This is a story in which Howard criticizes civilization heavily. Even Tu, Kull's chief counselor, admits that "civilization is a network and a maze of precedence and custom." The guard Kull bribes at Taluna reconciles his own conscience to believe that he is doing no wrong. The 400 men that ride with Kull are either Pictish barbarians or the less civilized hillmen from Zalgara (most Valusians are too decadent to serve efficiently in the military). When a nobleman delivers Fenar's rude message to Kull, the King does not blame the bearer of the message: "Kull was too much the savage to connect the insult with the bearer; it must remain for civilized rulers to wreck vengeance on couriers." According to the border gaurd, Kull sets out to right the wrong done to him because he is a barbarian; a Valusian would have sent an emissary to do it. Tu is used to previous kings, and so expects the angered Kull to start killing everyone in his rage until it subsides, but the reader is told only a civilized man would do that.
In many ways Kelkor, the Lemurian barbarian, is the perfect savage and not Kull.
Kelkor has such self-control, confidence and assertiveness that Kull envies him. Kelkor's birth bars him from high command of the Red Slayers, yet he is portrayed as being the most cool-headed, calm and intelligent member of the cast. So much so that somewhere in this series, Kull ignores the law and gives Kelkor the high command in spite of custom and precedence (Howard does this off-stage, of course).
More about Brule is also revealed by Howard: the Pict is a chieftain, controlling at least 100 Pictish warriors. The mutual respect between the king and the Pict has grown to such an extent that Tu sends for Brule to bring the king from his rage.
The geography and culture of the pre-cataclysmic world is further explored: "The crags of Atlantis rose stark and gaunt; her cliffs were barren and rugged." Of Valusia, the reader is informed that the streets were cobblestoned, and that the Red Slayers wore bronze armor and carried lances and that their horses wore silver horseshoes. It is also learned that Valusia's marriage temple is called "Merama's." Kull swears by Honen, Holger, Hotath and Helfara; some are gods and some are demons.
His chosen victim is, of course, Kull, the barbarian king. Kull's personality is further outlined in this story. Kull is not interested in women, and comments on Delcardes' plight, "I have naught to do with a woman's mating" -- does this perhaps have a double meaning? Probably not.
Also in this story Kull is seen to doubt predestination and to be of short patience. The reader is informed that kingship is difficult and is introduced to four priorities: war, conquest, keeping the throne, learning the customs and thoughts of the people he's ruling.
There are many comments about savagry and barbarism being better than civilization: "Kull is warned by some primal instinct," "elemental magic of the savage, the magic of decadency," "The rot of civilization has not yet entered your soul and our charms may not harm you."
The second paragraph of the story paints a better portrait of the stable of Kull and his supporting players than at first seems apparant:
Kull was skeptical, and Tu was wary and suspicious without knowing why, but years of counter-plot and intrigue had soured him. He swore testily that a talking cat was a fraud, a swindle, and a delusion; and maintained that should such a thing exist, it was a direct insult to the gods, who ordained that only man should enjoy the power of speech.Indeed the character of Tu is here more fully fleshed out than in any other of the stories: he is suspicious, torturing someone is his first answer to any problem (not much better than Kull prefering to be confronted by action as posed to the maze of his kingly duties), Tu has seen several kings come and go and is beginning to become exasperated with putting up with them.
A bit more of the history and geography of the pre-cataclysmic word are revealed in this story:
It is easy to assume that Delcardes' name was suggested by that of the French philosopher, Descartes; notice the similarity of Descartes' "Cogito Ergo Sum" (I think, therefore I am) using the self as the basis or verifying the existence of reality; and the sea king's words to Kull when the latter asks where the Enchanted Land is actually located:
- Valka and Hotath are sworn by; these gods were mentioned in The Isle of the Eons.
- Valusians came out of the east to trample the old race. The old race originally came out of the ocean (i.e.: Across the ocean -- note that Saremes the cat is one of the old race too).
- Tals are the Valusian units of exchange.
- An old wizard of Lemuria was a ventriloquist (Rotath?).
- Brule still used a curved sword in the Pictish manner, not the straight Valusian sword he later adopted.
- The Forbidden Lake, which is near the City of Wonders, is also in the Zalgaran foothills.
- According to Atlantian legends, in the old times beasts had talked to men -- as also mentioned in the Conan story, "Beyond the Black River."
- There are shrines never built by human hands.
