There’s a reason why I never lend out books anymore, even to my closest friends; namely, the fact that when I used to loan them out, I never got them back in the same good condition, or, even worse, never got them back at all. Cases in point: three paperbacks from one of my old favorite writers, Texas-born Robert E. Howard. Back in the mid-‘60s, Lancer Books released all of Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories in a now-classic series of 12 paperbacks, as well as a beautiful paperback of another legendary Howard character, King Kull. I owned all 13 of those wonderful volumes, and made the big mistake of lending the first two Conan books out (both featuring gorgeous cover artwork by Frank Frazetta), as well as the Kull (featuring eye-popping cover artwork by Roy Krenkel). I’ve not seen any of those three books since then. Flash forward around 50 years to last fall, when, browsing around at the annual Miami Book Fair, I happened to find a tight, pristine, and obviously unread copy of King Kull, in the Lancer paperback from 1967 that I had lost, selling for the steal-of-a-deal price of … $3! I purchased it instantaneously, and a recent rereading of this classic piece of sword & sorcery – indeed, the veritable origin of the sword & sorcery genre — has been, for me, like reacquainting myself with an old friend. For all fans of fantasy and of this genre in particular, the book is an absolute must-read.
Kull, for those unfamiliar with the character, made his first appearance in the August 1929 issue of Weird Tales magazine, in the story “The Shadow Kingdom,” so no, Howard most certainly did not get his inspiration for the regal name from 1933’s King Kong. Howard would go on to write 13 more stories dealing with the character (plus one poem), but only two of those were published before his suicide death in 1936. The Lancer volume, sadly enough, is complete with the exception of two of those 14 tales: “Kings of the Night” (one of the non-posthumous stories, from the Nov. ’30 Weird Tales) and “The Curse of the Golden Skull”; as the Lancer editors noted, those two stories were omitted because the first has been subsumed in the Bran Mak Morn series, and because the second only mentions Kull in passing. Still, it would have been nice, for the sake of completeness, to have been given these anyway, as I’m sure the more recent collection from Ballantine Books did. Still, the 12 stories and one poem that the Lancer volume offers, in addition to a helpful map of Kull’s world by the book’s editor and flesher-outer, Lin Carter, plus a prolog and epilog by Howard detailing the 3,500-year, post-Cataclysmic history between Kull’s time and Conan’s future era, make for a very pleasing experience nevertheless. And, it should be noted, the vast majority of these Kull tales made their initial appearance in this very Lancer volume. Written in Howard’s finest pulp style, the stories here are unfailingly exciting, fast moving, colorful, evocative, violent, and often, surprisingly, quite touching. Kull is a more contemplative hero than Conan (he is often to be found with his chin on his fist, gloomily pondering on his throne on a myriad of weighty matters) and, as Steven mentions, far less interested in the fairer sex. But the two are equally well gifted as to strength and agility, and, of course, the use of the sword and the broadaxe. Fans of both pulp fiction and sword & sorcery are not likely to find better fare to fill their needs than the exploits of this Atlantean exile, who eventually becomes the king of Valusia, the greatest country on the continent of Thuria.
As for the stories themselves, this Lancer edition kicks off with an excerpt from Howard’s “Hyborian Age” history, before plunging into the short tale “Exile of Atlantis,” which reveals how the young Kull was forced to flee from his native Atlantis, after mercifully killing a woman who his tribe was about to burn at the stake. This segues into a short paragraph, undoubtedly written by Carter, that explains how, following his banishment, Kull became a galley slave aboard a Lemurian vessel, and then a gladiator, soldier and commander in the country of Valusia. He ultimately plots against the despotic King Borna, seizing the crown after a bloody coup.
Up next is that earliest Kull tale, “The Shadow Kingdom,” one of the most oft-anthologized short stories in the Howard canon. This piece not only introduced the world to Kull, but also to three other characters who would make regular appearances thereafter: Brule the Spear-slayer, a Pictish soldier who, over time, becomes Kull’s closest friend; Ka-nu, the shrewd Pictish ambassador to Valusia; and Tu, Kull’s elderly chief councilor. Here, Ka-nu alerts Kull to a secret menace threatening his kingdom: serpent-headed monstrosities that can take on the semblance of any human being, their only telltale weakness being an inability to utter the words “Ka nama kaa lajerama.” It is a tremendous story, justly celebrated, that really sets the mood and tone for this volume. Surprisingly, these serpent demons never figured again in another Kull story. A pity.
This is followed by a short tale in which Kull is only mentioned in passing; an offstage presence. Rather, this story, “The Altar and the Scorpion,” tells of a young man who beseeches the Great Scorpion god, in its temple, to protect him, his lady love, and his people from the evil Thuron, high priest of The Black Shadow. And when Thuron himself enters the holy place, the young lad will indeed require all the assistance he can get from that crystalline scorpion image, in this slight but ultimately pleasing tale.
“Black Abyss” finds Kull and Brule relaxing in the decadent pleasure-city of ancient Kamula. But the sudden disappearance of one of Brule’s fellow Picts leads to a little investigating by the two barbarian allies, during which a subterranean passage is discovered, leading to the lair of … Zogthuu, a 90-foot-long worm god, “the loathsome monstrosity whose name had been a legend of terror for thrice ten thousand years”! The good king surely does have a tough time dealing with this creature, the likes of which even Conan the Cimmerian might have quailed before.
“Delcardes’ Cat” introduces the reader to the character who would soon become Kull’s archnemesis: Thulsa Doom, an ancient, skull-faced necromancer. But first, Kull is introduced to the titular feline, a cat named Saremes who is thousands of years old, and capable of speech and offering bits of philosophical wisdom! Saremes becomes a confidante of the king, soon revealing to him the dire news that Brule has gone missing in the depths of Valusia’s Forbidden Lake. Going there at once, Kull does battle with a human-faced octopus creature, as well as a horned and four-armed shark-man (!), after which a 200-foot-long serpent captures him and brings him to the so-called Enchanted Land beneath the lake’s surface. It was as if Howard’s imagination were working on overdrive, so much does he manage to cram into this exciting tale.
