties of ruling, and the assassination scence are to a large extent unchanged except for some of the names.  Only when Howard made significant changes to the plot, such as the addition of the creature in the fianl fight, does he engage in any extensive rewriting.  Since the parts he retained were by far the better passages, this doesn’t hurt the story any.
Unlike the Kull series, the Conan stories weren’t written in any kind of chronological order, but jumpmed about throughout the character’s life.  Also, Kull has no interest in women.  Conan has plenty.  Even a casual reading of the two series will reveal that, while there are similarities, Kull isn’t simply Conan-lite.
So, we’ve looked at all the Kull stories mostly in the order they appear in the current edition from Del Rey.  I’ll be jumping around more with the Conan stories, looking at whichever one I’m in the mood to read at a given time.  I’ll also be giving fewer spoilers in the Conan posts.  With the movie less than a month away, I suspect I’ll pick up one or two new readers.  I don’t want to spoil any of the fun for those who haven’t read the originals.

Blogging Kull and Bran Mak Morn: Kings of the Night

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
or Bran Mak Morn:  The Last King
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey

This is the next to last post about Kull and the first about Bran Mak Morn.  They’re together because they appear in the same story.  This is essentially a Bran Mak Morn story in which Kull has a supporting role, although many elements of the Kull series can be seen.  Let’s take a quick look at it.

Howard uses the trick of telling his tale from the point of view of a supporting character, albeit a crucial one.  This is a device he’s used before, especially in some of the Conan stories.  The advantage to this approach is that we get to see how other characters view the hero.  This allows the reader to gain a fresh perspective of the hero and is particularly useful with a series character whose identity has been well established. The viewpoint character here is Cormac na Connacht, “a prince of the isle of Erin.”

The story is divided into three parts.  In the first, the Picts and their allies are awaiting a battle with an invading Roman legion the following morning.  With the Celts and Picts are a group of Northmen.  The northmen were defeated by Bran when they tried to invade.  Their king swore and oath that he would aid Bran against the Romans in one battle, and in return Bran would build him ships for the survivors to get home.  The problem is that the king was killed in a skirmish with Roman scouts, and his remaining men say his death released them from the oath.  Unless Bran finds them a king to fight under, “a king neither Pict, Gael, or Briton”, they will desert to the Romans.

The ancient Druid priest Gonar promises help.  Preceded by a lengthy speech about time being an illusion, he brings Kull forward in time to help with the battle, with Kull appearing to walk out of the rising sun.  At first Kull thinks Bran is his friend Brule.  Bran is descended from Brule and resembles him strongly.  He also wears a gem in his crown that was given to Brule by Kull in a ring, and from Kull’s perspective, that happened the previous night.  Kull thinks the whole things is a detailed dream.  Always eager for a good fight, he agrees to lead the Northmen.

First he has to defeat the new leader of the Northmen, Wulfhere, who is resistant to Kull taking charge.  An extended scene of single combat takes up the rest of the second part.  It’s pure Howard.  The prose is lean, exciting, and pulls you in.  Of course Kull is victorious, but he’s not unscathed.  This helps convince the Northmen he’s not a ghost.

The third part of the story is the battle.  Bran puts Kull, who still thinks he’s dreaming, at the head of the Norsemen at the end of a gorge.  They are the bait in a trap. None of the rest of Bran’s army is disciplined enough to stand and wait for the Romans to enter the gorge.  Once they do, the Gaelic cavalry and the chariots of the Britons, accompanied by the Picts, will sweep in from the sides trapping them.

It’s an effective and bloody plan.  Most of the Northmen die, as do most of the Romans, their camp followers, and many Picts, Gaels, and Britons.  Cormac sees Kull standing on the ridge, outnumbered, the sole survivor of the bait.  Just as one of the Romans is about to deliver a killing blow, the sun begins to set, and Kull is transported back to Valusia.

Appalled at the carnage, Cormac threatens to kill Bran in retribution for not springing the trap sooner.  Bran replies ” ‘Strike if you will.  I am sick of slaughter.  It is a cold mead, this kinging it…A king belongs to his people, and can not let either his own feelings or the lives of men influence him.  Now my peole are saved; but my heart is cold in my breast.”

