Sunday, August 23, 2009

Shadow Kingdoms: The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume One (audio book read by Charles McKibben, Bob Souer, Bob Barnes, and Brian Holsapple)

Shadow Kingdoms is volume one of Wildside Press's series of ten books collecting "The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard," namely Howard's stories as published in the magazine Weird Tales, in chronological order. Audio publisher Audio Realms has taken a selection of the stories in that volume and produced an unabridged recording of its own, also called Shadow Kingdoms.

Though they're not the first ones presented, I began with the three stories of my favorite character, Solomon Kane, featured in this collection. "Red Shadows" introduces Howard's 17th-century Puritan hero. Avenging the death of a young woman, Kane travels for years to find Le Loup ("the wolf"), meeting "good juju man" N'Longa — who later plays a larger role in Kane's life — for the first time. Howard doesn't shy away from the action here, putting Kane in peril no less than three times.

I've experienced "Red Shadows" multiple times, in print and audio, and it never loses its power to entertain. Both Kane and Le Loup are indelible characters, and the action sets up Kane admirably well for his later stories.

In "Rattle of Bones," Kane and Gaston L'Armon enter a tavern for the night and discover there's a good reason it's called "The Cleft Skull." This story and "Skulls in the Stars" have suspense, death, and insanity portrayed with skill, and they really show Howard at his best. In some ways, Solomon Kane reminds me of the Western hero: stoic and strong and operating under a strict moral code of his own devising. The Kane stories offer the same kind of entertainment provided by modern Western series like The Trailsman and The Gunsmith: a sole hero who comes in, solves a problem, and travels off again, ready for another adventure.

"The Lost Race" is one of the earliest of Howard's Weird Tales publications, from 1927. Howard's appreciation of the history of the Pict race was already long-standing. In this tale, a fellow named Cororuc happens upon some dwarfish folk ("small dark people") and gets mixed up in an age-old revenge. Written when its author was only 18, it has a tangential relationship to his stories of Bran Mak Morn (though the Pict king himself is not mentioned).

"The Dream Snake" stands out as a particularly well-done pure horror story in the classic told-by-the-campfire vein. That is, its ending is entirely predictable and, in fact, inevitable from the beginning. But Howard's portrait of a man in the grip of an intense lifelong fear (from a horrific recurring dream) is utterly believable. A well-performed reading of "The Dream Snake" could be the highlight of any Halloween night storytelling session.

"The Hyena" is a high-energy adventure tale set in Africa and involving the antagonism between a fetish man and an American rancher. The American is kind of dumb — I guess he's never read this kind of "twist" ending before — but this doesn't ruin the tense showdown.

"The Shadow Kingdom" is the first featuring Kull from Atlantis, usurping king of Valusia. Kull meets his own attempted usurpers in the Serpent Men, a fascinating race of snake-headed individuals who deal in mesmerism and shape-shifting. Kull has to struggle with his own doubts to maintain the throne. Many consider this story to be the beginning of the sword-and-sorcery genre ("Red Shadows" also has its supporters for that title), with the main difference being the latter's use of a realistic setting (Kull lives around 100,000 years B.C.). Though similar in many ways to the later character of Conan the Cimmerian (the first Conan story was a rewritten Kull story), I find Kull superior due to his tendency toward deeper thinking.

"The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune" finds Kull in a melancholy mood. His friend Brule the spear-slayer suggests a night on the town, but that does not appeal. Later, a blonde with "violet eyes" recommends a visit to Tuzun Thune, a wizard who shows Kull his hall of mirrors. Kull sits before one often, expostulating on which Kull is the real one. Sounds like Kull didn't take his meds. After such a heroic turn in "The Shadow Kingdom," this story may disappoint some. But perhaps it was merely the author's way of putting a little of himself in his work, given Howard's own notorious bouts with depression. It certainly seems like being king isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"The Voice of El Lil" was actually published in Weird Tales's sister publication Oriental Stories, and it's actually from volume two of the Weird Works series, The Moon of Skulls and doesn't appear in the print version of Shadow Kingdoms at all. Why this was done is rather confusing, but the story itself is one of Howard's rousing "lost race" stories. It starts out slow but shows many facets by the end.

All in all, Shadow Kingdoms is highly entertaining listening. Audio Realms seems to have picked the most exciting stories of the bunch and given them to the narrators best suited for them. (Usually, single-author collections have a single reader.) I look forward to their future recordings in this series.

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