In Augusts 1929, eighty years ago this month, Weird Tales introduced its readers to King Kull, in The Shadow Kingdom, by Robert E. Howard. The Kull stories, in general, many unpublished in his life time, were not Howard’s best, but this story, I feel, belongs in the top ten of Howard's stories. This story is one of those that hit on all cylinders for me, from story, to prose, to action, and emotion.
A quick synopsis of The Shadow Kingdom: (yes there are spoilers)
The opening of the tale introduces the reader to Kull; an Atlantian barbarian has ascended the throne of Valusia, a decadent and crumbling empire, through strength of arm and steel. The Tiger of Atlantis must face foes with courtesy and guile rather than brawn and axe. There are factions within the nation that want the barbarian off the throne; others find the infusion of such blood into the ruling line as a revitalization of the Land of Dreams.
Kull is asked to attend Ka-nu, the Pictish ambassador from the Western Isles who warns the king of plots and offers him an ally in the coming battles in the form of Brule Spear-slayer. Kull, never trusting of his races’ ancient enemy is reluctant. When Brule does come to him he reveals to Kull the plot by a race of ancient serpent-men, who through dark magic can mask their form to appear as anyone they choose. The serpent-men wish to assassinate Kull as they have done to strong Valusian kings of the past, replacing them with doppelgangers. Brule reveals to Kull the phrase: ka nama kaa lajerama, the meaning of the words are lost, but their effect was not, no serpent-man can utter them, because their mouth and jaw cannot form the shape of the sounds. A defense for mankind in his ape-like days when he did battle the beast races of the young world.
The pair battle serpent-men guised as advisors, members of the court, and Kull himself. Finally, the pair is triumphant with Kull swearing a war of extermination on the serpent-race.
On the surface The Shadow Kingdom appears to be a string of brawls that would do Howard’s other barbarian Conan proud. It is, but so much more.
The story is a perfect blend of plot, conflict, and introspection. The tale runs 15,000 words or so, and in it Howard blends layers of conflict and world building. He creates images of a world before Atlantis rises to her cataclysmic height, even further back; establishing the serpent race to be as old as the age of dinosaurs. This he does with poetic prose without loosing the thread of the main tale.
The two barbarians, as Howard said: Like rival leopards turning at bay against hunters, these two savages made common cause against the inhuman powers of antiquity. Brule and Kull’s races were mortal enemies, and Bruel proclaimed no love for the king, but it was a matter of alliances and the bidding of Ka-nu to consider. For his part Kull did not trust the Pict, even going so far as keeping his blade pointed at Brule’s back so that he would at least die before Kull if he turned treacherous. There is no petty bickering or name calling to show such distrust or some proclamation of trust that comes later, but rather actions like that note above and when: ….but Kull heard Brule’s breath hiss through teeth and was reassured as to Brule’s loyalty... and when Brule is described as the power beside not behind the throne; again woven through out the tale effortlessly.
A final, deeper layer is Kull’s self-doubt. Kull is troubled as any king, but more so because there is an underlying sense that he doubts his ability to rule a civilized nation, this is a theme that prevails throughout the Kull tales, he is introspective and probing, even at his own failings, these things make him vulnerable, both as a character, making him more real, and as a device to challenge the hero. In the final act he sees a double of himself on the throne and wonders who the true Kull is, momentarily questioning his sanity; but like a true pulp hero he ignores these doubts that threaten to make him inactive, to strike at the usurper.
For me, the above elements strike the core of what makes great pulp fantasy known as sword and sorcery. The ancient, evil sub-human race bent on subverting humanity; warriors that face the evil unflinching, and eventually defeating magic with steel and courage; with world building done subtly so you are reading good fiction and not a dull, detail laden travel log to a mythic place.
The only thing missing, and it is not truly missing is the female element. So much of the sword and sorcery includes the damsel in a dress, rather a flimsy negligee or chain-mail bikini. This tale does not require it, nor is it shoe-horned in by some manner. Dark Horse comics recently did an adaption that did include the feminine element. (Which I will review at a later date.) Howard would learn and use the value of the damsel in a dress in story sales, but this story shows a purer writing for Howard, one though driven to sell, not driven by sales. The Shadow Kingdom is essential Robert E. Howard, exemplifying the elements that made Howard’s style his own. It glorifies the noble barbarian over the decadent civilization, the ability of men to face horror and evil to win out through strength and determination, all with bold prose and red action