Monday, February 15, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Cursed be the City

Nowadays, Henry Kuttner is not very well known. His wife, C(atherine) L(ucille) Moore, is much more celebrated, despite the fact that she and Kuttner regularly collaborated on fiction during the 1940s and '50s. A likely reason for this is that Kuttner, like many pulp writers, had more than a dozen known pseudonyms under which his stories appeared. For example, many of his most famous tales appear under the name of Lewis Padgett, a pen name he and Moore used jointly. Consequently, a lot of Kuttner's work gets lost in the shuffle, aside from his contributions to the Cthulhu Mythos (which, I believe, Chaosium once collected into a single volume during the 1990s). 

That's too bad, because Kuttner produced a number of interesting pulp fantasy stories that are worthy of one's attention. I'm not talking his "Elak of Atlantis" yarns, one of which formed the basis for a previous entry in this series. Though fun (and funny), I remain unsure whether or not they were intended to be read as anything other than parodies of the nascent genre of sword and sorcery. On the other hand, his two tales of Prince Raynor are more serious efforts in the vein of Robert E. Howard, as we shall see. Both appeared in the pages of Strange Stories, a would-be competitor to Weird Tales that lasted only thirteen issues before folding. During its short run, it nevertheless managed to attract the talents of many notable pulp writers, such as Kuttner, Moore, August Derleth, Robert Bloch, and Seabury Quinn, among others. Its editor was Mort Weisinger, who would later achieve fame for his work at DC Comics during its Golden and Silver Ages.

"Cursed be the City" appeared in the April 1939 issue of the magazine and begins in what would seem to be an imitation of Howard's quotation from the inaugural Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword." Kuttner's version, from "the tale of Sakhmet the Damned," reads thus:

This is the tale they tell, O King: That era the royal banners were lifted upon the tall towers of Chaldean Ur, before the Winged Pharaohs reigned in secret Aegyptus, there were mighty empires far to the east. There in that vast desert known as the Cradle of Mankind – aye, even in the heart of the measureless Gobi – great wars were fought and high palaces thrust their minarets up to the purple Asian sky. But this, O King, was long ago, beyond the memory of the oldest sage; the splendor of Imperial Gobi lives now only in the dreams of minstrels and poets....

The Nemedian Chronicles it is not, but, even so, it establishes that "Cursed be the City" is a story set in the mythical past of Earth, before either Ur or Pharaonic Egypt flourished, a common convention of early sword and sorcery tales. The mighty city of Sardopolis, "Jewel of the Gobi," is under siege by the armies of King Cyaxares. During the siege, a white-bearded old man – a prophet, we are told – predicts the fall of Sardopolis to its enemies. He also predicts a bad end for the invaders as well:

"Ye shall ride through the streets of the city in triumph. And your king shall mount the silver throne. Yet from the forest shall come your doom; an old doom shall come down upon you, and none shall escape. He shall return – He – the mighty one who dwelt here once...."

With that, the prophet leaps from the walls onto the spears of the invaders, who taunt him from below, and dies. Not a bad start to the story!

As predicted, King Cyaxares seizes the throne of Sardopolis, killing its ruler, King Chalem, and throwing his body to the vultures. Not long afterwards, he captures Chalem's son, Raynor, and sends him off to be tortured. With this, Cyaxares speaks to his aide, a mysterious dark-haired youth known as Necho, whom the conqueror seems not to like.

"... It was an evil day when we met, Necho."

Low laughter came. "Yet you summoned me, as I remember. I was content enough in my own place, till you sent your summons."

Involuntarily the king shuddered. "I would Ishtar had sent down her lightning upon me that night."

"Ishtar? You worship another god now."

As the pair bicker, it becomes apparent that Necho is in fact a demon of some sort and that Cyaxares has entered into a Faustian bargain with him for "all power on earth, fair women and treasure beyond imagination" in exchange for serving Necho after his death. The king regrets being "the first to bring shame upon our royal blood" by his actions, but he can see no way out. Like it or not, he is bound by his pact with Necho.

Meanwhile, Raynor is rescued from torture by his servant Eblik and the duo flee the palace, bent on revenge against Cyaxares and his invading army. They make their way to the temple of Ahmon, where they meet a nameless priest who gives them sanctuary and provides them with a talisman that, if used properly, will summon the ancient forest god, banished long ago from the city. Raynor vows to make use of the talisman to unleash divine Chaos upon the enemies who slew his father and brought Sardopolis low.

"Cursed be the City" is fast-paced and tells a compelling story with a great ending. Kuttner's prose is spare and his dialog to the point. He does not luxuriate in descriptions the way that Howard might and his focus is far more on "the big picture" than one the characters themselves, who are only briefly sketched. At the same time, I enjoyed the tale he was telling, even if I did wonder why his prehistoric world, before Ur and Egypt, made reference to so many gods, places, and things associated with recorded history. The story would, in my opinion, been improved by the creation of wholly new references. That criticism aside, "Cursed be the City" is fun pulp fantasy that amply demonstrates why more people should know the name of Henry Kuttner.


  1. I think I've read this story (along with a Thongor tale, some Smith, Dunsany and other classics) in an anthology curated by Lin Carter shortly before his death

  2. ...and after delving a little I found out that the anthology I spoke about wasn't curated by Carter!
    It was collected here in Italy by SF and Fantasy expert Sandro Pergameno, and it was quite good a selection of authors

    1. That looks like a very solid anthology of authors both older and (then) contemporary. From what I saw, the publication date was 1985, which is later than I'd have imagined. Perhaps things were different in Italy than they were in the USA.

    2. Yes, things were pretty different here.
      Till the 80s Fantasy was considered kiddie stuff, not-literature.
      Our generation changed all that, and RPGs played no small part.

  3. Part of the greater awareness of CL Moore in the modern day may simply be the case of here being around a lot longer. Kuttner died very young, only 42 years old in 1958, while she lived till 1987. She didn't write very much following his death (and most of that was script work) but she was active in the scifi author/fan community for at least another 20 years, only stopping due to the Alzheimer's that eventually killed her.

    I like both their work, which is probably for the best since it's difficult to say who exactly wrote what in their collaborations.

  4. Have you read "The Dark World" by Kuttner? Short but more in the high fantasy/D&D vein with it's menagerie of creatures.

  5. Great post, James. Kuttner is my favorite, and it's always good to see him get some positive press.