Steve Tompkins died eight years ago today. An incredibly well-read fan of Howard and other fantasy authors, he wrote some truly insightful stuff that blazed new trails. I worked with Steve on the Cimmerian blog and took over from him as Managing Editor after his death. A great guy whom we lost way too young.
Karl Edward Wagner's introductions in those Berkeley/Putnam editions really had a profound effect on me. His passion and respect for Robert E. Howard and the original REH Conan yarns stirred something within my Hunnic soul - I could no longer tolerate the DeCamp Lancer/Sphere editions of Conan. Wagner instilled within me a determination and resolve to never read them again and probably inspired me (a lot earlier than would have happened anyway) to appreciate the work and genius of Robert E. Howard.
Steve Tompkins worked in Manhattan. He was there on September 11, 2001 and he lost friends in the Twin Towers. Here are his thoughts written on 9/11/06. He talks about the attack, but also about the firefighters and the ballad, "Garryowen", dear to the hearts of the NYC Fire Department, the 7th Cavalry and others around the world.
Introduction in El Borak and Desert Adventures by Steve Tompkins.
Playing the Great Game, a man may feel as though he lives the only life worth while because he has been stripped of everything which may still be considered to be accessory. Life itself seems to be left in a fantastically intensified purity, when man has cut himself off from all ordinary social ties, family, regular occupation, a definite goal, ambitions, and the guarded place in a community to which he belongs by birth. — Hannah Arendt
Life itself, the adventurer’s life lived just shy of death’s skeletal clasp, glows with Ms. Arendt’s “fantastically intensified purity” for the Robert E. Howard characters Francis Xavier Gordon and Kirby O’Donnell, years after they’ve jettisoned the domesticating attachments and antecedents she lists. Both Irish-Americans deal themselves into the Great Game, the contest for control of Central Asia that Rudyard Kipling insisted would only end “when everyone is dead,” but Gordon, El Borak, is the more fleshed-out and filled-in protagonist, a gunfighter-turned-blademaster who has exchanged the American Southwest for the Northwest Frontier of the British Raj.
He was a part of Howard’s creativity both early and late, and in between benefited from an evolution, a maturation, which did not play itself out in public, or in publications, but underwrote the Francis Xavier Gordon stories of 1934 and 1935. Of Kirby O’Donnell we are told that his “Irish love of a fight” cohabits with another passion: the East, which “long ago [stole] his heart and led him to wander afar from his own people,” but he dims to a silhouette or demi-clone beside El Borak, whose backstory is bolstered not only by the past-life allusions sprinkled throughout his adventures but a compositional prehistory consisting of juvenilia starring “Frank Gordon.”
Howard’s richest, most revealing correspondences as a professional writer were with his fellow Weird Tales mainstays H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith and the Lovecraft Circle votary August Derleth. Accordingly, a relatively weirdness-free creation like Gordon is mostly just namechecked, as when Howard mentioned “struggling along with Conan, Breckinridge Elkins and El Borak” to August Derleth in February 1935. Or he isn’t named at all, as when the Texan informed Lovecraft in May 1935 that he’d “been trying to break into some new markets specializing on the adventure angle. Top-Notch has bought four long stories from me, giving me the cover design on the last issue, and I’m trying to make it regularly.” Regularity indeed beckoned when the toehold of the Kirby O’Donnell adventure “Swords of Shahrazar” in the October 1934 Top-Notch developed into a seeming stranglehold with Gordon’s December 1934 print debut “The Daughter of Erlik Khan,” “Hawk of the Hills” in June of 1935, and “Blood of the Gods” the following month. Otis Adelbert Kline, who acted as agent for non-Weird Tales submissions during the Texan’s last years, also placed “Gold from Tatary” (published as “The Treasure of Tartary”) in the January 1935 Thrilling Adventures, “Sons of the Hawk” (published as “The Country of the Knife”) in the August 1936 Complete Stories, and “Son of the White Wolf” in the December 1936 Thrilling Adventures. As we know, tragedy saw to it that the last-named two stories appeared after Howard’s death, and then “Swords of the Hills” and “Three-Bladed Doom” redefined what it meant to be posthumous: the former was not published until 1974 (as “The Lost Valley of Iskander”), while the latter languished until 1976.
Francis Xavier Gordon deserved better than such delays; for El Borak, “the Swift,” speed is always of the essence, as Gordon dares both his foes and his fans to try and keep up. Character reveals itself in swordstrokes and snap-shots, with the Howard hero pitting himself against his enemies, against the clock, against the elements, against unwelcome urgencies like depleted ammunition and drained water-supplies, against the exhaustion that crowds round when sleep is less attainable than Paradise, against the dragon-sickness that renders modern men, like the dramatis personae of ancient tales, feverish in the vicinity of treasure. These stories exemplify Hannah Arendt’s fantastically intensified purity, or what Howard himself might style “the lean economy of the wolf.” We find no monsters, give or take an admirably abominable Yeti, and no sorcery, save that so memorably encapsulated by Howard’s epigram elsewhere appreciating the fact that “A good knife is always a hearty incantation.” Streamlined, stripped-down situations prevail, so that Gordon force-marches himself from one paragraph of “Blood of the Gods” to the next “to kill or be killed — not for wealth, nor the love of a woman, nor an ideal, nor a dream, but for as much water as could be carried in a sheep-skin bag.” In his Conanocentric 1983 REH biography Dark Valley Destiny, L. Sprague de Camp deemed stories of this sort “fun to read” although little more than exercises in which “hooves thunder, rifles crack, pistols bark, scimitars swish through the air, and blood spurts with gusto.” Is that really all that’s going on?
Of course not. For starters, the storyteller in question rejoices in a command of the English language that is never a hesitant request. Hurrying feet are “winged by hate and blood-lust.” “Crumbling pinnacles and turrets of black stone” loom “like gaunt ghosts” in the predawn hour — Howard, predisposed to be a toppler of towers, can’t resist foreshadowing the collapses of even natural, non-manmade spires. Someone else’s character might get thirsty; El Borak is “bitten by the devils of thirst.” And even in pick-up-the-pace overdrive, Howard remains irreducibly and unmistakably Howard: “Man’s treachery is balanced by man’s loyalty, at least in the barbaric hills where civilized sophistry has not crept in with its cult of timeserving.” One has to have seen more than the keys of one’s typewriter to note, “Men go mad on a slogan; conquerors have swept to empire, prophets to new world religions on a shouted phrase.” A heroine’s “overrefinement of civilization” might “instinctively [belittle] physical action,” but that attitude will be refuted and reprimanded with devastating thoroughness.
