Retro Review: “A God Named Kroo” by Henry Kuttner

Thrilling Wonder Stories, Winter 1944

This cover has nothing to do with “A God Named Kroo” and instead illustrates “Venusian Nightmare” by Ford Smith

“A God Named Kroo” is a novella by Henry Kuttner, this time writing under his own name. It was first published in the Winter 1944 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories and is finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The magazine version may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

“A God Named Kroo” begins with Kroo, a minor village god in the Himalayas. Kroo has a problem, for his last worshipper died fifty years before. Ever since then, Kroo’s temple has lain abandoned, avoided by the villagers. Now the only follower that Kroo has is a yak, which wandered onto the temple grounds one day in search of food and now belongs to Kroo according to ancient tradition.

And so Kroo would eventually have faded away for lack of attention and worshippers, if American archaeologist and ethnologist Dr. Horace Danton hadn’t come along in dire need of a yak, for two of his have died and the rest are exhausted. The villagers are reluctant to sell Danton the yak, for it belongs it Kroo, but eventually the almighty dollar wins out. Danton now has a yak and Kroo has a new acolyte.

The point of view shifts to Danton now. We learn that he has been travelling the Himalayas for two years, cut off from all news. Idly, he wonders how the European war (what we would call World War II) is doing, unaware that the war is purely European no longer (and frankly never was in the first place, though Danton views the war between Japan and China as a separate conflict).

Kroo first makes his presence felt, when his sacred yak falls into a ravine and Kroo levitates it to safety. He also follows Danton and his native guide Jieng in the form of a thundercloud. When Danton mentions the mystery of the floating yak to Jieng, Jieng points out that he initially assumed the yak was a magician or a god in disguise, but when he questioned the yak, the yak did not answer. Jieng also noticed the thundercloud long before Danton did (but then Danton is your typical absent-minded professor type rather than Indiana Jones) and suggests that Danton may have become a living buddha. When Jieng mentions the goddess Kali whom he worships (Kuttner does not explain why a man with a vaguely Chinese name worships a Hindu goddess), there is a sound of thunder, which Jieng takes for a sign that another god is present. Danton, being a sceptical westerner, will have none of this.

Before the debate can go any further, Danton and Jieng are interrupted by a native attack. However, Kroo will not lose his newfound acolyte and so he picks off the attackers with well-aimed lightning bolts. And as if all this were not yet strange enough, Danton and the yak are suddenly lifted into the air and briefly find themselves sitting upon the thundercloud. And once Kroo sets them down again, he suddenly begins speaking through the very confused Danton, demanding the Jieng and the rest of the expedition worship Kroo or suffer the consequences.

Kroo also declares Danton his high priest. A conversation between Kroo and his new high priest follows, even though Danton is basically talking to himself. Danton understandably thinks that he is having a mental breakdown and also drinks a lot of whiskey, while Kroo tries to convince Danton that he is real. But only when Kroo levitates Danton into the air again and threatens to fly him halfway to the Moon does Danton relent. Kroo now demands that his high priest provide him with a temple. Danton meanwhile tells Kroo that he doesn’t want to be his high priest, because he has no idea what to do. All he wants is to go home to the States. Kroo asks where the States are and Danton says eastwards, ever eastwards. He is clearly confused by the experience, because New York, where Danton wants to go, is west of Tibet. Nonetheless, Kroo obliges and flies Danton and the yak eastwards.

However, Kroo is weakened and so he only gets as far as Burma (nowadays, we would call it Myamar) to a town called Myapur (likely fictional, at any rate no town by that name exists in modern day Myamar), where he decides to find a temple, evict the resident god, if necessary, and rest awhile. However, the “temple” upon which Kroo decides is really a power station and it is guarded by Japanese soldiers who have taken over the formerly British colony of Burma. Kroo dumps off Danton and yak inside the power station and goes in search of the resident god to challenge him to a duel.

Danton, meanwhile, finds himself confronted by some very angry Japanese soldiers. But though Danton speaks Japanese, he has no idea that the US are at war with Japan now. The Japanese soldiers assume that Danton is a spy, arrest him and take him to their commander, one Captain Yakuni. There he also meets another western prisoner, a young woman named Deborah Hadley, who came to Burma as a singer in a travelling show. Deborah is no wilting wallflower. She smokes, wears pants, curses (in Gaelic, so not to upset the censors), knows how to fly a plane and banters with Yakuni and Danton (whom she calls Dan, because she dislikes the name Horace). At one point, she tells Yakuni to have the hapless Danton shot, because he obviously doesn’t have the brains to be a spy. Imagine Katherine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall playing her in a movie and you’ve got the idea.

