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)
"The Hills of the Dead" was the fifth Solomon Kane story published in Weird Tales and I find it one of the stronger offerings if only because it features creepy zombie/vampires as well as a vampire mythos idea which, I believe, is wholly original to REH.
"The Hills of the Dead" begins with a sort of prologue. Once again, the solemn Solomon finds himself in deepest, darkest Africa, in the company of his old friend N'Longa. the witch doctor who we first met back in "Red Shadows". Declaring Kane his "blood-brother", N'Longa gives the Puritan a magic wooden stave, which will protect him in his travels. This stave not only features in the story to follow but crops up in later Solomon Kane stories as well, when we will learn more about its strange history.
Kane finds himself impulsively drawn to the jungle. Declaring "Something entered into my soul like a whisper of unnamed sin" (echoes of "Heart of Darkness"), he sets out to answer that call wherever it may lead. And it leads soon enough to a city of vampires! But not to worry; his magic stave proves a suitable match for the loathsome creatures. Just the same, he finds there are too many of them for him to handle alone and so, going into a trance, he contacts N'Longa, who is able to join Kane in spirit by sending his soul to inhabit the borrowed body of a local native. Together they track down the vampires' home and exterminate them all.
While the beginning to "The Hills of the Dead" is interesting enough, the ending leaves this reader rather disappointed. Once N'Longa is on the case, the vampires are made short work of, without much ingenuity put into the thing. It all seems a little too simple and perfunctory. What I do find fascinating, however, is Howard's idea that vampires are deathly afraid of...vultures. That's right, vultures. Why? you ask. Because vultures feed on dead things, and, even if that dead thing is a walking, biting vampire, a vulture knows a delectable main corpse when it sees one (ouch!). Maybe it's just me, but I find, in this modern age, the whole vampire mythos thing has gotten into a rut. Everyone's vampire is like every other vampire, with few original ideas in evidence. It comes as a nice surprise, then, to find that REH came up with a wholly original but ingenious idea like this and that he did so before vampires were even very popular in literature (for more about this vampire thing, see my review of "The Moon of Skulls".)
Given Howard's apparent racism in many of his stories, the portrayal of the witch doctor, N'Longa, here comes as a welcome surprise. N'Longa is shown to be a very competent and interesting character, who is shown considerable respect by Solomon Kane...this in spite of the fact that Kane is a Puritan and so naturally distrustful of "pagan" magic. In his introduction to this collection, Ramsey Campbell comments rather critically on the "pidgin English" which REH puts into N'Longa's mouth, but it is interesting to note that, when Kane encounters N'Longa in a dream, the pidgin English disappears...something which Kane himself wonders at. What REH was trying to say by this, I don't know. Perhaps that on a spiritual level N'Longa was no different from the white man, Kane?
"Wings in the Night" was the seventh and final Solomon Kane story printed during Howard's lifetime. Four months later, the first Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword", hit the stands, and the gent from Cross Plains never looked back.
Alas it is not one of my favourites. And that's a shame because I think REH was really trying for something special this time. Almost as if he knew it was to be the last Solomon Kane yarn, he threw caution to the wind, really imbuing this outing with all the passion and rage he had pent up inside. But that's precisely its problem. "Wings in the Night" comes across as just too passionate and too gory for my taste.
Again in Africa, the Puritan happens upon a seemingly bizarre mystery. An entire village wiped out in which the thatch roofs have all been torn open...as if by something trying to get inside from above. A little further on he comes upon an even weirder find -- a corpse in the highest branches of a tree! Finally, strangest of all, he finds a man bound still living to a stake. The man has been horribly mutilated, but by whom or why Kane cannot determine from his incoherent raving. What can it all mean? Soon enough Kane finds out as he is set upon by hideous winged humanoid creatures. Nonetheless, he makes short work of these monsters with his handy flintlocks, a deed which does not go unnoticed by the people of another village nearby. They take him in and tend to his wounds, where he learns that it was they who bound the man to the stake, a sacrifice to the winged monsters called the akaanas. They do this on a regular basis -- it is the only way they can make the akaanas leave them alone...until now, that is. The villagers, you see, have decided the akaanas are frightened of Kane's flintlocks, that his presense protects them. As a result they withhold the next sacrifice. Not the brightest idea they ever had. The akaanas attack the village in an orgy of destruction and, though Kane drives the monsters off, the entire village is wiped out. Grief stricken by his failure to protect the villagers, Kane goes a little mad. He sets a trap for the akaanas and, in a grisly climax, destroys them all.
REH used similar intelligent winged creatures in his short novel Almuric, but nowhere else that I am aware of (well, except maybe the Conan story, Queen of the Black Coast.) This was unusual for him, as he tended to favour apish creatures or giant snakes whenever he needed a monster.
Something I find fascinating about Howard's writings, which few critics have commented on, is his almost obsessive need to make every detail logical, to tie up all loose ends. He frequently will go out of his way to explain the reason behind something, even when the reader likely never thought to question that something in the first place. Here, for example, he ties the story into the previous Kane stories by explaining why Kane doesn't simply call on N'Longa, his witch-doctor blood-brother, for help. Apparently, the witch-doctor can only help against supernatural enemies, whereas the akaanas, though monsters, are not supernatural. It is unnecessary explanation. We didn't really wonder why he didn't call on N'Longa. At the same time, surely it is precisely because of this need for logical consistency that Howard's fantasy stories ring so true. God, after all, is in the details.
As I said, Howard was trying for something special this time. This is one of the few REH stories that seems overtly to carry a subtext. Unfortunately, to quote the TV show Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, in this case "the subtext is rapidly becoming the text". Howard really beats us over the head with his metaphor, until it ceases to be clever and just seems...hard on the head. As the air-borne akaanas slaughter the village and Kane watches helplessly from the ground below, Howard writes: "And was he not a symbol of Man, staggering among the tooth-marked bones and severed grinning heads of humans, brandishing a futile ax, and screaming incoherent hate at the grisly, winged shapes of Night that make him their prey, chuckling in demoniac triumph above him and dripping into his mad eyes the pitiful blood of their human victims." Believe me, there's more of this kind of thing and it all gets to be a little much.
"The Footfalls Within" was the second to last Kane story published during Howard's lifetime and it's a pretty good yarn, albeit a little disappointing in the climax.
Yet again (or perhaps still), our story finds the Puritan travelling eastward in Africa. This time he chances upon Arab slave-traders busily engaged driving slaves to market. A young girl falls, exhausted, and the slavers decide to amuse themselves by literally skinning her alive. (Hey, why not, right?) The Puritan, naturally, rushes to her rescue but is himself overwhelmed and taken prisoner (although at least his distraction does save the girl from such a terrible fate). A short while later, both slavers and slaves happen upon an ancient and very spooky mausoleum. Though they sense evil about the place, the lead slaver -- whose kaffieya must be wound a turn too tight -- decides to break open the thing, intendiing to divest it of whatever riches may have been buried there with its dead. But Kane hears scary, elephantine footfalls from within, as of some giant THING pacing back and forth. Nonetheless, they force the doors and...well, I won't spoil the ending for you.
REH creates some nice tension here, and really draws out the mystery of the strange footfalls. Unfortunately, the solution to the mystery is itself a bit of a let-down but not enough to really ruin the story overall. But Howard's real interest in writing this yarn seems to have been to expand upon his mythos regarding the "ju-ju" stave given to him by his blood-brother witch doctor N'Longa. One of the slavers chances to recognize the stave (for the first time we are told it has a cat's head carved on top) and proceeds to give Kane a protracted history of the thing. It turns out to be very ancient indeed and in REH's oblique hints that there is something oddly off kilter and otherworldly about even the wood of which it is made, there is more than a little of the Lovecraft influence. It is, in fact, the very staff used by Moses against the Pharaoh of Egypt! Quite a pedigree, huh?
"The Castle of the Devil" was a fragment left unfinished by REH which horror author Ramsey Campbell then completed in 1978. Campbell quite helpfully indicates, in the introduction, the exact sentence where Howard's writing leaves off and Campbell's begins. I read the story without knowing that bit of information, since I wanted to see if I could guess where the change comes.
In "The Castle of the Devil" we are again in Germany's Black Forest (which suggests Howard probably wrote it just before or after "Rattle of Bones"), where Solomon Kane hitches up with a gentleman named John Silent. Kane tells Silent how he recently encountered a young boy hung on a gibbet but still alive. Mercifully, the Puritan cut the boy down. Hearing this, Silent warns Kane that he should not have done that...the gibbet belonged to Baron Von Staler, a powerful and evil man in the Black Forest. Soon enough the two companions arrive at the Baron's Castle where they discover that the Baron was blinded years before in an accident. Kane and Silent begin to suspect the Baron is holding a woman prisoner in the Castle, and they determine to set her free. The Baron, meanwhile, is mad as a hatter and, recapturing the boy from the gibbet, proceeds to hang him again, a deed which Kane is powerless to prevent. Much swordplay ensues, during which the Baron hits his head...miraculously restoring his sight. He rushes upstairs to the room where he keeps the woman...well, again I won't give away the ending. But suffice it to say we are a long way from Howard territory.
Ramsey Campbell's use of words is a close match for Howard's and he does a good job of mimicking REH's style. But, while the story itself isn't bad, I think Campbell was fooling himself when he wrote in the introduction that he was in "creative sympathy" with the great one. First off, all of Howard's Kane stories feature at least one supernatural element. Other than the fact that the Baron is able to swordfight while blind, there isn't a supernatural element to be seen here. Then too, Howard was a very literal writer; he almost never went in for subtexts or metaphors and, when he did, he really spelled it out for the reader. In this case, Campbell clearly has some sort of subtext at work, something about inertia and decay, in which even the castle itself is described as having "lost its soul". And this wouldn't be such a problem if it were just an extra feature of the story, but the ending's significance largely lies in its connection to this subtext. Without the subtext, the ending just seems strange. Even with the subtext, the ending feels like it needed another rewrite. Campbell was trying for irony, but he neglects to set the stage for that irony -- it just kind of comes out of nowhere.
I said I wanted to see if I could guess where Howard leaves off and Campbell begins. Well, I was in the right area, but I couldn't guess the exact sentence -- a tribute to Campbell's imitation. When Kane arrives at the Castle, he finds the rotted corpse of a blinded horse insanely strung up with chains. It turns out the horse was responsible for the Baron's blindness and he punished the beast by blinding and killing it. This just didn't sound to me like something Howard would come up with. Howard's villains may be insane, but there is always a method to their madness. They are always after power or revenge or whatever. In this case, the blinded horse is creepy precisely because it is so pointless since obviously the horse didn't know why it was being punished -- it is evidence of true insanity. Campbell is a successful horror writer precisely because he knows what creeps us out as, indeed, does the blinded horse. But that's not what Howard was going for in his stories. Anyway, it turned out Howard left off just before they encounter the blinded horse. So I was in the right area.
What do I win?
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