Category Archives: Strange Stories

Birthday Reading: Manly Wade Wellman

Manly Wade Wellman was born, this day, May 21, in 1903 in Portuguese West Africa.  He was one of the greatest writers of horror and dark fantasy of the 20th Century, although he’s not as well known today as he should be.  His best known literary creation was John the Balladeer, and wandering minstrel of the Appalachian mountains.  Wellman began writing in the 1920s, and sold a number of stories to Weird Tales.  He was still writing in the 1970s and 1980s, and a number of his short stories were published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

In honor of his birthday, I’m going to look at two short stories.  Both were published in the pulps in the late 1930s.  I read both of them in Sin’s Doorway and Other Ominous Entrances, published by Night Shade Books in 2003.  It’s volume 4 of the 5 volume The Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman. Continue reading

Henry Kuttner’s Prince Raynor: The Citadel of Darkness

Elak of Atlantis
Henry Kuttner
Planet Stories
$12.95, trade paperback, 224 pgs. 

This is the second and final tale of Prince Raynor that Kuttner wrote.  I don’t think it’s quite up to the standards of “Cursed be the City”, which I discussed earlier in the week.  But it’s still a good yarn.

The story opens with Raynor and his Nubian servant Eblik coming upon a dying archer in the forest.  He’s part of a group of refugees they, along with the warrior maid Delphia, had put together after the close of the previous story.  Prince Raynor’s horse had gone lame the previous day, and he and Eblik had fallen behind the group.  The archer is the only survivor except for Delphia, who has been kidnapped.  Raynor and Eblik set out in pursuit.

While waiting for the moon to rise, they are approached in the forest by an old man in a robe.  From his description, he sounds a lot like Gandalf, and his name, Ghiar, isn’t that far off.  Only this story predates The Lord of the Rings by a number of years. 

Ghiar tells them Delphia has been kidnapped by Baron Malric and gives them a talisman by which they can recover the girl.  There’s a lot of talk about the zodiac, but it’s a different zodiac from the one today.  The signs are different, and there are only seven of them.

Raynor and Eblik go to Malric’s castle and in the commotion of rescuing Delphia, Ghiar shows up and takes off with her.  Seems he needs her for a sacrifice in order to renew his youth.  Things get nicely weird when they arrive at Ghiar’s castle, which is on an island surrounded by black flowers.  Of course they’re the kind that induce sleep.  It’s only the thought of Eblik in danger that enables Raynor to overcome their effects. 

Once inside there are several fights and eventually they overcome Ghiar.  The manner is a little unconventional in that both magic and strength are used.  Ghiar’s motivation and actions don’t always make a lot of sense unless you remember his early speech about signs of the zodiac and which ones are in ascendance.

I liked the weird elements in this one, especially the battle with the serpent inside Ghiar’s castle and the consequences of that.  The black flowers were a nice touch, if not particularly original.  Both of these elements reminded me of Robert E. Howard (which is probably why I liked them).  It’s an established fact that Kuttner was influenced by Howard, and many of his early stories show the influence Howard as well as other writers in their contents.  Still, if you’re going to copy another writer, always copy from the best.

While the influence of Howard is definitely here, Kuttner by this time was too good of a writer to simply cut and paste another author’s style.  Kuttner shows a greater depth in the interactions between Raynor and Eblik than in “Cursed be the City”.  Early in the story Raynor calls him a fool and orders him about, something that would be entirely appropriate for a prince to do to a servant.  Still, when Eblik needs his aid, Raynor manages to find the motivation to save him where he wasn’t finding the motivation to save himself.

Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

The Raynor stories were both published in Strange Stories in 1939, which implies, given the delays between composition that were common in the pulps in those days, that the first of the two had to have been written in 1938.  Kuttner was beginning to transition at this time to science fiction, where he would ultimately write in collaboration with his wife C. L. Moore some of the great classics of the field such as “Mimsy Were the Borogoves”, “The Twonky”, “The Proud Robot”, and “Vintage Season.”  Just to name a few.  We’ll look at some of these in an in-depth post I’m working on.

It’s easy, and perhaps oversimplifying things, to say that Kuttner wrote no more Prince Raynor stories because the market folded.  Strange Stories only ran for 13 issues between 1939 and 1941.  But Weird Tales was still going strong.  I’ve seen somewhere, and I don’t recall where or I would say, that Dorothy McIlwraith didn’t like the Elak stories and wouldn’t buy any when she became editor of WT.  If I’m recalling correctly, the author of that statement was offering it as speculation.

I have a different idea.  Kuttner was trying to establish a professional writing career.  Weird Tales had a reputation, much deserved, for being slow in paying.  And not always paying that well.  There were a lot more science fiction markets than there were fantasy.  Kuttner didn’t restrict himself to just fantasy and science fiction, but also wrote weird menace and mysteries, and he continued to write fantasy for a number of years, especially for Unknown.  However, he had his greatest success in science fiction.  It seems to me, and this is just speculation, that Kuttner began to focus on writing more science fiction because he could make a better living at it.  The timing of the two heroic fantasy series ending coincides with an increase in Kuttner’s science fiction output and makes the possibility one that should be considered.

“The Citadel of Darkness” ends with the three companions, Raynor, Eblik, and Delphia, riding off together, one supposes to have more adventures.  It’s a shame Kuttner never recorded them. 

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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