In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle enjoys the adventures of the Puritan swordsman, Solomon Kane
Some writers have just one great character in them. Conan Doyle created a range of memorable characters, from Professor Challenger to Sir Nigel Loring of the Hundred Years’ War, but his name is now linked to one of his creations above all others. Mary Shelley wrote the first post-apocalyptic novel among other works of fiction, but her name now means ‘Frankenstein’. And for many, the name Robert E. Howard, if it conjures a fictional character at all, summons ‘Conan the Barbarian’ or ‘Conan of Cimmeria’.
But like Conan Doyle, Shelley, and countless other writers, Robert Ervin Howard (1906-36) was not a one-character author. Not really. Conan may be his most memorable and enduring creation, but this prolific Texan author of pulp stories – whose output was confined to short stories, novellas, and poems – also gave us King Kull of Atlantis, the Pictish chieftain Bran Mak Morn, the Texan gunfighter El Borak, and the sixteenth-century Puritan swordsman, Solomon Kane.
Of these other characters, Solomon Kane is perhaps the most interesting. The Kull stories are marvellously inventive, but Kull is too close to Conan to offer something as distinctive as the pistol-wielding Solomon Kane. Kane resides in our own world and in a more recent age than either Conan or Kull, and so the Solomon Kane stories feel more ‘real’ in one sense (although it’s a testament to Howard’s skill as a writer that even in his Conan stories he imbued the cities, streets, taverns, and palaces which his Cimmerian hero frequented with a vividness which, as more than one Howard devotee has put it, almost makes us feel as though Howard was there to witness the events he describes). There is sorcery, and the tales of Solomon Kane are, on a purely literal level, sword and sorcery just as the Conan stories are, but the fact that Solomon Kane inhabits a world that is recognisably sixteenth-century Africa and Europe lends the stories’ supernatural elements more power. Indeed, it makes sense to talk of many Solomon Kane stories as examples of the weird tale (fittingly, one of the magazines Howard sold stories to was called Weird Tales), that curious blend of the Gothic, fantastical, realist, and uncanny.
Solomon Kane is a religious man – a ‘fanatic’ according to one of the stories – possessed of a zeal which lends him his power and danger. His name is doubly significant from a Biblical perspective: Solomon for the Jewish king, but Kane summons the Bible’s first murderer, and Solomon Kane has sent many men to the grave. This is what makes him a more interesting character than many of Howard’s other creations, though a great number of them are compelling. But even within the limits of the pulp short story format, Howard manages to create a fantasy character who gestures towards the ‘grey’ characterisation we see in later writers of the genre, from Poul Anderson to David Gemmell to George R. R. Martin, Steven Erikson, and writers of grimdark. Solomon Kane may be the hero, but his religious fanaticism and unpredictable nature mark him out as a loose cannon.
Indeed, if Solomon Kane reminded me of any other characters in fantasy, it was David Gemmell’s brooding antihero, Waylander the Slayer – similarly, a dour man of few words who prefers to kill his enemies quickly – and Gemmell’s religiously inspired gunslinger, Jon Shannow. I wonder if Gemmell ever read Howard’s Solomon Kane stories. He certainly acknowledged Howard as an early influence, and was well-read in sword and sorcery.
But what of Howard’s own influences? Many of the Solomon Kane stories are set in Africa, and the stamp of H. Rider Haggard – arguably the first great modern fantasy writer, who also made Africa the home of mystical and supernatural forces – can be felt in a number of Kane tales. (M. J. Elliot, in his introduction to the Wordsworth edition of Howard’s Solomon Kane writings, The Right Hand of Doom & Other Tales of Solomon Kane (Tales of Mystery & The Supernatural), mentions that Howard acknowledged Haggard as an influence; I’d add that the ‘towering pyramids of skulls’ mentioned in ‘Solomon Kane’s Homecoming’ may possibly be Howard recalling the pyramid of bones from Haggard’s She.)
But, entertaining as these stories are, the most satisfying one, in terms of narrative drive and characterisation, is ‘Blades of the Brotherhood’, a story that takes place in England and focuses on a young man’s efforts to rescue the woman he loves from the clutches of an evil young lord and his pirate friends. Thankfully, this plucky hero has help in the form of Solomon Kane, who enters the story in true Gemmellian fashion, on the trail of one of the pirates, Jonas Hardraker, known as the Fishhawk, for previous misdemeanours. Here, Solomon Kane – brooding, deadly, emerging from the shadows – seems to represent divine vengeance both in his own mind and in reality. Unlike Conan, he’s not on a quest for treasure and beautiful women, but to right the wrongs of the world. He is a true hero: in this respect, the greatest hero Robert E. Howard created.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.