Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Strange 1939 stories by Henry Kuttner (including a collaboration w/ Robert Bloch)

In his 1986 collection of essays, Out of My Head, Robert Bloch sings the praises of, and provides personal reminisces of, many greats of the speculative fiction field, from John W. Campbell, Jr. and August Derleth to Fritz Lang and H. P. Lovecraft.  Among this catalog of giants is Henry Kuttner.  In his article on Kuttner, "The Closest Approach," Bloch briefly discusses Kuttner's relationship with the magazine Strange Stories, which endured for 13 issues from 1939 to 1941.  I decided to check out three Kuttner stories from 1939 issues of this gruesome magazine, the two Prince Raynor stories, and a collaboration with Bloch, "The Grip of Death."

"Cursed Be The City"

It is the forgotten past, a time of kings and prophets, swords and sorcery, heroism and demonic evil!  King Cyaxares, a massive fighting man brimming over with testosterone, has as his closest adviser an effeminate little clotheshorse, Necho, whom we quickly learn is some kind of demon who manipulates Cyaxares at the same time he paves the way for Cyaxares's many conquests.  (Like a blues musician, Cy has sold his soul to the devil for success!)  Cyaxares's latest conquest is the city of Sardopolis. After the metropolis is taken and sacked, Necho's manipulation leads to the murder of Sardopolis's noble king, Chalem at Cyaxares's own hand, when Cyaxares was inclined to spare his fellow monarch.  Chalem's son, Prince Raynor, is sent to the dungeons to be tortured after cursing out his father's killer.

Raynor's black servant, Eblik, a hugely-muscled warrior himself, rescues Raynor and the two sneak out of the city through a secret passage pointed out to them by a dying priest of the Sun God.  The priest directs them to the forest, where is imprisoned the monstrous god who ruled Sardopolis before he was ousted by the faithful of the Sun God long ago.  There is a prophecy that, when Sardopolis falls, this aboriginal god will return and destroy the city's conqueror.  Raynor and Eblik hurry to the forest, pursued by Cyaxares's soldiers--Necho also knows of the prophecy.

In a castle in the forest our heroes meet the guardian of the bound god, a king with a beautiful warrior princess for a daughter, Delphia.  The princess guides Raynor and Eblik through a secret passage to the site of a lichen-covered temple ruin, where they free the imprisoned deity, Pan, "the first god."  Pan and his army of satyrs and other faerie types destroy the castle, wipe out Cyaxares's soldiers (but not before Delphia's father and all his men have been killed in a fight with them--bummer), and reduce Sardopolis to rubble.  Yes, three (3) kings are killed in this story.  The last scene of this epic of regicide depicts Necho torturing Cyaxares as he slowly expires.  Raynor, Delphia and Eblik, apparently the only human survivors for miles around, head off to some other part of the world. 

"Cursed Be The City" is an acceptable sword and sorcery and exploitation story.  There is quite a bit of bondage and torture, gory murder and bloody combat, as well as a hearty helping of histrionic speeches ("Fallen is Jewel of Gobi, fallen and lost forever, and all its glory gone!") and wordy melodramatic passages ("He sensed a mighty and very terrible power stirring latent in the soil beneath him, a thing bound inextricably to the brain of man by the cords of the flesh which came up, by slow degrees, from the seething oceans which once rolled unchecked over a young planet.")  "Cursed Be the City" actually reminded me a little of one of those Michael Moorcock Eternal Champion stories in which some hero travels around, making friends and collecting pieces of equipment needed to trigger or survive some final cataclysm.  Moorcock fans may thus find this old story interesting.

"Cursed Be The City" has been reprinted quite a few times in Kuttner collections and in anthologies of the weird and of heroic fantasy.

There are actually two Kuttner stories in this issue of Strange Stories--besides "Cursed Be The City" it includes (under a pseudonym) "Bells of Horror," a memorable Lovecraftian piece I read in an anthology of Yog-Sothery years before starting this blog.  I recommend "Bells of Horror" to all you Lovecraft kids out there--at the very least check out the illustration to the 1939 printing in which some poor bastard with a goatee gets decapitated! 

"The Citadel of Darkness"

Prince Raynor, heir to the throne of the destroyed city of Sardopolis, is back!  And his muscular black servant Eblik is right there at his side!  But where is warrior princess Delphia, heir to the destroyed castle of the guardians of the bound god Pan?  Kidnapped by Baron Malric's men!  Luckily, Raynor and Eblik meet an astrologer--Ghiar, self-styled Lord of the Zodiac--and this joker gives Raynor a talisman that, he says, will give the prince power over Malric.

Sure enough, once in Malric's castle, the talisman's rays neutralize the Baron and his warriors, but it also somehow summons Ghiar, who uses sorcery to temporarily blind everybody and steal away with Delphia to his own enigmatic black citadel, which lies on an island in the middle of a lake.  Raynor and Eblik swim across the lake and then overcome the sleep-inducing properties of the island's black flowers.  Inside the featureless tower an eldritch ophidian tries to hypnotize Raynor ("nothing existed but the dark, alien gaze of the serpent, brooding and old--old beyond earthlife!") but it too is overcome.