- Cats were exhalted in old times.
You are at the center of the universe as you are always. Time, place, and space are illusians, having no existence save in the mind of man which must set limits and bounds in order to understand. There is only one underlying reality, of which all appearances are but outward manisfestations, just as the upper lake is fed by the waters of the real one.
And a dozen death-blots blotched him
On jowl and shank and huckle,
And he knocked oh his skull with his knuckle
And laughed -- if you'd call it laughter --
At the billion facets of dying
In his outstart eyeballs shining.
This verse "heading" with its archaic use of language is an interesting preface to another of Howard's well-told horror stories. If silence is treated as a living thing in this story, in this heading it is a disease appearing on cheek, shin and ankle. The protagonist of this heading raps on his skull, reaffirming his existence, and laughs at the fading spectre he has just defeated.
Most likely the events in this story occur three to four months after those in "The Shadow Kingdom." As many of the serpent people as have been discovered have been exterminated, though possibly there are many in hiding waiting to strike back at the king. Kull seems to have recovered from the brief moment when he lost touch with reality from seeing a duplicate of himself in "The Shadow Kingdom." Here he is again brash, confident and headstrong.
Probably the last thing Kull needed to hear at this time, though, are the solipsist ramblings of Kuthulos, the slave. Solipsism is the theory that nothing but the self exists, and therefore the self is the only object of real knowledge. After the doubts of existence Kull had in the second story, to be exposed to a philosophy of this reality-doubting type could prove to be destructive to the king. Fortunately Kull is much more interested in visiting the site of Raama's battle with Silence than he is in listening to Kuthulos' maunderings.
The fact that a rash adventurer should slowly evolve into the contemplative ruler that Kull will later become is quite a puzzle, but not an inexplicable puzzle. Being raised by animals as Kull was, his mind did not have to deal with the complexities of human existence; the part of his brain that would handle such problems, the neo-cortex, never developed. This would have made Kull unable to handle complex situations and ideas, as in "The Shadow Kingdom" where the reader learns that Kull prefers straight-forward action to the plotting and counter-plotting necessary to serve as king. This lack of development would result in personality disturbances and the kind of impulsiveness that Kull exhibits throughout the series. (Howard refers to this as a "wayward perverseness" in the present story.) Occaisionally the cortex would take on the work that the underdeveloped neo-cortex should, but it could not do the job as well; so Kull's "shrewd" dealings with his subjects take more mental work on his part than they would from most other people. Note that it wearies Kull just to think how long Raama has been dead.
Since Ka-Nu's spies knew of the serpent people's plot in "The Shadow Kingdom," it is likely to assume that his spies also helped Kull ferret out the bulk of his enemies that were skulking about the countryside. Most probably though, all of the serpent men were not located. As a result of his aid Ka-Nu becomes welcome at Valusian court. He is someone whose service Kull trusts.
Brule is referred to as Ka-Nu's right hand man and was probably sent to the mainland not just to be another of Ka-Nu's agents, but rather Brule has leadership abilities and is a high ranking member in the Pictish Embassy. Brule is also accepted into the Valusian court, by Kull at least, and the friendship between the two begins to grow. First though, Brule's respect for the king deepens, as later in the story he is seen as willing to follow Kull into Hell. Brule has apparently travelled through Valusia somewhat, as he is familiar with the location of the Skull of Silence.
Kuthulos the slave is an interesting character. Intelligent, the wisest man in the empire, given a philosophical bent, yet he is a slave. Probably he is a combination story-teller/tutor and ends up in the possession of whoever needs him the most.
Kuthulos' story on the day the events of "The Screaming Skull of Silence" takes place involves Raama. This legendary figure is described as the greatest mind of all ages. Raama was the pragmatic sort of magic-user that the members of the turn-of-the-century Golden Dawn sought to become as opposed to the imbecilic mummer of the "sword & sorcery" story. He is described as having some ages ago freed humanity from the grasp of unknown demons and raised the race to its heights. These demons were probably the beings that the Elder Race had to defeat in order to take possession of the Thurian continent. Considering the way lore and legends are borrowed and changed from one race to the other, it may well be that Raama is the "Vraama" that Rotath swears by in "The Curse of the Golden Skull."
