Authors: Henry Kuttner
Tags: #Science Fiction
When it comes to Kuttner’s other character, Prince Raynor, who made two appearances in
, the prose presenting his adventures is in my estimation a little more formal and stiff, which may have more to do with distinguishing the two characters, Elak and Raynor, than anything else.
Most likely it was due to the fact that Kuttner was constantly exploring style, character, and story methods and didn’t like to repeat himself. Of the two, I like Elak best. Though there is certainly no lack of entertainment value in the other, there seems less inventiveness and liveliness of style, and the stories feel a little bit familiar. Fans of the Raynor stories may argue the point as a matter of personal taste, however, and I would be unwilling to battle them on the issue. They’re still good tales.
I mention this business about style because I think the writing style of Kuttner was always interesting. He was always experimenting. He was one of those rare kinds of writers who was a combination story teller, stylist, and thinker, though when he wore science fiction clothes, he was more of an extrapolator of ideas and concepts than he was a master of science. He was the forerunner of the
magazine writer who brought more characterization and social issues to the work than nifty scientific gadgetation, a word I think I just now made up.
Kuttner’s work, for me,
threw off sparks and set little mental fires that made me think. He was willing to toss ideas and concepts off like spaghetti, fling it against the wall to see if it sticks. And there was an echo beyond the reading. His ideas were so original and came from so far out of left field you had to have an aerial view of the grounds so you could see them racing at you from beyond the bleachers.
In these sword and sorcery stories his style, or more accurately, his styles, were developing. These tales are not the echo tales of the more mature Kuttner, not the stories chock full of ideas and sparks and little fires that burn in the brain and make you think. They are pure joy. They are the pudding after the steak and the sides. But they are wonderful pudding, fine entertainment.
Kuttner wrote everything he wrote with heart and conviction and a dedication to craft. His intent was not always the same, and he got better and more interesting as he went along, but these tales of Elak and Raynor are a rare treat indeed. They are first of all hard to find, and give us a glance at what Kuttner was to become; we can watch his garden grow in these stories. This collection is a great service to all of us Kuttner fans, and to those it will introduce to his work. These stories may be pudding, but they aren’t tapioca. There’s something special here, a real frothy treat made from exotic ingredients containing lost cities and flashing swords and beautiful women and Druids and ghosts, a few pulpy wood knots and splinters of early prose, a flash of style and insight, and in the end, a flourish of tossed gory glitter in the hair.
He had a kind of magic all writers wish they possessed. Some of us can fake it a little, but Kuttner, he wasn’t faking. He was the real deal. He was a writer of endless possibilities, and it saddens me to think his life, that wonderful magpie mind, constantly collecting thoughts and ideas for stories, was knocked silent by a premature heart attack.
Oh, the places he
would have gone.
I hate what we as readers missed due to his early demise, but I am so happy he wrote what he wrote, which is quite a bit, and that he wrote so many different kinds of tales, presented us with so many literary meals to devour, from the steaks to the sides, to the gourmet treats, to the fine and frothy, sweet desserts of Elak and Raynor.
Prove my fears unfounded. Let the heralds speak of Kuttner, and let their voices ring down through the ages, past my time and past yours, and over into the awareness of future readers, and let their words stick: “Kuttner is magic.”
Joe R. Lansdale
is the author of more than twenty novels and two hundred short works, including scripts for both comics and film. Two of his stories, “Bubba Hotep” and “Incident On and Off a Mountain Road,” have also been adapted for film. He is the winner of the Edgar Award, the Grinzani Prize for Literature, and six Bram Stoker Awards, and has been named the 2007 Grandmaster of Horror, to be honored at the World Horror Convention
Thunder in the Dawn
1. MAGIC OF THE DRUID
HE TAVERN WAS
ill-lighted and cloudy with smoke. Raucous oaths and no less rough laughter made the place a bedlam. From the open door a cold wind blew strongly, salt-scented from the sea that lapped restlessly against the wharves of Poseidonia. A small, fat man sitting alone in a booth was muttering to himself as he drank deeply of the wine the innkeeper had placed before him, and Lycon’s quick, furtive glances searched the room, missing no detail.
For Lycon was a little
frightened, and this
prevented him from getting drunk as quickly as usual. His tall friend and fellow adventurer, Elak, was hours overdue from a clandestine visit to a lady of noble blood, the wife of a duke of Atlantis. This alone might not have troubled Lycon, but he was remembering certain curious events of the past fortnight—an inexplicable feeling of being trailed, and an encounter with masked soldiers in the forest beyond Poseidonia. Elak’s dexterity with his rapier had saved them both, and later, he had attributed the attack to the soldiers of Granicor, the Atlantean duke. Lycon was not so sure. Their opponents had not been the swarthy, sinewy seamen of Poseidonia—they had been yellow-haired, fair-skinned giants such as were native to the northern shores of Atlantis. And for many moons Atlantis had been looking northward with apprehensive eyes.
The island continent is, roughly, heart-shaped, split down the middle by a waterway which runs from a huge bay or inland sea at the north down to a lake nearly at the southern extremity, thirty miles from the seacoast city of Poseidonia. For as long as men could remember the northern shores had been harried by red-bearded giants whose long black galleys had swept down from the frozen lands beyond the ocean. Dragon ships they were called, and those who manned them were Vikings—sea pirates, plunderers who left ruin and desolation wherever they beached their craft. Lately rumors had spread of a great influx of these Northmen—and in taverns and by campfires men met and boasted and sharpened their blades.
