Sunday, September 19, 2010

Kuttner's Thunder in the Dawn: A Review

"Thunder in the Dawn"
from Elak of Atlantis
Henry Kuttner
Planet Stories - Paizo Publishing
Trade Paperback, $12.95, 2007

Following Robert E. Howard's death in 1936, a number of other writers tried to follow in his footsteps by creating heroic fantasy characters for Weird Tales.  One of these writers was the young Henry Kuttner.  Kuttner created two sword and sorcery series.  The first was Elak of Atlantis, who had four adventures published between 1938 and 1941.  The second was Prince Raynor, published in Strange Stories in 1939, and the subject of a later post on this blog.  All the stories of these two characters are included in this volume from Planet Stories, an imprint of Paizo Publishing.

"Thunder in the Dawn" is the longest of the Elak tales.  The story opens with three men eyeing each other in a tavern in the city of Poseidonis on the southeast coast of the continent of Atlantis.  A fight ensues between Lycon and an unnamed stranger.  Lycon, a habitual drunk who has been waiting on Elak to show up for an appointment, holds his own at first.  When the bartender tries to intervene on behalf of the stranger, Elak shows up just in time to save him.  The stranger calls Elak by name, tells him to wait, then reaches into his tunic and throws a winged snake.  The third stranger gets involved at this point, Dalan, a druid, who saves Elak's life.  He tells Elak, who we learn is really Prince Zeulas, that his home kingdom of Cyrena has been overrun by Vikings and his brother Orander taken captive by the evil wizard named Elf. 

Throughout the story Kuttner uses a lot of names from history, apparently to lend a sense of verisimilitude to the story.  Unfortunately for me, it mostly shatters the suspension of disbelief.  I'll discuss this more later.

Since Elak has kept his past life secret from Lycon, Dalan informs Lycon that Elak had to leave Cyrena after he killed his stepfather in a fight.  Orander became king, and one of the things he did was to forbid Elf from practicing his black arts and human sacrifice.  Elf has sought revenge by forming a treaty with the Vikings to overrun Cyrenia, to be followed by the rest of the Atlantean kingdoms.  He has imprisoned Orander and begun to prepare for the next phase of his plans.  The only people standing in his way are Dalan and Elak.

Elak and Lycon agree to help Dalan rescue Orander, defeat Elf, and free Cyrena.  Dalan wants to leave immediately, but first Elak wants to say goodbye to Velia, the young wife of Duke Granicor, with whom he has been having an affair.  Of course, the Duke is waiting for Elak.  After a brief scuffle, Elak flees with Velia.  She isn't taken as a hostage, but instead insists on going along of her own free will.  Her father had sold her to the Duke, and Velia hates him. 

The geography of Atlantis comes into play in the next part of the story.  A river from a central lake flows to an inland sea and then to the northern ocean, passing through Cyrena.  Dalan has a boat ready, but as they make their way north, Elf uses magic to slow them down and allow Duke Granicor to catch up with them.  Elak is washed overboard in the ensuing battle, and when he awakens, he discovers he is the prisoner of the Pikts, who inhabit an island in the inland sea.  Dalan locates Elak through his crystal ball.  While Dalan, Lycon, and Velia organize the oarsmen for a rescue, Elak has his hands full.  Managing to free himself from his bonds, Elak has to jump into a pool to escape a shadow being worshipped by the Pikts.  What he discovers is a doorway into a shadow dimension.  While there he meets a fawn-like creature named Solonala, who is part deer, part human, and with feline facial features.  She is from a third dimension and was exiled to the shadow world by Elf when he conquered her kingdom.  Pursued by the shadow creature, who is a pawn of Elf, Elak manages to escape with the magical help of Dalan and the physical help of Solonala, but not before she sacrifices herself so he can continue the fight against Elf.

The journey continues with more action and fights, on large and small scales, including a return of Duke Granicor.  The final defeat of Elf takes place in still yet another dimension.  Throughout the story is the action is swift, and the pace relentless. 

Kuttner was trying to branch out at this point in his career.  Up until this time he had mostly written in the vein of Lovecraft for Weird Tales as well as a number of tales for the weird menace and spicy pulps.  (Collected in the forthcoming Terror in the House from Haffner Press.)  It would be easy to dismiss this story as a cheap imitation of Howard.  But further consideration is warranted.  Kuttner was a versatile writer, at least as versatile as Howard.  Whereas Howard wrote fantasy and horror, boxing stories, humorous and serious westerns, and historical adventure, Kuttner expanded his skills in different directions.  Mystery, humorous fantasy, and humorous as well as serious science fiction would be what Kuttner would eventually be known for. 

Also, Howard's most famous fantasy characters were created after he was well established in his career.  Howard sold his first story, "Spear and Fang", to Weird Tales in 1924.  Solomon Kane and Kull were created in 1927, Bran Mak Morn at about the same time, and Conan's first adventure was penned in 1932.  Time from acceptance to publication in those days was on the order of a year.  So if Kuttner' first story was published in 1936, then he had probably been writing professionally (defined as selling on a regular basis) for about two years when he wrote "Thunder in the Dawn".  While both men never stopped learning their craft, Kuttner was not as far along when this story was written has Howard was when he introduced his more famous heroes, especially Conan.  That Kuttner eventually became one of the best writers of his day is evidenced by the stories that would eventually make his reputation, "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," "The Twonky," "A Gnome There Was," and Fury, just to name a few.  The first was these was still half a decade in the future when "Thunder in the Dawn" saw print. 

Does the first of the Elak stories have flaws?  Certainly.  The anachronistic use of historical names, like I said earlier, jarred me out to the story a number of times.  Howard certainly used historical names in his fiction, but most of the time he altered the names slightly, such as changing India to Vendya, to give a familiar yet exotic flavor to his work.  The prose is a bit purple in places and lacks the power of Howard's best work.  But to compare Kuttner's apprentice work to Howard's best seems, to me at least, a bit unfair.  Kuttner was learning.  A reading of his work in chronological order showed he wasn't afraid to take chances and grow any more than Howard was.  Kuttner grew to be one of the most highly regard writers of his day and a master of his field.  It's just that whereas Howard is best remembered for his sword and sorcery, Kuttner made his mark on science fiction.

A final note on the role of women in the story.  Sword and sorcery and similar heroic fiction are often accused by their detractors of using women as little more than sex objects or objects to be rescued by the hero.  While neither Velia nor Solonala are fleshed out to any great depth, they are far from being fragile flowers or screaming women.  Both take active, martial roles in the story.  Kuttner develops their characters about as much as he does any of the male characters.  Elak is only successful in his attempt to defeat Elf because of the assistance the ladies give him at various points in the story, up to and including saving his life.  Howard also wrote his share of strong women.  If Elak was an imitation of Conan, well, this is one area where the imitation should be applauded.

So, while Elak isn't Conan, and Kuttner wasn't writing at the level of Howard at this point in his career, the story is still worth reading.  It moves well, has good action scenes, and the descriptions of the other dimensions are truly eerie in places.  Even if it isn't a major work, "Thunder in the Dawn" is an important story in development of modern sword and sorcery as well as the growth of one of the most versatile writers of fantastic fiction in the mid-twentieth century.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time all the Elak stories have been included in one volume, although they've all been reprinted at least once in various anthologies.  In the next installment, I'll look at the second in the series. 

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