dr_hermes (dr_hermes) wrote,

Henry Kuttner did some Sword & Sorcery stuff

This is more like it, and restores my faith in Henry Kuttner's writing. His 'Elak of Atlantis' stories in WEIRD TALES were so limp and uninspired, with a slacker hero and vague plots, that I was greatly disappointed. Maybe Kuttner's well-known talent wasn't suited for heroic fantasy, I wondered. Nope. With "Cursed Be the City", he turned out a fine little tale. It has a vivid opening, a villain with some depth and tragedy, a strong hero and his interesting sidekick, brief but vigorous swordplay, and an apocalyptic finish that features one of my favorite (and underused) beings from classical myth. Great stuff.

But what the heck, the story is strong enough that it's fun to read even if you know what's going to happen.

From the April 1939 issue of STRANGE STORIES, "Cursed Be the City" is set in the supposed birthplace of mankind, the Gobi Desert, where the first civilizations rose before Ur or Egypt. (Now there's a topic, a nearly forgotten chapter of anthropological theory that deserves an article to itself.) The great city of Sardopolis is under siege by the army of King Cyaxares (pronounced "Sigh AZ ar ees" maybe?). In the dramatic opening scene, a bearded prophet climbs to the outer wall overlooking the enemy, predicts the fall of the city and the doom of the invaders at the hands of He who will awaken. "Evohe! Evohe!" he cries, and plummets down to die on the upturned spears.

Well. With a curtain raiser like that, we know things are going to be interesting. Cyaxares manages to take Sardopolis, kills its King Chalem personally and sends young Prince Raynor to the torture chamber to be softened up for questioning (making sure CNN doesn't find out). But although Cyaxares seems to be a successful conqueror with a city at his feet, the brooding warlord has his own problems. He comes from a noble line of warlike rulers, and he has brought disgrace to his lineage by invoking forbidden arts. The slim dark youth Necho, who assists the king with arcane knowledge, is in fact a Thing summoned from Hell ("For by our bargain I shall give you all power on earth, fair women and treasure beyond imagination. But when you die... you shall serve me!")

As you might expect, Raynor escapes the dungeon, thanks to his servant, the Nubian warrior Eblik (these two seem more like comrades than master and slave). Finding a dying priest of Ahmon in the Temple of the Sun, our heroes are set a mission to unleash the primal force which can overthrow the city and avenge its conquest. Along the way, they pick up a luscious young brunette named Delphia to help them. Wearing armor and absolutely aching to start the swordfighting, Delphia is no swooning damsel.

The title of the story is not just a phrase chosen because it sounded cool to the editor. No, the city IS cursed. Ages ago, the great forest god was suppressed and imprisoned by servants of the new sun god Ahmon . Now, with the necessary talisman and enough fortitude, the three heroes are on their way and the pursuing army sent by Cyaxares is in for a gruesome reception.

Here's where the story wins my heart. Pan is released. Not the tamed and lessened goatlike figure we know from later mythology, but the vast and terrifying spirit whose presence was the source for the word "Panic". When Great Pan is loose, cold winds howl and "under all, a dim, powerful motif, beat a wordless shrilling, a faint piping that set the prince's skin to crawling as he heard it... the heartbeat of the first god.". The shuddering walls of Sardopolis have stood for their last day, and the conqueror Cyaxares lies broken and helpless as the demonic Necho mocks him.

The only misgiving I would have about "Cursed Be the City" is the way Kuttner jumbled names from different sources into the mix. Imperial Gobi is supposedly the earliest civilization, "the Cradle of Mankind". Where did a Nubian come from? Why does the city have a Greek name, and an ancient conflict between a Greek and an Egyptian deity? I would guess Cyaxares is meant to be a Persian name; Shaitan and Ishtar sound awful familiar, too. But all this is supposed to be taking place long before there was a Nubia or Persia. It's a minor criticism, though. Henry Kuttner could have easily worked up random names like Um-Grak or Voolish Bulp, but this technique makes the names seem familiar to the casual reader. It evokes the air of antiquity well enough, and makes the story seem more authentic if you don't over-analyze it.

There was to be only one other Prince Raynor tale, as STRANGE STORIES unfortunately folded. Kuttner did go on to write four of the disappointing Elak yarns for WEIRD TALES but (to be honest) I would have much preferred he had skipped those and turned out a few more stories like "Cursed Be the City".
Tags: henry kuttner, pulps
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