Planet Stories, $12.99, ISBN 978-1-60125-046-9
Fantasy, 2007 (Reissue)
Elak of Atlantis is a compilation of five shorter sword and sorcery fantasy works by the late Henry Kuttner. These include the five stories that featured Elak of Atlantis as well as two stories featuring Prince Raynor. These were first published in the pulp fantasy magazine Weird Tales from 1938 to 1941.
Now, these are not your typical sword and sorcery tales of today, because they were written for a different type of audience in a different era, a time when pulp fiction reigns. These stories are often formulaic and, due to their length, underdeveloped. In the case of these stories, they were written in a time when Conan the Barbarian was the hottest thing ever, so it’s unsurprising that the heroes of these stories are invariably the brawny meathead sorts while female characters are cosmetic props in skimpy and often see-through garments designed to make our heroes look extra virile. Who needs a personality when you have a thirty-inch pee-pee?
The stories featuring Elak are Thunder in the Dawn, The Spawn of Dagon, Beyond the Phoenix, and Dragon Moon. They aren’t grand tales as much as they are brief glimpses into skirmishes and adventures that Elak and his Sancho Panza, the small and tubby Lycon, get into. Unlike Conan, Elak rarely has the opportunity to get it on with every female he meets due to the brevity of these stories, he’s more about crashing heads and stabbing his victims with his rapier. Unlike Conan, Elak is depicted as a more dexterous and nimble sort, although the brawn, the ferocious manly scowl, and the thirty-inch wang still apply. There is a loose story arc here, as in the first story, Thunder in the Dawn, I learn that Elak is the prince of Cyrena, a kingdom in northern Atlantis, who deliberately exiled himself after some personal drama with his family. And in the final story, Dragon Moon, he returns to his homeland to free his brother from a villain who was mentioned in the first story.
Mr Kuttner had a terse and economical way with words, not that this is a bad thing as he managed to cobble together some fast-paced and fairly enjoyable stories. They aren’t the most memorable or deepest tales due to the limitations imposed by the length of these stories, but they serve as pleasant ways to kill time. The setting is fairly formulaic with the usual monsters, one-dimensional villains, and scenery-chewing females, but there are some occasional moments of sardonic humor thanks to the character of Lycon. Indeed, there are many times when Lycon actually steal the show with his brand of pessimistic humor. And come to think of it, Lycon often comes off as the brain behind the duo, and often, it is his actions or words that prompt Elak into doing something. On his own, Elak is a dry and uninteresting character who for some reason blacks out after every dramatic encounter. Were not for Lycon, he’d probably be eaten by wolves or something while he’s knocked out, heh.
These stories are of varying quality. Thunder of the Dawn is a meandering bore, while The Spawn of Dagon and Beyond the Phoenix are what happens when Cthulhu decides to pay Atlantis a visit and pop out some foul spawns in the process. But these last two stories are too short for their own good. Often the fun is only beginning when the story ends. Dragon Moon is easily the best story, often eccentric and morbid and even grotesque. But on the whole, these stories try too strongly to mimic Robert E Howard’s formula. Perhaps this is to expected, as the stories were written to fill in the void left by Mr Howard’s death in 1936, but these stories unfortunately often come off as trying too hard to capture the attention of Mr Howard’s fans.
The stories with Prince Raynor, Cursed Be the City and The Citadel of Darkness, were better written. The author had cut down on the gratuitous use of exclamation marks and occasional purple prose. In many ways, these stories still follow the beefcake fantasy formula. These stories however are far more sober than the campy romps of Elak of Atlantis, and the setting, the World of Imperial Gobi, is a far more cohesive place than Atlantis, which was a cobbled-together melting pot of every cliché ranging from Viking raids to Cthulhu’s dreaded overtones. This one also features a strong female character who is far from the usual simpering damsel-in-distress variety, a nice change from the female characters in each of the Elak stories.
The stories by themselves are a pleasant way to pass the time, although the limitations of the length still apply. But like Elak, Raynor has a distressing tendency to be overshadowed by his bromance partner, who often steals the show and displays ingenuity and cunning that make Raynor come off as… well, not very smart and adaptable to various situations. I can’t help feeling that Mr Kuttner created the cookie-cutter manly blade-wielding main hero to make the masses happy, only to really have fun when fleshing out the less conventional sidekick.
One thing’s for sure while reading Elak of Atlantis: Mr Kuttner was showing signs that his craft was improving and he was on his way to creating something wondrous and uniquely his instead of some Conan/Tarzan wannabe-type stories. Who knows what could have happened if he hadn’t suffered a fatal heart attack, and this collection can only offer a glimpse of the nice things that could have been.