Published by Subterranean Press
Robert E. Howard needs no introduction, nor do his many literary creations. In this exquisite volume from Subterranean Press; however, a great introduction to the character of Kull precedes the fantastic stories that comprise Kull: Exile of Atlantis. On the whole, the stories in this volume present a warrior who, after years of fighting for the throne, finally sites upon the throne. He’s conquered and now rules, though he is no less a man of action. Perhaps what distinguishes the Kull stories most from the Conan stories in my mind are two qualities. Kull is more given to introspective, pondering thoughts and bouncing those thoughts off of his friends. Although Howard only published three Kull stories in his lifetime, this prodigious volume contains more than ten stories, as well as untitled stories and fragments that give a more full picture of the character and Howard’s overall plan for him. The other quality is the hints of a Lovecraftian flavor in may of the stories.
The first untitled story is a nice introduction to the fictional world Kull inhabits and Kull himself. It sets the mood for him as a man of both great thought and action. The second story, The Shadow Kingdom is the first Kull story accepted for publication and is set soon after Kull assumes the throne of Valusia. The story is a foundation for Sword and Sorcery and like many of the Kull stories, has what today would be considered a Lovecraftian flavor as well. The presence of ancient races, Serpent Men and old gods is not an uncommon element in many of Howard’s stories, but the Kull stories, especially The Shadow Kingdom use this element as a more integral aspect of the story, rather than secondary flavors. Though Kull is king of Valusia, he is still a man of action – one of the trademarks of the Kull stories. Since The Shadow Kingdom is the first Kull story, it also serves to introduce Kull’s ‘sidekick,’ for lack of a better word – Brule. The story stands the test of time very well, and better than some of the Conan stories with which many readers are likely familiar.
The Mirror of Tzun Thune is an introspective tale and further differentiates Kull from his thewy-appendaged peers. This story continues to show a Lovecraftian flair and is perhaps Kull at his most introspective and self-assessing.
The Cat and the Skull brings a wily sorceress to the attention of Kull, wherein Kull acquires the services of a prophetic cat. There is a great deal of action both on land and in water (The Forbidden Lake .. ooooh) as Kull tries to save Brule thanks to the ‘warnings’ of the cat. Good action and another appreciative nod in the Lovecraftian / Cthulos direction. This story had some of the more overt fantastical elements to it, which I really enjoyed.
The Screaming Skull of Silence is a brief tale of the unstoppable force (Kull) vs. the immovable object (the Skull). The story is relatively minor, save that it shows Kull’s raw power.
The Striking of the Gong is a meditative piece of self reflection similar to The Mirror of Tzun Thune, but more metaphysical and nature. Here Kull traverses the strange paths of time and space.
The Altar of the Scorpion is a very short story where Kull is more of a supporting character and the protagonists try to remove him from the throne.
Kull again takes a backseat in The Curse of the Golden Skull. This entry tells the hatred of a man killed by Kull’s own hand.
By this Axe I Rule! was published posthumously, nearly 30 years after Howard’s death and is a strong and likely a familiar tale to Howard and Conan fans. When initially rejected, Howard respun the tale as a Conan tale. The Kull story puts our hero in a tight spot – he feels forced to keep the traditions of Valusia. In this sense he feels more a prisoner of the throne rather than King. Kull is also beset by conspirators. In the end, the story seemed to me something of a Mission Statement for Kull, though I don’t know how Howard would feel about those terms.
Swords of the Purple Kingdom bears a strong similarity to By This Axe I Rule!, but has more action, featuring some good scenes of Kull battling against the odds. Swords … is a solid story that fits well with the others in this volume.
The King and the Oak seems a bit out of place; it is a poem, which serves as a tribute in verse to Kull.
Kings of the Night features one of Howard’s other best known creations – Bran Mak Morn, a direct descendant of Kull’s sidekick Brule. This is an interesting story in that in many a sense, it parallels the Arthurian myth of the King who will return. In this case, the king is Kull and he is brought through time by Magic.
Following the main entries are what the editor has called Miscellania, collected fragments and several unfinished stories. Also included is Atlantean Genesis by Patrice Louinet (the editor of this volume), which provides a very detailed overview of Howard’s approach and origins of Kull, as well as linking him to Conan
The book itself is gorgeous, and I’m only looking at the Advance copy of the book, so I can only imagine how nice the final product will look. Noted artist Justin Sweet provides the cover, interior black and white pictures around which the text wraps and a handful of gorgeous color illustrations. His style is appropriate and captures the feel of the character and the stories very well.
All told some of the shorter stories in this volume are unfinished fragments and titled as such, which show some of the ideas Howard had in his head and also will please the Howard completists. The longer tales are solid, energetic stories of sword and sorcery fueled by Kull’s legendary power as he struggles against dark ancient magics. These longer tales provide the backbone of the volume and along with the art, form a combination of the appeal of the volume. The book will be a must have for most Howard fans.
© 2008 Rob H. Bedford