The where provides much of the wherefore; all but two of the El Borak stories take place in Afghanistan, a “leaner, fiercer world” prowled by a “wind knife-edged with ice,” beneath stars like “points of chilled silver,” where ravines “cut up the country horrid,” as Kipling’s Peachey Carnehan would say. War is waged across the world’s roof, on which the encroaching clangor of swords can rouse eagles “to shrill hysteria.” And when we do leave the Afghan mountains, it is for Arabian deserts so brazenly, blazingly inimical that another of Howard’s heroines is tempted to shake “a triumphant fist at the rocky waste about her, as if at a sentient enemy, sullen and cheated of its prey.” Such landscapes are inhospitable to the imperial but themselves imperious in that topographical extremes dictate behavioral extremes. Water is scarcer than mercy, but an “unquenchable thirst for adventure” can be slaked again and again.
Fatally easier to bite off than to chew, Afghanistan was surely created to undermine the overweening, to leave lasting bruises to match the regal purple of their attire. A bundle of tribal tribulations misperceived as a kingdom, the region stubbornly, sanguinarily resists the demands of whatever century the outside world seeks to impose: notably the twentieth, before that the nineteenth, and now the twenty-first.
Afghanistan demands attention not only as what Howard’s north-of-Khyber mentor Talbot Mundy called “the home of contrasts, of blood-feuds that last until the last-but-one man dies, and of friendships that no crime or need or slander can efface,” but as the land positioned by fate and geology “above” a golden subcontinent, from which perch it ceaselessly broods and breeds the warriors who might descend in human flashfloods, human avalanches. Writing to the east-of-Suez specialist E. Hoffmann Price on February 15, 1936, Howard confided, “My old interest in India has recently been revived by reading Dreamers of Empire by Pakenham and Achmed Abdullah. Fine, sneering, swashbuckling biographies of such men as Sir Richard Burton, Henry Lawrence, John Nicholson, Chinese Gordon, etc.”
We are perhaps justified in suspecting that his interest all along lay chiefly in Hind not just as the jewel in any empire’s crown, but as a gem that at times seemed invitingly easy to pry loose from the crown with an Afghan tulwar. “India shall bleed for all the fat years she has lain unplundered,” a character vows in King of the Khyber Rifles. For Howard, who wolfed down that Mundy novel and several others in June of 1923, and enjoyed readier access to his inner barbarian than the Englishman ever did, the Khyber Pass became as evocative a conduit/chokepoint and border/barrier between civilization and barbarism as Hadrian’s Wall or his own Black River, briefly the westernmost edge of the Hyborian world. His head and heart lingered in “the Hills” throughout the summer of 1923; in his letters to his friend Tevis Clyde Smith, one of which he claimed originated in Kandahar, we catch him signing off as Kadour Akbar Khan and interpreting the supposed vulnerability of South Asia as a warning for North America: “When India turns from war to trade and becomes debauched the wild tribesmen of Afghanistan come down the Khyber Pass with torch and sword.”
In an early Howard fragment, a character numbers among his past lives one in which “[he] led a wild, sword-wielding horde down the Khyber Pass into India,” and the predator/prey dynamic between Afghanistan and India eventually became the borrowed backdrop for the 1933 Conan dazzler “The People of the Black Circle,” in which the Cimmerian burns to unite the tribes of Afghulistan so as to plunder Vendhya. When the Gordon character reemerged that same year and was soon joined by Kirby O’Donnell, although they were not quite Men Who Would Be Athelstan King, a more responsible, “real-world” outlook required that “the overthrow of a rule outworn” be framed as a must-to-avoid. O’Donnell’s surprise is glandular as he realizes “for once in his life a driving power mightier than his own desire.” The tensions between Gordon’s own heritage (not only American, one of successful rebellion against imperial rule, but also Celtic, one of wrenchingly unsuccessful uprisings by highlanders and kerns on the recalcitrant fringes of the British Isles) and his exertions to prop up the Raj as the least worst organizing principle for the area helps to ensure that these stories are more than just the shoot-and-stab-’em-ups of L. Sprague de Camp’s estimation.
The unsentimental education that produces El Borak is part of what Howard brings to the Great Game table, part of his demurral to Mundy’s insistence in King of the Khyber Rifles that “The Khyber Pass is as much British as the air is an eagle’s.” In many ways the twentieth century jailed Gordon’s creator, but his imagination won free with characters who shared the desire of Peachey Carnehan for “some other place where a man isn’t crowded and can come to his own.” Unlike his Howardian compatriots Esau Cairn (in Almuric) and John Garfield (in “The Thunder-Rider”), El Borak remains on the planet and in the present, but employs all his faculties along lines of excellence in a distant arena where he can be, if not quite a white barbarian, then at least an adjuster and adjudicator of the local barbarism. “No, this man was not degenerate; his plunging into native feuds and brawls indicated no retrogression,” a Gordon-watcher concludes in “Hawk of the Hills.” “It was simply the response of a primitive nature seeking its most natural environment.” By implication his native land is now lost to him as a dismayingly unnatural environment, Aunt Sally on a continental scale, if we recall Huck Finn’s closing defiance: “Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
El Borak returned just as Howard was westering, moving into a “Texican” or Western phase of his fictioneering. In the Gordon stories, the East serves as a West that cannot be “won” or “tamed,” and the hero himself is that familiar figure described by Richard Slotkin in his Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in 20th Century America: “A man who straddles the border between savagery and civilization…them and us.” The possessor of hair “straight and black as an Indian’s” and features as “immobile as the deserts he haunted,” Gordon has long since acquired “the patience of the red Indian, which transcends even the patience of the East.” His booted tread is no noisier than the moccasins of the original Americans.
“They say you are as stoical as the red Indians of your country,” Ivan Konaszevski, his Cossack near-nemesis, informs the Texan. In another story he hurls himself onto the vengeance trail, “no more foolhardy than his grandfather who single-handed trailed an Apache war-party for days through the Guadalupes, and returned to the settlement on the Pecos with scalps hanging from his belt.” But the grandson is as much an heir of the most famous Apache as of his own dogged grandpa: “Geronimo almost whipped an army with a handful of Apaches, and I was raised in his country. I’ve simply adopted his tactics,” he assures Geoffrey Willoughby in “Hawk of the Hills.” In another story, we watch as “manipulated with ragged cloak, balls of thick black smoke [roll] upward against the blue. It was the old Indian technique of Gordon’s native plains. “In what is almost our last glimpse of him, he is “running up the slope as the Apaches of his native southwest run.” Nothing else so legitimizes, nothing else so Americanizes an American hero (in the century-and-a-half since the surviving “real” Indians were for a time swept under the rug or onto reservations) as do Indian blood (witness David Morrell’s Rambo and Louis L’Amour’s Joseph Makatozi), Indian belongingness, or at least Indian skills.
