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Solomon Kane by Robert E. Howard
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Solomon Kane (1968)

by Robert E. Howard

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My reaction to reading this collection in 2001. Spoilers follow.

"Introduction", Ramsey Campbell -- Campbell explains his connection with Howard going back to early in his writing career when he posthumously finished some Howard fragments. (He helpfully notes which three stories he finished and where, exactly, his writing begins.) He also talks about the historical milieu of the Kane tales, talks a bit about some of the weaponry, and tries to put the stories in some sort of chronological order.

"Skulls in the Stars" -- My introduction to the original Solomon Kane. (I've read a comic book adaptation of him.) He's as humorless and ruthless as I hoped. This also features one of my favorite supernatural plot devices -- here an idiot ghosts who really wants to kill his cousin but can't tell him apart from other men. Kane solves that problem by capturing his cousin and tying him to a tree -- though he thoughtfully arranges the bonds so that the man can slip them in time to meet death "free and unshackled". Kane, always concerned with his soul's state, isn't sure he's done the Lord's work.

"The Right Hand of Doom" -- Rather superficial tale in which Kane is more of an observer than participant. He witnesses a sorcerer, on the night before his execution, send his amputated hand out to kill a man who betrayed him.

"Red Shadows" -- This seems to be the first, in terms of publication date and internal chronology, of the Solomon Kane stories set in Africa. It's an enjoyable tale of revenge as Kane pursues the villainous La Loup from France to Africa to avenge the death of an innocent girl. There Kane meets the dark sorcery (and actual) Black God, the powerful, savage god of the Dark Continent. His reality is rather disturbing to Puritan Kane.

"Rattle of Bones" -- Rather standard biter bitten story, here two dead men avenge themselves when Kane checks into an inn in the Black Forest. His French roommate tries to kill him and is killed by the murderous innkeeper -- who has the bones of a dead sorcerer chained up. Before he died, the French robber released the bones and, of course, they kill the innkeeper, thus avenging both the dead sorcerer and robber. This is another story where Kane gets saved through no action of his own.

"The Castle of the Devil" -- This story was finished by Ramsey Campbell who does a nice job of setting a grim mood when Kane, his business done, sets off to find more evil to fight. However, the quintessential Kane line of describing himself as there "to ease various evil men of their lives" was written by Howard. Another thing that makes this a classic Kane story is his utter conviction that his virtuous cause will guarantee a victory against any odds. Here he comes across a castle owned by a Baron who went bad after a hunting accident took his sight. (He conveniently gets itn back at the conclusion of the story through another blow to the head.) The plot, with his preternatural hearing and the mysterious presence of a woman (a semi-mad, slug-like woman he has kept imprisoned there because he likes her voice and touch -- she's the loyal butler's sister), is a bit like Edgar Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher".

"Death's Black Riders" -- An enigmatic Kane tale. It's very short, less than two full pages, and is perhaps set in another dimension. Kane meets and kills (or, at least, stops for now) a mysterious Black Rider who may be Death or one of his companions. The story was not published in a pulp magazine but in 1968 in a fanzine devoted to Howard. Campbell's introduction to the collection doesn't say if it was a fragment or completed by Howard.

