Puritan citizen Kane

Kane’s last vestige of reason snapped. He gibbered to and fro, screaming chaotic blasphemies . . . and he lifted his clenched fists above his head, and with glaring eyes raised and writhing lips flecked with froth, he cursed the sky and the earth and the spheres above and below . . . in one soul shaking burst of blasphemy he cursed the gods and devils who make mankind their sport, and he cursed Man who lives blindly on and blindly offers his back to the iron hoofed feet of his gods.

Ah yes, there’s nothing like Robert E. Howard in full lather. That’s one of the subtler passages from “Wings in the Night,” a 1932 novella published in Weird Tales that for sheer demented intensity outdoes just about every other story Howard pounded out during his brief life and briefer career as a pulp writer. I’m not going to tell you he was Proust, but if you have taste for this stuff, Howard had qualities that made him stand out in a disreputable genre. I also think that if he’d been able to make it through the depression ( and the Depression) that led him to commit suicide in 1936, Howard would have developed into a significant regional novelist and possibly something more. As it is, Howard’s decade of intense productivity showed him to be a seminal figure of the pulp era, capable of churning out blood-and-thunder stories in a variety of modes. I’ve already argued that if Dashiell Hammett warrants a Library of America volume, then Howard does as well, if only to recognize his position as a bridge between Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jack London.

Though Howard is best known for creating Conan the Barbarian,  I actually prefer the gory story cycle Howard built around Solomon Kane, Solomon Kanea deeply conflicted Puritan who wanders the Earth righting wrongs and stamping out evil in both human and supernatural guises, along the way combining near psychotic religiosity with an appetite for righteous violence that would have Dirty Harry hiding under his bed.  I was a wee lad when Lancer Books started churning out paperback editions of the Conan stories, and after inhaling every available copy I was glad to find the Kane stories published in three volumes by Centaur Press, a boutique operation that had labor of love written all over it. It also had some intriguing cover art by Jeff Jones, who spent much of his commercial art career in the shadow of Frank Frazetta, though he had a sense of color and technique all his own. This cover painting from one of the Centaur Press volumes pretty much set the standard for depictions of Kane, much the way Frazetta’s covers for the Lancer books defined the image of Conan until Arnold Schwarzenegger came along.            

One of the most interesting aspects of the Solomon Kane stories is that several of them are set in Africa, which Howard imagined as the realm where harpies and other monsters of classical lore took refuge from the advance of Western civilization. Howard was a howling racist, but he also romanticized barbarians, and therefore his imaginary Africa was depicted with a curious mixture of condescension and respect. During his sojourns in Africa, Kane forms a guarded semi-friendship with a witch doctor who offers advice and aid in his dreams. And when Kane comes across a beleaguered African tribe caught between a domain of cannibals and a colony of revenant harpies, there is no question that he will do everything he can to help them. This help opens the tribe to a terrible reprisal that sparks the passage quoted above, and leads Kane to plot a spectacular vengeance that is not for the faint of heart.

The two Conan movies are pretty embarrassing, but I have to admit I’m intrigued by the prospect of the Solomon Kane movie that’s now being shopped to distributors. Instead of getting pulp fiction filtered through Quentin Tarantino, let’s get it straight with no chaser, right from the source. Cheers.

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