Friday, March 12, 2010

Kull: Exile of Atlantis by Robert E. Howard (heroic fantasy / sword and sorcery)

Kull: Exile of Atlantis is my first single-character collection from the recent reprints of Robert E. Howard. The other books I’ve read, in order, are The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard, Shadow Kingdoms: the Weird Works of Robert E. Howard, Volume One, and Crimson Shadows: The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume One. (Apparently, good old REH wrote so much, publishers have to either divide his work according to character and genre, or just split the whole thing into multiple books.)

This collection focuses (obviously) on Kull, the man born in Atlantis in 100,000 B.C. who usurped the throne of Valusia to become its king. A good deal of Howard readers know Kull only as the progenitor of his most famous character, popularly known as Conan the Barbarian, since the unsold Kull story “By This Axe I Rule!” was rewritten into the first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” with extra fantasy elements added to make it more palatable to editors.

Reading the former in the pages of Kull: Exile of Atlantis merely proved my original opinion (gained when I read the three primary Kull stories — those published in Howard’s lifetime — in the collections mentioned above) that Kull is a far more interesting character than Conan. Kull’s more thoughtful, and his stories are more based in reality, mythical setting notwithstanding.

Just comparing the two stories I mentioned in the last paragraph, it’s obvious just how many extra fantasy elements were added to the Conan version, while Kull uses sheer force of will to make his point known — and he does it with a shorter word count. Howard let his prose run unleashed while writing of the Cimmerian in a way not seen in his other, more tightly written tales. With the result that I consistently — even now, halfway through The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian — find my mind wandering while reading them, something that never happened with the stories in Kull: Exile of Atlantis.

Opening the collection is "The Shadow Kingdom," the first Kull story, in which 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 Howard’s debut of another character, the Solomon Kane story “Red Shadows,” to be the beginning of the sword-and-sorcery genre, but "The Shadow Kingdom" also has its supporters for that title, with the main difference being the former's use of a realistic setting. Kull lives around 100,000 years B.C. and was born on a mythical island, while Kane is a 16th-Century English Puritan.

"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.

"Kings of the Night" brings Pict king Bran Mak Morn and Kull together through an ancient lineage. A wizard conjures Kull up from the ancient past when Bran's potential fighters ask for "a king, neither Pict, Gael, nor Briton" to lead them against the invading Romans. This is truly one of the great battle stories, with realism, history, and myth blended in ideal measure.

Other highlights of Kull: Exile of Atlantis include the novella-length “The Cat and the Skull,” the final Kull story “By This Axe I Rule!” (which is far more powerful than the Conan story it later spawned, “The Phoenix on the Sword”), and some other fragments that featuring Kull's own progenitor, Amra of the Ta-an. I swear, sometimes reading these Howard collections is a bit like watching evolution in action. One gets to see how a single character developed from a Ta-an to the king of Valusia to the world’s most famous barbarian. It's a process that is available to the enthusiasts of very few authors, and we are lucky that so many of Howard's unfinished works have survived.

The unpublished stories in Kull: Exile of Atlantis give a terrific portrait of Howard’s method. Howard was never averse to plundering his slush for its best ideas and using them again in other stories. “The Phoenix on the Sword” is only the most successful example of this, but “Swords of the Purple Kingdom” also contains elements from “By This Axe, I Rule!” It also seems to be retelling the aspiring newlywed story from “The Cat and the Skull,” but there are enough other ideas — including the legendary Battle of the Stair — here to make it well worth the reading.

Similarly, included drafts of a few stories like “The Shadow Kingdom” and “The Cat and the Skull” (the draft is titled “Delcardes’ Cat”) offer insight to those interested in Howard’s self-editing skills (or his incorporation of editorial suggestions, as the case may be). (I could have my timeline wrong as to when the stories were written, however, and perhaps “Swords of the Purple Kingdom” predates them both and Howard simply decided they belonged in separate tales.)

In short, Kull: Exile of Atlantis is another example of author Robert E. Howard's amazing storytelling. Those new to Howard's work may want to start with a more varied collection, like those mentioned in the opening paragraph, but readers who already appreciate Kull and what he has to offer — or those who just want to dive yet again into Howard's marvelous prose — will find a lot to enjoy here.


Evan Lewis said...

Read the Kull stories in the first paperback collection, but have yet to get around to the new stuff in this volume. I remember the Kull stories as more poetic than those of Conan. What really brought Kull alive for me, though, was the great John Severin artwork in the Marvel series.

Shaft said...

Just reading through the Kull stories. Only recently did I learn of REH, but he has quickly become my favorite writer of all times. So far I've read all the Conan, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane stories, and those collected in the Haunter of the Ring collection by Wordsworth Editions.

I have to admit I'm very curious about Kull, since I read he's more of a philosophical character than Conan. I must say I immensely enjoyed REH's philosophical views spoken through his characters.

Great blog, by the way.

Craig Clarke said...

"Only recently did I learn of REH, but he has quickly become my favorite writer of all times."

Howard has that effect on a lot of us. :) Welcome to the fold.

Shaft said...

But, also, reading REH is somewhat of a curse, because after witnessing his literary genius, I came to the realization that most of the things I've read throughout my life have been... well, not so good at all.

My tastes have become infinitely more refined, and it's very hard to find satisfying literature in my "post-REH" era. Fortunately, his pulp fiction contemporaries have almost without exception been excellent writers, so there's much to choose from there. But modern writers... ugh...

Craig Clarke said...

Howard does tend to ruin one for less hard driven yet poetic writers (not surprisingly a rare combination). If you haven't yet, you will probably want to try Seabury Quinn and Max Brand.

The latter is typed as a "classic Western" writer, but his stories more often focus on the inner struggles of the protagonist than just on gun battles. Beyond the Outposts is a great example.

Let me know what you think.

Shaft said...

I shall certainly try the two authors you mentioned, as I am not familiar with their works.

Since I'm here, I'll offer some recommendations of my own. I don't know if you're familiar with the Warhammer universe (both the SF outlet titled "40 000", and the "Fantasy" outlet), but the WHF series has some of the most talented writers of today penning the novels.

One is Dan Abnett, who writes mostly in the 40K segment, but has a collaboration with another writer Mike Lee on the series called "Malus Darkblade". Malus is a wonderful read, I suggest to click on the 'look inside' link and read the first page or two.

Then there is Mike Lee's solo series, called "Nagash".

And finally, there is C. L. Werner, with his "Brunner the Bounty Hunter", "Mathias Thulmann" (heavily inspired by Solomon Kane), "Wulfrik", and other novels. His second Thanquol & Boneripper novel "Temple of the Serpent" is said to contain "much REH", and Wulfrik is by many cited as the best thing that the WH publisher (Black Library) has put out in years.

Though they may seem like some dime-a-dozen, random and generic fantasy novels, they are all really of excellent quality. All three of the mentioned authors (particularly C. L. Werner) have cited classic pulp fiction as their biggest inspiration, specifically mentioning REH.

Craig Clarke said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I'm always on the lookout for heroic fantasy tales, and as you said, it's hard to tell the good from the dime-a-dozen.

Shaft said...

I'm sure you'll enjoy them, if you decide to try them out. Yesterday, I also read one of the Seabury Quinn yarns that are in public domain - "Pledged to the Dead". I don't know how it compares to his other work, but whatever the case, I liked it a lot, despite it being essentially a love story.

So I will be picking up a collection of Quinn's stories pretty soon.

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