When Yakuni qustions Danton, Danton manages to put himself perilously close to the wrong side of a firing squad. He politely asks Yakuni for transport, because he urgently needs to get his specimens and data back to the US, which goes down about as well as you’d expect. Yakuni also wants to know how Danton got from Tibet to Burma. Danton obviously cannot tell the truth, so he claims he was hypnotised and only came to in the power station.

Yakuni decides not to shoot Danton for now and instead asks Deborah to show him around. Deborah takes Danton to a bar and catches him up on recent events. She also tell Danton that Yakuni needs the power station, because he is manufacturing bombs from a special, electrolytically created superexplosive. Deborah wants to either get word to the allied forces or destroy the power station herself and enlists Danton’s help. Danton also tells Deborah about Kroo, but naturally she doesn’t believe him.

Kroo picks just that moment to return and work another miracle. He levitates Danton and the yak into the air and has Danton order Burmese and Japanese (and Deborah) alike to worship him. The Burmese comply, the Japanese try to shoot down Danton and get fried by lightning bolts for their trouble. Deborah procures a dead goat as an offering to Kroo, which pacifies him for now.

Yakuni, on the other hand, is not at all pacified. He has Danton arrested again and demands to know what exactly is going on. Danton of course can’t explain and then Kroo starts speaking through him again, demanding that Yakuni worship him. And when Yakuni refuses, Kroo starts to curse him using Danton’s voice. As a result, Kroo almost gets his high priest shot by the furious Yakuni, but luckily he decides that discretion is the better part of valour and teleports Danton and Deborah to his “temple”, before Yakuni can pull the trigger.

At the “temple”, really the power station, Kroo makes Deborah his priestess, informs Danton that he has gotten rid of the men who defiled the temple (Japanese soldiers who were supposed to repair a broken dynamo, before Kroo reduced them to piles of ashes) and demands that they prepare the temple for a sacrifice. Kroo departs and Deborah and Danton discuss what to do now. They both realise that the Japanese will shoot them, should they find them in the power station. Deborah suggests wrecking the power station and Danton grabs a sledge hammer that is conveniently lying around and proceeds to smash the dynamos. This brings Kroo back, who considers the dynamos his altars and will not have them touched. Deborah persuades Kroo that this was all part of the ritual. Kroo relents and demands that Danton go outside the temple to bring Kroo’s commandments to the people.

“I’ll tell the Japanese what you want”, Danton tells Kroo, “But they won’t listen. They’ll just shoot me.”

Kroo confidently replies that he will protect his priest. So Danton goes out and promptly finds himself starring into the barrels of dozens of Japanese rifles. Yakuni orders his soldiers to shoot Danton, but Kroo intervenes and freezes them. He then declares a holiday in his honour and demands that his worshippers celebrate. A Burmese man points out that they don’t have any food, because the Japanese took it all, so Kroo promptly raids the Japanese stores and teleports that food into the street, much to the delight of the Burmese and the chagrin of Captain Yakuni.

Kroo finally unfreezes the Japanese soldiers and demand that they join in the celebration. And just to make a point, he incinerates several Japanese soldiers who advance upon the power station. So Yakuni and his soldiers pretend to go along and join the festivities to honour Kroo. Several soldiers try to seize and shoot Danton, but once more Kroo intervenes, incinerates the soldiers and then erupts into a thunderstorm. He also lifts Yakuni up into the air and has Danton order him to worship Kroo or be incinerated. Then Kroo orders a tournament to be held to determine the chieftain of his tribe, which Kroo personally will oversee while inhabiting the body of the yak.

Left alone at the power station, Danton and Deborah decide to steal some of Yakuni’s bombs and blow up the power station, even if that will infuriate Kroo. However, they find that Kroo’s taboo is too strong. Nor can they radio for help, because Yakuni has disabled the radio. Danton is also certain that Yakuni has not truly given in, even though he is pretending to go along with Kroo for now.

Over the next few days, Danton proceeds to manipulate Kroo. First, he persuades Kroo to make Danton and Deborah invulnerable. Kroo does grant them invulnerability, but only if they remain near the sacred yak. Next, Danton persuades Kroo to have the people build a floating temple, which conveniently doubles as a raft. Finally, Danton persuades Kroo that in order to become a better and more legendary god, he needs to symbolically die and be reborn.

So Kroo goes into hibernation. Danton and Deborah take the chance to board the floating temple together with the yak, claiming to make a sacrifice to Kroo in a secret place. They also tell the Burmese that if they do not return within two days, the town of Myapur is a taboo place in order to protect the Burmese from a possible allied bombing as well as the enraged Kroo.

