Monday, September 5, 2011

The Monkey Reads: Puritanical Ass-Kickery

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane
By Robert E. Howard
(Del Rey)
Howard’s kinetic prose elevates the adventures of his “Puritan swordsman” Solomon Kane beyond what a reader should reasonably expect from early 20th century vintage supernatural/action pulp.

Kane doesn’t emerge from his trials a winner, and in fact seems more doomed by his own thoughts than by any of the beasts, schemes or weapons that threaten him throughout the collection. The hero defeats his enemies, but he doesn’t win.

Yes, Kane is essentially undefeated in hand-to-hand combat and villains across the oceans know he’s a badass without equal – the kind of man who would travel from the safe confines of Devonshire to the pirate harbors of the Mediterranean and finally deep into the jungles, plains and mountains of central Africa just to find the kidnapped daughter of a family friend, as Kane does in “Moon of Skulls.”

But the more actively Solomon Kane pursues some unknowable, unreachable destiny, the less attainable it becomes. Unlike many action heroes, who are found by fate and reach greatness as they struggle to claim their rightful place at the top, Kane chases a calling he can’t really answer or satisfy.

Howard’s tales of the curious but introspective adventurer trace the journey of a man who is losing his faith.

The writer even acknowledges in the narrative that Solomon Kane wears the drab Puritan garb only out of habit. By the time Kane finally returns to Devonshire [“Solomon Kane’s Homecoming” one of the tales told in verse], his clothes are ragged, he wears a bright green sash and carries a tribal staff, accoutrements more befitting a pre-Christian shaman than an austere Protestant.

As Kane loosens his grip on his white, Christian (ahem, colonial) perspective on the world, he gains humanitarian enlightenment and accepts that the world is a weird, wonderful and sometimes terrifying place.

Though Solomon Kane exists in a 16th century land of Western expansion, he could stand in for the 20th century academic or expatriate who has seen the world and has begun to question his Western European place in it.

Above all this subtext philosophy rages crackling action and fantasy writing, some of the best of the genre. Kane travels Europe, Africa and briefly lands in the New World, clashing, colliding and cooperating with supernatural beings and profane men who live and die by the blade.

Howard balances compact writing with descriptive flair to make fight sequences and fast-paced action pop with four-color contrast against detailed observances of these alien worlds. As with his horror writing, Howard makes the unreal seem plausible, such as when Kane’s unlikely ally, an aged African shaman called N’Longa, reanimates a corpse to terrify a tribe under the sway of an old enemy of Kane. [“Red Shadows”]

A repeated warning for the casual reader: Like Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft and other fantasy writers of their era, Howard’s work does include language and “truths” about ethnicity that are simply wrong.

Oddly enough, Kane (and perhaps Howard) changes so much through the course of this short story collection, that the hero not only acts as a challenge to the “rightness” of colonialism, but may also be a barometer of changing attitudes in the early 20th century.

Howard lived and wrote in Texas and witnessed his share of ethnic and class injustice. And Solomon Kane is nothing if not a man out of step with his time, finding himself closer aligned with both the ways of a distant past and a possible future his countrymen simply haven’t caught up with.

Reference material: Fans of Dashiel Hammet's Red Harvest might be pleasantly surprised by Howard's similarly gruesome, testosterone-filled pulp. If Sergio Leone's Westerns own some space in your cinematic library, Clint Eastwood's pancho-wearing (anti-)hero bears more than a passing resemblance to Solomon Kane, though Kane doesn't share his carnal appetites. And if you read comics, mom will be delighted to see you reading a "real" book. She doesn't have to know the truth.