The Cat, the Skull, and the Editor

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I’m staring moodily into my alehorn, like one of the Icelandic sagas’ barely socialized wolf’s-heads who can’t be trusted to behave in the skalli, pondering how best to retort on behalf of the disloyal opposition to Leo and Gary’s “If Loving the Lancers Is Wrong, We Don’t Want To Be Right” post. But before getting into that, I want to revisit a conflict of such escalatory excess that the groundskeepers of TC‘s Lion’s Den are still turning up unexploded munitions and unidentified body parts: The Farnsworth Wright War of 2005-2006.

Was Wright not just a good, but a great, editor? Or did he play Cardinal Richelieu in the story of Weird Tales’ Three Musketeers? With his tendency to reject in haste and repent at leisure, was he perhaps born with a unique chromosome, a “C” chromosome to go with his X and Y, that made him more capricious than should have been humanly possible? These questions and more were fought out in the Den, with Don Herron in particular storming the satrap Pharnabazus’ mausoleum to place satchel charge after satchel charge against Farny’s sarcophagus. A passage in Patrice’s Kull: Exile of Atlantis essay “Atlantean Genesis” got me thinking about the whole contretemps:

Howard, in a particularly unprofessional move, didn’t even rewrite his story, making all his changes on his first draft, and retitled the tale The Cat and the Skull, whose “Skull” is an explicit reference to Thulsa Doom. . .The story is rather poor and suffers from a lack of cohesiveness, which is not surprising given the late addition of Thulsa Doom. . .Not surprisingly, the story was rejected by Weird Tales, apparently to Howard’s surprise, if this is indeed the unnamed story he is alluding to in Post Oaks and Sand Roughs (p. 133). Undaunted, Howard wrote yet another tale featuring Kull, the second and last featuring Kuthulos, The Screaming Skull of Silence. The story was quickly submitted to Weird Tales and likewise rejected.

Simply put, those two rejections were a shame. Moreover, they’re acts of which the beleaguered shade of Farnsworth Wright should be ashamed, especially when we contrast them with the following evidence of an editor doing his job on March 10, 1932:

[“The Phoenix on the Sword”] has points of real excellence. I hope you will see your way clear to touch it up and resubmit it. It is the first two chapters that do not click. The story opens rather uninterestingly, it seems to me, and the reader has difficulty in orienting himself. The first chapter ends well, and the second chapter begins superbly, but after King Conan’s personality is well established, the chapter sags from too much writing. . .

It might be objected that Wright had a magazine to run; it wasn’t his responsibility to babysit REH. But it is the responsibility of a superior editor to midwife promising work the delivery of which is proving difficult. Wright did so in 1932, and was rewarded with a signature character and a series that, together with Great Cthulhu and his star-spawned kin, bestowed upon Weird Tales a legendary luster that will not fade as long as there is such a genre as fantasy. He should have done the same thing in 1928, when, with “The Shadow Kingdom” and “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” already in-house, it should have been clear that a star had been born, a star that required grooming and nurturing. When those two stories were finally published in 1929, the impression they made was so indelible that many readers, an old gent named Lovecraft among them, would still be inquiring wistfully about the chance of a Kull comeback deep into the Conan years.

We’re not talking hackwork here. The midsection of “the Cat and the Skull” finds Howard immersing himself in a Celtic trope in advance of his Celtic phase, an underwater fairyland of “sapphire glimmer” and “faery splendor.” Kull’s run-ins with the denizens of the Forbidden Lake’s deep, culminating in the desperate grapple with the shark-man, are an instant heroic fantasy classic, and his subsequent infinitely quotable conversation with the lake-king, from “You come like a herald of all your race, bloody and bearing a red sword,” straight through to “You are a true man, even though you be the first wave of the rising tide of savagery which shall overwhelm the world ere it recedes,” is unrivaled as a verbal confrontation between mortal man and supernatural entity until Conan and Br’er Swamp Devil pass the time of day in “Beyond the Black River.” The structural flaws Patrice points out could have been fixed in nanoseconds; hell, Lin Carter could have done it while dodging gunfire from his coke dealers. All Wright had to do was dangle the surety of a sale in front of Howard. . .

