Sunday, September 14, 2014


When I read Robert E. Howard's raucous adventure Skull-Face in the past it was without any particular knowledge of the Fu Manchu novels by Sax Rohmer. Since then I've read many of the Rohmer novels and so picking up Skull-Face again armed with that insight really enriches the experience.

Skull-Face appears to be at one level a simple knock-off of the Fu Manchu model. An exotic mastermind in charge of a vast criminal network comprised of various races and creeds seeks to undermine Western society and spark a race war which will result in his seizing ultimate control of mankind. That more or less is the plot of every Fu Manchu novel and its the plot of Skull-Face too.

If anthing, the titular villain is arguably even a more robust and heinous character. In actuality named Kathulos, a wizard from ancient Atlantis, it turns out our grim-faced uber-villain is countless centuries old and seeks to turn back the clock on modern civilization by creating a race war between the white races and the black and brown and yellow races. In a slight departure from the "Yellow Peril" norm, it is in fact the black man who will achieve dominance since that particular race of man once served Kathulos as slaves in the distant past.

The racism evident in this short novel is pungent and despite being the cultural norm of the time, still pretty repulsive on its face. The negro is regarded with almost universal disdain and quaint and spurious notions of race seem to motivate the themes of the story.

That said, it's still a wild ride. The hero named Steve Costigan begins his story in an opium den. He's an addict and soon is serving the villain as a primary henchman. Weirdly, the early parts of the story are almost a Fu Manchu novel in reverse in that we see the machinations of the villains more clearly than we do the hero, a stalwart English detective named Francis Gordon. Eventually Gordon and Costigan do join forces, but it takes a while. Meantime Costigan becomes a virtual superman thanks to potent drugs given to him by his benefactor Skull-Face.

As in the Fu Manchu novels, there is an exotic beauty who captures the hero's heart and in this novel she's named Zuleika. Zuleika, more than any other character, seems clipped right out of a Rohmer novel.

I hate to say too much, I already have actually, but Skull-Face is a thoroughly entertaining yarn, full of vintage pulp shocks and thanks to Howard's compelling storytelling a relentless pace which drags the reader along by the scruff of the neck.

I read Skull-Face in the second volume of Wildside's The Weird Works of Robert E. Howard. You can read it here.

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  1. Kathulos also shows up (kinda) as Erlik Khan in a couple of stories that were reprinted in the Berkley edition,and I'm guessing elsewhere. I know this is one of Howard's most derivative, but it's always been a favorite genre of mine. I'm really intrigued by Villain Pulps, of which there are only a few. I especially enjoy the Octopus and the Scorpion, both of whom fought a very strange hero called the Skull Killer. Intense stuff.

    1. I just read one of those stories, a noir detective thing called "Lord of the Dead". I liked it pretty well and ordered up a volume called "Graveyard Rats" with more such stories. It's too bad Ballantine didn't reprint more of these.

      I'm a fan of pulp villains too. They are the spice which makes many a hero interesting.

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