Saturday, March 12, 2011

Blogging Kull: Delcardes' Cat/The Cat and the Skull

Spoiler Alert:  This is not one of Howard's best stories.  The plot is fairly straightforward, if unbelievable.   Kull goes with Tu, his chancellor, to see the talking cat of Delcardes.  The cat is reputed to be thousands of years old.  During the conversation, Delcardes asks Kull for permission to marry a nobleman from a neighboring kingdom.  This sends Tu into paroxysms of fury because Delcardes is of the nobility, and it is against custom for nobility to marry foreigners.  Howard seems to have developed a fondness for this plot device since he used it in the unfinished draft that precedes this tale in the Del Rey edition.

The cat, whose name is Saremes, tells Kull where he left a left (in his scabbard) and that a courtier is coming to tell Kull that a surplus has been found in the royal  treasury.  Tu insists that this is trickery.  Kull is a little more gullible, and in the end Saremes accompanies Kull back to his palace.  Attending Saremes at all times is the slave Kuthulos, who wears a veil covering his face and neck at all times.  Saremes and Kull often sit up all night talking philosophy, but Saremes refuses to tell Kull much about the future.  Personally I found her reasoning a little thin and had trouble believing someone like Kull could  have been taken in by them.  Howard even says that Kull has his doubts, yet he goes along with everything the cat says.  Except the continued proddings of Saremes to try to convince Kull to let Delcardes' marry a foreigner.

Then one day, Saremes tells Kull that his Pictish friend Brule has been captured by a monster while swimming in the Forbidden Lake.  Kull immediately takes off to rescue Brule.  After battling several monsters, in what are better than average action scenes, Kull is captured by a giant snake and taken deep under the lake into a cave in which the surviving members of the lake men are living.  They don't exactly buy Kull's explanation for why he's there.  The situation is about to degenerate into a bloodbath when Kull learns that Brule was never in the lake at all.  After pledging to leave the lake men in peace, Kull returns to the surface.

When he gets back to the palace, he finds the place in an uproar.  Seems the king has wandered off somewhere without telling anyone where he was going.  In the ensuing chaos, Kull hears a beating sound and discovers that Kuthulos has been tied up in a secret passage.  The man masquerading as Kuthulos is none other than the evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom who swears to destroy Kull before he escapes.  It seems Thulsa Doom is a servant of the serpent people.  Yeah, those serpent people. Anyway, it turns out that Saremes can't speak at all, but Kuthulos can literally throw his voice.  He was the one telling Kull to allow Delcardes to marry her foreign lover and all the signs given in the opening scene were tricks.  Only after Thulsa Doom took Kuthulos' place was Kull told to go to the Forbidden Lake.  Kull graciously pardons Delcardes for her scheming and allows her to marry whomever she wishes.

When published in the Lancer edition, this story was entitled "Delcardes' Cat", which is the name of the draft.  There aren't many differences between the draft and the finished story.  The chancellor Tu is called Ku for the first page or so in the draft, then his name changes.  The only other significant change is the late addition of Thulsa Doom.  Howard added him as an afterthought in the first draft. 

Several things struck me about this story.  First, that the physical description of Thulsa Doom was a whole lot like that given for Skull-Face in the story of the same name. In fact even the name of the slave is similar.  Skull-Face was called Kathulos.  Patrice Louinet reports in "Atlatnean Genesis" (Kull, Del Rey, p. 298, 2006) that this was the original name in the first draft and was later modified for the final story.  It is useful to keep in mind that this story was written at about the same time that Howard was working on "Skull-Face".

Another thing that struck me was that this is the second story in which a woman has deceived Kull and he's blown it off and pardoned her.  The first was "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune."  That's not something Conan would have stood for.  Not even once.  While he might not have killed the girl, you can be sure Conan wouldn't have been so forgiving. 

In spite of its flaws, this story definitely shows Howard at his most poetic.  Consider the following quotes (page nubmers are from the Del Rey edition):

"Twilight was stealing down from the mountains of Zalgara when Kull halted his horse on the shores of the lake that lay amid a great lonely forest.  There was nothing forbidding in its appearance, for its waters spread blue and placid from beach to wide white beach and the tiny islands rising above its bosom seemed like gems of emerald and jade.  A faint shimmering mist rose from it, enhancing the air of lazy unreality which lay about the regions of the lake."  p. 97

"At first the king thought it to be a huge octopus for the body was that of an octopus, with long waving tentacles, but as it charged upon him he saw it had legs like a man and a hideous semi-human face leered at him from among the writhing snaky arms of the monster."  p. 98

"" 'You come like the herald of all your race,' said this lake-man suddenly, 'bloody and bearing a red sword.' " p. 104

While not a major work, and certainly not the best plotting Howard ever did, this one is still worth reading, if only for the passages like those quoted above.  "The Cat and the Skull"  shows Howard beginning to master his form and hints at greater writing to come.

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