Heavy stuff.  Even in victory there is bleakness.  This is one of Howard’s best.  A lesser writer would have taken the easy way out at the end of the story and had the victors celebrate.  Instead they mourn the loss of their friends and allies, including the Northmen, and prepare for the next battle with the Romans who will follow after those who have fallen.

This could have been a simple adventure story.  Instead, Howard infused it with some of his favorite themes.  There’s much discussion about the nature of time and reality.  Is Kull dreaming being with Bran, or was his former life a dream from which he had just awakened.  Then there’s the weight of the crown and responsibility, often fulfilled in blood, of those who wear it.  Finally, throughout the story, Howard makes references to the rise and fall of the Picts in particular and how much science has been lost since Kull’s time.  Kull’s armor and weapons are superior to any other in the battle, on either side.

The strands of melancholy and philosophy make this one of Howard’s better tales.  It’s one I’ll return to again in the future, for it’s well worth multiple readings.

The Kull series of posts is about at an end.  The only one remaining is for “By This Axe I Rule!” which was rewritten into “The Phoenix on the Sword”, the first of the Conan tales.  I’ll be comparing the two in the final Kull post.  That post will launch a series of posts looking at selected Conan stories.  This post launches a series of posts about Bran Mak Morn.  Bran, Kull, and Conan are Howard’s three warrior kings, and Kull is the common link between them.  I’ll have more to say about that as we look at Bran and Conan over the next few months.

Blogging Kull: Swords of the Purple Kingdom

Kull: Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey, 317 p. $17

There are three stories left in the Kull series, and they are “By This Axe I Rule!”, “Swords of the Purple Kingdom”, and “Kings of the Night”.  I’m going to skip “By This Axe I Rule!” for reasons I’ll explain at the end of the post.  Instead, let’s turn our attention to “Swords of the Purple Kingdom”, shall we?

In his afterward to this volume, “Hyborian Genesis”, Patrice Louinet says that this story was probably written sometime around June of 1929.  That makes perfect sense, considering the opening paragraph.  Here are a few lines describing conditions in the city of Valusia:

“The heat waves danced from roof to shining roof and shimmered against the smooth marble walls.  The purple towers and golden spires were softened in the faint haze.  No ringing hoofs on the wide paved streets broke the frowsy silence and the few pedestrians who appeared walking, did what they had to do hastily and vanished indoors again.”

I don’t know how many of you have ever dealt with a Texas summer, but that’s a pretty good description of what it’s like.  A high pressure dome typically forms over the state, what winds happen to blow are hot, and the air is hazy.  This passage strikes me as Howard incorporating what he knew (and may have been living at the time) into his fiction.  The description is perfect. 

The city is a powder keg waiting to explode.  The people have prospered under Kull’s rule, and consequently they have forgotten how they suffered under the tyranny of his predecessor and how they welcomed him when he took the throne.

Add to this, our old friend Delcartes is still around pestering Kull to command her father the Count to allow her to marry the commoner of her choice.  (It’s a different person than in the earlier story.  Young love is so fickle.)  Kull of course refuses, in part because he doesn’t want to interfere in a family matter on general principles, but also because Delcartes’ father is one of Kull’s closest friends and strongest supporters.

There’s a conspiracy against Kull, of course.  Betrayals and intrigues.  And an intense combat scene where Kull defends Delcartes against a small company of soldiers at the top a stair in an abandoned ruin. 

One thing the story doesn’t have, that many of the other Kull tales do, is a lot of existential philosophy.  Not that Howard didn’t include some philosophizing. He does, but it deals more with the weight of the crown Kull wears.  In the opening scene, before Delcartes enters the audience chamber, Kull and Brule are talking.  Kull laments the fickleness of the people he rules.  Here we see Howard’s fascination with the cycles of empire, where the established empire becomes soft and weak, only to be overthrown by the barbarians, and the cycle starts over again.

Consider Kull’s words to Brule:  “The empire was worse under Borna, a native Valusian and a direct heir of the old dynasty, than it has been under me.  That is the price a nation must pay for decaying – the strong  young people come in and take possession, one way or another.”

Later after Delcarrtes leaves (not before her father arrives), Kull shows extreme sensitivity to the man, who is expecting Kull to order him to allow the marriage.  “Not for half my kingdom would I interfere with your family affairs, nor force you into a course unpleasant to you.”

