S. E. Lindberg. rating: 4 of 5 stars
Kuttner’s Elak and Raynor - A “Must Read” for Leiber, Lovecraft, Smith, and Howard fans
Context: The Father of Sword & Sorcery Robert E. Howard dies 1936, and the Weird Tales market needs weird adventures. By 1938, Henry Kuttner stepped up, in part, with his Elak and Raynor characters. These have been reprinted in Elak of Atlantis. Kuttner is later known to have produced many tales, especially with his wife C.L. Moore, who partnered with Kuttner after these stories were published. Kuttner also corresponded with contemporary masters H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, and he did an admirable job of mixing “Cthulu-esque mythos” with “Conan-esque” adventure (and even Hyperborean lands, like Atlantis with Picts).
Elak is no Clonan: In the 1960’s many authors tried to extend Howard’s legacy with Clonans. Kothar, Brak, and Thongor were shallow clones of the original (i.e. they were all loners, all wielded broadswords, hailed from a northern cold climate, hated magic, wore loincloths, etc.). Elak was designed to follow the original Conan, yet was different. Elak had a companion (Lycon), used a rapier, wore clothes, and had a royal history which he shrugged off. Elak’s tales are firmly “Sword & Sorcery” but he is no clonan.
(1) Have a companion (Elak has the drunk Lycon; Raynor has the loyal Nubian Eblik)
(2) Rescue a new lady (worth dying for, but not worth having in the next episode)
(3) Have 2 antagonists (one wizard and one swordsman) with separate story lines that intersect only with the hero’s journey
(4) Seamlessly pay homage to Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith, in a unique way.
Trippy Cyclopean Pulp Style and amoral Hero: The style is uber-paced (expected of pulp style adventure), which rockets forward so fast it almost derails. Even in these short stories, expect multiple, separately-motivated antagonists-- this double density approach makes the pace ridiculously fast. The first story “Thunder in the Dawn” Northern European inspired fantasy, and the druid Dalan is more powerful and has a mission to save Atlantis; contrasting, Elak, steals a wife, runs away from his royal duties, and is less powerful than the Druid. I felt myself more attached to Dalan, who thankfully appears in a later episode ("Dragon Moon").
A strength of Kuttner is his poetic sidebars echoing Clark Ashton Smith’s cadence (reflecting on Kuttner’s other work like The Book of Iod: Ten Tales of the Mythos, he had the ability to echo Lord Dunsany’s style too). Below is an example from “Thunder in the Dawn”:
"Elak stood up, bracing himself. He stared in sheer astonishment.
It was no earthly landscape which he saw. Obscure color-patterns, shifting and dancing strangely, weaved in the cool air all about him…Yet the weird pattern was not only on the pale clay-colored plain on which he stood, but rather all about him in the air. He stood alone in a fantastic weave of somber shadows.
Colorless shadows, dancing. Or were they colorless? He did not know, nor was he ever to know, the color of the grotesque weavings that laced him in a web of magic, for while mind told him that he saw colors, his eyes denied it."
Partners and humor: Elak’s drunken side-kick Lycon was comedic and as loyal as a fellow thief could be. It seems very conceivable that the 1970’s duo Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser of Lankhmar by Fritz Leiber were inspired by this. Elak and Lycon are murderous thieves and their choices make them hard to like: In the second story, “Spawn of Dagon” (yes that’s a shout-out to Lovecraft), they murder innocent guards, accept payment from suspicious evil doers to kill another wizard without question. So they routinely steal and kill without qualm, and when they are trying to save a maiden from distress it usually is for money. Yet the journey is solidly entertaining. A great mash-up of horror and adventure.
View all my reviews