When the August 1929 edition of Weird Tales magazine appeared, it contained a story titled “The Shadow Kingdom” by Robert E. Howard, which introduced his character Kull, a barbarian adventurer from Atlantis who had risen to the kingship of an ancient kingdom Howard called Valusia. Kull was a precursor to Howard’s more famous later character, Conan, who of course later became well known through comic and movie adaptations, but the Kull character had some distinct differences from the later, lustier, rowdier Conan. For one thing, Kull was much moodier and given to introspective musing and philosophical inquiry into the nature of reality and his own existence. Only three stories in the Kull series were published during Howard’s lifetime (he died by his own hand in 1936), but Howard wrote or started at least nine other Kull stories and a poem about the brooding warrior king before aborting the series for other characters. All of the stories are collected in this volume published by Del Rey Books in 2006 and subsequently reprinted by Subterranean Press and The Science Fiction Book Club, as well as published in audio book format by Tantor Media, Inc. in 2010.
Any fan of the sword and sorcery sub-genre of fantasy in general, and of Howard in particular, will want to check this collection out. It collects all of the Kull stories, along with some other brief stories and fragments that show how Howard’s conception of the Atlantis legend differed markedly from the writing of other fantasy authors who set stories in the fabled lost continent. Howard’s idea was that Atlantis was a home to hostile and xenophobic barbarian tribes, rather than to an advanced civilization as implied by Plato and later the Theosophists. The young Kull is exiled from his homeland after thwarting his particular tribe’s attempt to burn a young woman at the stake for marrying outside of the tribe, an example of the extreme antipathy Howard’s Atlanteans hold towards outsiders. However, the major point of interest for this collection is that it contains a couple of stories that are considered seminal works in the development of American fantasy writing, particularly the initial story previously mentioned.
“The Shadow Kingdom” introduces Kull as newly crowned king of the ancient and proud land of Valusia, considered the foremost power in this antediluvian world setting. Kull is an uneasy king, however, as he has taken the throne by force via revolution, and he mistrusts many of his court and subjects. When approached by the ambassador of the Picts, an island nation hostile to his former home Atlantis, he is at first wary, but later comes to trust the Pictish ambassador Kanu, an elderly but still spry and wise in the ways of the world sage, along with a Pictish war chief/warrior attached to the Pictish embassy known as Brule the Spear Slayer. The story revolves around an evil ancient race of “Serpent Men” who can take the form and semblance of anyone, and as such, it’s a masterpiece of paranoia that predates such later classics of the trope as the 1938 story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. and the 1951 novel The Puppet Masters written by Robert A. Heinlein. The story is also considered the first real “sword and sorcery” story by some scholars and fans. All of which is to say, definitely check this one out if only to see what the original fuss was about.
Another story in the collection of interest to fantasy readers is “By This Axe Rule!”, which is a pretty straightforward adventure story in which a cabal of plotters spring a plot to assassinate Kull, for various reasons of their own. Some, such as the poet Ridondo, see Kull as a reactionary tyrant and wish to return to the “good old days,” forgetting that the previous king was in truth more of a despot than Kull ever thought of being, while others seek power for themselves. The major interest in this story is that Howard later re-wrote parts of it, adding in supernatural elements and removing a romantic subplot between two minor characters, and called the new version “The Phoenix on the Sword” and introduced the more popular character Conan in the newer version in the December, 1932 issue of Weird Tales.
The Kull stories set a very different tone from Howard’s later stories, and show a moody, almost dreamlike quality in most of the their plots and the main character’s action. As I’ve mentioned before, Howard wrote in the 1920’s and 1930’s, the heyday of the pulp magazine era, and not all modern fantasy fans will enjoy his writing. But he is a superb storyteller, and I think most modern fans cheat themselves if they don’t sample his oeuvre of fantasy and adventure. In the case of this volume, I’d particularly suggest that fans of George R. R. Martin’s A GAME OF THRONES series may find this collection of interest. While Kull’s world is not as fully developed as Martin’s, there are some similarities, especially in terms of court intrigue and political machinations. I rate Kull: Exile of Atlantis five stars, since it’s an old personal favorite (I first read many of these stories in 1967 at the magical fantasy age of twelve, so it’s admittedly partly nostalgia on my part here) but also because some of the stories are so important in the history of the genre, as well as for the quality of the best stories in the book. Besides the two aforementioned stories my other favorites include “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune,” a tale of alternate realities; “The Cat and the Skull,” which features a cat that is practically immortal as a character, and “Kings of the Night” a story where Kull travels forward in time with the help of a Pictish shaman to Roman Britain to aid some enemies of Rome.
The artwork by Justin Sweet captures the pulp magazine style and feel of the original published stories, and the essays by Steve Tompkins and Patrice Louinet are excellent at explaining the context and background of the stories.