Still working my way through the Audio Book, but am really enjoying it.
I found the major Kull stories: The Shadow Kingdom, the Mirrors of Tuzun Thune, the Cat and the Skull, and even By This Axe I Rule to be as good or even better on my rereading/listening.
The shorter stories and fragments are almost new to me, I guess that means they weren't very memorable for me the first time around, but I'm finding them to be pretty damn good on my re-listen. The Screaming Skull and the Striking of the Gong, especially.
I still haven't read or listened to Kings of the Night, as I was waiting to read the Bran Mak Morn stories before doing so, but I'm tempted to give it a listen in this audio book. Hell, I might even listen to the Bran Mak Morn collection given the strength of the Kull audio book.
Kull isn't Conan. He's his own character, but I would urge fans of REH to read the Kull stories. Swords of the Purple Kingdom has grown on me over the years. Kull is at his most Conanic in KotN, which is definitely the last story, both chronologically and composition-wise, of the Kull tales.
Just a minor tweak I'd make: we never got to see Kull as anything but a king in all the stories with the exception of the Exile of Atlantis fragment and his mention as an outlaw in Curse of the Golden Skull. Howard spoke of Kull's resume but seemed focused on his kingship. He didn't seem to be able to wander about his life as he did with Solomon Kane and Conan (and El Borak for that matter). Considering he didn't seem able to sell many of the stories, I'm a little surprised he didn't try what ostensibly became the Conan strategy with Kull. I guess he just gave up, moved on, then got that spark to go back and rewrite By This Axe.
After all this I am finding myself turning back to some of my old reads and re reading them again with a new found appreciation. I started to read REH’s non Conan stories years ago.
When I first read the comics I thought Kull was more of a prototype Conan, but reading the Howard originals nothing could be further from that assertion. I have also now come to view the last Kull movie as a pale reflection in one of Tuzun Thune's mirrors.
‘The Shadow Kingdom’ is a masterpiece, I read somewhere that it was the first true start of the ‘heroic fantasy’ or ‘sword and sorcery’ type of story, and that readers voted it the best story in an issue of Weird Tales.
Another poster here said that Kull ‘s brooding nature probably meant that he was less appealing to take up in pastiches back in the 70’s, but I think that brooding, weary, cerebral nature of Kull makes the character more interesting.
When you think of the short story format, and what REH was able to do with the character and the story, you realise that he was a natural literary genius.
‘The Shadow Kingdom’, ‘The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune’, supporting role in ‘Kings of the Night’ , the poem ‘The King and the Oak’ are what I read.
I actually liked the fact that in the case of Kull we are introduced to him when he is already king of the old ‘fading, degenerate Valusia, a Valusia living mostly in dreams of bygone glory, but still a mighty land’. ..
Kull the Atlantean exile, now a king of a people full of civilised intrigue. The tribesmen called Valusia ‘The Land of Dreams’ and Kull described it as if moving in a dream, and that evening when Brule, who was already aware of more ancient and evil forces, helping to guide Kull through that night of terror when the serpentine shape shifters first became manifest, seemed to me like some nightmare made real.
In some ways reading Kull was like reading a horror story, delving into what is and what is not illusion, and the race of serpent men that can take the forms of people add to the sense of paranoia that Kull was going though, and if he was a weaker being he might have abandoned the people he ruled over.
Tired, sitting on the throne the next day, the foundations of Kull’s reality forever shaken in some sense, the faces of the court as ‘things of illusion’, and now another depth beyond the masks that hide the usual avaricious, shallow and deceitful nature of the ladies, lords and statesmen in attendance.
‘While he exchanged courtesies with some nobleman or councillor he seemed to see the smiling face fade like smoke and the frightful jaws of a serpent gaping there. How many of those he looked up were horrid, inhuman monsters, plotting his death, beneath the smooth mesmeric illusion of a human face?’
Valusia-land of dreams and nightmares-a kingdom of 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.’
You get the sense of dread, the weariness and that Kull could never properly sleep every again, the burden of constantly keeping that guard up.
However, for all that Kull is undeterred, after slaying the serpent that would take his place he vows.
‘Here I swear that I shall hunt the serpent-men from land to land, from sea to sea, giving no rest until all be slain, that good triumph and the power of Hell be broken. This thing I swear-I-Kull-king-of-Valusia.’
‘The Shadow Kingdom’ transcends time, timeless, appropriate for our times and for future readers. It echoes of the the age old stories of the serpent in the garden, of Set, North American snake spirits that could change between human and serpentine form whilst keeping the characteristics of both, or the ancient Indian myths that dealt with the Naga, snakes that attain human form, and I could not help but think of the series V where serpentine type aliens come amongst us masked as humans to deceive, manipulate and ultimately attempt to conquer us.
An excellent essay by Karen Joan Kohoutek comparing By This Axe I Rule! and The Phoenix On The Sword:
By the Phoenix on This Sword I Rule! By Karen Joan Kohoutek
“If I could but come to grips with something tangible, that I could cleave with my sword!”
When Robert E. Howard revised an unsold tale about King Kull, the gloomy ruler of Valusia, he replaced that character with Conan, a barbarian king in a similar position, who would later be fleshed out with a wide-ranging history, and a multiplicity of formative experiences. Along the way, the character turned from an Atlantean to a Cimmerian, and his eye color from gray to blue. His personality also changes in some significant ways, from the original “By This Axe I Rule!” to the available early draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword,” and again to the version of that story published in Weird Tales in December 1932.
As Patrice Louinet says in his appendix to the collected Kull stories, “by writing the first Conan tale on the ashes of an unsold Kull story, Howard was telling us that he now envisioned the Kull series a prehistoric one, which paved the way for the Conan stories” (289).
The Conan who becomes the canonical version deals with court intrigue and attempts to usurp his power, in ways that are similar to the situation in “Axe.” There is a critical difference, in that Conan never declares “I am king!,” because he doesn’t have to. A line about his suffering from the tedious “matters of statecraft” line is taken almost word for word from the Kull story (11, 161), but Conan starts the story with a confidence that Kull had lacked. In “Axe,” Kull, already the king in name, comes into his full authority, an intriguing pivotal moment in a ruler’s career. Unlike Kull, Conan developed his full personal authority before he was in a position of recognized leadership, and even when other characters in the story reject his rule, it’s because of their own personal desire for power.
This isn’t a criticism of Kull’s character, but a reflection on the different, if related, themes their stories explore. The situation in “By This Axe” is, despite the presence of an Atlantean, fairly realistic, and something not often explored: a turning point in which a ruler comes into true confidence as a leader. The themes of the Kull story are still embedded in the Conan story when does someone with authority in name really take on authority as a true leader? — but are expanded upon, dealing more with the longer-term consequences of taking on the crown, and the process by which a ruler’s authority becomes fully accepted by his subjects.