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‘Thus Spake the Silent Halls’
The Shadow Kingdom by Robert E. Howard
A rewrite of the review 'Down the Grim and Bloody Eons'
From Kull: Exile of Atlantis, edited by Justin Sweet, pages 13-51
2006, Ballantine Books, NY
First published in Weird Tales in August 1929
Valusia, known to barbarian peoples as Land of Dreams, is ruled by Kull, a conflicted, melancholy barbarian, who had given much of himself in his quest to claw his way out of savagery to the pinnacle of civilized society:
“Chains of friendship, tribe and tradition had he broken to satisfy his ambition.”
Kull is the ultimate outlier character, for he comes from without and resides perilously above that which hates and rejects not only him but what he represents.
Howard was a master at novelette-length adventure. His Kull character has generally been written off as a Conan prototype. He is that, but represents something deeper: Howard’s concern with the manipulation of human affairs by unseen rulers who worked behind the scenes and his seeming—to this reader—need to examine the character of the alienated man in various forms and settings, his Valusia setting being the most decadent and Kull the most alienated character.
Kull is not quite the adventurer that Conan is, and even gets physically ill considering certain diabolical mysteries. Kull’s decadent civilization of Valusia, to whom he is a barbarian outsider, is easily a metaphor for the worst aspects of modernity, for which it works as a better than surrogate than for Rome or the Britannia. Kull’s barbarian perspective is critically modern, not primal.
Kull’s Valusia is more decadent and sensual than Conan’s Hypoborea, possibly because the later was conceived in the depths of the Great Depression, while the former was conceived just before the Roaring Twenties went up in flames during the Wall Street Crash of October 29, 1929. The texture of Valusia is one of such gaudy decay that the reader is tempted to form a picture of the author as deeply suspicious of the fabric and underpinnings of the greater society in which he wrote such a corrupt vision of civilization, particularly in light of Kull’s modern sensibilities.
The cast of characters is small and well developed for an adventure yarn. The illustrations in this volume are profuse and highly atmospheric. The action is not as graphic or biomechanical as that of modern writers that have followed Howard in the genre he pioneered. Rather it is more poetic, a lyrical sort of mayhem.
This story itself is a more cerebral prototype of the first Conan story The Phoenix On The Sword, about betrayal and palace intrigue, making it one of two Kull stories that seem to have been precursors to that Conan tale. Female characters are just for decoration. The characters include a likeable old tribal statesman and a ruthless and reluctant side-kick, Brule, a Pict. In Howard’s mythos the Picts and Kull’s Atlantean people are blood enemies. In this tale Kull and Brule put aside their mutual hereditary hatreds to battle the enemy of all mankind. I have a sense, that when Howard wrote of the serpent-priests who ruled the world of men from behind the throne, he was envisioning some banker or politician.
Howard’s atmospherics are second to none, and shine darkly in this story. He alludes, through the dreamy hyper-violent Kull, to the unseen masters of mankind—being a reoccurring theme of his—in statements which include the following fragments:
“…through the dim corridors of memory…”
“…a man against a nation…”
“…against the inhuman powers of antiquity…”
“…whispering monstrous things…”
“…the hand of death at his spine…”
“…the soul mind that never dies…” [alluding to Howard’s belief in genetic memory according to race-based reincarnation]
“…man, jest of the gods, the blind wisdomless striver from dust to dust, blundering like a great murderous child…” [Does that not sound like our current American King’s bi-line, no matter the reign in which you read this?]
Although Kull was a bloody-handed usurper, he is cast as the good guy against the slithering serpent-priests who have silently usurped the nations of men since the beginning of time. Howard was more than a yarn-spinner but a critic of the human condition.
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