Monday, January 22, 2007

By Robert E. Howard

Finally Kull has joined Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, and Conan in the REH Library of Classics originally envisioned by Marcello Anciano of Wandering Star Books. REH fans get the same careful treatment of the original works as in previous volumes. The original texts of Howard’s stories (allowing for basic copyediting) presented in the order they were written.

To see them thus is to understand just how different REH’s characters were in conception and execution. Kull is a barbarian who has won the throne of a civilized country, but that’s pretty much the limit of his similarity to Conan. Where the Cimmerian is a headlong, swashbuckling adventurer, Kull is an introspective man tempered by experience but deeply at odds with his restrictive role as king.

The Kull stories also differ in that REH was at a different stage as a writer and attempting different things. Kull’s world is one of mythic qualities where Stone Age tribesmen rub shoulders with silken aristocrats and beings from the mythic past. There is a strong aura of myth and legend surrounding events, unlike the hard-edged and sharply defined settings of the Conan tales. The stories are often simpler, with less of the multi-sided plotting of the Conan tales. Kull is not always the driving force, he is sometimes at the edges of events. Indeed some of the short-short stories allow him less than a cameo. Kull is only mentioned in “The Altar and the Scorpion” and “Curse of the Golden Skull”. The Picts, in the form of supporting characters Brule the Spear-slayer and Ka-nu, play a prominent role.

The classic Kull tales are all present. We get “The Shadow Kingdom”, a story of intrigue and plotting by dark forces from the distant past against King Kull. “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” (one of the best) is the ultimate in Kullish philosophizing, where REH pits his fierce engagement in real life against his need to withdraw and make sense of it all. “The Cat and the Skull”, “The Purple Kingdom”, and “By This Axe I Rule!” mix intrigue, dark sorcery, the clash between duty and individualism (a recurrent theme for Howard). “By This Axe I Rule!” was of course later re-written as “The Phoenix on the Sword”, the very first Conan tale.

Perhaps my favorite of the bunch is “Kings of the Night”, the great cross-over tale where Kull meets Bran Mak Morn. It is a marvelous Howardian tale of war between the Romans and the Picts. Treacherous Vikings, Gaelic mercenaries, and the greatest king of Pre-history round out the cast.

There are plenty of illustrations by Justin Sweet. They have a dark, brooding quality that complements the settings. There is a very interesting introduction by literary critic Steve Tompkins and an excellent historical account of the Kull tales by REH scholar Patrice Louinet.

For REH fans this is a must have. For folks who want to see the origins of Sword and Sorcery and get something that isn’t a re-tread of Conan or Tolkein it’s a worthy addition to your library.
-Dave Hardy

No comments: