So I want to go through and discuss some of the significant stories in Sword & Sorcery – what made them S&S, why they work and what they added to the genre. There’s no way I can be totally comprehensive, but I will do my best. And what better place to start than the story that began it all: Robert E. Howard’s seminal “The Shadow Kingdom”.
“The Shadow Kingdom” is a Kull story, and though it is not the first in Kull’s chronology, it is the first one written, and the first one published. It appeared in Weird Tales in August 1929, though from his own writings, it appears that he began working on it in the summer of 1926. Howard was 20 that year, and had been selling fiction off and on for about two years, ever since the publication of his story “Spear and Fang”, when he was just 18. He had largely been selling stories that were either pastiches of the adventure fiction of the day, westerns, or the kind of “past life” experience stories common at the time to allow for historical narratives.
But he wanted something new, something to make him stand out from the crowd. He wanted a recurring character, a world for adventure and violence, and horror and fantasy all mixed in together. Thus, over two years and several rewrites, was born Kull of Atlantis in his inaugural adventure.
It is a long, tightly-plotted, and complex story. At over 11,000 words, it is lengthy, and not structured like the typical fantasy tale of the time. The voice is grandiose and almost purple, showing off Howard’s penchant for elevated prose, as well as his ear for the rhythm of long sentences. Its setting, in an imagined age of monsters and heroes, immediately made it stand out, and it made a lasting impression.
Because the whole idea of the “weird tale” was always rather nebulous. It was very much rooted in classic horror literature, drawing on Poe, Chambers, and even Dunsany at times. The stories most often told in the magazine were set in the then-modern day, telling stories of drawing-room ghosts, past life secrets, hauntings, and other such Victorian cliches. Lovecraft had been pushing the bounds of the style for some time, but his own individual vision of cosmic horror had only just begun to flower. Many of the Weird Tales writers remained bound in old ways of doing things.
The major innovation of the story is in finding ways to fit so many elements from different genres together and making them flow so well they made a new thing. The story opens with an almost dreamlike quality, depicting the great kingdom Kull rules over and the age he dwells in, and then it moves into backstory, giving us the history and legend of the Serpent People, defining the threat and the stakes. The idea of evil reptilian humanoids is not new, and depicting them as some kind of secret society who use hypnosis and magic to hide themselves is a very pulp concept.
What lifts this up from a kind of drawing-room mystery set in another world is the way Howard ends it. Rather than an ending where the hero goes mad, as Lovecraft might write, or one where the enemy is handily vanquished by some deus ex machina, Howard cranks it up and closes the story in a blast of violence the likes of which few readers of Weird Tales had ever seen before. Faced with a room full of Serpent Men set on his destruction, Kull draws his sword and cuts them all down in an orgy of bloodshed that almost stains the pages.
Because this was what Howard took from adventure fiction, which he had been selling for several years at this point. In an adventure story, such final crescendos of violence at the end of the story were expected, but in a “weird tale” it was revolutionary. Readers were used to stories ending with madness, or a last scare, or the kind of “twist” ending that suggested things were not what they seemed, or that the solution to the conflict was illusory. They were not accustomed to the story’s problems being solved with violence, especially the operatic, bloody violence Howard traded in.
So it was a stroke of lightning, which created a lot of excitement and turned into the dawn of a whole new fantasy genre. The poetic writing style and supernatural mystery of a classic weird tale, the richly-imagined setting and atmosphere of a fantasy story, and the hard-edged brutal violence of the adventure tale, all of it amped up to ten by the intensity only Howard could create. Together these elements fused and became a whole new combination, a creative shockwave that thundered through the fantasy genre and still makes waves today, more than 90 years after Howard sat down in his little room to invent it.