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Book Review: “The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane” by Robert E. Howard (4 Stars)

04 Aug

Why was I not taught about Solomon Kane when I learned about the pilgrims in middle school?

Swashbuckling tales of adventure and voodoo. Solomon Kane, the vigilante fanatic driven by demons to journey the world in a relentless and endless quest to destroy as many evil doers as he is physically capable of until he meets his own demise.

First of all, this character is impossible and defies all reason. Solomon Kane is a puritan in puritan garb, but armed with daggers, a sword, pistols, a musket and a voodoo staff. He is not a priest, but an avenger of evil. This character is the reason why people like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger had careers. There is something in the minimalist stroke of these kinds of characters that strikes deep within our souls. They may not be fleshed out or shown in full-color but their limited scenes, dialog and emotions gets across very quickly who they are and what they are all about. They are not flat; they come across by all the mastery of a genius stroke. Robert E. Howard was a master at this, focusing his short-lived but prolific career on powerful characters that stick with you.

Like nearly all of Howard’s works, Solomon Kane came alive in the serial magazines through short efforts. Given those parameters, Howard’s talent clearly shines. Every story he told, he had to reset the character for new readers without overloading on back story (he does this sometimes in just few sentences!). And yet, the stories do sometimes relate back to each other and the character seems to progress within his own timeline.

At first Solomon Kane tangles with evil men in England and Europe, but as the stories progress he ends up in Africa and the tales range beyond swashbuckling, and into the “weird” spaces where Howard excelled. Here, Kane, befriends various African tribal peoples and eventually is given his famous stave which he uses as both a weapon and ward against black magic. These elements really get fun when the protagonist is beset with demons and the undead. He even gets into Conan and Kull territory when he has to navigate through ancient temples and secret passages.

Yet, Solomon Kane is all his own. He is a lean and cold, efficient avenger of justice. Howard does not bury the story with scripture quotes or biblical conspiracies like many modern authors might be tempted to do, but he does occasionally pepper in elements of religious and secular history. Solomon Kane is also uninhibited by most earthly desires, he has virtually no love interest and has little curiosity in women except a brotherly protectiveness. Again refreshing (in that he doesn’t fall into classic romance tropes).

This character clearly has a code and keeps consistent, but he is not without struggles. Chiefly he struggles with some strange and mysterious drive that sets him wandering the world waiting for God to lead him to wrongs that must be righted in an almost Calvinist trajectory. He frequently admits that he is a fanatic and will explode in great, violent, berserker furies. This can cause problems for him when his impulses drive him to save the helpless in a rash and gallant move where a more prudent measure might be better served. He also cares deeply for the innocent and good. And there are interesting scenes of inner turmoil where Kane finds, to his dismay, that even his superior fighting and cunning cannot save all the world; and he must occasionally be satiated only with savage acts of revenge and the satisfaction that he has at least temporarily rid some small plot of land from a long-plagued evil that had resided there.

On the negative side, these stories were written long ago and Howard suffered from old worldviews on race and evolution (and probably sexism). He was very interested in history and makes many references to racial histories, but there are parts that are somewhat cringe worthy if not offensive. That said, and keeping a historical perspective in mind, Solomon Kane’s stories have much merit in them, sometimes refreshingly so. Of note, Howard receives his voodoo staff from an African shaman whom he later dubs his “blood-brother” and he is often found coming to the rescue of African tribes being tortured or oppressed. To be sure, Solomon Kane, is intolerant of all evils whomever may perpetrate them and whomever they may be perpetrated against.

Stephen King has made comments to the effect that when Howard hits his stride his writing is charged and electric. This is so true. Howard’s words fall into a soulful, blues-groove and speed you along with emotion. You feel the rains beating down and the fury and frustration of Solomon Kane as he screams out against the evil in the world. Like Howard’s other characters, it’s personal. Which is really amazing, because again this is not a novel and the character spends much of his time hacking and slashing his way through adventures. Still, somehow, someway, and where others have failed—Robert E. Howard always manages to find the right beats and notes to strike a chord in the soul and draw you into his characters. If J.R.R. Tolkien is the “Led Zeppelin” of epic fantasy, then Robert E. Howard is the “Jimmie Hendrix” of heroic fantasy.

This book is a collection of (probably) everything Howard ever wrote about the character including a few poems and unfinished stories (even though others have tried to complete these fragments only Howard’s original words are presented here). The book is also illustrated throughout and contains a scholarly appendix, short bio on Howard and a few words from HP Lovecraft on Howard’s untimely death. A very great addition for anyone looking to get into Howard.

Podcast: If you enjoy my review (or this topic) this book and the movie based on it were further discussed/debated in a lively discussion on my podcast: “No Deodorant In Outer Space”. The podcast is available on iTunes or our website: www.nodeodorant.com.

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Posted by on August 4, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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