Monday, August 8, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Thunder in the Dawn

Assuming the name "Henry Kuttner" occasions any recognition whatsoever, it's likely in relation to his wife, C.L. Moore, who created such memorable pulp fantasy characters as Jirel of Joiry and Northwest Smith. Of course, it's also possible one might recognize Kuttner's name from his stories inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, though these are not as well known, let alone read, as the Mythos tales of some of his contemporaries. It's far less likely that one knows Kuttner for his sword-and-sorcery tales set in a pre-sunken Atlantis, four of which appeared in Weird Tales between 1938 and 1940.

The first of these stories is a novella called "Thunder in the Dawn," which was long enough to split into two parts and published in the May and June 1938 issues. This story introduces us to the swordsman Elak and his sidekick Lycon. Not long after he appears in a tavern in the seaside city of Poseidonia, an assassin sets upon Elak, using both magic and blade in his task. Elak escapes death because of the unexpected arrival of yet another man, a druid by the name of Dalan, whose own command of fire magic defeats the assassin. Together, they interrogate the would-be killer and learn that he was sent by a warlock (unimaginatively) named Elf.

Lycon, like the reader, is left confused by this turn of events. Why does Elf wish to slay Elak?
Elak shook his head. "Tell him, Dalan."

"Cyrena? The northernmost kingdom of Atlantis?" Lycon asked. "I know Orander rules it, but that's all."

"A dozen years ago Norian ruled Cyrena," the Druid said. "He had two stepsons, Orander and Zeulas. Zeulas killed him."

Elak moved uneasily.

"Zeulas killed him," Dalan repeated, "in a fair fight, and both men had provocation. Because of this Zeulas, though he was the elder, did not assume the crown. He left Cyrena to wander, a homeless vagabond, through Atlantis."

Lycon turned to stare at Elak. "By Ishtar! You don't mean--"

"He is Zeulas," the Druid said. "His brother, Orander, rules in Cyrena. Or -- did rule."
With Elak's true identity revealed, the trio set off on a quest to save Orander and defeat the warlock Elf. Along the way, they are joined by Lady Velia, Elak's one-time lover whom they free from her abusive husband. There are giant spiders, humanoid monsters, elementals, and more. The result is something that feels remarkably like a D&D adventure. There are even frequent references to the Nine Hells and the fiendish entities that dwell there.

"Thunder in the Dawn" is a quick, fun read, but, beyond escapism, it lacks much in the way of lasting value. Compared to, say, many of Howard's Conan yarns, it's amazingly shallow and "fluffy." Indeed, there are times when it feels like an attempt at a pastiche of Howard, with its evocation of a pseudo-historical past age and its appropriation of names of real-world places and cultures (the Vikings and the Picts) to lend verisimilitude to its narrative. Kuttner isn't much of a stylist either; his descriptions are often cursory and his plotting simple. However, his dialog can be quite effective, especially in its use of humor and irony. He's no Clark Ashton Smith or Jack Vance, but I think he is superior to Howard in this regard. It's largely for this reason that I found myself enjoying "Thunder in the Dawn" despite its many inadequacies. There were even times when I was reminded of Fritz Leiber in the interactions between Elak and Lycon -- and that's never a bad thing.

6 comments:

  1. I bought the Planet Stories collection of Elak of Atlantis a few years back, but despite the praise from Karl Edward Wagner and Joe Lansdale I could never really get into the stories. I tried starting with _Thunder in the Dawn_ but it just felt flat.

    But to be fair to Kuttner, his two Prince Raynor stories are pretty good - perhaps because they were a bit more grim in their execution. Wagner called them something of a precursor, in their attitude and atmosphere, to Moorcock's Elric stories.

    Lin Carter supposedly said that Kuttner was a better writer of sword & sorcery than Howard himself. For such an astute editor, this is an amazing lapse of critical judgement.

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  2. I have 3 Kuttner books:

    "The Dark World" - Ace Books, 1946, features a quote from Marion Zimmer Bradley on the cover: "I consider the work of Henry Kuttner to be the finest science fantasy ever written."

    "The Best of Henry Kuttner" - Nelson/Doubleday, 1975, with an introduction by Ray Bradbury entitle: "Henry Kuttner, A Neglected Master". The dust jacket identifies it as a "Book Club Edition"

    "The Startling Worlds of Henry Kuttner" - Popular Library/Warner Books, features the same quote as the eariler book.

    I am sometimes reminded of Stanislaw Lem (The Cyberiad, Tales of Pirx the Pilot).

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  3. 'Assuming the name "Henry Kuttner" occasions any recognition whatsoever, it's likely in relation to his wife, ...'

    I disagree. C. L. Moore was a great writer, but so was Kuttner. I used to ransack the library's collection of Kuttner stories. I also used to notice that Kuttner's story details tended to get ripped off in later sci-fi stories.

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  4. Another Seabury Quinn story takes the cover illo on Weird Tales. Dude was awesome! And is still much under appreciated.

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  5. I think the Elak stories are fun, and I agree that Kuttner seemed to have stumbled on a certain formula that Leiber would later perfect with this F&GM stories, but certainly not among his most distinguished work.

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  6. I reads this in a 1960's (early 70's?) collection whose name I now forget. Fantastic Swordsmen, maybe. Definitely inferior S&S. Yet, perhaps exactly because of that, it also reminded me of a D&D game. Kuttner writing was pedestrian tot say the least, although I thought Lycon had some potential as a character and might have served as an inspiration for Moonglum.

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