This alien serpent, a servant of that conniving troublemaker Ghiar, has for hundreds of years sat upon the brow of a human wizard, a savant who can cast his soul forth to explore the universe.  Now that he is free, the savant tells Raynor that Ghiar is going to kill Delphia and use her blood to rejuvenate himself--thuswise has Ghiar lived many centuries.  Prolonged proximity to that malignant serpent has deformed the wizard's body into that of a misshapen monstrosity, and he begs Raynor for the release of death.  (This reminded me of Howard's famous 1933 "Tower of the Elephant.")

Deep under the citadel, at the bottom of a tall shaft open to the night sky, comes the final showdown.  Raynor is confronted not only by Ghiar and a hypnotized Delphia, but Malric and his posse, who have followed Raynor and Eblik here--the Baron is animated by a powerful desire for Delphia!  Ghiar proves invulnerable to Malric and Raynor's blades, and his magic wipes out the Baron and his soldiers.  But the spirit of that sorcerer whom Raynor liberated from the alien snake reappears to strip Ghiar of his powers; Raynor then kills Ghiar in a bloody wrestling match.

"The Citadel of Darkness" is a smaller, lesser story than "Cursed Be the City."  There is less torture, less bondage, less murder, less gore, and the stakes and scale are smaller.  On the other hand, Kuttner makes an effort to develop Raynor and Eblik into living personalities.  The story is in large part about their friendship, and Kuttner makes clear that it is only their dedication to each other that allows either to survive this perilous wizard-haunted adventure.  Kuttner also tries to mine their relationship for comedy, with Eblik advising caution and Raynor always impulsively plunging onward into danger.

Merely acceptable.  "The Citadel of Darkness" has appeared in a few places alongside its predecessor "Cursed Be the City," including a 1987 pamphlet that looks to be a sort of amateur labor of love and features an introduction by L. Sprague de Camp and numerous illustrations by Steve Siryk.  Frankly, the cover looks more like medieval Europe than the exotic locale Kuttner describes: "Imperial Gobi, Cradle of Mankind...mistress of the Asian seas" in the era "ere Nineveh and Tyre were born."  Oh, well.

"The Grip of Death" (with Robert Bloch)

"The Grip of Death" has only ever appeared in two publications, first in 1939 in Strange Stories and then in the 1986 anthology Tales of Dungeons and Dragons, which sports an intro by Ray Bradbury.  In both places Bloch is the only credited author; it is in the essay "The Closest Approach," which first appeared in Henry Kuttner--A Memorial Symposium and was later reprinted in Out of My Head, where I read it, that we learn the story was a collaboration between Bloch and Kuttner.  I read the 1986 version of the story, "borrowing" a scan of Tales of Dungeons and Dragons at the internet archive.

Luke Holland has a "warped brain," he being the product of "generations of Puritan stock."  This reminds us of Lovecraft's New England settings and recurring theme of degenerate families and races, but when in the next paragraph we learn Luke is plotting to murder his uncle, "an occultist," because the Bible tells him sorcerers must be killed, we wonder if this is also Bloch expressing hostility to Christianity or some of its adherents.  SF is a hotbed of religious skepticism!  Of course, the main reason Luke wants to off the old weirdo he has been living with in a scary house for a year is to get his mitts on Unk's money; that religious stuff is just a rationalization, a pious fig leaf.

"The Grip of Death" is a pretty good story, more economical, psychological and economical than the Raynor stories, with good descriptions of places and people and a well-constructed atmosphere and an ending that feels original.  We accompany Luke as he puts into action his plan to murder his uncle.  Uncle Lionel Holland has been shut up for a year in his upstairs rooms with all his weird books--collected while pursuing his career as a merchant in the China trade--while Luke has been limited to the downstairs, his job being to send food and other supplies (like live chickens for you-know-what!) up in the dumbwaiter and to keep the curious away from the creepy old house.  Luke is sick of waiting for Unk to keel over, and has been smelling and hearing progressively stranger and more eerie things from upstairs lately, and so has decided the time has come to speed along the natural process by which death follows life and inheritance follows death.  So he sabotages the dumbwaiter and brings Uncle Lionel a meal himself, a meal he has poisoned.

The wizard turns the tables on Luke, and gets Luke to drink drugged wine.  Luke is told the drug will paralyze his body but keep his mind alive, so that he will be thought dead and suffer the hellish fate of being buried alive!  (A Martian metes out just such a fate to a guy in Poul Anderson's 1951 "Duel on Syrtis.")  Luke attacks the old man, wrapping his fingers around the sorcerer's throat with intent to strangle him, and we get a bizarre and horrible climax and denouement.     

A good story in the Weird Tales tradition, with wizards summoning alien beings and greedy fools (like the guy in Kuttner's "The Graveyard Rats" or the guy in Lovecraft's "In the Vault") suffering a mind-shattering punishment for their avarice.


Fun stories that remind us of the work of Howard and Lovecraft, the icons who invented those immortal characters Conan and Cthulhu.  More weird productions from Kuttner and Bloch from the same time period in our next episode.

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