My latest read into the early 20th century sci-fi and fantasy world was Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane, the stories collected in the Baen edition.
This isn’t my first exposure to Robert E. Howard, having read a handful of the original Conan tales and two of the Wild Bill Clanton stories. However, it’s definitely my first deep dive, swimming through story after story over the past month.
I’ll admit, it took some work. Howard isn’t a difficult read, but his prose comes close to poetry at times, and the rhythm and alliteration (so much awesome alliteration!) can be jarring for those used to plainer fare. He also eschews a lot of interiority to his character, keeping his characters with simple goals while favoring depths of description for the dark, oppressive settings, horrific nightmarish monsters, and lurid and bloody action. Solomon Kane may be a man of God, but his faith is practiced in destroying evil, not interior reflection.
The whole conceit with the Solomon Kane tales is a dour puritan-cavalier (the paradoxes indulged) who travels about the world seeking out injustices to right. His earliest story, “Red Shadows” reads like an historical adventure with a weird twist at the end. The story contains everything one will find in later Kane stories – a wronged innocent, villains in need of killing, trips to darkly exotic locales, mysterious and frightening magic, and sword-fights to the death.
The early tales can read very much like ghost stories – “Skulls in the Stars” and “Rattle of Bones” both see Solomon confronting angry spirits which carry out their own sort of vengeance. With “The Moon of Skulls”, where Kane makes his way into a hidden city in Africa in search a kidnapped girl, the stories shift to much more adventurous fare. “The Hills of the Dead” and “Wings in the Night” have him confronting horrific monsters, the second ending on a depressing note as he could give the victims no salvation, but only vengeance. In “The Footfalls Within” we see Howard begin playing with a secret history using old mythology, building off the groundwork in earlier stories. One senses that Howard was beginning to grasp for a large, overarching conceit for Kane that he never got to realize.
The majority of posthumously posted stories are fragments completed by other writers, but “Blades of the Brotherhood”, completed by his hand, stands out as a purely historical adventure without weird elements.
I can’t exactly call the stories fun, but they are gripping. Howard pours on the dark and oppressive description and one is left with a powerful sense of the world’s evils and Solomon’s drive to defeat it. The reader is never bored, though, Kane’s relentless attack becoming awe-inspiring as the reader is swept up watching this avatar of providence at work.
I highly recommend trolling through the tales, especially “Red Shadows”, “The Moon of Skulls”, and “Wings in the Night”. Most can be found online (see wikisource for a goodly number), with only the posthumous publications locked away in various collections.