Two things I want to comment on.  First, we can see Howard’s philosophy of individual freedom at work here.  Kull sympathizes with Delcartes, and if it were up to him, he would allow her to marry.  He believes a person should be free to marry whomever he or she wishes.  The point is made in more than one story.  However, if Kull were to interfere and order the Count to allow his daughter to marry the man she loves, he would be in greater violation of this principle than her father in that he would deny the Count the freedom to manage his household as he wished without interference.

Second, Howard’s detractors often accuse him of writing hack-and-slash fantasy without any depth to his characters.  They need to read Howard more closely.  In “Swords of the Purple Kingdom”, Howard shows Kull having more depth and sensitivity to his subjects needs and positions than he does in any of the stories we’ve considered to date.  (I’m exempting “By This Axe I Rule!” and “Kings of the Night” since we haven’t looked at them yet.)  He does this again with Brule at the end of the tale, when Kull and Brule decide not to tell one of the recurring characters in the series that a relative of his has turned traitor because of what the news will do the man.

Lest you think this story is a touchy-feel-good piece of fluff, there’s plenty of action later in the tale.  Howard was stretching himself as a writer with this particular piece by developing the characters and their backgrounds.  By 1929 he was hitting his stride as a writer.  While the Kull series may contain a number of fragments and false starts, they represent an important phase in his development.

Now, as to why I skipped “By This Axe I Rule!”  There are two stories left in the Del Rey edition.  Both of them are significant, albeit in different ways.  “By This Axe I Rule!” was unpublished in Howard’s lifetime.  He would rewrite it a few years later as “The Phoenix on the Sword”, the story that introduced the world to his most famous character, Conan of Cimmeria.

The other story, “Kings of the Night” is really a Bran Mak Morn story in which Kull has a guest appearance.  That story will be the launching point for a series of posts about Bran, and it will be the next post in this series.

I’m also going to do the same thing with Conan.  The final Kull post will be a comparison of “By This Axe I Rule!” and “Kings of  the Night”.  That will launch a series of posts looking at selected Conan stories.  The reason I’m doing this is because of the Conan movie that will be released in August.  The movie will generate some, hopefully a great deal of, interest in Conan.  My desire is that people doing a search for Conan will find these posts, read them, and then go read the original stories rather than the pastiches.  (If they want to read the pastiches later, that’s fine with me, so long as they understand that Conan has Howard wrote him isn’t the same Conan as others wrote him.)

I’m not gong to do the Conan stories in order, or even look at all of them.  I’ve already discussed “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” at length and see no need to repeat myself on that one. What I’m going to do is pick and choose among my favorites (which will be most of them), although I don’t know if I’ll look at Hour of the Dragon simply because of its length.  I’ll start the posts sometime in July, when interest in the movie should be picking up and do a post every two weeks or so, shifting to at least a post once a week near the movie’s release, and continuing until I burn out, interest in the movie drops off, or I cover all of the Conan stories. 

The Bran Mak Morn posts should start up by the first of July.   They’ll run concurrently with the Conan series, although not as frequently. 

And that’s why I skipped “By This Axe I Rule!”

Blogging Kull: Two Fragments

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey, 317 p., $17 

In this post we’ll look at the last of the Kull fragments, with a close examination of the racial attitudes displayed in one of them.  After that there are three lengthy and well known stories left to examine.

The first tale, although barely started (incomplete hardly comes close to describing this piece), has a title, “The Black City.”  It takes place in the city Kamula, which seems from what few details are given to be something of a resort, to use modern terminology.  It’s a place of art, music, and poetry.

Kull is in the throne room, wishing he could get some rest when Brule bursts in, vowing to tear the entire city apart.  He and two other Picts, Grogar and Monaro, are hanging out when Grogar leans against a half column.  The column shifts back into the wall, Grogar falls into the darkness behind it, and the column begins to shut.  Monaro is able to get his sword in the crevice to prevent the hidden door from closing completely, but he and Brule are unable to open it again.
It’s at this point Brule goes for Kull.  When they return, they find Monaro leaning against the wall in a listening posture.  This doesn’t surprise Brule, because Monaro had sworn he could hear music. 

Kull claps Monaro on the shoulder, and the man falls over, dead.  There’s a look on his face that is both horror filled and indicative of listening.  Kull looks at the blackness beyond the sword, which is still blocking the door, and thinks it’s almost something tangible.  He can hear a ghostly piping.

And that’s where Howard stopped.  It’s a shame, because while the opening and the trappings are fairly typical of what you find in sword and sorcery these days, and indeed they were becoming fairly stock in trade in Howard’s days, Howard uses them well.  Sometimes it’s not so much how original an author’s trappings are, but how he uses them.

The second fragent has no title and is about the same length as “The Black City”.  Kull and Brule are playing some type of game that seems to resemble chess, because Kull says his sorcerer threatens Brule’s warrior.  A third man, a young noble named Ronaro.

In response to Kull’s gibe about his sorcerer threatening Brule’s warrior, Brule begins to tell a tale of his early youth when he faced a sorcerer.  Unfortunately, we don’t get much more than a lead-in describing how the Picts organized their tribes.

What’s interesting here is how the men are described.  Here’s what Howard said about them in the concluding sentence of his description:  “about each of the three was that indefinable something which sets the superior man apart and shatters the delusion that all men were born equal.” Now Howard has taken a lot of flack, much of it misguided, over the years because how he presents race offends certain politically correct sensibilities.  This is just the type of line some of those people like to take out of context.  The preceding descriptions of the three individuals at the table emphasizes their accomplishments as well as the accomplishments of the ancestors of Brule and Ronaro.  Kull knows nothing of his ancestry.  The paragraph describing them begins thus:  “But in the countenances of all three gleamed an equality beyond the shackles of birth and circumstance.”

This paragraph is about as far from racist as you can get.  Especially when you take into account that Brule is described in both the fragments considered in this post as having skin that was noticeably darker than Kull’s and yet he’s Kull’s closest companion.  It seems to me, at least as I read this fragment, that Howard is saying men are superior based on their achievements, not their race, and that when judged on the basis of achievement, men are not equal.  He takes great pains to emphasize the differences in their backgrounds in the lengthy paragraph that precedes the one I’ve quoted from.  In other words, the attitudes Howard displays here are quite egalitarian and much more advanced for his day than he is often given credit for.

There have been much better discussions of Howard’s racial views than what I’m presenting here.  A thorough and complete examination of Howard’s view on race is well beyond the scope of this series, which focuses on Kull.  I point out the passages here as evidence that Howard may have held more open racial views than he has been given credit for because this fragment isn’t well known and because it’s extremely well written.

Blogging Kull: The Curse of the Golden Skull

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
Del Rey
trade paper, 317 p., $17

Once again, a story so brief it’s almost a vignette.  And like the last one we looked at, “The Altar and the Scorpion,” Kull doesn’t actually appear in it, although he is mentioned.  Only this time not with respect, but hatred and venom.

The story opens with the sorcerer Rotath of Lemuria dying from a fatal wound.  He had been struck down by Kull after having been betrayed by the unnamed king of Lemuria, a man he had thought he had controlled.  At least until he turned to Kull for aid.

As he dies, Rotath, who Howard shows to be a vile, evil creature, curses all men, whether alive or dead.  Here is one of those passages that is frustrating by what it doesn’t tell.

One of the most effective techniques an author can have is that of hinting.  Here’s what I mean.  Howard lists the deities Rotath curses mankind by.  They include ” Vramma ad Jaggta-noga and Kamma and Kulthas …the fane of the Black Gods, the tracks of the Serpent Ones, the talons of the Ape Lords, and the iron bound books of Shuma Gorath.”  That’s a pretty exhaustive list, and it doesn’t include the major deities of Valusia that were listed in the paragraph previous to the one in which these appear.

Now we’ve encountered the Serpent Ones in “The Shadow Kingdom“, but who is Jaggta-noga?  And what’s in the books of Shuma Gorath that would require the books to be bound in iron?  See what I mean?  Hints and questions implying a deeper, richer background than what is actually shown, making the reader want to know more.  It’s little touches like this that make Howard the writer he was.

As he’s dying Rotath places a curse on his own bones.  Then he passes into eternal torment.

Howard does something at this point I don’t recall him doing anywhere else.  He injects an interlude, entitled “Emerald Interlude”, in which millenia pass.  It was atypical of Howard to do something like this in the middle of a narrative. The mountaintop on which Rotath dies eventually sinks into the sea to become a swamp infested island.

