Monday, January 23, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Cat and the Skull

Of all of Robert E. Howard's characters, I would argue that Kull is perhaps his most misunderstood – and not without reason. Though Howard wrote more than a dozen stories featuring the Atlantean king of Valusia, only three of them were published during his lifetime. Compared to, say, Conan or Solomon Kane, who appeared in many more stories, Kull seems almost like an afterthought, a character Howard discarded after the publication of "Kings of the Night" in November 1930. 

Conan, who first appeared twenty-five months after Kull's published swan song, plays a huge role in explaining why Kull is largely unknown today. Even among those aware of Kull, there's often a false sense that he's little more than a "rough draft" of the Cimmerian, an impression that isn't helped by the knowledge that Howard re-purposed a rejected Kull story, "By This Axe I Rule!," for Conan's debut, "The Phoenix on the Sword." 

This is a great shame in my opinion. As characters, Kull and Conan have similarities, to be sure, but they also have differences. These differences are much more apparent when one reads the various unpublished Kull stories that Glenn Lord found in REH's famous storage trunk. Lord, a fan and fellow Texan, tracked down "the Trunk," as it is sometimes known, in 1965, finding that it contained about half of everything Howard had ever written, most of which had never been published in any form – including numerous Kull stories in various stages of completion.

Two years after the discovery of the Trunk, the anthology King Kull was released by Lancer, who'd already found great success with its line of Conan paperbacks. And just like those Conan paperbacks, this volume included posthumous "collaborations" between Robert E. Howard and editor Lin Carter. In this case, Carter finished three incomplete tales of Kull to varying degrees of success. Among the wholly Howardian stories presented for the first time in King Kull is one entitled "Delcardes' Cat" therein but whose proper title is "The Cat and the Skull."

The start of the tale is compelling.

King Kull went with Tu, chief councillor of the throne, to see the talking cat of Delcardes, for though a cat may look at a king, it is not given every king to look at a cat like Delcardes'. So Kull forgot the death-threat of Thulsa Doom the necromancer and went to Delcardes.

Thulsa Doom! Now, there's a name to seize the imagination. Though generations know him as the antagonist in John Milius' Conan the Barbarian, he is, in fact, the archnemesis of Kull and this story marks his first ever mention (and, as it later turns out, appearance) in fiction.

Kull is no fool and is thus skeptical of the existence of a talking cat. Tu is even more "wary and suspicious" in part because "years of counter-plot and intrigue had soured him." Indeed, he suspected that the supposed talking cat "was a snare and a fraud, a swindle and a delusion," not to mention "a direct insult to the gods, who ordained that only man should enjoy the power of speech." Does this sound at all like the opening of a Conan story? The yarn begins almost whimsically and I cannot deny that I was immediately seized with interest in seeing where Howard took things.

The cat, whose name is Saremes, is the companion – not pet! – of Delcardes, a Valusian noblewoman, who is herself described as "like a great beautiful feline," whose "lips were full and red and usually, as at present, curved in a faint enigmatical smile." She has come to the court of Kull to crave a boon from the king. The boon in question is marriage to Kulra Thoom of Zarfhaana, a match that would be forbidden, because "it is against the custom of Valusia that royal women should marry foreigners of lower rank." Delcardes knows this and argues that "the king can rule otherwise," much to the consternation of Tu, who reminds Kull that such a breach of tradition "is like to cause war and rebellion and discord for the next hundred years."

Kull will have none of this.

"Valka and Hotath! Am I an old woman or a priest to be bedevilled by such affairs? Settle it between yourselves and vex me no more with questions of mating! By Valka, in Atlantis men and women marry whom they please and none else."

Delcardes sees this as the perfect opportunity to remind Kull of the cat who accompanied her. The cat 

lolled on a silk cushion, on a couch of her own and surveyed the king with inscrutable eyes ... she had a slave who stood behind her, ready to do her bidding, a lanky man who kept the lower part of his face concealed with a thin veil which fell to his chest. 

The noblewoman explains that Saremes was "a cat of the Old Race who lived to be thousands of years old." She then asks him to ask the cat her age.

"How many years have you seen, Saremes?" asked Kull idly.

"Valusia was young when I was old," the cat answered in a clear though curiously timbered voice.

Kull started violently.

"Valka and Hotath!" he swore. "She talks!"

Delcardes laughed softly in pure enjoyment but the expression of the cat never altered.

"I talk, I think, I know, I am," she said. "I have been the ally of queens and the councillor of kings ages before even the white beaches of Atlantis knew your feet, Kull of Valusia. I saw the ancestors of the Valusians ride out of the fear east to trample down the Old Race and I was here when the Old Race came up out of the oceans many eons ago that the mind of man reels when seeking to measure them. Older am I than Thulsa Doom, whom few men have ever seen.

"I have seen empires rise and kingdoms fall and kings ride in on their steeds and out on their shields. Aye, I have been a goddess in my time and strange were the neophytes who bowed before me and terrible were the rites which were performed in my worship to pleasure me. For od eld beings exalted my kind; beings as strange as their deeds."

This is great stuff in my opinion. Apparently, Kull thought so too, because his interest is greatly piqued, so much so that he then asks the cat.

"Can you read the stars and foretell events?" Kull's barbarian mind leaped at once to material ideas.

"Aye; the books of the past and the future are open to me and I tell man what is good for him to know." 

It's at this point that Kull's skepticism of the existence of a talking cat – a skepticism that Tu still holds – gives way to hope, hope that Serames might possess knowledge that will enable him to make the right decisions as he ponders how to rule Valusia and meet the challenge of Thulsa Doom the necromancer. 

What follows is an odd pulp fantasy tale, one in which the barbarian king of a civilized land spends much time discussing fate, prophecy, and free will with a talking cat. I ask once again, does this sound like a Conan story? "The Cat and the Skill" is a fun story, one that nicely balances thoughtfulness with action, honesty with intrigue. That – and I hope no will be surprised to learn this – Serames is revealed to be a fraud, just as Tu warned, in no way takes away from my enjoyment of the story. What transpires before this revelation is thoroughly captivating and a much-needed reminder that Kull is no "rough draft" of anyone, but rather a uniquely engaging character in his own right.   

10 comments:

  1. In Finnish translation King Kull is King Kall, because genitive case form is "kuningas Kullin" and "kulli" is a vulgar name for the male reproductive organ : )

    ReplyDelete
  2. First paragraph typo: "...Kull is perhaps his most [mis]understood..."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Really think the lack of proper appreciation for Kull stems mostly from the re-use of "By This Axe I Rule!" for Conan, which is a shame given that the story and details fit Kull much better than the Cimmerian. Having Thulsa Doom stolen for Conan by Hollywood doesn't help one bit either, and the 1997 Kull film was, ah, unfortunate at best - and conflates the two characters even further by stealing story elements from both..

    ReplyDelete
  4. A few years back I read a Kindle collection of all of Kull, including fragments. I remember being struck by the last few stories repeating a plot where Kull plays matchmaker to a young couple --- something that absolutely wouldn't belong in a Conan story. I feel like Howard somehow felt constrained by Kull and wanted to start over with a character who could be a thief, a pirate, a mercenary, etc.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "a lanky man who kept the lower part of his face concealed with a thin veil which fell to his chest"

    Mmm-boy. There's a red flag for you . . . .

    ReplyDelete
  6. A talking cat from an "Old Race" that's been around since the dawn of mankind, and tells people "what is good for them to know"... It doesn't go around offering "contracts" and wishes to teenaged girls, does it?

    ReplyDelete
  7. How the Old Race ended

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5fvsItXYgzk

    ReplyDelete
  8. Kull is so much duller and less interesting than not only Conan but Howard's other adventure creations: El Borak, Solomon Kane, and especially Bran Mak Morn, who is closer in spirit and design to Kull than Conan. Kull is so inert and ponderous. I get he is more inwardly directed, but his thoughts are so uninteresting and abstract it's like Howard flies into his own belly button writing about mirrors and soundless rooms, etc.

    ReplyDelete