The things Gordon carries with him always and the things he leaves behind both do much to explain how the American creator of a forcefully American character was able to trespass so often on the Northwest Frontier and get away scot-free, or Scots-Irish-free. And although Howard never visited Arabia or Afghanistan, he rarely ceased from exploring the aridities and altitudes of his psyche and the waste places of his own soul. His Afghan and Arabian scenery is spectacular but rarely specific; background is only obtrusive insofar as it superbly equips Gordon to dominate each story’s foreground. The military historian John Keegan sketched the archetypal Afghan in his article “The Ordeal of Afghanistan” as “master of the high ground, [one who] knows every draw, false crest, goat track, hidden cave, overhang, and pinnacle.” The Gordon we meet has matched such mastery with the adaptability, absorptive capacity and attention to local detail that proved transferable from wild West to wilder East. In doing so he has effected a homecoming that perhaps exceeded his early hopes for his new surroundings; if home is where the heart is, then Francis Xavier Gordon is most at home when adventuring on the edge of precipices both literal and figurative.
When Mundy wrote of “the heart’s desire for the cold and the snow and the cruelty — the dark nights and the shrieking storms and the savagery of the Land of the Knife,” he may well have pointed an editor to the title “Sons of the Hawk” appeared under. And in his 2003 essay “Hyborian Genesis Part II” (see The Bloody Crown of Conan), Patrice Louinet reminded us that the American’s Yasmeena (“The Daughter of Erlik Khan”), Yasmina (“The People of the Black Circle”), and Yasmeena (Almuric) differed from each other but were all daughters of Mundy’s Yasmini, who, in one of the enduring images from King of the Khyber Rifles, smiles down upon dangerous men “as sweetly as the stars shine on a battle-field.” The Englishman’s Ismail (“He looked like a bearded ghoul out for an airing”) is the progenitor of the Texan’s Yar Ali Khan the Afridi. Howard’s Shalizahr is “like a magic city of sorcerers, stolen from some fabled land and set down in this desert spot,” and is also rather like Mundy’s Khinjan Caves, “a very city of the spirits.”
Yet sic transit gloria Mundy; Howard made room for himself on the turf the creator of Athelstan King and Jimgrim took over from Kipling by putting attitudinal distance between himself and the English author. Here it will be useful if we keep the title of Brian Taves’ 2006 Talbot Mundy, Philosopher of Adventure in mind, and then recall what was in effect Howard’s declaration of independence in a letter to Lovecraft: “For my part, the mystic phase of the East has always interested me less than the material side — panoramas of war, rapine and conquest.”
We need not accuse Howard of mentor-mauling to note that Mundyesque philosophical or mystical states of grace are brusquely exposed as a state of disgrace in the Gordon stories; witness Yasmeena’s disillusionment in “The Daughter of Erlik Khan”: “I had dreamed of a calm retreat of mystics, inhabited by philosophers. I found a haunt of bestial devils, ignorant of all but evil.” Gordon himself expects to find “a hermit-philosopher, radiant with mellow wisdom” in “Blood of the Gods,” but encounters “a filthy, naked madman.” For all of Al Wazir’s study of The Bhagavad-Gita, for all of his delvings in “strange religions and philosophies, seeking the answer to the riddle of Existence,” events, violent events, elicit from him the admission “I can’t help mankind by dreaming out here in the desert.” Perhaps mankind is not to be helped at all, but individual men, women, and children can be saved or avenged as need be. Just as a good knife is a hearty incantation, a reliable pistol is a profound piece of philosophizing.
But a skeptical approach to mysticism does not entail forgoing the fantastic. The heroic fantasist Charles R. Saunders, whose Imaro saga is one of the most exciting examples of someone honoring Howard’s legacy by applying powers of invention all his own, once published some thoughts on the earlier writer as Robert E. Howard: Adventure Unlimited. Is the adventure in any way limited in the El Borak stories because Afghanistan can’t be Conan’s Afghulistan? Is Francis Xavier Gordon’s Asia more cramped and constrained than, say, Solomon Kane’s Africa because the former is less supernatural? No. And conversely, some devotees of “pure” adventure will always wish to kick the fantastic out from under a writer like some gem-studded, exotically carved crutch, but if Howard’s fantasy is powerful in no small part because of its realism, his “realistic” adventure stories often reach for a fantastic vocabulary and imagery. On the brink of sleep Gordon wonders “what grim spectacles [the mountains] had witnessed since the beginning of Time, and what inhuman creatures had crept through them before Man was.” In another story “a brooding weirdness about these ancient and forgotten caverns [rouses] uncanny speculations in Gordon’s predominantly Celtic mind.” The speculations go so far as to include “a hypothetical rock-python of enormous size” and “the fabled djinn of the Empty Abodes.”
The fantastic remains in residence in Howard’s time-slippage motif, as when Gordon can see himself as “a black-haired, black-eyed warrior from a far western isle, clad in the chain mail of a Crusader, striding through the intrigue-veiled mazes of an Assassin city.” Far older vistas open up, too; after all, we are dealing with the work of an author who often intuited a predecessor-or-underlier East, as he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft in June of 1931:
…I feel a dim sense of a vast epoch lurking behind the East of the early ages — a sort of huge lurking night behind the dawn represented by Egypt and by Babylon — a dim sense of gigantic black cities from whose ruins the first Babylon rose, a last mirrored remnant of an age lost in the huge deep gulf of night.
Always one to weigh rulers on the scale, find them wanting, and fling their kingdoms to the Medes and Persians, Howard reshaped Hubris and Nemesis in non-Greek, more forbiddingly sculpted guises. His ruination-reverie “Dreams of Nineveh” and the comeuppances in the poems “Belshazzar” and “The Blood of Belshazzar” seep into an unsparing verdict in “Three-Bladed Doom”: “So might the lords of Nineveh and Babylon and Susa have reveled, heedless of the captives screaming and writhing and dying in the pits beneath their palaces — ignorant of the red destruction predestined at the maddened hands of those captives.”
The supernatural version of “The Fire of Asshurbanipal” (see The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard) was recently singled out by Lovecraft authority S. T. Joshi in The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos as “perhaps Howard’s most successful attempt to fuse his own swashbuckling action-adventure style with the Lovecraftian idiom.” But the story also succeeds in the absence of any creature feature, as in the version included in this book. Our old Howardian friends, human transience and temporal intransigence, are on hand for the climax of a long fascination on the writer’s part. That fascination with the sinister, subjugation-by-atrocity mystique of ancient Assyria, imprinted on the Western imagination, however unfairly, by the Old Testament and Lord Byron’s poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” is at work in the Solomon Kane fragment “The Children of Asshur,” the asshuri (blue-black-bearded, brutish Shemitish soldiery) of the Hyborian Age, and possibly the Nineveh-esque fate of the Acheronian capital of Python in The Hour of the Dragon. Outpost-turned-last-refuge for Assyrian refugees striving to outrun history, Kara-Shehr (as the Turks name it) is one of Howard’s most unforgettable settings, a “black city of the djinn, deep in the hazes of a haunted desert.” A character does well to suggest “the shadows of lost splendors” can be as phantasmally present as any ghost or afreet.
For Howard the wings of an angel of oblivion beat blackly over the mud-brick Mesopotamian magnificence that was, but Alexander was another, more Western matter. When he wrote his “The Hills of Kandahar” he obviously knew who it was that haunts the very place name Kandahar, even if the poem’s vantage point is outside the former Alexandria in Arachosia, amid the mountains that outlasted the Macedonian and everyone else:
They will be brooding when mankind is gone; The teeming tribes that scaled their barricades — Dim hordes that waxed at dusk and waned at dawn — Are but as snow that on their shoulders fades.
Even during his lifetime Alexander had one foot in history and one foot in myth, so it was fitting that he was in effect there to greet Francis Xavier Gordon in the first El Borak story, “Swords of the Hills.” Howard was of course aware that Daniel Dravot’s rather rickety claim to the throne of Kafiristan in “The Man Who Would Be King” is based on his being “the son of Alexander by Queen Semiramis,” but another, pre-Macedonian alien-to-Afghanistan city actually preceded the Attalus of “Swords” in his imagination. A fragment published as “The Lion Gate” in the 2007 collection The Last of the Trunk concerns Minoans fleeing the fall of Knossos in the Bronze Age who put Xenophon’s later anabasis to shame: “Why should not those Ancients have won through to the high-flung reaches of the Himalayas and reared their city among the crags?” As killjoys, we can think of a few reasons why not, but the country’s Alexandrian legends date back long before Kipling; as is attested by the British adventurer and agent Alexander “Bokhara” or “Sikandar” Burnes, whose fate it was to fare less well than El Borak in the alleys of Kabul, in his Travels into Bokhara (1834):
I heard from these people a variety of particulars regarding the reputed descendants of Alexander the Great, which are yet said to exist in this neighborhood, and the valley of the Oxus, as well as the countries near the head of the Indus. The subject had occupied much of my attention, and a tea merchant of our small caravan had amused me on the road from Khooloom, with the received lineage of these Macedonians.
Alexander’s experiences have been much on the minds of those receptive to cautionary tales since 1979, and even more since 2001. Both Frank L. Holt’s nonfiction Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan (2005) and Stephen Pressfield’s hecatomb-in-novel-form The Afghan Campaign (2006) remind us that the Macedonian’s conceptual breakthrough in terms of counterinsurgency was marrying Roxana and hence into the local warlord-nobility, an option that Queen Victoria, Leonid Brezhnev, and the second President Bush were perhaps remiss in ruling out. And that in turn is a reminder that history has played a trick on the stories collected here, or possibly enriched them beyond even Howard’s hoards that function as “monstrous lodestone drawing all the evil passions of men.” What we might call Khyberspace currently occupies more of the American imagination than at any time since movies like Lives of a Bengal Lancer and The Charge of the Light Brigade were released in 1935 and 1936 respectively.
The Gordon and O’Donnell adventures probably haven’t been circulating overmuch among American or NATO troops in Afghanistan, unless yellowing paperbacks pounced upon in used bookstores or passed down from fathers and uncles made it into a kit-bag or three. Maybe that will now change, in which case we can predict a few double-takes when new readers learn that “The ameer [rules] the tribes after a fashion — with a dominance that [dare] not presume too far,” while the followers of Othman el Aziz seek “death rather than life,” or read about the “plague spot, sprawled in the high, bare hills, almost fabulous, beyond the reach of the ameer,” where the black Tigers scheme. Gordon even refers to “the terrorist methods” of the Shaykhs Al Jebal. Perhaps they will reflect that while El Borak, who doesn’t start vendettas, finishes them with blows that are crunchingly heavy, his “footprint” is light, lighter than a superpower’s could ever be.
But here’s hoping any and all readers also relish these adventures as adventures, and as demonstrations of Howard’s galloping professionalism by the mid-thirties. “White men don’t forget — not when there’s loot in the offing,” he observes in one story; any White Man’s Burden mostly translates into white men burdened by the loot they seek to bear away. Ormond and Hawkston are both “beastly with cruel greed,” but the latter villain is forced to share what amounts to a foxhole with Gordon, and however fleeting their snarling, suspicion-ridden solidarity, it is a golden opportunity for Howard to contrast his hero with another adventurer. Or note how much more inhabited Rub el Harami, the Abode of Thieves in “Sons of the Hawk,” is than Yolgan in “The Daughter of Erlik Khan”: the earlier enclave seems like so much papier-mache and plywood in comparison. Or the quantum leap in POV characters from Stuart Brent, who looks to El Borak for rescue, to Geoffrey Willoughby, who looks to the Texan for compromise, a willingness to renounce to-the-hilt vengeance. As he keeps his eyes, his ears, and his mind open, Willoughby grows to rival Balthus in “Beyond the Black River” as a readerly stand-in, and his scenes with Gordon rank with the circumstantial alliance of Athelstane and Turlogh O’Brien in “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” as a seriocomic collision of Saxon and Celt arranged by a writer who bled Gael-green in his affinities.
Gary Hoppenstand, a professor drawn to Howard’s work, has written, “Kirby O’Donnell constantly has to demonstrate his value as a hero by the strength of his hands and the grit of his teeth in the face of certain and terrible death, and only through his own mastery of the mechanics of death does he survive to the next story, to go through it all once more.” As Geoffrey Willoughby eyewitnesses, El Borak’s weapons-play is wizardly, but a note other than “the dry, strident, cruel cackling of the hills” is sounded in these stories. As the bodies pile up, so, sometimes, do the regrets. After one battle his eyes sweep “his phantom crew with a strange remorse,” and he says, “Sorry about it all.” In another story a pleasure garden-turned-abbatoir prompts the outcry “God!” from a man whose “soul [is] in revolt.” Few other Howard heroes would concern themselves with fetching water and binding wounds, or react to the butcher’s bill in “Son of the White Wolf” with the words, “A hundred better men than I have died today.”
That story’s damning assessment of the detestable ex-lieutenant Osman is “He thinks first of his own desires, and only later of the safety of his men,” and the would-be empire-builder is a fresh frontier in villainy for the El Borak series. “Son of the White Wolf” as a whole is a new departure for a grim destination. Suddenly it is 1917, rather than some indeterminate prewar year, a time when, as Mundy’s Yasmini might put it, “The West has the West by the throat.” Cossacks and other henchmen of the Czar making mischief in the hills now seem as quaint as a daguerrotype.
Geopolitical realities have become molten and malleable; as Gordon, who has descended from his old eyrie to the flatlands and the multilateral suicide pact of world war, comments, “The world is being made over here, as well as in Europe.” Osman is thinking along similar lines, but he is acting as well as thinking. “Senta, Rinaldi. Senta. You and me, we’ve made a separate peace,” Hemingway’s Nick Adams, machine-gunned in the spine on the Italian Front, says to an even more wounded casualty in one of the most famous American reactions to World War One; in “Son of the White Wolf,” Osman makes a separate war, a revolt within, but against, the Arab Revolt.
