Robert E. Howard Monday: The Shadow Kingdom

As he sat upon his throne in the Hall of Society and gazed upon the courtiers, the ladies, the lords, the statesmen, he seemed to see their faces as things of illusion, things unreal, existent only as shadows and mockeries of substance. Always he had seen their faces as masks, but before he had looked on them with contemptuous tolerance, thinking to see beneath the masks shallow, puny souls, avaricious, lustful, deceitful; now there was a grim undertone, a sinister meaning, a vague horror that lurked beneath the smooth masks. While he exchanged courtesies with some nobleman or councilor he seemed to see the smiling face fade like smoke and the frightful jaws of a serpent gaping there. How many of those he looked upon were horrid, inhuman monsters, plotting his death, beneath the smooth mesmeric illusion of a human face?

Kull, exiled barbarian warrior of Atlantis and King (by his own hand) of the unspeakably ancient and crumbling empire of Valusia, was the sword and sorcery hero who preceded Conan.  Indeed, as I’ve mentioned before, the last Kull story (“By This Axe I Rule!) was reworked into the first Conan story (“The Phoenix On the Sword”).

But Kull, unlike Conan, is a thinker.  While he is a warrior, and a barbarian, Kull prefers to ponder cosmic mysteries and converse with philosophers, whereas all the philosophy Conan needs is “I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.”*

This propensity for contemplation and brooding gets him into a lot of trouble throughout the series, of course, but luckily Kull’s hetero lifemate Brule the Spear-slayer has his back.  (There are more potentially-homoerotic overtones in this story than there are in the Biblical account of David and Jonathan, and that’s saying something).  Brule, an untamed barbarian, provides a touchstone for Kull, a link back to the purity and strength of his savage upbringing, before the corrupting decadence of civilization got its hooks into him (Two-Gun Bob was not ambiguous in expressing how he felt about human civilization in general).  Brule is also a Pict, and thus Kull’s ancestral enemy (and part of the unbroken lineage that leads from the days before Atlantis rose, to the time after it fell, through the collapse of the Hyborian Age and on down through the generations until the last King Bran Mak Morn fell in battle against the Roman Legions), but that blood feud is forgotten in the face of the threat of FREAKING SERPENT MEN FROM THE AGE BEFORE TIME!

*Special bonus story: “The Queen of the Black Coast,” one of the best of the Conan yarns.


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