Monday, September 20, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Screaming Skull of Silence

Among the creations of Robert E. Howard, Kull of Atlantis occupies a strange place. On the one hand, he might reasonably be called a "first draft" of the vastly more famous Conan the Cimmerian. Both are crafty barbarians who rise to the rulership of a civilized, if decadent, kingdoms, for example. On the other hand, Kull, when he is remembered at all, is thought of primarily as King Kull, ruler of Valusia, whereas Conan's reign as king of Aquilonia is less celebrated than his time as a wandering warrior (and occasional thief). This is somewhat ironic, given that Conan's first published appearance, "The Phoenix on the Sword," features Conan as king and is in fact a rewrite of another, unpublished story, "By This Axe I Rule!," whose protagonist is Kull. 

The relative obscurity of Kull, at least in popular culture, can to some extent be ascribed to the fact that only three of Howard's stories of him were published during his lifetime. The other were largely unknown until the 1967, when Lancer published King Kull. As you can see from the cover accompanying this post, the book's editor, Lin Carter, shares authorship with Robert E. Howard, thanks to Carter's having "completed" three fragmentary stories originally penned by Howard in the 1930s. Like most so-called "posthumous collaborations," I don't think much of Carter's efforts, but there's no question that King Kull was an important publication for appreciating Howard's broader literary legacy. If nothing else, it gave fantasy fans a fuller picture of Kull and his world so as to distinguish them from Conan and the Hyborian Age.

"The Screaming Skull of Silence" is one of the stories first appearing in the 1967 collection, where it's simply titled "The Skull of Silence" (the longer title being given later after an examination of Howard's papers). After his success with "The Shadow Kingdom" and "The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune," he submitted this yarn to Weird Tales for publication but the capricious Farnsworth Wright rejected it and I can see why. "The Screaming Skull of Silence" is quite short in length and filled with philosophical musings about the nature of reality and our place within it – hardly the stuff of thrilling pulp adventure. But then Kull, moreso than Conan, is prone to such musings; it's an important part of his character and why I find him every bit as compelling as the storied Cimmerian. 

The story opens with Kull, seated upon the throne of Valusia, "listening idly to the conversation of Tu, chief councillor, Ka-nu, ambassador from Pictdom, Brule, Ka-nu's right-hand man, and Kuthulos, the slave, who was yet the greatest scholar in the Seven Empires." 

"All is illusion," Kathulos was saying, "all outward manifestations of the underlying Reality, which is beyond human comprehension, since there are no relative things by which the finite mind may measure the infinite. The One may underlie all, or each natural illusion may possess a basic entity. All these things were known to Raama, the greatest mind of all ages, who eons ago freed humanity from the grasp of unknown demons and raised the race to its heights."

The idea that the world we inhabit is actually an illusion of some kind is an old one and one Howard has pondered elsewhere. In this tale, though, it serves as the starting point for a larger discussion that, in turn, ties into its plot. In any case, Ka-nu, the Pictish ambassador, recognizes the name of Raama and dubs him "a mighty necromancer." Kuthulos objects to this simple characterization of him.

"He was no wizard," said Kuthulos, "no chanting, mumbling conjurer, divining from snakes' livers. There was naught of mummery about Raama. He had grasped the First Principles, he knew the Elements and he understood natural forces, acted upon by natural causes, producing natural results. He accomplished his apparent miracles by the exercise of his powers in natural ways, which were as simple in their manners to him, as lighting a fire is to us, and as much beyond our ken as our fire would have been to our ape-ancestors."

From this description, Raama would seem to be a scientist of some sort. The councillor, Tu, seems to understand this as well as asks Kuthulos why Raama did not "give all his secrets" to mankind, to which the slave replies, 

"He knew it would not be good for man to know too much. Some villain would subjugate the whole race, nay the whole universe, if he knew as much as Raama knew. Man must learn by himself and expand in soul as he learns."

Hearing this leads to more objections from Kuthulos' interlocutors, leading to further discussion of the nature of things and whether sight or sound have an essence of their own, apart from our perceptions of them. Kuthulos acknowledges that, yes, somewhere, there exists the essence of such things. Ka-nu pipes up saying that the essence of silence – its "spectre" – does indeed exist and that had long ago been shut up in a great castle by none other than the very Raama they had discussed earlier. Brule agrees.

"I have seen the castle – a great black thing on a lone hill, in a wild region of Valusia. Since time immemorial it has been known as the Skull of Silence."

"Ha!" Kull was interested now. "My friends, I would like to look upon this thing!"

Needless to say, Kuthulos tries to discourage Kull from this path, telling him "it is not good to tamper with what Raama made fast," but the Atlantean is undeterred. He then sets off with his companions to find the Skull of Silence and see for himself if the legends of what it contains are true.

"The Screaming Skull of Silence" is short, as I said. Yet, within the span of a few pages, it contains several engaging ideas that I think elevate it above many similar pulp fantasies. I can't completely disagree with Farnsworth Wright's rejection of the story, as it's not the most exciting sword-and-sorcery yarn ever written, nor is it even Howard's most genuinely thought-provoking one. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and found myself inspired by some of the ideas it plays with. Given its length, I think it well worth a read.


  1. Here's a link to the story.

  2. I've always enjoyed that one. The start is perhaps a bit slow and philosophical for a pulp mag, but the conclusion is classic Howard - one man against a cosmic horror, triumphing through sheer determination (and a bit of help from a suitably ancient artifact). Just the right length for the fairly simple concept without overstaying its welcome.

    And from a modern-science viewpoint, I find the Silence fascinating. If we look at sound purely as vibration in a medium, Silence would be its opposite. The perfect stasis that would have existed without a medium for sound to act upon, and which will exist again when the universe winds down and reaches thermodynamic equilibrium (assuming one accepts the whole heat death/maximum state of entropy thing). Looked at from that POV the claims Silence makes in the story are (ahem) sound - although Kull seems to have derailed the end of the cosmos by banging his gong and "killing" Silence itself. :)

    Would be interesting to know if REH was thinking that way when he wrote this. The origin of the "Big Freeze" theory dates back to the late 1700s, although the more modern version relying on thermodynamics didn't come about until the mid-1800s. Howard certainly could have been aware of it - but did it motivate his concept of Silence as a cosmic horror?

  3. IIRC Kathulos/Kuthulos (or namesakes of his) turns up in other REH stories, and may even have a fictional etymological connection to Cthulhu.

  4. Found an essay covering the matter I just mentioned:

  5. Reading the Del Rey collections, I found Kull fascinating because for every element that is proto-Conan, there's another that sets Kull apart as a distinct character. Even at their most similar, the moment in the early draft of The Phoenix on the Sword with Conan's "gigantic melancholy" and the opening of The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune, shows two totally different types of characters. The Kull stories are a quieter, more brooding and melancholic style of sword and sorcery and that combined with them being early stories and a little rough quality-wise (The Cat and the Skull is a fun story but I hesitate to call it good), I understand why they tend to be forgotten. Though I'd say that early roughness is also a strength, all kinds of ideas that wouldn't necessarily fly in the later Conan stories get a chance to shine in these early Kull stories.