Illustrated by Gary Gianni
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
In a review of one of my books, Booksquawk's very own Pat Black was kind enough to compare my writing to that of Robert E. Howard. I'm sure there are many “serious” writers out there who would be less than pleased to receive such a comparison but to me, that was one of the kindest compliments ever paid. For someone who devours the work of Pulp authors and tries to emulate their style in his own writing, to be compared to arguably the greatest pulp writer of all time is quite some compliment. Robert E. Howard is best remembered for his creation of “Conan the Barbarian”, the amoral musclebound hero of the Hyborian age. Howard's pulp adventure stories are often looked down upon as being one-dimensional, overly violent, often puerile escapist romps. This snooty attitude totally misses the point of Howard's writing. You want sophistication? Go read Fitzgerald or Faulkner. Howard's work doesn't aim to be classy or high-brow. His short stories and novellas are fast-paced, thrilling adventures designed to give the reader a brief burst of adrenaline-fuelled prose which transports them to fantastic other worlds. In these more cynical times, tales of sword and sorcery might seem somewhat played-out but Howard practically invented the genre, years before Tolkien invented Middle Earth.
Whilst he is best known for the mighty Conan, my personal favourite creation by Howard is the Puritan swordsman Solomon Kane. Dressed entirely in black and armed with a rapier, a dirk and a brace of pistols, Kane is a dour and deadly character. Utterly devoted to fighting evil, we learn little else about him in the stories. A few hints are given of his dark bloody past but Solomon's origins remain a mystery, enabling Howard to focus instead on his character's grim determination to battle the forces of darkness wherever he can find them.
Unlike the entirely fictional Hyborian age of Conan, the Solomon Kane stories are set in the sixteenth-century, and this semi-historical setting gives the work a pleasing real world grounding to complement the wild flights of fantasy. Whilst the stories set in England are enjoyable, it is when the adventures are transplanted to the unexplored wilds of Africa that Howard starts having the most fun by paying tribute to the lost world tales of H. Rider Haggard. Ancient sealed temples hiding unspeakable evil creatures, forgotten cities populated by savage races, sinister voodoo magic, damsels in distress, human sacrifice, vampire queens, shambling undead monsters... you name it, the Solomon Kane stories have it all. The solemn, brooding Kane strides from one conquest to the next, using both his wits and his uncanny ability with a blade to right wrongs and punish evildoers both human and supernatural.
It is possible to find the most popular Solomon Kane stories in ebook format or the very reasonably priced “The Right Hand of Doom and Other Stories” published by Wordsworth books. Completists would be advised to seek out the Del Rey Trade paperback of “The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane” first published in 1998. This edition collects not just the tales of Solomon Kane published in Howard's lifetime but also the poetry featuring Kane, a handful of unfinished story fragments, a very good biography of Howard's life and work as well as the touching piece “In Memoriam: Robert Ervin Howard” written by H.P. Lovecraft after Howard's suicide at the age of thirty. To top it all, the book is packed with fantastic illustrations by Gary Gianni (whose “Major Thrill's Adventure Book” I reviewed in the dim and distant past). The illustrations are mostly evocative line drawings which are similar to those one would expect to see in the old Pulp magazines but there are also a few fantastic full page “plates” which, whilst they are reproduced in black and white, look absolutely brilliant. Indeed, for those seeking the complete Solomon Kane experience, this is the book to go for.
What of the stories themselves? Well, the seven stories that were published in Howard's lifetime are all great fun and are the most commonly reproduced. “Skulls in the Stars” sees Kane battling an angry spirit which haunts a Westcountry moor. “Red Shadows”, also known as “Solomon Kane” has Kane pursuing a thief and a murderer from France to deepest darkest Africa. Once in the jungles of Africa, Kane meets the voodoo shaman N'Longa who features in a number of other stories. “Rattle of Bones” is a short story where Kane finds himself a guest at a wayside inn which hides a dark secret. “The Moon of Skulls” has Kane return to Africa where he tries to rescue a family friend from the clutches of a wicked queen who rules over a forgotten city. Kane battles zombie-vampires in “The Hills of the Dead”. This is another Africa tale and is best known for introducing the magic staff that Kane wields. We learn more about his magic staff in “The Footfalls Within” as well as watching him kick vast quantities of ass as he comes across a slave caravan. By far the best of the Solomon Kane stories published in Howard's lifetime is “Wings in the Night”. In this utterly brilliant (and incredibly gory) adventure, Kane battles winged monsters who are descendants of the Harpies of ancient myth.
And the unpublished stories? Well, despite being a bit rough around the edges, they are equally impressive. “The Castle of the Devil” is an intriguing little fragment which shows Kane at his most determined to right the wrongs of the world. “Death's Black Riders” has Kane meeting a supernatural horseman on a lonely road but is a great example of Howard's dynamic and atmospheric prose. “Blades of the Brotherhood” (also known as “The Blue Flame of Vengeance”) sees Kane team up with a young swordsman in order to defeat a gang of ruthless pirates in cahoots with a wicked local Lord. “Hawk of Basti” is an African tale where Kane comes across a companion from his dark past. “Children of Asshur” sees Kane meeting descendants of the ancient Mesopotamians who rule a lost city in Africa. This is probably the weakest story in the collection as it is the least polished of the fragments – the narrative is choppy and characters appear midway through the story without introduction. “The Right Hand of Doom” is undoubtedly the strongest of the unpublished tales. A great supernatural short story about a murderous severed hand. It might not give Kane much room for action but it is a wonderful tale in its own right.
“The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane” is a fantastic book and fans of Robert E. Howard would be doing a disservice letting it pass them by. Anyone with an interest in weird fiction or pulp adventure stories ought to be familiar with Howard's work but if you are somehow unaware of his adventure stories you ought to add this to your post-Christmas shopping list straight away.
Hereward L.M. Proops