"The Moon of Skulls" -- The influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard is evident in this lost race tale of the last outpost, in the middle of Africa, of the empire of vanished Atlantis and Mu. A cruel empire that once dominated the world and worshipped dark gods who demanded human sacrifice (the worship of dark gods in far away places probably goes a way to explain why H.P. Lovecraft was an admirer of Howard), it was overthrown by its subjects. Retreating further and further, it eventually existed only in the citadel of Negari. Eventually, through inbreeding with its bestial black subjects and taking them into the city as servants and lower order of priests, the ancient empire is totally overthrown (a bit like Rome succumbing to the barbarians it settled in its own borders). A "degenerate" line of Negro kings comes to sit on the throne of Negari, and it is this corrupt line that is put to an end by the ambitious Nakari. Burroughs-like coincidences are rife: when Kane falls from the Bridge-Across-the-Sky he just happens to have his fall broken by landing on a ledge and the fall is further cushioned by just happening to fall on the body of a dead soldier of Negari; he just happens to enter the cell holding the object of his quest, Marylin; he just happens to enter the cell, while wondering the secret passages of Negari known only to the dead Atlanteans and, of their degenerate successors, only Negari, the cell of the last of the Atlanteans (who ashamedly admits he has black blood in his veins); an earthquake just happens to occur right after Kane destroys, via a pistol shot; the skull of Nakura; Kane, in his search for Marylin, happens to come across valuable informants just as they are dying (for that matter, this is repeated with the Atlantean priest). Still, despite the off the shelf elements of degenerate races, lost Atlantean outposts, devilish queens, kidnapped maidens, coincidences rife, I liked this tale, and it kept me interested. Part of that was the plot, most of it, as Howard explicitly notes, mentioned offhandedly by Kane. He's spent a lot of years and had a lot of adventures on the sea and in Europe before he ever gets to Africa which is where all the story takes plot. Second of all, Kane's character is compelling. He isn't characterized and analyzed in the minute, and often boring, detail modern literary aesthetics demand. He is described as a combination of devout Puritan and simple, rather anachronistic knight errant (or, Cavalier). He roams the world, he would say, to right wrongs, protect the innocent, and punish the wicked; in short, to do God's will. But he also loves the action even though he might not admit it to himself. His simple faith that God will help him and provide what he needs gives him a disturbing, compelling confidence. This faith in God is mentioned specifically by Kane at story's end when Marylin wonders how they will return to England from the jungle. (The whole story has been a years' long quest by Kane to rescue a young girl sold into slavery by a nobleman who feared her marriage to another family member would effectively disinherit him.) He tells her, in effect mentioning most of the improbable plot coincidences, that God has already granted him a great deal of help in his quest and will continue to. I'm also a sucker for lost empires and liked the "'For a Thousand Years--'" section where the Atlantean priest describes the history of that ancient race. Kane is rightly repelled by the bloody religion of the pagan Atlanteans. (Howard also notes that Kane has a bit of the pagan in him though he would never admit it.). He keeps his mouth shut when the priest complains of the degenerate, insane Negroes and what they've done to the old rites. After all, Kane wants to find Marylin. )

“Blades of the Brotherhood” -- This is something a little different for a Solomon Kane story in that he is not the viewpoint character. That role belongs to Jack Hollinster, respected son of a retired sea-captain. The story involves his struggles with Sir George Banway, specifically his insults to Hollinster’s beloved Mary and, later, his attempted rape and kidnapping of her. After an unresolved duel with Banway, Hollinster encounters Kane who, it turns out, has been pursuing infamous pirate Jonas Hardraker, a confederate of Banway’s in smuggling, for two years to avenge, as seems to happen a lot with Kane, the death of a young girl at Hardraker’s hands. The story adds some further characterization to Kane. Some is of the relatively standard heroic type like emphasizing his famous fencing ability or his great strength shown in killing Hardraker in a knife duel. But the element of his vanity is less expected. Kane has no compunctions about gunning Hardraker down after surprising him at Banway’s house, but Hardraker appeals to his vanity when he tells him he despises not being able to face him in a "fair” fight. Howard, at the moment of a crucial showdown, repeats a plot device he used in “Red Shadows”: after killing Hardraker, the cellar with the pirate crew, Kane, Hollinster, and Mary is plunged into darkness thereby stalling a showdown, the same device he used when Kane faced La Loup in “Red Shadows”. Kane is once again his avenging self though he only kills three of the pirate crew in addition to Banway – who he toys with since Banway is clearly outclassed in the sword duel with Kane.