And as for “The Screaming Skull of Silence,” aside from its epigraph, an uncharacteristically flea-bitten bit of doggerel, this story, with its castle “black as doom” and sentient Silence “crushing the very singing of the stars,” is as weirdly perfect and perfectly weird an effort as its author ever achieved. The semi-Lovecraftian apocalypse implied by “that which was may be again” is opposed, unforgettably, by the Howardian apotheosis of “a man justifying the existence of man-kind.” HPL, CAS, and the WT readership would have spooned the contents of “Skull” down like ambrosia, and I would argue that by rejecting “the Skull-twain,” Wright altered the entire trajectory of the Kull series. Give or take vignettes like “The Altar and the Scorpion” and “the Striking of the Gong,” when Howard tried again in 1929, it would be with the regicidal swashbucklers “By This Axe I Rule!” and “Swords of the Purple Kingdom,” and the new, non-fantastic stories would be offered to Argosy and Adventure. At the end, Kull was doubly far from home, from Weird Tales as well as Atlantis. So although the turndowns of “Cat” and “Skull” may not be a hanging matter like the spurning of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (given sufficient positive reinforcement, might not Lovecraft eventually have become emboldened enough to de-trunk his never-submitted masterpiece The Case of Charles Dexter Ward?), they do constitute a dereliction of editorial duty that was harmful to Weird Tales, harmful to the Kull series, harmful to heroic fantasy, and arguably harmful these days to Wright’s own increasingly audited reputation. It would have been so easy to be encouraging. . .

“The Cat and the Skull” has points of real excellence, including the best fight with a shark-man and dialogue with a lake-king I’ve seen in many a fortnight. I hope you will see your way clear to touch it up and resubmit, because there’s a cover with your name on it waiting. It is the opening pages that do not click; a more skullful introduction of Thulsa Doom is needed. . .

LEO ADDS: Funny you should bring this up — yesterday afternoon I was rereading these very two stories (there will be a whole bunch of Kull quotes added to the website later tonight) and I too flinched at Patrice’s judgment of the former “Delcardes’ Cat” as “rather poor” and lacking in cohesiveness, which struck me as the worst (cyanide) capsule analysis I’ve read of a Howard story since I nearly choked on my ka nama kaa lajerama when Mark blithely opined in Blood & Thunder that:

“Kings in [sic] the Night” only bears mentioning in that it resurrects King Kull from his literary exile.

Ascends him to his literary immortality is more like it. Cimmerian readers know that Donald Sidney-Fryer recently gave us a few more compelling reasons to mention “Kings of the Night” wherever any discussion of the all-time greatest Sword-and-Sorcery tales crops up. In V3n12 DSF calls it “one of his single most imaginative and powerful stories,” and after a convincing argument proclaims that “the evocation of Kull first out of the sun, and then back into that same disk, constitutes to my mind one of the supreme moments in all of literature.”

As for my recent post about the Lancers vs. the Del Reys, don’t sweat it overmuch. I never said I want to see them back in print, or that they were manna from heaven — that’s Gary’s take. But as a matter of personal experience, I did feel a sorcerous thrill upon discovering those books back in the day. It’s not something I could ever recapture, it was a “place and time” phenomenon, like when I first discovered The Two Towers during a Boy Scout campout and marveled through Helm’s Deep by firelight as the rest of the gang played Dungeons & Dragons (the second book of Rings is still my favorite, and those large, heavy, midnight black hardcovers with the fold-out maps and the Red Eye glaring out at you from the boards have never been equaled in my mind). It doesn’t mean I don’t prefer the textually pure editions of Rings spearheaded by Doug Anderson, but that ol’ typoed and corrupt package from my childhood still brings a smile to this aging and increasingly careworn face. I do believe, however, that purism can be taken too far, something I intend to discuss in a future post.