Danton and Deborah get away from the village without incident and travel down the river on their raft. However, they fail to find an Allied base. Worse, Kroo awakens from hibernation to find Myapur deserted, his high priest, priestess and worshippers gone and his “temple” desecrated, since the Japanese took the dynamos with them, when they left. So Kroo seeks out his faithless priest and priestess, fully determined to kill them for the sacrilege. However, Deborah and Danton manage to persuade Kroo that it was the Japanese who desecrated the “temple” and that Deborah and Danton were just trying to get help. This satisfies Kroo for now, though he demands that Danton get his “shining altars” – the dynamos – back.

Danton deduces that Yakuni must have transported the dynamos downriver and that he must have set them up near a waterfall to utilise water power. So he asks Kroo to fly them down the river to search for Yakuni and the missing dynamos. They finally find Yakuni’s new power station, which is fully operationally. The dynamos are up and running and Yakuni is manufacturing bombs again.

Confused, Kroo asks what happened to his temple and his altars. Danton tells him that an evil god has taken up residence in the temple, an evil god worshipped by the Japanese, and that Kroo should challenge this god in battle. Kroo promptly flies off to do that and succeeds in blowing up the dynamos, the Japanese and himself. The yak drops dead the moment Kroo does. Danton and Deborah are finally free. They mourn Kroo, who may have been a barbarian god, but wasn’t a bad sort overall. An allied plane comes to investigate the explosion and Danton and Deborah are rescued at last.

The point of view now switches to Kroo again, who finds himself on the rainbow bridge to Asgard – pardon, Godheim, the afterlife for deceased gods. Kroo is confused, because Godheim is for great gods and Kroo was just a Tibetan village god who never had the chance to grow to greatness. However, the other gods inform him that Kroo was brave enough to go up against a mighty deity whom none of them have ever dared to face. And even though he was slain in that battle, this more than qualifies Kroo for a place in Godheim. Is the point here that science and technology are more powerful than any of the gods of old? Or am I reading too much into this?

Fantastic Story Magazine 1954

I have no idea which story this cover illustrates, but it’s not “A God Named Kroo”

“A God Named Kroo” is a charming and highly entertaining adventure story. The plot moves at a brisk pace and so the story feels shorter than it actually is. Occasionally, SFF novellas from the golden age can feel padded and overly long – the authors were paid by the word, after all. I never had this feeling with “A God Named Kroo”.

Thrilling Wonder Stories was mainly a science fiction magazine, but “A God Named Kroo” is pure fantasy without even a hint of science fiction. I could easily imagine it in John W. Campbell’s Unknown – the science versus religion angle would have appealed to Campbell and Unknown published a lot of contemporary fantasy and also published lighter and more humorous stories than Weird Tales – and maybe that’s what the story was intended for. Alas, Unknown fell victim to World War II paper rationing the year before and so “A God Named Kroo” wound up in Thrilling Wonder Stories instead.

Danton, Deborah, Kroo, Yakuni and even the yak are all fully developed characters with their own goals and motivations. I liked the fact that Danton – though brave and intelligent – is also something of a bumbler. Nor is he technically proficient – he is an archaeologist and ethnologist, after all, not an engineer. Deborah is a great example of a 1940s take on a strong female character, written by a man no less. I bet she’d get along just wonderfully with Mayo McCall from Leigh Brackett’s Shadow Over Mars. Even Kroo, village god with an inferiority complex, is a remarkably sympathetic character – especially considering he is a barbarian god with a taste for blood sacrifices and the tendency to incinerate recalcitrant worshippers.

Considering how many American works of the WWII era portray the Japanese as grossly racist caricatures (e.g. last year’s Retro Hugo winning Wonder Woman comic or the Retro Hugo nominated Batman serial), it is a pleasant surprise that Yakuni, though the antagonist, is still very much a human being. Nor is Yakuni portrayed as pointlessly cruel, which is even more of a rarity. Yes, he plans to shoot Danton, but that’s actually understandable given the situation. He also does not sexually harass Deborah, though one of his subordinates does. But then, Earth’s Last Citadel, a 1944 Best Novel Retro Hugo finalist by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, has two main characters who are Nazi spies and only contains one offensive scene. Kuttner and Moore do not dehumanise their antagonists, which makes me like their fiction even more.

That’s not to say that there aren’t several moments in “A God Named Kroo” that will make a modern reader roll their eyes or grit their teeth. Because there’s quite a bit of casual racism in the story. Jieng, Danton’s guide, is described as monkeylike. The Burmese and Tibetan people are described as superstitious and backwards, even though they are generally sympathetic characters. The Japanese are repeatedly described as “yellow-skinned” (Has Kuttner ever seen a Japanese person? Or any Asian person, for that matter?) and referred to as “Japs” or “Nips” in the dialogue throughout.

