The Robert E. Howard Library, Vol. II
Baen edition published July 1995
Exile of Atlantis
The Shadow Kingdom
The Altar and the Scorpion
The Skull of Silence
By This Axe I Rule!
The Striking of the Gong
Swords of the Purple Kingdom
The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune
The King and the Oak (poem)
The Black City (fragment)
The Curse of the Golden Skull
(out of 5)
This collection includes all the King Kull stories except "Kings of the Night", which is a sort of King Kull/Bran Mak Morn team-up, and so was published in the Bran Mak Morn collection by Baen, and also in the earlier Worms of the Earth collection by Ace. Next to Conan, Kull is probably Robert E. Howard's most recognized and most popular character. Yet, in spite of the many stories published here, only two actually saw print during Howard's lifetime -- "The Shadow Kingdom" and "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune". ("Kings of the Night" was also published during his lifetime, making three stories in all, but, as I said, it isn't included in this collection.) Prior to Conan, REH was known to Weird Tales fans for his Solomon Kane series, considerably more successful than Kull.
In this collection's introduction, David Drake puzzles over why Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright rejected so many of the Kull stories. I can't speak for Wright, but I must admit to being seriously underwhelmed by the Atlantean barbarian turned Valusian monarch. Of all the stories, only two worked for me: "The Shadow Kingdom" and "By This Axe I Rule!" Of the two, the best is "The Shadow Kingdom", though even this one takes far too long to get moving. It is a sort of invasion of the bodysnatchers story, in which Kull discovers that his kingdom is infested with an ancient race of snake-people who can disguise themselves to look like anyone -- including Kull himself. It is a neat idea and well-handled once things get going, and, as I said, manages to anticipate The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.
"By This Axe I Rule!" is a more famous tale because it was eventually published, reworked, as "The Phoenix on the Sword", the first Conan story. But, whereas the Conan story features a demon/baboon, a magic sword, an ancient wizard and a magic ring, this tale has very little to offer except Robert E. Howard's usual stunning prose.
Here, two plots are interwoven. Firstly, we have a group of traitors plotting to assassinate King Kull. Secondly, we have Kull chafing under the restrictions imposed on his power by ancient law and tradition. This second is the more central plot, in which a nobleman comes to Kull wishing to wed a slavegirl -- something forbidden by Valusian law. Kull would allow the wedding but his hands are tied. In the end, the two plots merge when, still fired up after slaughtering the assassins (with his famous axe), Kull literally breaks with tradition, shattering the ancient law tablet (a scene used in the movie Kull the Conqueror) and declaring that he will henceforth make his own laws -- and anyone who wants to object can take it up with his axe.
As with so many of these stories, when the action occurs, things move along spritely, but, in between, Kull endlessly meditates on his own impotence (politically speaking), bogging the whole thing down and weakening what might otherwise have been a tighter story. It isn't that I object to the brooding, but far too many parts read like a philosophy 101 textbook.
The Conan version dispensed with the second plot, and concentrated on the assassination attempt. It is this added element in the Kull tale which, to David Drake, makes it "one of Howard's most powerful stories". For myself, though, I think this added element creates its own problem. If we are to take the story as just fun adventure, then it only mildly succeeds on that level because there is too much introspection. If, on the other hand, we are to take it more seriously, then what is the message being conveyed? That a people's laws should be decided by the whim of a despot? That might makes right? Obviously, this notion exists in all Howard's stories, but, so long as those stories are fast-paced, pulpy adventures, we can accept a little despotism. But don't ask me to take it seriously, because none of us wants to go there.
"Exile of Atlantis" is a very short origin story, in which Kull happens upon a girl being executed for falling in love with a non-Atlantean. Helping her, Kull becomes an outlaw himself, and so sets out on the road that eventually leads to kingship of a foreign nation. There isn't much to recommend this tale, except for the Kull completist. What is interesting about these Kull tales, though, is how almost every one features the same issue -- someone falls in love with someone else in violation of ancient tradition. Since this idea isn't found in any of Howard's other series, it makes for an interesting theme. Unfortunately, though, when all the stories are placed back to back as in this collection, the repetition becomes a little obvious.
"The Altar and the Scorpion" is also a very short story, but, here, Kull doesn't even put in an appearance.
"The Skull of Silence"
is certainly a bizarre little piece, in which Kull visits a castle where
"silence" itself is kept prisoner, and which he must battle to the death.
It is a tour-de-force in terms of describing the indescribable, which I
suspect was largely REH's purpose in writing it. But it simply isn't
my cup of tea.
Click here for the rest of the Kull review
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