The Robert E. Howard Library, Vol. III
Baen edition published November 1995
Skulls in the Stars
The Right Hand of Doom
Rattle of Bones
The Castle of the Devil (Howard & Campbell)
Death's Black Riders (fragment)
The Moon of Skulls
The One Black Stain (poem)
Blades of the Brotherhood
The Hills of the Dead
Hawk of Basti (Howard & Campbell)
The Return of Sir Richard Grenville (poem)
Wings in the Night
The Footfalls Within
The Children of Asshur (Howard & Campbell)
Solomon Kane's Homecoming (poem)
(out of 5)
This is the third volume in Baen's Robert E. Howard Library and features the complete collection of seven Solomon Kane stories written by REH and published during his lifetime, as well as three unfinished stories which were subsequently completed by (unlikely choice!) Ramsey Campbell, and even a couple of fragments and poems.
Next to Conan and Kull, Solomon Kane is REH's most recognized character. In fact, before he developed Conan, REH was best known to readers of Weird Tales for his popular Solomon Kane yarns, and deservedly so. Just the same, I confess to having mixed feelings about the dour sixteenth century Puritan. I find the writing itself slightly turgid and slow, with too little real action to sweep us along. On the other hand, the character of Kane himself is easily the most interesting of all Howard's creations, Conan included.
Physically Kane is a close match for 30's pulp hero, The Shadow, dressed all in black, with a rangy, gaunt look, pale, gloomy demeanor and slouch hat. He carries a veritable sixteenth century arsenal, comprising a rapier, a dagger, and pistols, and isn't afraid to use more than one at a time. The whole package is pretty damn impressive, especially when placed in the chronological context of the late sixteenth century, a brutal time of pirates and highwaymen, of slave galleys and the Inquisition. But it is Kane's motivation that I find most intriguing. For some reason never made clear, Kane is (like the Blues Brothers) on a mission from God. He has made it his purpose in life to fight Evil wherever he encounters it, no matter what the odds or hardships. Now this might not seem so strange -- after all, Doc Savage did the same, didn't he? But there is one crucial difference. Doc Savage wasn't nuts. Howard makes it reasonably clear that Kane is. At the same time, he remains our hero and, whatever his emotional problems, the end result is always for the best. I find this a refreshingly original idea, it's just too bad the writing itself wasn't better.
"Skulls in the Stars" is my favourite Solomon Kane story -- surprising given that it was only the second Kane story to see print in Weird Tales. Admittedly, my affection may owe a lot to the fact that it was one of the first REH stories I ever read. As well, to a child the central premise of a ghost that can tear you to shreds while you can't touch it...too creepy for words. But, reading the story today, I still find myself impressed by the lushly descriptive atmosphere, as well as the remarkable economy of verbiage. It is a short but effective little morsel, that features one of the eeriest final paragraphs to be found in the English language.
"Skulls in the Stars" is a tale set in a moss-bearded swamp involving hidden crimes and grisly justice. It would feel right at home in one of the E.C. horror comics of the 50s. On his way to the English hamlet of Torkertown, Solomon Kane discovers he can take one of two paths; one -- the long route -- winding through a difficult swamp; the other -- the short, straight route -- leads through a moor. Obviously, he should take the short moor route, right? Not so, says one of the locals. There is something that haunts the moor route, some THING that kills travellers in the dark of night. Of course, here is where Kane's interesting characterization comes into play. Warning the Puritan away is like a red flag to a bull -- he immediately determines to take the moor road and face this dreaded THING...for that is his mission in life. Of course, soon enough Kane witnesses a fatal attack on another traveller, who dies bloodily at the Puritan's buckled feet. Without time to escape, Kane finds himself fighting for his life against a misty, cackling apparition -- one which can rend him with invisible talons while he can't get in so much as a good right hook. Nonetheless, Kane manages to triumph and the apparition, before it flees, tells him a terrible secret, one which leads Kane to see that justice is done...entirely fitting justice that would have made E.C.'s Crypt Keeper proud (heh, heh. heh!)
It would be interesting to know if REH was a big fan of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", because I find myself thinking of that tale when I read "Skulls in the Stars". The setting is similar as (in a way) is the protagonist. Of course, Ichabod Crane never carried a three foot rapier, but, other than that...
"Red Shadows" was REH's first published Solomon Kane story (Howard's original title was "Solomon Kane") and it is considerably longer than "Skulls in the Stars". It also tells a tale of much wider scope, one which takes place over many years and many countries. It reads almost as the outline for a sprawling Rafael Sabatini-type novel, a tale of unrelenting dogged persistence as Kane spends years of his life seeking to avenge the death of a complete stranger.
In France this time, Kane happens upon a young girl, raped and beaten by a gang of brigands led by a villain known as Le Loup. When the girl dies in his arms, Kane grimly declares: "Men shall die for this." And, boy, does he mean it. He devotes the next few years to making life a living hell for Le Loup and his boys, finally bearding them in the French mountains. Le Loup alone narrowly escapes, but with Kane hard on his trail, a trail which leads through several countries, and finally takes them both into deepest, darkest Africa. Here they meet again, but Le Loup has enlisted the support of a tribal chief. In turn, Kane gains the support of the village witch doctor named N'Longa, and together they see that justice is done.
In spite of its vast scope, this isn't one of the better Kane stories. The writing (early REH) is good, but not great, never managing to evoke the atmosphere of his Conan stories, or even "Skulls in the Stars". Then too, the idea of Kane spending years bent on revenge would be suitable for a stand-alone single story (which REH may have intended it to be), but as part of a series it is awkward since it doesn't take Stephen Hawking to see Kane couldn't follow very many of these quests before he would be an old man. Anyway, I suspect Howard's real interest in writing this story lay in the set piece wherein N'Longa transfers his own spirit to a corpse, animating it like a grisly puppet. It is certainly an interesting idea, and well handled.
A final note: In this story we learn Kane's initials are S.L.K. So what was the L. for? As Stan Lee used to say: a No-prize to the reader who can answer that.
"Rattle of Bones" is another short yarn, and the third Kane story to see print. This time, the much travelled Kane finds himself in Germany's Black Forest, where he hitches up with another traveller named Gaston L'Armon. Together they take a room in an inn with the ominous name of the Cleft Skull Tavern, and a sinister innkeeper to match. The innkeeper, it soon develops, is taking more than deposits from his unsuspecting guests, but before Kane can deal with that threat, his new "friend" Gaston reveals himself to be considerably less of a friend than he had seemed. Somewhere in amongst this mayhem, they discover the bones of a sorcerer chained in a closet and, when Gaston foolishly breaks the chains, the sorcerer proves that even death can't keep a good man down...
As with "Skulls in the Stars", this story would fit right in with the E.C. horror comics of the 50s. Nonetheless, it isn't quite as effective as "Skulls" and in some ways reads more as the first draft of a much better story. Part of the problem is that it feels like two separate tales awkwardly jammed together. The one story, about Gaston L'Armon, is too brief to hold our interest. The other, about the innkeeper and the sorcerer's bones, feels as if Kane has blundered into the final act of somebodyelse's yarn. With another rewrite, REH could have concentrated more on the innkeeper's crime and his just deserts.
"The Moon of Skulls" is another Kane story which appeared in Weird Tales. Again we find our footloose hero in deepest, darkest Africa, this time seeking the hidden city of Negari where dwells Nakari, "the vampire queen of Negari". Kane soon finds the place, but perhaps wishes he had postponed the pleasure indefinitely. The city, though built by a much older and more sophisticated race, is now home to native Africans who have fallen far into depravity and debauchery, the boobyprize for which goes to the beautiful but nutty-as-a-fruitcake Nakari herself. Capturing Kane, Nakari follows the tradition where debauched queens are concerned and offers Kane his freedom if he will be her lover. Kane, traditional himself, refuses. It develops that Kane has come to Negari on the trail of an English girl named Marylin, kidnapped from her home and sold to Barbary pirates. Through a rather complicated route she wound up as Nakari's plaything, and by an equally complicated route Kane tracked her down. And a good thing too. She is about to be sacrificed to the eponymous Moon of Skulls, the god of Negari, a fate which Kane manages to scuttle just in the nick of time.
There are echoes of "Red Shadows" in this tale, in that again Kane has devoted a good part of his life to a seemingly hopeless quest to right a wrong involving a young girl. Then too both stories wind up in Africa. But "The Moon of Skulls" is a slightly better tale, with more action and more characterization. The writing too is slightly tighter, although still not Howard's best. Unfortunately, just when the story is getting interesting, Kane happens upon an old man in a dungeon, the very last survivor of the ancient race that really built the city of Negari. The old man proceeds to give Kane an extensive and tedious history of the city, one which acts like one hell of a speed bump in the otherwise smooth flow of the narrative. But after that, things pick up again for a rousing climax.
Sad to say, the story is also badly used by a nasty streak of racism that runs throughout. REH puts great emphasis on the mystery of the city's origins, built by an earlier race and now ruled by a black race clearly unsuited for the job, but he didn't have to put things on a black versus white level. Again and again he tells us that black Africans don't have the smarts to build such a city. He could simply have told us that these particular lunatics couldn't have done it...and left it at that.
The book's back cover refers to this story as involving "a jungle empire ruled by a vampire queen". REH does call Nakari the "vampire queen of Negari" and of the city's inhabitants he says: "blood was their drink and in that red flood they dipped deep and terribly." Nonetheless, there are no other suggestions of vampirism. What's going on here? In our modern Anne Rice-era, it is hard for us to remember there was a time when vampires were less popular than they are now. Howard was writing even before Bela Lugosi's turn as Dracula when Bram Stoker's novel was the only really high profile use of the vampire legend. What I'm getting at is I think Howard was using "vampire" in its alternative meaning, that is "a woman who uses sexual attraction to control men" from which we get the term "vamp". That usage was far more common in the 1920s and 30s, but you can still find it in the dictionary today. As for the bit about "blood was their drink", Howard was just being metaphorical. That's my guess, anyway.
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