Sunday, July 28, 2013

Skull-Face by Robert E. Howard

Why defy me, who am Kathulos, the Sorcerer, great even in the days of the old empire? Today, invincible! A magician, a scientist, among ignorant savages! Ha ha!

Howard does homage to Sax Rohmer with a nod to the Cthulhu myths of H.P. Lovecraft in his novelette, "Skull-Face", which first appeared in Weird Tales in October, November and December of 1929. His most famous creation, Conan, was in the wings, yet to be published. Readers of Weird Tales had already been introduced to his other characters, Kull and Solomon Kane.

The story kicks off with a hashish dream, where our hero, Stephen Costigan, lies strung out in an opium den named Yun Shatu's Temple of Dreams. In the dream, Costigan sees what is described as a yellow skull, reptilian in shape, talons for fingers, eyes blazing in deep sockets staring down at him. The skull observes that Costigan makes for an interesting specimen. Behind the skull, Costigan sees a vision of loveliness that floats in stark contrast to the horror and evil before it, but that is all. Soon, Costigan wakes from the dream back to his miserable life as an addict. It's revealed in a quick series of flashbacks that Costigan has succumbed to the lure of hashish through the intervention of a mysterious beauty who "lures" him into the Yun Shatu's opium den. A benefactor sees to it that he's supplied with all the hashish he wants. Costigan knows that he should be concerned about this. Nothing is free and there is surely a cost that must be paid for his addiction. Sure enough, it's revealed to him that he's been selected to act as the dark agent for Kathulos. Kathulos speaks to Costigan through a screen that hides his features. His servants bring Costigan to him and provide him with an elixir that staves the maddening hunger for the drug that has imprisoned him. Also, there is the beautiful Zuleika to keep Costigan occupied:

"I am Zuleika--that is all I know. I am Circassian by blood and birth; when I was very little I was captured in a Turkish raid and raised in a Stamboul harem; while I was yet too young to marry, my master gave me as a prisoner to--to Him."

"And who is he, this skull-faced man?"

"He is Kathulos of Egypt - - that is all I know. My master."

Costigan soon learns that his duty to his new master is that of assassin. He is sent out on his first assignment to kill Sir Haldred Frenton at his estate in London, disguised as a gorilla!

This is pulp, folks. And it's pulp in full glory! Turns out that Kathulos isn't just some evil doctor making mischief against polite society. He is a descendant of "the Old Ones" who thrived in Atlantis thousands of years before the continents were populated. His body was entombed in a coffin where it remained beneath the ocean for thousands of years, before it was released to float to the surface where it was discovered by a sailing vessel. My recap here doesn't do the tale justice. It's something better left for the fan of pulp to discover for themselves.

Soon Costigan defies the orders of Kathulos and joins forces with Scotland Yard's John Gordon. Hair-raising adventure ensues.

Fans of pulp adventure should have fun with this one. A word of warning however. It's pretty racist stuff considering the depiction of the villains and our heroes' attitudes to other cultures. It's a product of its time and that has to be recognized going in to it.

No comments:

Post a Comment