Monday, May 2, 2011

Blogging Kull: The Altar and the Scorpion

Kull:  Exile of Atlantis
Del Rey
trade paper, 317 p., $17

This is another of the brief tale, although unlike the previous one, "The Striking of the Gong," Kull isn't featured in this one but merely mentioned. This is a minor story in the Kull canon, and upon close examination it's easy to see why. 

Howard opens the story with an unnamed youth bowing before an altar of a scorpion and imploring the scorpion to save him and the girl he loves, also never given a name, from the evil priest Guron.  Guron isn't a priest of the Scorpion God but rather the  Black Shadow.  Guron and his priests are sacking the city, something else that doesn't have a name.  Guron plans to sacrifice the pair on an altar to the Black Shadow.  From what Howard tells us, the cult of the Black Shadow practices human sacrifice. 

The city is somewhere within the kingdom of Valusia.  Kull is leading his army to rescue the city, but he won't be able to arrive in time to rescue the youth and his lover.  The young man is imploring the Scorpion God on the basis of a promise the deity made generations ago when the young man's ancestor Gonra died defeating a horde of barbarians intent on plundering the temple of the scorpion.  As a reward for his faithfulness, the Scorpion God promised through his priests that he would aid all of Gonra's descendants. 

As the young man finishes his prayer, his lover bursts into the room, pursued by Guron.  Guron is a giant of a man, tall and strong.  He is able to bind both the young man and the girl single handedly, in spite of their struggles.  He also gloats that even if he is defeated by Kull, he will have his revenge on the line of Gonra.  He also mocks the Scorpion God as a deity almost no one worships any more.

As he is about to carry the pair off, Guron screams, drops his captives, and falls to the floor.  Dead.  The girl says a scorpion "crawled across my bare bosom, without harming me, and when Guron seized me, it stung him!"  The young man tells her a scorpion hasn't been seen in the city in generations, so this must be the Scorpion God's deliverance.

The two crawl to the altar, still bound, and worship the Scorpion God.

Two things stuck out to me when I read this story, and I suspect it has to do with having spent a number of my growing up years less than an hour from Cross Plains.

The first is the prayer the youth prays to the Scorpion God.  It's long and bombastic, and basically reminds the deity of his obligations and points out to him how dire the present circumstances are.  Most people would simply dismiss this as a form of infodump.  I think there's a little more to it than that. 

While he wasn't what you would call a regular church-goer in his adult years, Bob Howard was certainly familiar with what went on inside the walls of at least some of the local houses of worship.  His mother was a regular attender of services until her health began to prevent her from going.  His father also attended, at least sporadically.  One of his parents was a Methodist and the other a Baptist.  I want to say his mother was the Methodist, but I don't recall for certain.  I've got that information written down somewhere, but I'm not sure where.  And it really doesn't matter.

My point is the prayer here is similar to a number of prayers that Bob would have heard growing up.  I've certainly heard enough like it over the years, although never to a scorpion.  I suspect Howard was imitating the style of prayer with which he was most familiar. 
Scorpion common to the Cross Plains area

The other thing is that scorpions are a common hazard in that part of Texas, so they would be something Howard would not only be familiar with, but probably had a healthy respect for.  The tales of people shaking out their boots before putting them on have a lot of truth to them.  And I know from first hand experience that scorpions can crawl on you and never sting.  So Howard having the scorpion crawl across the girl's breasts without it stinging her is completely believable and quite probably based on Howard's personal experiences.

That having been said, it's easy to see the influence of his small town Texas environs on Robert E. Howard when he was composing this story.  It's not one of the best Kull tales.  The fact that the two main characters are never given names, nor is the city in which the story is set named, is rather unusual for Howard.  He typically gives names to most of the characters, major or minor, in his works.  Still, if you know where to look, you can see Howard incorporating the familiar and transforming it into something strange and exotic.

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