In which Solomon Kane demonstrates that he is the wrong Puritan to mess with.
By Robert E. Howard
First published in 1928
Available online at Wikisource
It’s time for me to come clean: I’m not really all that fond of Conan the Barbarian.*
I’ll explain. When I was a kid, I was the beneficiary of a cultural feeding frenzy, as a score of publishing houses brought hundreds of old, obscure fantasy novels and stories out of oblivion and into paperback, all in the hopes of finding the next Lord of the Rings. And it was because of their, well, greed, that I had my first encounters with the works of the great Weird Tales authors from the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s.
This is how I made the acquaintance of H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, August Derleth, C. L. Moore, Manly Wade Wellman, Fritz Leiber, and Joseph Payne Brennan, all of whom produced marvelous stuff that I will re-re-re-re-(etc.)-read for the rest of my life. Those guys were to me what sports stars are to normal boys, one of which I was not.
Of all the Weird Tales authors, Robert E. Howard probably produced the work with the highest cultural visibility, although he didn’t live long enough to enjoy it. Conan, his most famous creation, is iconic, the subject of movies starring future California governors and endless graphic novels.
I always wondered at this, because I find Conan to be nothing more than a musclebound lunk with a broadsword. He’s neither intelligent enough, quirky enough, or funny enough to be interesting. He’s just there.
Because of that acclaim that Conan has received across the decades, he’s overshadowed Howard’s other characters, many of whom are way more interesting.
To my taste, chief among these is Solomon Kane, a fearless, dour, late-16th century Puritan who’s festooned with weapons ranging from rapiers to pistols to an enchanted staff once owned by King Solomon himself. Like Caine in Kung Fu, Solomon wanders the earth, looking for evildoers whose arses he thoroughly kicks.
Kane (not Caine) was introduced in a novelette entitled “Red Shadows,” which appeared in the August, 1928 issue of Weird Tales. At the beginning of the story, Kane encounters a young woman who’s had an extremely nasty run-in with a criminal known only as Le Loup:
“‘The fires of Hades!’ he murmured. ‘A girl! What has harmed you, child? Be not afraid of me.’
“The girl looked up at him, her face like a dim white rose in the dark.
“‘You–who are–you?’ her words came in gasps.
“‘Naught but a wanderer, a landless man, but a friend to all in need.’ The gentle voice sounded somehow incongruous, coming from the man.
“The girl sought to prop herself up on her elbow, and instantly he knelt and raised her to a sitting position, her head resting against his shoulder. His hand touched her breast and came away red and wet.
“‘Tell me.’ His voice was soft, soothing, as one speaks to a babe.
“‘Le Loup,’ she gasped, her voice swiftly growing weaker. ‘He and his men–descended upon our village–a mile up the valley. They robbed–slew–burned–‘
“‘That, then, was the smoke I scented,’ muttered the man. ‘Go on, child.’
“‘I ran. He, the Wolf, pursued me–and–caught me–‘ The words died away in a shuddering silence.
“‘I understand, child. Then–?’
“‘Then–he–he–stabbed me–with his dagger–oh, blessed saints!–mercy–‘
“Suddenly the slim form went limp. The man eased her to the earth, and touched her brow lightly.
“‘Dead!’ he muttered.”
Is our man going to let this stand? Is Godzilla going to let Tokyo stand?
(Incidentally, I love that line: “The girl looked up at him, her face like a dim white rose in the dark.” In the pulps, you take your poetry where you can find it.)
In no time, Kane confronts Le Loup in his his lair. Le Loup, a boss who interprets the management dictums of Peter Drucker in an extremely loose way, is just killing off his underlings when Kane interrupts him:
“‘You are Solomon Kane, I suppose?’ he asked, managing to make his question sound politely incurious.
“‘I am Solomon Kane.’ The voice was resonant and powerful. ‘Are you prepared to meet your God?’
“‘Why, Monsieur,’ Le Loup answered, bowing, ‘I assure you I am as ready as I ever will be. I might ask Monsieur the same question.’
“‘No doubt I stated my inquiry wrongly,’ Kane said grimly. ‘I will change it: Are you prepared to meet your master, the Devil?'”
Both of these excerpts give you an idea of the dialog in these stories –it’s choc-a-bloc with pulpy goodness. I know my tastes in literature are warped, but I would take this over Harold Pinter any day.
It spoils nothing to relate that Le Loup does manage to get away from Solomon. Undaunted, Solomon chases Le Loup through Florence, Rome, and Spain, finally arriving in a remote section of African jungle. There, he finds Le Loup in the good graces of Songa, the local tribal lord. Le Loup has a grisly death in store for our hero, but doesn’t realize that Kane has made a new friend, the witch doctor N’Longa. N’Longa seeks revenge for a murder carried out by Le Loup, and sees Kane as a means of retribution. And it’s at this point that the supernatural enters the story…
All in all, this is incredibly satisfying, the literary equivalent of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.* Yes, you know you should go to the salad bar***, but damn, that’s tasty.
One thing I should mention is Howard’s treatment of race. Granted, the Africans in “Red Shadows” are 1920s cliches — they live in mud huts, they have witch doctors, and so forth. I think that Howard shows them more respect than many 19th- and early 20th-century mainstream authors do, however. I’m specifically thinking of how Conrad depicts the tribespeople in Heart of Darkness, or how Vachel Lindsay portrays them in “The Congo.” Howard’s viewpoint is cosmopolitan in comparison.
To read pulp fiction from the classic era is to encounter the politically incorrect. If you can get past that — if you can consider these stories in their original contexts — you’ll find a lot of fun reading awaits.
One final note: In 2009, a British Solomon Kane film premiered in the UK, where it did well at the box office. It wasn’t released in the US until 2012, however, and then only to a handful of theaters. This is an absolute shame, because Solomon Kane is a delight: it’s action-packed, engaging, and James Purefoy is the perfect Kane. It also stars the beloved Pete Postlethwaite in one of his final roles, plus Max Von Sydow. In a perfect world, this would have been a runaway summer blockbuster. Luckily, it’s available via streaming and DVD. Strongly recommended.
*Incidentally, look closely at the painting of Conan in the Wikipedia entry. I swear, he has the same haircut as Herb Tarlek in WKRP in Cincinnati.
**Known in France as a “Royale with Cheese.” (That makes two Pulp Fiction allusions in a single essay, which is some sort of personal best for me.)
***The salad bar represents all of those fine authors who suck the life energy clean out of you. I’m thinking of Virginia Woolf and Thomas Hardy, specifically.