Furthermore, Kuttner also seem to be an adherent to the Lester Dent method of writing adventure stories in foreign settings. Foreign words are scattered throughout the text to evoke a sense of authenticity, whether the terms make any sense in that setting or not. Jieng is described as Hindu, even though he appears to be Chinese or Tibetan and would therefore most likely be Buddhist. Finally, Kroo manifesting as a thundercloud and striking down his enemies and insufficiently worshipful followers with lightning bolts is based on a very western and Christianised idea of religion. For manifesting their anger as thunder and striking down enemies with lightning is something western deities do.

But in spite of these criticisms, “A God Named Kroo” is highly enjoyable story. I could easily imagine this as a movie, a sort of cross between Indiana Jones, African Queen and Bringing Up Baby.

Talking of Indiana Jones, his inspirations are not as well documented as those for Star Wars, though in general Indiana Jones is believed to have been inspired by the movie serials of the 1930s and 1940s with maybe a dash of Doc Savage thrown in. However, I have also come across several science fiction and fantasy stories from the golden age which were more than a little reminiscent of Indiana Jones. “A God Named Kroo” could actually be an Indiana Jones movie – down to the protagonist and his female partner being saved and the antagonists being destroyed by divine intervention. For though Indy is more of an action hero than Horace Danton, he nonetheless is saved by divine intervention in his first three movie and by alien intervention in the fourth that we shall not talk about. I don’t know if George Lucas ever read “A God Named Kroo”. However, we know that he was an avid reader of pulp science fiction, so I wonder if there isn’t a little bit of Horace Danton or Leigh Brackett’s various archaeologist protagonists in Indiana Jones.

The fact that “A God Named Kroo” is such a delightful and entertaining story makes it even more of a surprise that the story is relatively obscure. It is probably my favourite of the Kuttner solo stories I’ve read so far. At any rate, I enjoyed “A God Named Kroo” more than the better known Gallegher stories from the same period. Nonetheless, “A God Named Kroo” has only been reprinted once in seventy-five years – in 1954.

This very obscurity may well count against “A God Named Kroo” in the Retro Hugos, which tend to reward stories and authors with name recognition – which is why substandard early stories by future stars get nominated and occasionally win Retro Hugos over better, but lesser known stories. And though the novella category for the 1945 Retro Hugos is a tad weak, “A God Named Kroo” is up against the well-known and very good “Killdozer” by Theodore Sturgeon as well as also very good “The Jewel of Bas” by Leigh Brackett and “The Changeling” by A.E. Van Vogt, who still has a lot of fans. Furthermore, Henry Kuttner has somewhat fallen into obscurity, probably because he died much too young. “A God Named Kroo” would certainly be a worthy winner, but I suspect it’s too obscure to win.

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4 Responses to Retro Review: “A God Named Kroo” by Henry Kuttner

  1. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 6/9/20 I Can’t Scroll Yet, I Haven’t Seen The Pixel Story. | File 770

  2. Stephen Fritter says:

    Cora, your review of Margaret St. Clair’s Message from the Eocene and Three Worlds of Infinity led me on a marvelous adventure. Through the use of the Internet Archive, my own personal collection, and $200 worth of purchases I was able to track down all of her SF works. Her novels are available in ebook versions only in the UK, so I had to spend $40 on The Shadow People. A shoulda been classic. As for today’s entry. The three best writers of to 30’s/40’s were C. L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, and C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner under there various pseudonyms.

    • Cora says:

      Well, I’m glad you enjoyed my Margaret St. Clair review and that it led you to check out her other works, though I apologise to your wallet. Margaret St. Clair is one of those writers who deserve to be much better known than they are.

      I also agree on Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore and their various pseudonyms. They were among the best and most versatile SFF writers working during the 1930s and 1940s. Once again, they’re not as well remembered as they should be, though C.L. Moore has undergone something of a rediscovery in recent times. It wasn’t all that long ago that her work was very hard to find.

  3. Cat Eldridge says:

    That a person with a Chinese name worships Hindu gods doesn’t surprises me as the two pantheons get borrowed heavily by other religions in that greater region. That person could well have been Buddhist of Chinese descent, not uncommon there. I

    I once was in a temple structure in Sri Lanka that served both Buddhists and Hindus — on one side was the Hindu temple that has a frieze of deities that including Buddha; on the backside was another doorway that led to a Buddhist temple that had a frieze that incorporate many Hindu deities.

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