This telling of the Day of the King's Fear, as it came to be known, reveals this tale to be yet another well-written horror story. The villain of this piece is Silence. So rather than a magician or a legendary creature or whatever, the menace is provided by what is usually considered to be an abstract. Yet here it gains tangibility and slowly becomes a fearful menace of such calibre as to turn Kull's entourage into nearly-screaming maniacs. (It's interesting that Kull, who was the closest to this "monster," was the only one with the strength to combat it.)
Opposed to Silence there is a gong of sound, embodying another abstract. The gong is like the sea, its green depths are never silent, never still, always changing. Yet the sea symbolically represents the restless side of the personality and the lower emotions. a person's temper is like the waves of the sea, foaming, roaring, striking out blindly; much like an impetuous Kull does in these early adventures.
Kuthulos' early ramblings about Silence being an absense of something are ironic in a story in which Silence manifests itself as something nearly solid that actually screams by the story's end. The erudite slave, also ironically, becomes a slavering idiot during the onslaught of Silence, making this story a perfect parable of a Civilization falling away before the onslaught of a supernature. The tale is tightly plotted with all the elements contributing significantly to its climax.
If there had been a Kull, his actions would have had no effect on the way we live our lives today. History has a muting effect on the actions of any man, even a great king. What will be the end result of our actions in 100,000 years? What will our achievements have been? Nothing! All is folly, eventually. What we believe, what we do, what morals we live by -- will all prove to be pointless. Even if one of us achieves the notoriety of a great figure in history, our possible effect on long term history will have been nil. If Kull had been a real king and not a fictional construct, he would have been forgotten entirely, not remembered by anyone.
The philosophies that Howard offers through the "very old man" in this story are immensely interesting. Paramount among these are the "world within worlds" theory, serving to make the infinite more vast (if that's possible) and complex. If a king in Kull's time would seek to raise his land from a state of civilized decadency -- what would those actions matter if that kingdom were, after all, only a part of a grain of sand on some unknown beach in the macrocosm. There is also a passage which seems to promote Howard's recurrent theme of reincarnation, or perhaps even predestination: "You are a part of that great ocean which is Life, which washes upon all shores, and you are as much a part of it in one place as in another, and as sure to eventually flow back the Source of it which gave birth to all Life."
We don't know how Howard had intended the longer untitled fragment or "The Black City" to end, but it's easy to assume that Kull decides to began an extensive campaign, not only to wipe out the last of the serpent people, but also any of the religions still utilizing human sacrifice. He is also persecuting any worship of the elder gods. These actions would set the stage for the present story.
Thuron, like the later-encountered Rotath of Lemuria, is one of the elder race. He is described as being a cadaverous giant, a tall gaunt man with glimmering eyes, heavy brows, a thin gash of a mouth, metallic laughter and lean powerful hands. His movements are snake-like. Thuron is the high priest of the Unnamable One, known as the Black Shadow, one of "the terrible gods ... [that] came from forgotten worlds and lost realms of blackness." (Cthulhu Mythos followers, take note!) Thuron has opposed the descendants of the hero, Gonra, for some time now. They've voted against him in council, and he is seeking revenge by trying to sacrifice them to the Black Shadow in the Temple of Everlasting Darkness.
Gonra was an ancient hero who spilled blood for the scorpion god in ages past when Atlantean savages would have defiled the shrine. Gonra died in the service of that deity and the priests promised that Gonra's descendants would be granted protection by the scorpion god. Thuron confronts the current descendant of Gonra and his lover in the temple of the scorpion god and is about to drag them off to sacrifice them when a bit of irony occurs: He dies from a scorpion bite when "no scorpion has been seen in the city for longer than men remember." The scorpion god has obviously kept his vow. It's odd that such a negative, deadly beast should prove to be the "hero" of this tale, rescuing the descendant and his lover.
Another bit of irony is that Kull's Atlantean ancestors are not shown in a favorable light, revealing a bit of objectivity on Howard's part.
Evidently this story culminates a series of battles that Kull has had to go through to put an end to these demonic religions. One can imagine many bravely-fought battles and supernatural encounters, ending with the friendship between Kull and Brule growing, ending with the presentation to Brule of certain gifts mentioned in "Kings of the Night."
In Kamula Kull finds no peace. Grogar disappears into a hiden doorway in a wall and Monaro is murdered by a mysterious unseen piper.
Grogar the Pict is described as never having looked at a woman. Although homosexuality was known to be practiced in many ancient societies, Howard seems to have been possessed with the idea of asexual, ascetic males during the time in which he wrote the Kull stories.