In “The Skull of Silence,” Kull hears a legend told by Kuthulos, the servant of the cat Saremes, to the effect that in a lonely and shunned region of Valusia, there stands a deserted, black castle known as the Skull of Silence, in which the imprisoned essence of absolute silence is supposed to reside. Curious yet disbelieving, Kull rides to the site with Brule and 100 of his elite Red Slayers, breaks open the lock of the ancient pile, and unleashes … an elemental force from “ultracosmic hell” capable of driving men mad and engulfing the world. This encounter would forever afterward be known as The Day of the King’s Fear … and for very good reason, as it turns out!
In the epic-in-scope tale “Riders Beyond the Sunrise,” Kull, accompanied by a company of Picts and Red Slayers, follows the trail of the Valusian countess Lala-ah, who has unlawfully eloped with the adventurer named Felnar, who hails from the country of Farsun, to the south. Their trail leads ever east, through the countries of Zarfhaana and Grondar, and into the barren wastelands beyond. (That Lin Carter map comes in very handy for this tale.) This is a beautiful story, really, gripping and well told, and capped by another appearance by that evil mage, Thulsa Doom himself. Some bravura work here from Mr. Howard.
And it is followed by one of the greatest of all Kull tales, “By This Axe I Rule,” which tells of an assassination attempt planned by a quintet of Valusian nobles, one of whom is a crazed minstrel; another, a sinister “dwarf.” And as a subplot, we have the plight of Seno val Dor, a young swordsman who is hopelessly in love with a slave girl named Ala. The story is highlighted by a climactic and bloody melee between Kull and the five plotters, but perhaps even more so by the sweet and gentle scene that transpires between Kull and Ala in a woodland glade … an interlude so very touching that I recalled it from my first reading a half century ago. A truly marvelous tale, this, that was inexplicably rejected by the editors, causing Howard to revise and recast it as the very first Conan tale, “The Phoenix and the Sword,” for the Dec. ’32 Weird Tales.
In “The Striking of the Gong,” Kull awakes to find himself in another world … or perhaps, another dimension. An ancient man tells him that he has “passed through the Door”; no, he is not dead, but has rather been given a chance to learn that there exist “worlds beyond worlds … universes beyond universes, multiplied in a complexity beyond the comprehension of those you are pleased to call ‘gods’ … ” Kull and the graybeard go on to discuss recondite matters touching on the nature of existence, time and space in this truly mind-blowing story; one that culminates with the Valusian king thankfully back in his palace, mere seconds older but infinitely wiser…
“Swords of the Purple Kingdom” gives us another unhappy couple — 19-year-old Nalissa, the noble daughter of one of Kull’s oldest friends, and Dalgar, another Farsunian who is not permitted to take a Valusian bride — and another assassination attempt on Kull’s life. The mastermind behind this coup wears a mask throughout the bulk of the tale, although only the most slow-witted of readers will fail to guess his/her identity. The tale wraps up with a tremendous set piece, in which Kull does battle with several dozen warriors while standing atop an outdoor stairway in the city’s Accursed Gardens, and with a closing scene of no small emotional impact.
In “Wizard and Warrior,” Brule the Spear-slayer relates the story of how he, as a young and untried warrior, first attained his spear … the symbol of Pictish manhood. We learn much about the Picts and their customs during the course of this fascinating tale, in which Brule and his tribe go off to fight the tribe of the Sungara, culminating in Brule’s mano-a-mano battle with the Sungaran wizard Aa-thak. And in case you’re wondering who emerges victorious from this seemingly unequal contest, the tale concludes with Kull’s wise words: “…Magic fails, as it ever must, against a strong man’s will and wit.” And let me tell you, that Brule can really tell a story! Thus, his description of wading through a swamp:
…The marsh-water was cold and slimy, and as we waded we broke the film of green decay that scummed the surface, and a rotten odor rose noisome in our nostrils like some unthinkable stench from the underpits of the ultimate hell…
“The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune,” the final story in this Lancer edition, was actually the second Kull story to see the light of day, in the Sept. ’29 issue of Weird Tales. This tale finds the king despondent and fed up with his worldly lot. On a whim, he takes the advice of one of his court maidens and goes to see the legendary mirrored palace of the wizard Tuzun Thune. He stares for many days into the infinite depths of the many mirrors there, discussing, again, the nature of reality with Thune, all this time neglecting his kingly duties while he ponders whether he himself is real, or if his mirrored image is in actuality the reality. A brooding and philosophical tale, this, capped off by still another heroic act of valor by Brule the Spear-slayer.
This volume is brought to a close by a short yet atmospheric poem about Kull, entitled “The King and the Oak,” and by an epilog consisting of more of Howard’s background to the Hyborian Age. In this epilog, he neatly condenses 3,500 years of post-Cataclysmic history into seven pages, bringing us up to the age of Conan the Barbarian. It is a pleasing coda to a wonderful collection of stories. As the reader turns over the final page of this Lancer edition, one thought will likely be paramount: How did so many of these terrific tales go unpublished — rejected by the editors or not submitted by Howard at all — for over 30 years? Fortunately, they are all readily available to readers today. Those readers now have the choice of either going online and doing a little searching for this (currently) 53-year-old, original, classic Lancer volume, OR picking up the admittedly more complete, profusely illustrated, modern-day edition from Ballantine. Whichever version the reader pops for, several evenings of enchanting wonders will surely be the result …