What this accomplishes is to tie Kull’s era with contemporary history.  Howard had linked Kull’s time with ancient history through the character of Karon the ferryman in an untitled draft.  But that was ancient mythology.  In this case, the connection is with the modern world. 

An archaeologist is exploring the ruins when he comes across Rotath’s remains in a decaying shrine.  The skeleton hasn’t crumbled to dust because part of his dying curse was to turn his bones to gold.  As he picks up the golden skull, an adder hidden within strikes him and he dies.

A grisly, and unfortunately predictable little horror story and by no means one of Howard’s best.  It’s not even included in The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, although it probably should be.  Still the writing is effective, the prose setting a mood of impending doom.  It’s different and certainly not a cornerstone of the Kull canon, but an interesting addition nonetheless.

Blogging Kull: The Altar and the Scorpion

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
Del Rey
trade paper, 317 p., $17

This is another of the brief tale, although unlike the previous one, “The Striking of the Gong,” Kull isn’t featured in this one but merely mentioned. This is a minor story in the Kull canon, and upon close examination it’s easy to see why. 

Howard opens the story with an unnamed youth bowing before an altar of a scorpion and imploring the scorpion to save him and the girl he loves, also never given a name, from the evil priest Guron.  Guron isn’t a priest of the Scorpion God but rather the  Black Shadow.  Guron and his priests are sacking the city, something else that doesn’t have a name.  Guron plans to sacrifice the pair on an altar to the Black Shadow.  From what Howard tells us, the cult of the Black Shadow practices human sacrifice. 

The city is somewhere within the kingdom of Valusia.  Kull is leading his army to rescue the city, but he won’t be able to arrive in time to rescue the youth and his lover.  The young man is imploring the Scorpion God on the basis of a promise the deity made generations ago when the young man’s ancestor Gonra died defeating a horde of barbarians intent on plundering the temple of the scorpion.  As a reward for his faithfulness, the Scorpion God promised through his priests that he would aid all of Gonra’s descendants. 

As the young man finishes his prayer, his lover bursts into the room, pursued by Guron.  Guron is a giant of a man, tall and strong.  He is able to bind both the young man and the girl single handedly, in spite of their struggles.  He also gloats that even if he is defeated by Kull, he will have his revenge on the line of Gonra.  He also mocks the Scorpion God as a deity almost no one worships any more.

As he is about to carry the pair off, Guron screams, drops his captives, and falls to the floor.  Dead.  The girl says a scorpion “crawled across my bare bosom, without harming me, and when Guron seized me, it stung him!”  The young man tells her a scorpion hasn’t been seen in the city in generations, so this must be the Scorpion God’s deliverance.

The two crawl to the altar, still bound, and worship the Scorpion God.

Two things stuck out to me when I read this story, and I suspect it has to do with having spent a number of my growing up years less than an hour from Cross Plains.

The first is the prayer the youth prays to the Scorpion God.  It’s long and bombastic, and basically reminds the deity of his obligations and points out to him how dire the present circumstances are.  Most people would simply dismiss this as a form of infodump.  I think there’s a little more to it than that. 

While he wasn’t what you would call a regular church-goer in his adult years, Bob Howard was certainly familiar with what went on inside the walls of at least some of the local houses of worship.  His mother was a regular attender of services until her health began to prevent her from going.  His father also attended, at least sporadically.  One of his parents was a Methodist and the other a Baptist.  I want to say his mother was the Methodist, but I don’t recall for certain.  I’ve got that information written down somewhere, but I’m not sure where.  And it really doesn’t matter.

My point is the prayer here is similar to a number of prayers that Bob would have heard growing up.  I’ve certainly heard enough like it over the years, although never to a scorpion.  I suspect Howard was imitating the style of prayer with which he was most familiar. 

Scorpion common to the Cross Plains area

The other thing is that scorpions are a common hazard in that part of Texas, so they would be something Howard would not only be familiar with, but probably had a healthy respect for.  The tales of people shaking out their boots before putting them on have a lot of truth to them.  And I know from first hand experience that scorpions can crawl on you and never sting.  So Howard having the scorpion crawl across the girl’s breasts without it stinging her is completely believable and quite probably based on Howard’s personal experiences.