“The Hills of the Dead” -- A sequel to another Kane story, “Red Shadows”, in that Kane returns to the main locale of that story, Africa, and again meets “fetish-man” N’Longa. This time it’s not a mission of vengeance that has led him to that “red land barred with the black darkness of horror and the bloody shadow of death”, but a whispering of “unnamed sin” which the jungle, from his previous visit, has planted in his soul and, he feels, perhaps a Satanic call to his destiny. He’s right. Fate has something in store. Specifically wiping out the degenerate, vampiric remnants of an old race. He doesn’t with the help of N’Longa, who switches body with a native – significantly described as having Berber blood and not a degenerate Negro. N’Longa, a somewhat sinister figure in “Red Shadows” – someone involved with dark forces that is a temporary ally of Kane there – is given new depths here. Kane thinks of him as evil, but, as N’Longa points out, if he were really evil, he would keep the body of the young, healthy Kran. Kane gains a new respect for N’Longa when the later tells the fanatical Kane that he a mighty warrior but, in matters of magic, a naïve child. N’Longa tells Kane that there is no way he can explain how his magic works, magic it has taken him a very long lifetime to learn. He delivers this all in an elegant speech in “river language” (a trade tongue Kane learns in Africa), and Kane comes away feeling that, in N’Longa, lives something like the spirit of a “prophet of old”. Then, for amusement, N’Longa reverts to the “beloved jargon” of a pidgin tongue when he sends Kane off with kindly warning. I liked this, another African Kane story, but not as well as “Red Shadows” or “Moon of Skulls”. Its added elements of character were good, but I didn’t think the plot was that interesting.

"Hawk of Basti" -- Another Kane tale finished by Campbell. Sorcerer N'Longa shows up (though it seems to be a Campbell introduction) and uses his magical staff to transfer his soul into the body of Hawk of Basti, an old privateer comrade of Kane, who the latter helps regain his kingship of an African nation. N'Longa doesn't think the European is ready to assume regal duties so sends him to the "shadow-land" to further his political education.

"Wings in the Night" -- One of the best Kane stories I've read. Kane wipes out the akaanas, a harpie-like (Kane speculates they might be the harpies mentioned in The Odyssey), after they attack him and wipe out a tribe of Africans. Kane once again assumes the mantle of destroyer of evil. He also speculates that they might have be the product of evolution, that there might be "a truth in the heretical theories of ancient philosophers" or that the harpies are a travesty from when "Creation was an experiment". Odd ideas for a Puritan. Those looking for Howard's feelings on race will find more here. Kane protects the natives -- or, rather, tries unsuccessfully to -- but also is a little in patient at their lack of competence in fashioning something like an English longbow. And, at story's end, Kane is described as "the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth".

"The Footfalls Within" -- An interesting story for a couple of reasons. Plot and mythos-wise, we learn the truth behind the cat-headed stave that N'Longa gave Kane. It knew the hands of ancient, pre-Adamite priests and is not just a tool of black magic but a powerful force for good as Kane discovers when his Arab slaver captive disregards a fellow Arab's warnings about it and disrupts an ancient presence imprisoned in an old ruin. The second reason this is interesting is that bears the influence of Howard's friend, H. P. Lovecraft (the story was published in 1931 -- I don't know if Howard and Lovecraft had begun corresponding then or when Howard wrote his first Cthulhu Mythos story, but Lovecraft had published his first Cthulhu story already. With all the talk of ancient races on Earth in the unimaginable past and Kane realizing that Earth has been inhabited by many "maggots" in the past and that man, now the "dominant maggot" and wasn't the first and won't be the last race to dominate Earth, it's very Lovecraft in spirit. (May 27, 2001)

"The Children of Asshur” -- As the title hints at, Howard goes into Edgar Rice Burroughs territory and has Kane encounter, in Africa, a lost colony of Assyrians. Oddly enough, he leaves the society intact after escaping from the political machinations some of its people try to enmesh him in. However, he suspects the world will not hear of the city after he leaves. ( )
  RandyStafford | Nov 23, 2013 |
ZB9
  mcolpitts | