Monday morning is here again, and things are restless here in the darkest jungles of Appalachia. For starters, it’s snowing, which sucks in a big big way. Appalachian roads are notorious for being twisty, winding things; my mom always said, “When they laid this road, they didn’t move a single tree or cow.” And to make the twisty bits even more horrible, they go up and down hills, too. So hilly, twisty roads plus snow equals dangerous, scary travel. Blech. Besides, I hate the cold; I much prefer summer.
The second source of restlessness for me is that I have a medical procedure — a combination endoscopy and colonoscopy — scheduled for bright and early tomorrow morning. It’s all to do with why I vanished from the blog through the Christmas season; the doctor is hoping to see what has been causing the problems. So we do the thing tomorrow morning, and this means I have to fast all day today; nothing but clear liquids and a growly tummy until after lunchtime tomorrow. I’m hungry! I’ve only gotten back the ability to eat without horrible pain! I know, I know, I can tough it out,where’s that hillbilly pluck? Yeah, well, I have plenty of pluck, but I still want some scrambled eggs and fried potatoes.
So enough whinging. I have spent the last few days reading The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, by Robert E. Howard. Those of you who have spent more than ten minutes in the world of classic pulp has heard of Robert E. Howard: he’s the creator of Conan the Barbarian. Howard is a strange and really fascinating character in his own right. He was born, raised and died in the town of small town Texas. This picture below is one of him only two years before he died; I’ve always thought it reflected the dichotomy of the man brilliantly. On the one hand, he’s dressed and posed to look like he should have been running with Al Capone and his cronies in crooked gangland Chicago; tough as nails. But I look at his face and he looks so young, so innocent of what’s coming.
Just like the picture, Howard was a divided man. This is a man whose earliest passions were for poetry and stories; but he also spent part of his youth studying boxing and bodybuilding. Howard never married, and was in every sense a “mama’s boy” (he never married, lived with his mother until his dying day; he killed himself upon being told that his mother wasn’t going to wake from a coma; she died the next day) But at the same time, he was the creator of one of the most iconic action heroes in 20th century letters, Conan the Barbarian, and the founder of what some call “The Sacred Genre,” sword and sorcery.
Howard was a prolific writer throughout his professional career. He never published a novel, but his short stories and poetry covered sword and sorcery, historical straight adventure, boxing stories, westerns, and some horror, pretty much covering the waterfront of pulp fiction in the 1920’s and 30’s. I first heard about him because he was a contemporary of and correspondent with H. P. Lovecraft. He even wrote several stories for the Cthulhu Mythos.
But what brings me to mention him today is Solomon Kane. Now I saw the Conan the Barbarian movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger, same as every other member of my generation. This motivated me to hunt down Howard’s original stories, and I read ten or twelve of them (there were 21 completed stories, plus a number of unfinished fragments). I didn’t care for them. I know, they are iconic, they are the foundation for Sword and Sorcery, blah blah, I know all this. My problem was that the stories felt disconnected. After reading 10 of them, I didn’t feel like I understood Conan the character any better than I did after reading the first sentence of the first one.
Whatever, right? I was young, barely 17 at the time, so what did I know? I set the stories aside and got on with my life. I occasionally read his horror shorts if I happened across one (“Pigeons from Hell” will give you nightmares forever!), but I was not motivated to seek out anything specifically until I heard of Solomon Kane through a fellow writer. It had been thirty years since my disappointment with Conan; it was past time to give Howard another try.
First, what is Solomon Kane? Like Conan, Solomon Kane is a short story series created by Howard. He is a Puritan… well, I guess paladin is the best word for him. He has no backstory and no motivation beyond “God thinks I should kill these people.” He is a wanderer in 16-17th century Europe and Africa (kinda loosey-goosey on a firm timeline), using a rapier and occasionally a flintlock pistol (later picking up a magic staff) to protect the innocent and crush the evil-doer beneath his boot. Solomon went up against mundane pirates, murderers and other ne’er-do-wells, but he also went toe to toe with vampires, demons, demi-gods and evil wizards; since the first Kane stories predate Conan and Kull (another one of Howard’s creations), they can be argued to be the true foundation of the Sword and Sorcery genre. These stories were very popular, even more so than Conan in Howard’s lifetime, and continue to be well-received even today, spawning several comic book appearances (with Marvel and Dark Horse Comics) and a 2009 movie. I have not checked out the comics or movie, so I can’t yet report back on those.
Now, on to Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. This is a complete collection, comprising all the completed short stories, several unfinished fragments, and a couple of poems. The stories are for the most part pretty short, and very succinct; they do not spare a syllable on fluff. If there’s anything Howard does well, it’s give you plenty of bang for your buck, with the action starting as soon as humanly possible, and keeping it going for as long as necessary. He doesn’t spare the gore, either, which surprised me, considering how prissy some of the writing from the 1920’s can be; there’s plenty of blood, guys cutting off limbs and stabbing each other through the eye, etc.
Truth be told, Solomon Kane is what I imagine a true paladin would be like: humorless, dour, driven, judgmental, scary. A proper paladin would be less like Sir Galahad, and more like the assistant principal at your school, the one who desperately needs a rectal stick-ectomy. Only, you know, heavily armed and all. But beyond this, nothing. I have no idea why Kane is bent on this creepy crusade, what keeps him going, what pleases him, what frightens him. Nothing.
This is what bugged me about Conan.
Readers (and writers) can be safely divided into those who revel in a good plot, and those who revel in a good character. I am one of those who needs to be able to connect to the character. With the best characters, I have this feeling of, “I wish I could be friends with him!” or “I wish I could be her!” AT the very least, I need to think, “I wouldn’t choose to do that, but I understand why he chose differently.” No. I couldn’t do it with Kane. He’s like a marble statue animated; he is smooth and well-carved,but there’s no texture, nothing to give me a firm grasp on who or what he is. Even James Bond has more depth to him, and Bond (in the books and the movies) is practically the poster child for “no back story.” Maybe that’s not a problem for you as a reader. For me, it’s a deal breaker.
Beyond that, if you check this one out, be warned: racism and sexism are very much on display. It’s part of the times, I understand that; Howard was writing in the Deep South in the heyday of Jim Crow. And he is better than his contemporary H.P. Lovecraft; at least Howard was willing to allow for black characters to be good and heroic occasionally. But the blatant racist mindset is very jarring to encounter if you’re not expecting it. Same with the sexism: woman are either Madonna or whore, perfectly good and innocent or blackhearted vipers; no middle ground. This is less surprising to me, coming from a man who never married and, so far as I can find out, never even went on a date, AND had an unhealthy attachment to his mother (remember why he killed himself?).
If you can deal with that — lots of action, essentially no character development, the foundations of a huge genre, but lots of racism and sexism — then I can wholeheartedly say that Solomon Kane is a character you should check out. Otherwise, give Kane a pass; check out Howard’s horror stuff instead.
And that’s it for me. I got a little longwinded, huh? Sorry about that. All prayers for tomorrow turning out well will be welcome; I’m not afraid, but I desperately hope the tests will finally give us some answers. In the meantime, don’t forget to email, share, tweet and comment; and send along your recommendations for Fun Friday. Be good, and I’ll be back on Wednesday (Okay, I’ll be back on Wednesday if you’re not good).