Now the Janus-faced iconography of “Three-Bladed Doom,” in which the palace guards of Shalizahr tote rhinoceros-hide shields and gold-chased scimitars that “[contrast] curiously with the modern rifles in their hands and the cartridge-belts [around] their lean waists,” intensifies as the summer thunder of British artillery competes for our attention with Osman’s banner with a strange device: “the head of a white wolf — the battle-standard of most ancient Turan.” Will the future be the past, an Osmaniacal, terribly simplified past purged of complexity and commiseration? In any event, “Son of the White Wolf” is our only foretaste of a possible future of the El Borak stories in which the shadows of the twentieth century might have lengthened and grown ever-chillier.
T. E. Lawrence, an offstage colleague of Gordon’s in “White Wolf,” wrote in a letter, “I am still puzzled as to how far the individual counts: a lot, I fancy, if he pushes the right way.” We might suspect that with Gordon, as with Lawrence, the peace-making, promise-breaking years after 1917 will soon shove back, forcefully, but these stories remain adventures in which the individual continues to count a great deal. Richard Slotkin has argued that “heroes symbolize the possibility of successful action in the world,” and Gordon, whose “strenuous nature” negates the “inert philosophy” of fatalism, actively succeeds whether in Afghanistan or Arabia.
El Borak speaks, in actions louder than his tersely effective words, to that part of readers that old Aunt Sally never manages to catch and “sivilize,” and, it must be confessed, to that part of those of us who are Y-chromosomed that still stealthily dreams of being told, “Your soul is a whetted blade on which I feared I might cut myself.” Is it any wonder that the heroines of “The Daughter of Erlik Khan” and “Son of the White Wolf” fall short of being love interests for Gordon? A mortal-in-more-ways-than-one enemy of his ultimately whispers, “To the mistress of all true adventurers! To the Lady Death!” Has he found time to read Robert E. Howard’s poetry? In “The Adventurer’s Mistress,” the speaker, who could well be Gustav Hunyadi, Kirby O’Donell, or El Borak, is troubador-true to his hooded lady. Lawlessly bedded rather than lawfully wedded though she may be, this Mistress basks in a faithfulness many wives would envy:
But I’ll not grudge the game, I trow, As I feel her kiss on my fading brow. For I hold her dance is the only joy That thrills the years and fails to cloy. Aye, I hold her measure above all treasure And I’ll only laugh as she bends to destroy.
Introduction in Kull: Exile of Atlantis by Steve Tompkins, 2006.
Is it not passing brave to be a king, And ride in triumph through Persepolis? —Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine, Part One
Kull of high Atlantis. Kull, who will never be “of” Valusia no matter how long he rules the Land of Enchantment. Kull, cold-eyed but hot-headed, a bull in an unimaginably ancient china shop. Kull, the thinking man’s barbarian and the barbarian as thinking man, for whom the surfaces of forbidden lakes and sorcerous mirrors are not barriers but invitations. Kull, who opens Pandora’s boxes like birthday gifts. Kull, who returns the stare of Deep Time and dares the stair that leads up to perspectives high, chilly, and cosmic. The king who philosophizes with a broadsword and legislates with a battle-axe, the king who haunts us because he is himself so haunted. Kull, who is no mere way-station en route to Conan, but an unforgettable destination in his own right.
Like their hero, who is quotable whether expressing ominous amusement–to the lake-dwellers of The Cat and the Skull, as they close in with daggers: “This is a game I understand, ghosts”–or an elegiac impulse, as to the wizard Tuzun Thune: “Yet is it not a pity that the beauty and glory of men should fade like smoke on the summer sea?”–the Kull stories can speak for themselves. But some readers might enjoy the Atlantean usurper even more if we spend a few pages situating him both within the grand overarching continuum that resulted from Robert E. Howard’s talent for rewriting and pre-writing history and within the Texas fictioneer’s abbreviated but altogether astonishing career.
It is not quite accurate to label The Shadow Kingdom, which introduced Weird Tales readers to King Kull in the August 1929 issue (the untitled vignette many of us first met as Exile of Atlantis, with its glimpse of the Kull who would be king, was not published until 1967), the original sword-and-sorcery story. To do so is to overlook an earlier masterpiece, Lord Dunsany’s 1910 The Fortress Unvanquishable, Save for Sacnoth, in which a swordsman invades the hellish, dragon-guarded stronghold of an archmage. But the Howard tale jumps out at us as not only the first American sword-and-sorcery story but the first to summon a series into being by offering a setting, an arena, greater than was required for just a single adventure, a setting the depth and detail of which all but demanded sequels. With Kull’s Pre-Cataclysmic Age there arrived an American fantasyland defined by danger and doubt rather than the bumptious Midwestern boosterism of Oz or the sword-and-planet self-infatuation of John Carter of Mars, the extent of whose ego at times suggests that Helium, the Barsoomian city-state he rises to rule, is exceedingly well-named.
The barbarians of the late Pre-Cataclysmic Age are offshore islanders who prey on the Thurian mainland from Atlantis, Lemuria, and the Pictish Isles as if from unsinkable pirate ships. The times call for blood and iron, but Thurian blood has thinned and their iron has corroded; where the dominant civilization of the Hyborian Age will be “so virile that contact with it virtually snatched out of the wallow of savagery such tribes as it touched,” the Seven Empires of the Pre-Cataclysmic dodder and totter. This is a world less mapped than Conan’s and more lapped by mystery and mysticism at its edges: ice caves in the far north, reptile-reeking jungles in the far south; to the west, the isles beyond the sunset, to the east, the River Stagus and World’s End. We learn that Verulian trickery is a byword, and that Thurania is the foe of Farsun, but what Howard is really telling in the Kull stories is Time. Untold centuries, millennia, and aeons of the stuff are told, and told tellingly, as we sense history shading back into prehistory, kings dimming into chiefs, palaces into caves, nations into tribes, laws into taboos. The whole point to Thurian civilization is its stupefying continuity and longevity; at the very dawn of Pictish or Atlantean awareness, dusk had already draped the Seven Empires. Their relative opacity or obscurity, the fact that they are not readily identifiable as stand-ins or surrogate-states as are Stygia for Egypt, Zingara for Spain, and Turan for the Ottoman Empire in the Conan series, draws us deeper into dreamland.