There were two men in
the brawling clamor of the inn who had attracted Lycon’s intent gaze—one a gross, ugly figure clad in a shapeless brown robe, the traditional garb of the Druid priests. Beneath an immense bald head was a hairless, toadlike face glistening with sweat. These Druids, it was said, wielded immense power secretly, and Lycon habitually distrusted priests of any order.
Besides the Druid, Lycon watched a bearded giant whose skin showed traces of being darkened artificially and whose hair was probably dyed, as it showed blue in the lamp’s glow. Casually the small adventurer touched the hilt of his sword. Somewhat reassured by the feel of its smooth metal, he banged his cup on the table and yelled for more wine.
“What watery swill is this?” he asked the innkeeper, a wizened oldster in a liquor-stained tunic. “It’s fit for babes and women. Bring me something a man can drink, or—or—”
On the verge of uttering a grandiloquent threat Lycon subsided, muttering softly. “Gods!” he observed to himself as the innkeeper moved away, “what’s got into me? These past weeks have made me a coward. I’ll be jumping at shadows soon. Where in the Nine Hells is Elak?”
He paused to throw a gold piece on the table and to lift a replenished cup to his lips. That was but the first of many cups, and presently Lycon’s apprehension and worry had crystallized into belligerency. The bearded giant was watching him, he saw.
Lycon drained his cup, set it down with a crash—and sprang to his feet, overturning the table. Dark faces were turned to him; wary eyes gleaming in the lamplight.
For all his fatness Lycon was agile. He leaped over the table and headed for the giant, who had not moved, save to set down his liquor.
Lycon was, by this time, very
drunk indeed. He paused to drag his sword from its scabbard, but unfortunately it stuck, marring the impressiveness of the gesture. Nevertheless Lycon persisted and pulled out the weapon at last. He flourished it beneath the other’s nose.
“Am I a dog?” he demanded, glaring malevolently at the giant, who shrugged.
“You should know,” he said gruffly. “Go away before I slice off your ears with that toy.”
Lycon gasped inarticulately. Speech returned with a rush.
“Misbegotten spawn of a worm!” he snarled. “Unsheathe your sword! I’ll have your heart out for this—”
The blackbeard cast a swift glance around. He did not look frightened, but, oddly, annoyed, as though Lycon had interrupted some important project of his own. Yet he stood erect, and his blade came out flashing. The innkeeper hurried up, clucking his annoyance. In one of his hands was a bungstarter, and watching his chance, he brought this down toward Lycon’s head.
From the corner of his eye the little man saw the movement. He ducked, whirled, felt his shoulder go numb beneath the blow. The giant’s sword swept out at his unprotected throat.
Something hit Lycon, sent him sprawling back, while razor-sharp steel raked his chest. He fought frantically to regain his footing. He came upright with his back to the wall, sword in hand—and stood staring.
Elak had at last arrived. It was his blow that had hurled Lycon from the path of the giant’s steel, and now the lean, wolf-faced adventurer’s rapier was engaging the blackbeard’s weapon in a dazzling flash and shimmer of clanging metal, while Elak’s laughter brought fear to his opponent’s eyes. The innkeeper crouched near by, the bungstarter gripped in his hand, and swiftly Lycon caught up a heavy flagon and crashed it down on the man’s head. He fell, blood spurting, and Lycon turned again to watch the battle.
The blackbeard was being forced back by the rapidity of Elak’s onslaught. Few could stand successfully against the electric speed with which the adventurer wielded his rapier; already the giant was bleeding from a long cut along the forehead. He cried, “Wait! Wait, Elak—”
And his sword came down, leaving
his throat unprotected.
But Elak also lowered his rapier. His wolfish face cracked in an ironic grin.
“Had enough?” he taunted. “By Ishtar, but you’ve little courage for your size.”
The giant fumbled with the fastenings of his tunic. Abruptly he brought out something thin and dark and writhing coiled about his arm. He flung it at Elak.
The rapier screamed through the air but missed its mark. Elak sprang aside just in time; the dark thing shot past him and arched up to avoid the swinging cut of Lycon’s sword. For a brief moment it hung in empty air, while the silence of stupefaction stilled the tavern’s clamor.
It was a serpent—but a winged serpent! A snake with two webbed, membranous wings sprouting from its body. Beady eyes glittered in the triangular head as the monster hung aloft. Then down it came, swift as an arrow’s flight.
Chairs and tables crashed over, and the thunder of frantic feet sounded. Lycon’s thrust almost spitted Elak. The winged snake, unhurt, flashed away, but its fangs had grazed Elak’s shoulder. The brown leather of his tunic darkened swiftly, while a stench of foul corruption was strong in his nostrils.
“Bel!” he ground out. “I can’t—”
Suddenly a bulky figure loomed before him—the Druid, huge arms lifted, shielding the adventurer with his own body. Elak made to thrust him aside. Then, staring, he paused.
From the upthrust hands of the Druid a pale flame was rising, twin fires that burned fiercely, dwarfing the yellow glow of the lamps. Incredibly the flames swelled and grew and abruptly took flight. The winged serpent twisted in midair, its wings shirring. But inexorably the flames raced down upon it.
They spread out lambent fingers, interlacing, till around the monster revolved a sphere of silently glowing fire. The serpent was hidden from view by a glove of flame.