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'Down the Grim and Bloody Eons'
The Shadow Kingdom by Robert E. Howard
© 2013 James LaFond
From Kull: Exile of Atlantis, edited by Justin Sweet, pages 13-51
2006, Ballantine Books, NY
Howard was a master at novelette-length adventure. His Kull character has generally been written off as a Conan prototype. He is that, but represents something deeper: Howard’s concern with the manipulation of human affairs by unseen rulers who worked behind the scenes. Kull is not quite the adventurer that Conan is, and even gets physically ill considering certain diabolical mysteries. Kull’s decadent civilization of Valusia, to whom he is a barbarian outsider, is easily a metaphor for the D.C./New York power axis in America at the time of the Stock Market Crash. Kull’s barbarian perspective is analogous to Howard’s Texan attitude.
Kull’s Valusia is more decadent and sensual than Conan’s Hypoborea, possibly because the later was conceived in the depths of the Great Depression, while the former was conceived as the Roaring Twenties went up in flames during the Wall Street Crash. The cast of characters is small and well developed for an adventure yarn. The illustrations in this volume are profuse and highly atmospheric. The action is not as graphic or biomechanical as that of modern writers that have followed Howard in the genre he pioneered. Rather it is more poetic, a lyrical sort of mayhem.
This story itself is a more cerebral prototype of the first Conan story ‘The Phoenix On The Sword’, about betrayal and palace intrigue. Female characters are just for decoration. The characters include a likeable old tribal statesman and a ruthless and reluctant side-kick, Brule, a Pict. In Howard’s mythos the Picts and Kull’s Atlantean people are blood enemies. In this tale Kull and Brule put aside their mutual hereditary hatreds to battle the enemy of all mankind. I have a sense, that when Howard wrote of the serpent-priests who ruled the world of men from behind the throne, he was envisioning some banker whispering in Herbert Hoover’s ear.
Howard’s atmospherics are second to none, and shine darkly in this story. He alludes through the dreamy hyper-violent Kull’s statements and thoughts to the unseen masters of mankind in statements which include the following fragments:
‘through the dim corridors of memory’
‘a man against a nation’
‘against the inhuman powers of antiquity’
‘whispering monstrous things’
‘the hand of death at his spine’
‘the soul mind that never dies’ [alluding to Howard’s belief in genetic memory according to race-based reincarnation]
‘man, jest of the gods, the blind wisdomless striver from dust to dust, blundering like a great murderous child’ [Does that not sound like our current American King’s bi-line?]
Although Kull was a bloody-handed usurper, he is cast as the good guy against the slithering serpent-priests who have silently usurped the nations of men since the beginning of time. Howard was more than a yarn-spinner.
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