Kull’s project of rejuvenating Valusia is not so much foredoomed as after-doomed by The Hyborian Age, an essay that Howard did not write until 1932, and it is important to keep in mind that the Pre-Cataclysmic Age is unaware of being the Pre-Cataclysmic Age, is unaware that the Cataclysm is poised overhead throughout the series, a Sword of Damocles forged from water and wind, lava, and tremors. Or is it? Signs and portents like the death by drowning of the “outlaw tribe” of Tiger Valley recalled by the Atlantean characters or the casual reference to “the Flood” in Swords of the Purple Kingdom are present. The lake-king has it almost right when he sees in Kull “the first wave of the rising tide of savagery which shall overwhelm the world,” and Kull himself asserts “Someday the sea will flow over these hills–” as early as Exile, long before Tuzun Thune’s mirror reflects a future in which “the restless green waves roar for many a fathom above the eternal hills of Atlantis” and “strange savages roam the elder lands.” Howard was well aware that a writer who avails himself of the name “Atlantis” gives away his ending, which is why he traveled back ages and ages in advance of that ending, the symbol of imperial overreach and the human jostling of the divine since Plato, to a joltingly flint-tipped and cave-sheltering beginning. And, yes, the Atlantis of the Kull series is fiendishly difficult to reconcile with that of Howard’s novellas Skull-Face and The Moon of Skulls, so perhaps we should mutter something about the hobgoblin of little minds and leave off trying.
At the start of his Conan years Howard looked upon his Kull years not as a false start but a foundation; he built The Phoenix on the Sword from By This Axe I Rule! (unsold and therefore for practical purposes untold) and built the Pre-Cataclysmic Age into the back-story of The Hyborian Age and the eyewitness account of Yag-kosha, the long-lived, far-sighted being of The Tower of the Elephant. When Howard wrote of the Thurians in 1932 that “Picts, Atlanteans, and Lemurians were their generals, their statesmen, often their kings,” he had long since created in Kelkor just such a general, in Ka-nu just such a statesman, and in Kull just such a king. That same opening to The Hyborian Age adds to our knowledge by citing “the wars between Valusia and Commoria” (a realm nowhere mentioned in the actual Kull stories) as an implicit prelude to “the conquests by which the Atlanteans founded a kingdom on the mainland.” And as Yag-kosha tells it, the Post-Cataclysmic Age was marked by an intensification of the “wild wars and world-ancient feuds” of the earlier period. The remnants of the Pictish and Atlanteans would “go down to ruin, locked in bloody wars. We saw the Picts sink into abysmal savagery, the Atlanteans into apedom again…Wesaw [Conan’s] people rise under a new name from the jungles of the apes that had been Atlanteans.” Kull, who readily admits to a early childhood as a “hairless ape roaming in the woods,” one that “could not speak the language of men,” turns out to have been a sort of preview of coming subtractions for the Atlanteans after the Cataclysm.
The Kull stories wander far afield in time, but spatially seldom stray from Valusia–which is why Howard’s tantalizing River Stagus/Beyond the Sunrise fragment, with its hot pursuit traversing whole kingdoms otherwise unexplored in the series, is so welcome. The continuity of circumstance that distinguishes Kull from Conan makes possible a recurring cast, a Howardian repertory company the members of which include Ka-nu, an avuncular ambassador not just from Pictland but from the mellowing and maturation that Kull cannot imagine undergoing himself. Ka-nu’s barb in The Cat and the Skull –“Naturally, I went first to the torture chamber, since Tu was in charge–” tells us most of what we need to know about Tu, who despite his second person familiar pronoun of a name has little tolerance for informality and upholds tradition all the more blindly and bureaucratically for having been born a plebian. The chief councilor, who will brook no challenge to the State’s law, is anticipated by Gor-na in Exile of Atlantis, who will brook no challenge to the tribe’s lore. When Gor-na scolds Kull for skepticism, he voices the outlook that the outcast-to-be will struggle against throughout the series: “What always was, must always be.”
We are accustomed to Howard’s Picts as the destroyers of a civilization at the end of the Hyborian Age and the defiers of a civilization in the age of the Caesars, but in the Kull stories we must adjust to Picts as defenders of the decrepit civilization to which they are allied. Those defenders are led by Brule the Spear-slayer, a study, years before Conan, of the Beyond the Black River dictum that “a wolf [is] no less a wolf” because he chooses or chances “to run with the watch-dogs.” The power not behind but beside Kull’s throne, he often functions as a reality principle in the series: “Ever the Pict’s fierce secret whisper brought [Kull] back from the realm of unreality in which he moved.” In their 1987 overview of Howard’s work, Marc A. Cerasini and Charles Hoffman illuminated the Kull stories with the perfect line from William Blake: “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,” yet for all the wisdom he gains, Kull, the tiger of wrath, must be saved again and again by Brule, the horseman of instruction: When it is necessary to ride to Kull’s rescue, or ride across the continent in the service of Kull’s revenge, the Picts saddle up, and although the great days when Howard would annex Texas for heroic fantasy are yet to come, the “lean, powerful savages, men of Brule’s tribe, who [sit] their horses like centaurs” suggest the Comanches-turned-cavalry.
It would never occur to Brule that the pen is mightier than the sword, which is why he urges Kull to arrange for the seditious poet Ridondo to “make rhymes for the vultures.” By This Axe I Rule! is the only story in which Ridondo appears, although his songs live on after him in Swords of the Purple Kingdom. He permits Howard, whose poetry filled many pages but paid few bills, to have fun with a fellow blue-eyed versifier. When we meet Ridondo, he is clad in jester’s motley but brandishes a dagger and exults in the assassination he has sworn to achieve. Meanwhile Kull, the peerless warrior, is first seen behind “a small writing desk,” and the seeming role reversal continues as king strives to spare poet while poet strives to slay king. Kull is not a Celtic character, except retroactively, in that Howard decided years later that the Atlanteans had been the progenitors of the Cimmerians, who were the forefathers of the Celts. But the barbarian’s reverence for the bard, even one as cracked and citified as Ridondo, earns him honorary Celt status–and also a near-fatal wound when the poet pens him “a deathly song” in his unprotected side. In effect one chink in Kull’s armor has found another, and it is interesting to note this observation by his creator in a 1928 letter: “Each time a man opens his heart he breaks his armor and weakens his battle might.”
During the Kull years Howard the apprentice took over from Howard the amateur. He was less market-minded than he would become, and the series exhibits not the precision-guided productivity of the later professional but a purple and gold romanticism that is not uncommon in a writer barely into his twenties. Much less common are the distinctively Howardian black borders and gray backgrounds of all that purple and gold. Dreamy but not drowsy, melancholy but not morose, these stories are the work of a young man who never became very old at all. Like Kull, that young man was both fascinated and appalled by extremities of age and reveries of remembrance, while also being constantly goaded by “the vagaries of a people which could never understand him.”
Howard himself may have given us tacit permission to perceive Kull as his attitudinal doppelgänger in an October 1928 letter to his friend Harold Preece: “An occultist of my acquaintance, who has gone deeper in the matter than any man I ever knew, says I have a very ancient soul, am a reincarnated Atlantean, in fact!” With Kull, the feral child is father to the man; he knows not “who his own parents were,” an ignorance that perhaps at times seemed like bliss to Howard as he coped with the squalls and squabbles of life in a small family in a small town. Kull’s ostensibly absolute power is often merely powerlessness prettified by pageantry, and the entire series clanks with chains, literalizations of the fetters the only son of Isaac and Hester Howard felt chafing him, from the “heavy wooden chain, a peculiar thing which was particularly Atlantean in its manufacture,” in which the Ala of the Exile story awaits burning at the stake, to the “chains of friendship, tribe, and tradition” broken in The Shadow Kingdom. The phantasmal Eallal proceeds with “slow, silent footsteps, as if the chains of all the ages were upon those vague feet,” and as Kull unleashes his inner berserker on the serpent-men Howard tells us “But now some chain had broken in his soul.” One of the fragments espouses an equality of the remarkable “beyond the shackles of birth and circumstance,” and Kull breaks the news to the second Ala that “the king is only a slave like yourself, locked with heavier chains.”
A tiger in chains would be a crime, a contravention of the natural order to which only decadent Valusians (or the Romans of Kings of the Night) might stoop. Where the lion is the king of beasts, and also the preferred beast of kings, the tiger’s aura is more Eastern and exotic–one of the ways Howard establishes that we are vastly displaced in time is to have tigers roaring “across the starlight” on the beaches of Atlantis. And the tiger hunts in splendid isolation; he is a predator without a pride, a fitting totem for Kull (and perhaps his creator). “I–thought you were a human tiger,” the Ala of By This Axe! confesses, shortly before Kull is forced to demonstrate many of his most tigerish qualities, but the linkage begins before we even leave Atlantis, with the hunters’ debate as to whether a king tiger once scaled a vine to the moon to escape hunters and dwelt there “for many years.”
Another 1928 Howard letter to another friend, Tevis Clyde Smith, contains references to demi-gods attaining pinnacles, “the deeds of unthoughted heroes,” the “crude, groping handiwork” of authorial beginners and writers “struggling up the long ladder.” The latter two images are suggestive of one of the staggering vistas of The Shadow Kingdom, in which Man is “the jest of the gods, the blind, wisdomless striver from dust to dust, following the long bloody trail of his destiny, knowing not why, bestial, blundering, like a great murderous child, yet feeling somewhere a spark of divine fire.” Howard went on in the same letter to claim that he was familiar with “the emptiness of success” despite not having succeeded yet: “For always through the cheers of the mob will come, like a writhing serpent, the memory of the jeers of the mob when I walked and sweated pure red blood.” This reads like a rough draft of the early scenes in The Shadow Kingdom, and not just because of Howard’s tendency to assign fangs, coils, and scales to anything negative; the mingled cheers and jeers are also noteworthy. Behind the Atlantean usurper who can command obedience but never legitimacy, we can discern the aspiring author too often rejected and too quickly dejected. But the spark of divine fire would continue to motivate Howard to sweat pure red blood; when he confided to Tevis Clyde Smith in November of 1928 that “I’ve got the makings of a great writer in me, but I’ll never become one because I’m too erratic and lazy to really try and keep on trying,” he sold himself short.
The makings of that great writer are on display here, but the Kull stories differ from Howard’s Thirties output in part because of “a certain archaic tang”–aye, nay, ye, mayhap–which he himself attributed to “much medieval reading.” The Faerie fringes of the series border on what is unhelpfully called high fantasy, nor should we overlook mordant flickers that we might sooner expect from a James Branch Cabell or Clark Ashton Smith: Brule’s ancestry includes “a legendary hero or two, semi-deified for feats of personal strength or wholesale murder,” while Ascalante has noticed that “Poets always hate those in power and turn to dead ages for relief in dreams.” Howard’s nomenclature is not yet the thing of cheerfully borrowed beauty it will become, although “Valusia,” with its hints of “allusion” and “illusion,” is perfect for a kingdom that is the Thurian Continent’s many-magicked Heart of Elderness, and Goron bora Ballin and Ronaro Atl Volante are convincingly aristocratic appellations.
If it can seem as if the principal business of the late Pre-Cataclysmic Age is preventing or punishing mixed marriages, Howard, who dreamed so much, certainly never dreamed that all of his Kull outtakes would be published and pored over. Willful but wile-dependent, the women who plague Kull with their nuptial agendas are like unto little sisters, the creations of a bookish young man more comfortable grappling with the riddles of existence than with girls. The time for Valeria of the Red Brotherhood and Agnes de la Fere is not yet; although the second Ala shows promise, and more than just a single consonant separates the Delcartes of Swords of the Purple Kingdom from the Delcardes of The Cat and the Skull. In a crisis Howard even allows Delcartes to pounce “as quickly and silently as a tigress.”
Delcardes and Delcartes have something of the flapper about them, and that is only appropriate, for the Kull series is a product not just of Howard’s twenties but “the Twenties,” a decade that roared louder than all the tigers of Atlantis. The writing of these stories coincided with the exact moment, post-colonial but pre-imperial, in which American literature came into its own and became aware of itself, of the power of what had already been written and the promise of what soon would be. At the risk of a fanciful comparison, the Atlantean usurper in his palace is as much an expression of this cultural quickening or kindling as is Jay Gatsby in his mansion. Furthermore, to say that The Shadow Kingdom is the first American sword-and-sorcery story is to mean much more than simply the first such story authored by an American. American concerns populate and animate much of the series.
Conan will come down from the North, but Kull comes from the West, out of the sea, from a newer world, an island continent the mountains of which are upstart and out-thrust, “brutal and terrible with youth, even as Kull.” An outcast but also an outrider, the Atlantean’s behavior often resembles that of an adolescent among the aged–or an American among Europeans, as Howard pits “a straightforward man of the seas and the mountain” against “a race strangely and terribly wise with the mysticisms of antiquity.” The “palaces and the temples and the shrines” of the City of Wonders speak to the new king as the Forum, the Parthenon, the Latin Quarter, and Westminster Abbey have spoken of unmatchable antiquity and atmospherics to so many sensitive Americans. While Kull’s curriculum vitae, which includes stints as a pirate, an outlaw, a gladiator, and a mercenary, is not exactly that of an ingénue or innocent abroad, or even an Atlantean Yankee in what had been King Borna’s Court, it is worth noting that Mark Twain’s impatient, innovative Hank Morgan when first met seems “to move among the spectres and shadows and dust and mold of a gray antiquity.” The people of Camelot deem Morgan to be visiting “from a far land of barbarians.” So after a Great War that outdid even Twain in indicting hereditary monarchy, after America had recently crossed an ocean to intervene in a quarrel between at least six empires, how could the New World and the Old do anything but collide in the heroic fantasy of a young and alert American? The old world reels down the road to ruin and forgetfulness. That’s the lake-king of The Cat and the Skull, he who also deduces that “the rot of civilization has not yet entered [Kull’s] soul.” In the Atlantean’s Valusian experiences as in the mythology of so many transatlantic encounters, instinct confronts intrigue, energy, ennui, and pragmatism, precedent.
In 1930 Howard looked back at 1914 in his piece A Touch of Trivia, recalling that he had “firmly [thrown] in my lot with the Allies and thereafter remained loyal,” and stressing “We all felt then a friendship for France.” The City of Wonders is not necessarily the City of Lights, and the foreign soldiery, “men of Mu and of Kaa-u and of the hills of the east and the isles of the west,” saviors of Valusia who walk with “shoulders flung back” and inspect Kull “boldly and straightly” even as he inspects them, need not be seen as the American Expeditionary Force parading down the Champs d’Elysée. But with so many of even the verifiably human Valusians speaking with forked tongues, could there be a trace of what befell Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference in Kull beset by courtiers and conspirators? Had he lived and somehow been exposed to The Shadow Kingdom, Wilson, one of the preachiest presidents, might have nodded feelingly at Brule’s description of “the statecraft of the Seven Empires” as “a mazy, monstrous thing” or recognized the European diplomacy that hoodwinked and hamstrung him in Howard’s “masquerade where men and women hid their real thoughts with a smooth mask.” Is it a fetch too far to speculate that Howard might have been doing what gifted fantasists have been known to do, alluding without allegorizing? If so, if, once upon a time, these stories were entwined with that same time, they have emphatically not been entombed along with their period of origin.
But all such thoughts are at best marginalia scrawled in invisible ink, ghosts even more spectral than the many others thronging this series. “Shadow” and “shade” are sometime synonyms for “ghost,” and the rampant ghostliness of The Shadow Kingdom is made explicit by the title of its alter ego in Howard’s semi-autobiographical novel Post Oaks and Sand Roughs: “The Phantom Empire.” Whether “Kingdom” or “Empire,” the tale can be approached as a ghost story in which a world of ghosts is disrupted, intruded upon, haunted, by the occasional living man. In a brilliant touch, the specter of the murdered monarch Eallal fails even to notice Kull and Brule, as if they are the ghosts: “The phantom came straight on, giving them no heed; Kull shrank back as it passed them, feeling an icy breath like a breeze from the arctic snow.” Visions invade Kull’s mind “like ghosts flying unbidden from the whispering void of nonexistence,” and the tablet in By This Axe I Rule! is another kind of ghost, albeit stone and ultimately shatterable, that of “the primal law makers” haunting and thwarting the lovers Ala and Seno val Dor.
To live is sooner or later to outlive oneself, to be a ghost. Kull the king has outlived the earlier self who harried the Pictish Isles and “laughed upon the green roaring tides of the Atlantean sea,” and in Kings of the Night he briefly outlives his entire era, prompting the Norseman Wulfhere’s question “Shall a ghost lead living men?” Once returned to his own time, Kull discloses that he has just “fought for the king of a strange shadow-people” and is left with even more divided loyalties when it comes to the real and the unreal: “All life and time and space seemed like a dream of ghosts to him, and he wondered thereat all the rest of his life.” A substantial amount of insubstantiality is characteristic of Howard’s fantasy–substantial, and substantiating; the gritty and the ghostly reinforce each other in his pages. Just as Kull’s confusion about his own identity and authenticity serve to shore up his identity and authenticity as one of the most unforgettable figures in heroic fantasy, his creator’s insistence upon unreality and impermanence helps to solidify the reality and permanence of his achievement as a storyteller.
Another instance of phantasmal imagery in The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune merits our attention: “I can summon up a demon more savage than any in ghostland–by smiting you in the face.” Howard was most likely inspired by one of the most famous of Shakespearean exchanges, from Act III of Henry IV, Part One, a play he knew well:
Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep. Hotspur:Why so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?
But it is a different play that haunts–if the reader will tolerate the overuse of that verb a final time–the Kull stories. Himself the scion of a family steeped in Shakespeare, the eminent fantasist Fritz Leiber was the first to point out that Kull is a Macbeth figure. The Scottish usurper is to Duncan as Kull is to Borna, and Macbeth’s insight once he has done murder to don majesty in Act III, Scene 1–“To be thus is nothing./But to be safely thus–” is even more valid for Kull, who has rather more than just the words of some weird sisters to worry about. Howard establishes a Macbethian mood for the series with the first two sentences of the Exile story, in which the sun sets and “a last crimson glory” appears atop the snowy peaks “like a crown of blood.” Where life for Macbeth is “but a walking shadow; a poor player/That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,/And then is heard no more,” Kull perceives Valusia as “a kingdom of the shadows, ruled by phantoms who glided back and forth behind the painted curtains, mocking the futile king who sat upon the throne–himself a shadow.” Another presence in the stories is a fellow American as well as a fellow poet: Poe contributes epigraphs for The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune and Kings of the Night, and the passivity of his Silence: A Fable may have provoked the hyperkineticism of The Screaming Skull of Silence. Howard was a superb writer in part because he was a superb reader; he stole from the best and then transcended the thefts by transmuting the swag.
Kull’s first words in his first Weird Tales appearance are “The army is like a sword, and must not be allowed to rust,” but Valusia’s military might risk doing so in the ensuing stories, with the exception of the Picts and Red Slayers who accompany the king beyond the sunrise. We hear that Kull’s reign got off to a martial start as he broke the back of a Triple Federation and smashed the marauding Grondarians, but we don’t get to watch. When he declares “My right hand is stronger to defend than all Grondar is to assail!” the Grondarians display an ability to learn from experience but disappoint us by backing down. It is essential that writers of epic and/or heroic fantasy develop some of the skills of war correspondents and military historians, and fortunately Howard’s breakthrough would come with the last story in this volume, Kings of the Night, which finally turns Kull loose on a battlefield, albeit in a fight and an age not his own. In a March 1930 letter to Tevis Clyde Smith, the Texan confided “[Kings] was rather a new line for me, as I described a pitched battle. However, I think I handled it fairly well.” He was still pleased in September of 1930: “Some ways this story is the best I ever wrote. Nothing very weird about it, but good battle-stuff, if I do say so myself.” So Kings is noteworthy not only for its summit conference between Kull and Bran Mak Morn, but because it gives Howard a bigger budget and thousands of extras to maneuver on the page, thereby making possible the epic Crusader and Conan-commanded clashes yet to be written.
The hope here has been that newcomers to Kull or Howard will entertain the possibility that, like one of Tuzun Thune’s mirrors, heroic fantasy can contain much more than just “hard shallowness”–at times, “gigantic depths loom up,” as with the serpent-men, who have never been bettered, despite all the alien and android fifth columns that followed, as a worst fear made cold flesh. (Like our own reptilian underbrains, they have been here all along.) But readers can entertain this, that, or the other thing at a later date. Now it is high time that they themselves were entertained, enthralled, even enchanted, and this book, in which the young Robert E. Howard finds his way to, and through, an old, old world, is equal to the task. Despite conspiracies serpentine or byzantine, despite all the ghosts and shadows of Kulls past and Cataclysms to come, the pages that follow prove that it remains passing brave, and surpassingly splendid, to be a king, and ride in triumph through the City of Wonders.