Far back in Kane’s gloomy eyes, a scintillant light had begun to glimmer, like a witch’s torch glinting under fathoms of cold gray ice. His blood quickened. Adventure! The lure of life-risk and battle! The thrill of breathtaking, touch-and-go drama! Not that Kane recognized his sensations as such. He sincerely considered that he voiced his real feelings when he said:
“These things be deeds of some power of evil. The lords of darkness have laid a curse upon the country. A strong man is needed to combat Satan and his might. Therefore I go, who have defied him many a time.”
After viewing the not-bad movie Solomon Kane, which I reviewed recently, I decided to see whether there were any Kane stories I’d missed. I’d read one collection before, and thought that was all there was. But in fact, I discovered, Robert E. Howard wrote a number of Solomon Kane stories, enough to fill a book of reasonable length if you include the unfinished fragments, and that is what The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane is.
The stories start in Kane’s English homeland, where he battles various dark forces, but soon Howard takes him to continental Europe and then to Africa, where he stays for the rest of the book, except for a “homecoming” poem that rounds the collection out.
As you can judge from the snippet at the top of this post, Robert E. Howard was not a writer of elegance. His prose can clunk from time to time. But I have to say that I didn’t care. The man was unmatched in his ability to paint a weird scene, draw you into it, and engage you at every level. I read the book in great chunks, with immense visceral pleasure.
One surprising fact, which I learned in the excellent biographical sketch on Howard by Rusty Burke which is appended to the book, was that Howard was a fan of G. K. Chesterton. It’s apparent, though, that it wasn’t Chesterton’s theological writings that he liked, but his poetry, especially “The Ballad of the White Horse,” which he actually quotes at the section breaks in the story “The Moon of Skulls.” Despite being identified as a Puritan, Solomon Kane doesn’t actually think about theology much. He is even willing to use (though gingerly at first) a “ju-ju stick” given to him by an African witch doctor, though Howard softens the unorthodoxy of that choice later on by identifying the stick as being both the rod of Aaron and the staff of Solomon. In short, don’t look for Christian lessons here. This is pulp fiction from the 1930s, albeit top of the line pulp fiction.
Something should probably be said about Howard’s handling of race. Solomon Kane is not hostile to the black people he encounters. In fact he often acts as their protector, flying into volcanic rage over injustices and violence visited upon them. But he is patronizing in the extreme. The author’s view seems to be that Africans are a lower evolutionary form of human being, soon destined for extinction, and that it’s the duty of superior whites to look after them.
Lots of violence. The language was pretty mild, in the style of the times. And lots less sexual suggestiveness than in the Conan stories.
I should also mention that Gary Gianni’s illustrations for this book are simply wonderful – skillful line drawings in the old style of Howard Pyle and N. C. Wyeth. They are fully worthy of the material and add immensely to the effect of the prose.
Highly recommended, as pure entertainment.