After reading every known scrap Robert E. Howard wrote about both Conan and Solomon Kane last year, I have since moved backward is his oeuvre to Kull of Atlantis. Only three Kull stories were published in Howard’s short but prodigious literary career and one of these was a cameo in a Bran Mak Morn story. He did write more than he ever saw published including a number of unfinished stories.
Unlike with Solomon Kane, I was somewhat familiar with Kull due to the 1997 Kevin Sorbo film, Kull the Conqueror. I saw that film a few years after it was released and I don’t remember liking it. This was when Sorbo was well known for the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys television show (which I quite liked at the time), and doing a sword-and-sorcery film was a natural fit for the actor. Interestingly, it was originally to be a Conan film but this didn’t work out for a number of reasons. The film itself is a mix of stories but is closest to the only Conan novel, The Hour of the Dragon (also known as Conan the Conqueror). This novel itself is a mishmash of previously written Conan stories. There are also elements of The Phoenix and the Sword, the first Conan story which was a re-write of the completed but previously rejected, By This Axe I Rule! — a Kull story! To add further confusion, the antagonist of the original Schwarzenegger Conan film, Thulsa Doom is actually from a Kull story too.
As you shall see, the history of the film adaptions well reflects the confusing history of the source material.
Kull is one of the earliest of Howard’s characters to see success and the introduction to my edition (pictured above), notes that while he did not invent sword-and-sorcery, Kull was the first of what was to be his very influential contribution to it. The first published story was The Shadow Kingdom, which is not only the best Kull story of all but also one of the best I’ve read of Howard. I couldn’t help but note the relevance today as Kull discovers his kingdom being secretly usurped by serpents that can appear as men. Think about it. Most Kull stories take place with him as a brooding barbarian king of the foreign empire of Valusia. Challenges to his rule are the focus of many of the stories and unlike Conan, there isn’t much of his life detailed before he became king. As already mentioned, one of these rejected stories was re-written as the first Conan story and Conan’s more familiar and entertaining youth became a focus of the later stories Howard wrote.
The connection with Conan is more than this as the Hyborian world of Conan is one set long after Kull’s and the Cimmerians are descendants of his race. This brings us to what is perhaps the most absurd aspect of Kull’s character which I will quote from The Cat and the Skull which is also the story that introduces Thulsa Doom.
She lounged with supple ease upon her silk couch, herself like a great beautiful feline, and looked at Kull from under long drooping lashes, which lended unimaginable charm to her narrow, piquantly slanted eyes.
Her lips were full and red and usually, as at present, curved in a faint enigmatical smile and her silken garments and ornaments of gold and gems had little of her glorious figure.
But Kull was not interested in women. He ruled Valusia but for all that he was an Atlantean and ferocious savage in the eyes of his subjects. War and conquest held his attention, together with keeping his feet on the ever rocking throne of the ancient empire, and the task of learning the ways, customs and thoughts of the people he ruled — and the threats of Thulsa Doom.
The Cimmerians may be descendants of the Atlanteans but none would be direct descendants of Kull if this is to be believed. This contrasts significantly with Conan’s more shall we say, sensual nature and is completely unbelievable. It is conceivable that a king who didn’t fight his way to the throne might not be so rapacious in love and war but such a king would still have a practical if not pleasurable desire to fortify and preserve his legacy. For a foreign usurper, in constant vigilance for plots against him; procreation would be a necessity whether he desired it or not.
It is a relief then that Kull’s unlikely lack of sexual desire is not a regular feature of the stories. It is also little surprise that Conan, as the polar opposite on this subject — had a far more successful publishing history and legacy. I have to suspect that this was more a feature of a young and frustrated Howard’s character than one that would genuinely embody Kull. One good thing that can be said of the film adaption is they weren’t concerned with keeping this aspect of the character consistent with the source material. Solomon Kane’s justice seeking piety as a Protestant warrior monk precluded marriage and certainly fornication, but it is far less believable even for an admittedly introspective barbarian.
The introspective and philosophical aspect of Kull’s character is the other major difference with his successor. Robert E. Howard uses him to insert some of his own reading into the nature of reality and what we perceive as real. While Conan remains a far more earthy character even as he grows. Such introspection is seen particularly in The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune which was the second of the three stories published in Howard’s lifetime. There are also hints of what would become a running theme in Conan contrasting the corruption found in civilisation with the purity Howard tended to see in barbarism. His romanticism on this was certainly wrong but it made for interesting stories.
Many of the stories are very short and barely feature Kull. Of the completed stories, The Shadow Kingdom and Sword of the Purple Kingdom were the two stand-out stories I would recommend. Many are forgettable though one of the longer unfinished and untitled stories had a great moment which I will quote below.
Kull turned in his saddle and eyed his men.
“Here my commands cease,” said he. “As for myself I ride on Felgar’s trail if it lead to Hell and beyond. Yet I bid no man follow beyond this river. Ye all have my permission to return to Valusia, nor shall any word of blame ever be spoken of you.”
Brule reined to Kull’s side.
“I ride with the king,” he said curtly and his Picts raised an acquiescing shout. Kelkor rode forward.
“They who would return, take a single pace forward,” said he.
The metal ranks sat motionless as statue.
“They ride, Kull,” grinned Brule.
A fierce pride rose in the king’s savage soul. He spoke a single sentence, a sentence which thrilled his warriors more than an accolade.
“Ye are men.”
This is unfortunately right before it ended which is a shame because up to this point, it had been a thrilling story and was building up to what could have been a fantastic ending. There were a number of unfinished Conan and Solomon Kane tales that had similar potential but weren’t to be.
I did also enjoy The Cat and the Skull which I quoted above though I wouldn’t call it one of the best. It depends very much on the reader accepting that Kull would believe a cat can talk and the cat’s “slave” who is always with him with his face covered; has nothing to do with that ability. I couldn’t believe Kull wouldn’t first have unmasked the man or asked him to leave the room so he could see how well the cat spoke without him. Naturally it transpires that the cat can’t talk and the silent slave with his face covered was able to throw his voice rather well. The story might have worked better had Kull been distracted by the beautiful woman lounging next to the cat. It would have also better explained why she needed to be there at all outside an ultimately irrelevant subplot involving her wanting to marry a foreigner. And while Thulsa Doom is found to be behind it all at the end as well being Kull’s “eternal foe”, he never appears in another story. Even with these problems it was still a fun story and one where we got to see more of the weird monsters that figure so regularly in the genre.
To finish, with the last story Howard attempted to publish that was re-written. It would be easy to assume the name “Kull” was simply replaced with “Conan” but they ended up different enough that they can stand on their own. The climax to this story was rather good so I will quote it below though you should avoid reading if you believe good stories can be spoiled.
“Hear you! I am weary of this business! I am no king but a slave! I am hemmed by laws, laws, laws! I cannot punish malefactors nor reward my friends because of law — custom — tradition! By Valka, I will be king in fact as well as in name!”
“I am the law!” roared Kull, swinging up his axe; it flashed downward and the stone tablet flew into a hundred pieces. The people clenched their hand in horror, waiting dumbly for the sky to fall.
If like me, you found reading Conan‘s early stories as a weary king odd, reading Kull does explain this. It would be a pity for potential readers to write these all off as the failures that led to Conan though. They aren’t all gold but the same is also true of a number of Conan stories. Kull may be a barbarian like Conan but there is enough to distinguish him from his literary successor to make him worth reading anyway.