Thursday, April 7, 2011

Blogging Kull: The Screaming Skull of Silence

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard
Del Rey
trade paperback, $17.00, 317 p.

This is the first of four extremely short stories in the annals of Kull, or at least first in the order of arrangement in this volume.  This one is different from any of the Kull stories that have come before it. It was submitted to Weird Tales, but Farnsworth Wright obviously didn't care for it since it wasn't published until 1967 in the Lancer Books volume King Kull.

The tale opens with Kull listening to Brule, his chancellor Tu, Ka-nu the Pictish ambassador, and the slave and scholar Kathulos discussing philosophy (nothing new there).  Kathulos is saying that what we perceive as reality is an illusion.  To make his point, he gives an example of sound and silence, saying that sound is the absence of silence, while silence is the absence of sound.  Kathulos mentions that Raama, the greatest sorcerer who ever lived, thousands of years ago locked a primordial silence in a castle in order to save the universe.

When Brule mentions the castle is in Valusia and he's seen it, the comment gets Kull's attention.  He decides he wants to see the place.  Although the other try to dissuade him, he takes them and a hundred of the elite Red Slayers with him.  They find the castle on a hill after days of riding around looking for it.  How the kingdom continues to run or why Brule doesn't remember the location of the castle is never explained.

As they approach the castle, Kull can sense waves of silence emanating from it.  The only door is sealed.  Next to the door is a gong, green in color and varying in its depths, sometimes seeming to be quite deep and at other times appearing shallow.  Despite the warnings carved on the castle, Kull breaks the bonds.

What rushes out is a palpable silence that knocks all but Kull to the ground.  The men are all screaming, but no sound proceeds from their mouths.  Sensing the silence wants to destroy all life, Kull tries to resist the silence but eventually staggers and falls.  As he does so, he strikes the gong.  Although he can't hear it ring, Kull senses the silence draw back.  He takes the gong from its stand and begins to ring it, forcing the silence into the castle and eventually destroying it.  This is a pretty good trick since not even Raama was unable to destroy this silence.  The silence screams as it dies.

And that's all there is to this one.  It has some unique points.  For starters, Kull finds his usual weapons, in this case his sword, useless against a malevolent silence.  He is forced to use his brains rather than his brawn.  For Kull that's not too much of a stretch since he uses his brain on a regular basis.  It was nice to read that something other than a blade is needed every once in a while.

There's nothing remarkable about the prose, at least by Howard's standards.  It's good, serviceable, and pulls the reader in.  It's just not his best.  Even so, it's still better than most of his imitators have done when they were hitting on all cylinders.

The appearance of Kathulos provided the right amount of philosophy needed as a framework to get the action moving.  Howard was reading a lot of philosophy during this period, as evidenced by his correspondence that has come down to us.  I may slow down this series of posts in order to research some of the philosophers who were influencing his work.  Or I might devote an entire post just to that.  We'll see.  Time constraints will determine that.

This is the second and last story in which Kathulos will appear.  The sorcerer who manipulated him, Thulsa Doom, never appears again in the Kull stories, at least in none of the ones written by Howard.  (I'm not going to consider the comics here.)  For the Lancer Books edition of King Kull, Lin Carter "finished" an untitled draft, eliminated all references to Karon the Ferryman (!), had Felgar be Thulsa Doom in disguise, and called it "Riders Beyond the Sunrise".  But the more we discuss Carter's violations of Howard's works, the more we legitimize them, so that's the last we'll  talk about Carter in this post.

Like I stated, this is one of the shortest of the Kull stories.  In some ways it's one of the more interesting ones because of the nature of the villain Kull has to defeat.  It certainly adds variety to the series. 

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