Sunday, January 15, 2012

Elak of Atlantis - antediluvian antics

   I think one of the reasons I started this blog was the monolith that is Conan the Cimmerian.  You can't venture into the waters of swords & sorcery without confronting Robert E. Howard's most renown creation.  With the Shieldwall folks out there these days you also can't avoid a certain amount of triumphalism about Howard and his works getting their due and proper recognition.
   And I totally get it and am glad to see it (except for the jackassess who take their legitimate criticisms of Sprague de Camp and turn it into how such a bad writer he really was overall and bray about how most of his work is out of print).  But it does get a little annoying.
   So, without looking to neglect Howard (I couldn't avoid making one of my first real posts about Conan the Warrior), I wanted to create a place where I would write about as many different writers as I could manage.  From the bad (Lin Carter), to the mediocre (John Jakes), to the solid Chalres Saunders) to the sublime (Jack Vance), and as many authors I'd never read as possible.
    Lurking in the back of my mind was the sort of hope that I would come across someone, when their work was read end to end, would stack up favorably against Howard's.  Maybe there was some lost pulp-era hack who'd never gotten his due.  Maybe something I hadn't read in twenty years would seem amazing in the light of maturity.  Maybe some great author, someone like, say Henry Kuttner, had written something I'd never read and it would blow Conan out of the water.   Yeah, well, someday, maybe.  But not today.
   Henry Kuttner only wrote four Elak of Atlantis stories.  Along with two Prince Raynor tales they've been collected under Paizo Publishing's Planet Stories imprint and released as "Elak of Atlantis".  Thank you Paizo for getting a whole bunch of long uncollected or unavailable stories back into the light of day (the first Elak story, "Thunder in the Dawn", was last seen in de Camp's 1971 "Warlocks and Warriors").
   Henry Kuttner, on his own and later with his wife, C.L.Moore, was one of the great short story writers of science fiction's Golden Age.  He started as a horror writer and his first published story was "The Graveyard Rats" in the March, 1936 Weird Tales.  From there he wrote a series of horror stories becoming along the way a part of the Lovecraft Circle.  Eventually he pulled away and developed his own themes and ideas.  Stories like "Mimsy Were the Borogroves" are still in print and there are many more worth tracking down in any of the collections of his stuff floating around.
  By himself and with his wife, Kuttner wrote under tons of pen names in order.  Wikipedia lists seventeen.  For a second Fred Pohl even suspected Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain" (which, if you haven't read you should stop reading this, find it and read it NOW!) might have been by Kuttner.  The man could write and he wrote everything.  Horror, fantasy and science fiction all flowed readily and professionally from his typewriter.
   In 1938 he tried his hand at swords & sorcery.  Over that year, all between Weird Tales' cover he saw published the first three tales of Elak of Atlantis: "Thunder in the Dawn", "The Spawn of Dagon", and "Beyond the Phoenix".  The final story, ""Dragon Moon" was published in Weird Tales in 1941.  And that was the end of Elak.  In 1939 Kuttner wrote two more swords & sorcery tales featuring Prince Raynor (and someday I'll read and yap about them, but not now).  And that seems to have been it for the genre for him.  By then he was starting to write the science fiction that would secure his reputation.
  When we first hear of Elak in "Thunder in the Dawn" his adventuring companion, Lycon, is waiting for him in a tavern in Poseidonia.  Lycon, short, fat and given to drinking great quantities of whatever alcohol is available is worried that Elak is off with the wife of a duke.  From recent events, including an attack by masked soldiers, Lycon is sure the duke is aware of Elak's activities.
   Lycon becomes aware of two strange men in the tavern; one a large, barbaric looking man with clearly dyed hair and beard and the other a browned robed Druid.
   Lycon, drunk, soon picks a fight with the bearded man.  Only the timely arrival of the rapier wielding Elak saves him from his opponent's sword.  When Elak's sword proves too much for him and he he knocked down, the bearded man produces and throws at Elak, a winged serpent.
   Elak and Lycon together are unable to kill the poisonous thing.  Before it scores a fatal bite on the men the Druid calls on his mystics powers and throws flames from his hands at the snake and kills it.
   Soon we learn the Druid is named Dalan and he has come from Cyrena in the north of Atlantis to find Elak.  Elak's brother, Orander, king of Cyrena has been taken prisoner by the sorcerer Elf and his Viking allies.  Cyrena and its squabbling nobles have become easy prey for their enemies and Dalan believes only Elak can lead them against their foes and free his homeland.
   Of course Elak and Lycon and the duke's wife, set forth to distant lands to face off against foes dark and dangerous.  Chased by Granicor, the duke, and faced with monstrous obstacles, the quartet eventually make it to Cyrena in hopes of settling accounts with Elf.
  The two middle stories, "The Spawn of Dagon" and "Beyond the Phoenix" pit Elak and Lycon against Cthuluvian spawn and an angry local goddess.  In these stories we find out Elak is not above hiring on to kill a wizard or serving in king's guard.  He's also not above stripping corpses of their wealth and that Lycon's drunken brawling has caused the pair to be driven from Poseidonia and other cities.
   In the last tale, "Dragon Moon", Dalan reappears again seeking Elak.  Orander is dead by his own hand but only to stave off the sorcerous control of Karkora, an alien wizard from beyond Cyrena.
   Elak is a slightly different sort of adventurer than his forebears, Conan and Kull.  His homeland isn't the most civilized of Atlantis' kingdoms but neither is it a land of barbarians.  Henry Kuttner also didn't seek to make statements about civilization opposed to barbarism.  Elak is never concerned with the state of the world except for how it will provide for him.   His sidekick is an incorrigible drunk and instigator of fights.
   The stories are all fun and full of strange magic and terrible beasts.  In fact, the degree of powerful sorcery that occurs in each story is tremendous.  In "Thunder in the Dawn" Elak is cast into the astral plane and has to discover how to free his brother from the realm of fantasy.  Evil cultists seek to drown Atlantis in "The Spawn of Dagon" and in "Dragon Moon' an born dead child has become the darkest wizard in all Atlantis.
   The brief career of Elak of Atlantis is one well worth reading.  They aren't close the power of the Conan or Kull stories but they are fun.  The bickering antics of Elak and Lycon in "The Spawn of Dagon" point the way, from Falstaff and other lovable rogues straight toward Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (who'd appear in 1939 in "Two Sought Adventure").
   The prose of the stories is clean and simple.  The action is bright and colorful as are the heroes and villains.  Once things start, and that generally by the second page, they don't stop.
   The world of Atlantis, while following in Howard's pre-Cataclysm footsteps is less than vibrant and exotic.  We hear of Vikings and Druids.  One of Howard's many brilliant bits was taking the real world and mixing it about and adding elements of myth and creating something new out it in Hyboria.  Kuttner's Atlantis is a bit too familiar.
   Still, Elak's adventures are fun.  I'll even be bold enough to call them romps.  Perhaps that's what most distinguishes them from Howard's Conan and C.L. Moore's Jirel (another predecessor).  Even when dealing with possible world ending catastrophes their a sense of slapdash fun to events.
   So get them and read them.  You can get the Paizo collection used (like me) for under $3 from Amazon.  They are a great example of an early effort to create something new in the fertile field of sword & sorcery pioneered in the years following Howard's unfortunate suicide.  Still, they don't come close to the power and original voice that Howard's Conan stories have.  But then little in the field  does.


  1. I'm glad to see someone in addition to me blogging about Kuttner. There is a lot of his work still to be reprinted, although Haffner Press is changing that. I thought Kuttner did a better job of incorporating real world elements in his S&S with the Prince Raynor stories; I just wish there were more of them.