Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane by Robert E. Howard

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane is a collection of all of Robert E. Howard’s stories featuring 17th century Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane.

Solomon Kane considers himself to be a Puritan but he’s not quite what you might think of when you hear the word. He is a man with a very high sense of duty and he can be ruthless. He’s a man driven by conscience. He is however prepared to entertain the possibility that sometimes duty is complicated and sometimes it ends up feeling like the wrong thing to do. He is a man who understands moral complexity. And it’s something he worries about a lot.

Kane is a hard man but he’s as hard on himself as he is on others and he detests cruelty. He particularly detests people who try to find spurious moral justifications for cruelty and injustice.

This is Robert E. Howard, a man some would dismiss as a mere pulp writer, creating a fascinatingly complex character capable of a degree of self-doubt and self-analysis.

Solomon Kane sees himself as an agent of God, as God’s avenger. His mission in life is to destroy evil men. He is a fanatic, but unlike most fanatics he possesses a capacity for kindness.

One of the things I like about Solomon Kane is that he’s not Conan in 17th century garb. He’s a very different kind of character. He’s more serious-minded, a bit more introspective, and he has a strong sense of moral purpose.

These stories sometimes involve the supernatural, and sometimes not.

In Skulls in the Stars Kane is on his way to Torkertown. He is warned to take the swamp road rather than the much shorter much easier road across the moor. Danger and death lurk on the moor road. Naturally Kane takes the moor road.

And he encounters something uncanny and terrifying. Can an emotion be made flesh? Perhaps some emotions can. Emotions like hate. Kane finds an answer to the danger but it makes him uneasy. Good story.

The Right Hand of Doom is a neat little tale of a necromancer who promises to exact revenge on the man who betrayed him. A story in which Kane wants to see justice done but in which he recognises that justice can be used as an excuse for mere revenge, or hate, or cruelty. A solid story.

Red Shadows (originally titled Solomon Kane) is a novelette. Kane encounters a dying girl. She had been raped and brutalised. Kane has never set eyes on this girl before but now he has appointed himself her avenger. Avenging her will take Kane across the seas and all the way to Africa where he will encounter some formidable magic. Interesting that the African voodoo witch-doctor/black magician N’Longa turns out to be one of the good guys. Howard gives this novelette a certain epic quality - Kane doesn’t care if it takes him years and he has to visit every corner of the globe. He has promised vengeance and he keeps his promises. N’Longa also gives Kane a wooden stuff. It is fabulously old, made of an unknown wood, with magical powers. That staff will crop up in later Solomon Kane stories. Great story.

Rattle of Bones begins with Kane and a Frenchman he has met on the road through the forest taking a room at an inn. It is the Cleft Skull Inn and it looks as inviting as its name suggests. I can’t tell you much more without revealing spoilers except that Solomon Kane will not get much sleep this night. And it’s a revenge story with a twist. Good story.

The novella The Moon of Skulls takes Kane back to Africa. It is the last stage in an epic quest that has taken years. Kane is searching for an English girl kidnapped by slavers. He has reached the fabled kingdom of Negari, ruled by the dreaded black queen Nakari.

He discovers that Negari has a bizarre history, a history that goes back to another land, a time of legend, a vanished civilisation. He finds a city in the heart of Africa but dark deeds are done there. And the Moon of Skulls, the full moon, is approaching. After that there will be no way to save that English maiden.

Kane will be offered immense power and will be tempted, although only for a moment.

Kane will be captured, he will witness scenes of torture and depravity and he will inflame the lusts of Queen Nakari.

There’s action aplenty, there are chases through secret passageways, there are horrific secrets to be revealed. A splendid tale of adventure.

The Blue Flame of Vengeance begins with a duel. A young man named Jack Hollinster has challenged Sir George Banway, a nobleman with an evil reputation. The duel ends inconclusively but indirectly it leads to a meeting between Jack and Solomon Kane. Kane is out for revenge as well but Sir George is not his target. Kane has been pursuing the notorious pirate Jonas Hardraker.

Jack’s lady love is kidnapped so Kane will have to rescue her as well as settling his account with Hardraker.

Plenty of action in this tale and a second duel, this time with knives. A fine story.

The Hills of the Dead takes Kane back to Africa, but he can’t explain why. He has no mission to fulfil. He is simply drawn to the place. An encounter with a frightened young African girl named Junna will however present him with a mission. Her tribe is being menaced by the dead. They are the dead of a vanished tribe and they are vampires of a sort. Junna’s tribe lives in terror. Ridding the land of these vampire-like creatures is task worthy of Solomon Kane.

It is however a task that is beyond him. Kane fears no living man but these walking dead are impervious to both sword and pistol. Kane reluctantly comes to the conclusion that magic must be fought with magic. He knows nothing of magic, but N’Longa knows a great deal. N’Longa is a mighty ju-ju man. He is also, as a result of the events recounted in Red Shadows, Kane’s blood brother. N’Longa might have the magic necessary. And while Kane abhors magic he knows that N’Longa is a good magician.

This is unequivocally a tale of the supernatural and a full-blown horror story. And a very very good one.

Wings in the Night is a very dark story, even for Robert E.Howard. Kane is in Africa, being pursued by cannibals. He comes across a village that has been ravaged and devastated and he finds unspeakable horrors. Flying creatures like men with wings, vicious and bloodthirsty.

He takes refuge in a village where the priest tells him of the full horrors of the bird-men.

The tribe sees Kane as a god who will deliver them from the evil of the bird-men. That’s what Kane fully intends to do but his fine resolutions lead to further horrors and to madness. A great story.

The Footfalls Within is a very simple tale. Kane is tramping through the jungle in Africa. He sees a party of Arab slavers driving a group of African slaves. The slavers are just about to commit an unspeakable act of cruelty towards a young girl. There are fifteen Arabs accompanied by seventy armed African guards. The odds against Kane are impossible. Kane attacks anyway and is captured.

The slavers, dragging Kane along with them bound and tied, find an ancient mausoleum. Kane knows that opening the mausoleum would be a mistake - he can hear footfalls within the tomb although nobody else hears them. It turns out that opening that mausoleum is a very big mistake indeed. Probably the weakest Solomon Kane story but still at least moderately creepy.

Final Thoughts

The weaker stories in this collection are still very good. The better stories are superb, Robert E. Howard at his best. And the better stories outnumber the weaker ones by a comfortable margin.

These tales are definitely sword-and-sorcery but being set in the 17th century and more often than not in Africa give them a unique feel. Very highly recommended.

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