When budding author Henry Kuttner wrote a fan letter to the already established Weird Tales favorite C.L. Moore in 1936, little did he know that the object of his admiration was a woman… a woman who, four years later, would become his wife, and with whom a collaboration would begin that was ultimately recognized as one of the sturdiest pillars of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Such a melding of talents was Henry and Catherine Lucille’s, it has been said, that if one of the two stopped writing to go to the bathroom, the other could seamlessly continue the story in progress. Together, the pair wrote hundreds of short stories, in addition to a good dozen novels and novellas, often behind a bewildering plethora of pen names. Planet Stories’ release of Elak of Atlantis allows us to see Kuttner in his formative writing years, a solo author just beginning to find his voice. The four Elak stories all originally appeared in the classic pulp magazine Weird Tales, in part to fill the sword-and-sorcery void created when Robert E. Howard — the creator of Conan the Barbarian, King Kull, Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane — committed suicide in 1936. The Elak tales are somewhat crudely written, in the best pulp style, often show the weaknesses of a tyro writer, and are a tad repetitious, but are nevertheless fast moving, exciting, pleasingly violent and endlessly imaginative. Each packs quite a bit of story into its brief length, unfortunately features sketchy descriptions and ambiguous turns of phrase, highlights bloody battle sequences and fantastic magic, and is a genuine hoot to read.
In the first, “Thunder in the Dawn” (from the May/June 1938 issue of Weird Tales), Elak and his fat, drunken companion, Lycon, go to Elak’s half-brother’s — King Orander’s — assistance to save the northernmost Atlantean kingdom of Cyrena from Viking hordes and the evil wizard known as Elf. Into this longest of Elak tales Kuttner throws a vicious tribe of Pikhts, several battle scenes, a gruesome crucifixion, a faun-girl, and several visits to other dimensions.
In “The Spawn of Dagon” (July 1938), Elak and Lycon are hired to kill a wizard named Zend, and do battle with a horde of the fishlike children of Dagon. This brief tale gives the reader some definite clues as to Atlantis’ ultimate fate, and is indebted to Howard’s initial King Kull story from 1929, “The Shadow Kingdom,” as well as to H.P. Lovecraft‘s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1936). (Kuttner was a huge fan of Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos.) It is a short but gripping tale.
In “Beyond the Phoenix” (October 1938), Elak and Lycon venture into yet another magical dimension to avenge the killing of the king of Sarhaddon, a western Atlantean kingdom where the duo had been doing mercenary work in the palace. Possibly the most way-out of the quartet, this story tells of warring gods, Assurah and Baal-Yagoth, with Elak caught most uncomfortably in the middle.
Finally, there is “Dragon Moon” (January 1941), a sequel to “Thunder in the Dawn.” Here again, the Druid priest Dalan enlists Elak and Lycon’s aid to defend the northern kingdom of Cyrena. Now, a mysterious, soul-sucking force known as Karkora is turning kings into zombies; Orander has chosen suicide in preference, and the realm is in chaos. This terrific tale is easily the best of the bunch, and features an exciting slave galley escape (perhaps inspired by a similar scene in the great Errol Flynn movie from 1940, The Sea Hawk), a titanic battle between the forces of Cyrena and Kiriath (with the barbarous Amenalks thrown in for good measure), and even a touching ending of sorts, entailing both sacrifice and an ascension to the throne. In all, no great literature, but surely red-blooded, pulpy fun!
To fill out the volume, and as a special treat, this Planet Stories edition gives us the only two Prince Raynor stories that Kuttner ever wrote. Raynor, it seems, was a young blonde lad who lived in the prehistoric kingdom of Sardopolis, in what is now the Gobi Desert. (A blond Mongolian? Now that IS a fantasy!) In the first tale, “Cursed Be the City” (from the April 1939 issue of Strange Stories, a competitor of Weird Tales whose short-lived run only extended to 13 issues), Raynor and his Nubian sidekick, Eblik, seek to avenge his father’s — King Chalem’s — death, unwittingly releasing the destructive nature god Pan. Fans of the great Algernon Blackwood might find this story to their liking. And in this tale’s direct sequel, “The Citadel of Darkness” (from the August 1939 issue of Strange Stories), which picks up days later, Raynor and Eblik go up against a ruffian named Baron Malric and his retainers, as well as the wizard Ghiar, to rescue the warrior maiden Delphia, whom they had encountered in the initial story. This latter tale is even better than the first, and makes excellent use of its prehistoric-zodiac structure. The reader will surely wish that Kuttner had continued on with more tales of both Elak and Raynor, as Moore had previously done with Northwest Smith and Jirel of Joiry. Kuttner’s rapidly developing skills as a writer, abetted by his collaboration with Moore, could only have served his characters all the better. But the team was to soon become more of a science fiction powerhouse, to the field of sword and sorcery’s eternal loss.
One further word as to this Planet Stories volume I read. Although I am grateful to the publisher for making these super-rare tales available to the public, and although the book comes with a nicely written and enthusiastic intro from author Joe R. Lansdale, in addition to a helpful map of the Atlantean continent, the book remains something of a mess. It contains more typographical errors than any one book should ever be permitted to have, especially when it sports a list price of $13 for a paperback. It is painfully obvious that the book was never proofread. I have seen some of these tales in facsimile Weird Tales editions and can thus say that these many typos were NOT in the original pulp magazines. And the book even incorrectly gives Weird Tales as the source for the Raynor stories on the copyright page! Thus, Planet Stories is to be both thanked for its decision to release these stories as well as scorned for the sloppiness with which it has brought them to light. Even the lesser works of Henry Kuttner deserve the utmost care in their presentation. I can only hope that the other Planet Stories editions are in better shape than Elak of Atlantis….