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)
I think I should explain something. To me, fantasy can be divided up into two types: "realist" fantasy and "fantastic" fantasy. In "realist" fantasy, an attempt is made to create a living, breathing, fully realized world, even if that world includes magic and monsters. I think of "realist" fantasy when I think of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter, Robert E. Howard's Conan and J.R.R. Tolkien's Ring Trilogy. "Fantastic" fantasy, on the other hand, is less concerned with the surrounding world than with the immediate experience -- frequently the "plot" is merely a thin excuse for our hero to travel through a bizarre landscape, observing all manner of weird and wonderful phenomena. Into this category falls C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry and much of Michael Moorcock's stuff. In "realist" fantasy, when our hero turns a corner in the street, we expect to find another street. In "fantastic" fantasy, when our hero turns a corner, he or she is more likely to fall off the edge of the earth. Or, to put it another way, if you can imagine garbage collectors in this world, it is "realist" fantasy. If you can't even imagine garbage, it is "fantastic".
My point is this: I don't like "fantastic" fantasy. I like stories which are plot-driven, and "fantastic" fantasies tend to be more "image-driven". At the same time, I recognize that an awful lot of people do like these types of stories. The thing is -- many of the Kull stories lean toward the "fantastic". I think Robert E. Howard probably accomplished precisely what he wanted to -- I just don't happen to care for that sort of thing.
Having said that...
"Delcardes' Cat" is certainly an interesting read, and, for REH, a bit of a departure that borders on whimsy. The story centers around a talking oracle cat which Kull takes a liking to, taking it into his palace where it can share its wisdom with him. The cat lies to Kull, telling him that his friend, Brule, is drowning in the Forbidden Lake. Kull dives into the lake and there fights a number of startling creatures and meets the lake's ancient inhabitants, who tell him he has been duped. Returning, he discovers the secret behind the talking cat and why it tried to get him killed.
At the risk of giving everything away,
this is the only story where Thulsa Doom appears.
Just the same, I didn't much care for this story. The parts with the cat were mildly interesting (although, as I said, whimsical), but the part in the lake was precisely that C.L. Moore-type unending-weirdness that I don't like. Kull basically goes through the lake monsters like a hot knife through butter, leaving us with the impression that Howard was more interested in description than in exciting story-telling. (Even the fact that the lake is called "Forbidden Lake" works against the sense of a real world setting -- as if the lake only exists so that Kull can violate a taboo in this story.) There is a mystery of sorts, but the solution is a surprise only in so far as we didn't know what the question was. Robert E. Howard admitted that he couldn't write mysteries, and I would have to agree.
An interesting aside -- the cat has a guardian who is described as "the greatest scholar and the wisest man in all the Seven Empires". Almost certainly this was an homage to Howard's friend, H.P. Lovecraft, famous for his love of cats. The icing on the cake is the guardian's name -- Kuthulos.
"The Striking of the Gong" is another bizarrely interesting piece, in which Kull meditates on the relativity of time, as he finds himself experiencing eons in the time it takes a gong to strike. Definitely not Conan.
"Swords of the Purple Kingdom" is one of the more "realist" stories, and very similar to "By This Axe I Rule!", in that it involves both an assassination attempt and a love affair which goes against Valusian law. A royal signet ring is stolen and used to lure Kull into a trap, which he defeats with the help of the young lovers and a handy battle axe. As with "By This Axe I Rule!", there's nothing obviously wrong with this story -- it just doesn't carry the reader along. Partly, the problem is a lack of questions. Initially, we wonder why the ring was stolen, but, once that has been cleared up, the only remaining question is: "Who is the masked man?" Unfortunately, the solution seems a bit like a cheat.
"The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" was the second of the two Kull stories published by Weird Tales, but, while I agree with the first choice, I don't like this story. Oh, there's no doubt it makes for fascinating reading as Kull ponders the meaning of reality and wonders whether the reflection in a mirror is in fact another reality -- but it ain't pulp! I admire Howard's audacity in trying something like this, and I am fascinated by his ruminations (although, of course, they were hardly original -- "Alice Through the Looking Glass" springing readily to mind), but this isn't what I'm looking for when I buy a book with a cover showing a brawny hero wielding a bloody axe over a bunch of snake-people.
Finally, "The Curse of the Golden Skull" is quite a neat little tale of hatred-that-will-not-die, though Kull himself is nowhere to be seen. Any longer and it wouldn't have worked, but, for its size, it packs a nifty punch in the climax. It can also be found in both The Howard Collector and The Book of Robert E. Howard.
When we think of Kull, we think of certain
things, two of which are portrayed in the cover illustration for this collection
-- his battle axe and the snake-people. A third is the arch-fiend,
Thulsa Doom. Reading these stories, I was surprised to find that
the axe only appears in two stories -- "By This Axe I Rule!" and "Swords
of the Purple Kingdom" -- and, in both cases, it isn't Kull's axe, but
a weapon he grabs up when his own sword breaks. Similarly, the snake-people
only appear in "The Shadow Kingdom" and Thulsa Doom only appears in "Delcardes'
Cat". Just as every Sherlock Holmes pastiche has to include Moriarty,
Kull fans have seized on whatever they can to make Kull distinct and memorable.
At the same time, I don't think Robert E. Howard would be all that surprised,
since there is a remarkable number of repeat characters and inter-references
between these stories, indicating that he had hoped that something at least
Click here to go to part one of the Kull
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