That having been said, it’s easy to see the influence of his small town Texas environs on Robert E. Howard when he was composing this story.  It’s not one of the best Kull tales.  The fact that the two main characters are never given names, nor is the city in which the story is set named, is rather unusual for Howard.  He typically gives names to most of the characters, major or minor, in his works.  Still, if you know where to look, you can see Howard incorporating the familiar and transforming it into something strange and exotic.

Blogging Kull: The Striking of the Gong

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
Del Rey
trade paper, 317 p., $17

This is one of the shorter Kull stories, only three and a half pages in the Del Rey edition.  In fact it’s more of vignette or a philosophical meditation than an actual story.  In it Howard reflects on some of the philosophy he’d been reading and meditating on.

The story, to the extent that it is a story, consists mostly of a dialogue between Kull and an old man.  Kull finds himself in darkness, a great throbbing in his head.  He’s not sure where he is or how he came to be there.  He rises to his feet, sees a light, and begins to walk towards it.

Encountering an old man, Kull inquires as to where he is.  The man tells him he’s come through the Door.  Kull is able to recall that he heard a gong striking and then he woke up in the darkness.  What ensues is a discussion about life and death and what constitutes either.  Universes within universes are considered, as well as the rise and fall of races and kingdoms.  “Time and space are relative and do not really exist,” the old man declares.  He continues by saying, “The ‘everlasting’ stars change in their own time, as swiftly as the races of men rise and fade.  Even as we watch, upon those which are planets, beings are rising from the slime of the primeval, are climbing up the long slow roads to culture and wisdom, and are being destroyed with their dying worlds.  All life and a part of life.”

Some of the discussion echoes one of Howard’s letters to Harold Preece in early 1928.  “The fact is that life is simply a passing phase of this planet, not the real reason for the planet’s existence, but simply a result of its growth.  Life, and especially man’s life, is simply result then, and not a cause.  There may be, may be, I say, a real reason for the existence of matter and energy, but whatever that reason, that purpose is, man is no more essential to its culmination than any weed or tree.”  [Collected Letters, v. 1, p. 198]

Kull then comes to his senses to learn that he was attacked by an assassin and suffered a head wound.  The whole conversation, and the moving of the stars that Kull and the old man watched, took place within a matter of minutes.

This is by far one of the most philosophical Kull tales, if for no other reason than the philosophy takes up most of the story.  For some reason, Howard didn’t submit this one to Weird Tales, perhaps because Farnsworth Wright had already rejected some of the  Kull stories.  I don’t know if Wright’s rejections of those stories still exist.  I’m not aware that they do, but I have to wonder if he rejected them on the basis of too much philosophy and not enough action.  For whatever reason, Howard chose to send this one to Argosy.  They didn’t accept it, either, and “The Striking of the Gong” remained unpublished (in its original version) until 1976, when it was published in The Second Book of Robert E. Howard. 

Odds and Ends

Between allergies, taxes, and trying to finish my upcoming column for Home of Heroics, I’m a little behind in getting some things up that I’ve been working on.  It might be next week before anything substantial is posted since I’ll be traveling over the weekend starting tomorrow.  In the meantime, check out the new material at Home of Heroics if you aren’t already doing so.  Yesterday’s guest column was by John O’Neill, publisher of Black Gate, in which he talked about how Scholastic Books got him hooked on science fiction and fantasy.  It brought back memories for me, because I used to read those books as well.  My son is now starting to read them, and I’m looking forward to what he’s going to be bringing home.

I want to take a moment to thank everyone who’s visited Adventures Fantastic, especially in the last couple of weeks.  Traffic seems to be picking up, and I appreciate your interest, support, and comments.  I’ve got some cool things planned for the next couple of months, including a two-part interview with Robert E. Howard scholar Mark Finn, some Long Looks at Short Fiction, a review of Jasper Kent’s Thirteen Years Later, a look at Henry Kuttner’s Prince Raynor stories, and some more Kull.  So stick around.  It’s only gonna get better.

Cool Stuff at Rogue Blades’ Home of Heroics

There have been a couple of posts up at Home of Heroics, the new feature on the Rogue Blades Entertainment site, the last few days.  Friday Bruce Durham reviewed Howard Andrew JonesDesert of SoulsThis morning, Luke Forney surveyed the graphic adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s work, including Conan, Kull, Solomon Kane, and Red Sonja.  Interesting stuff, so check it out if you haven’t already.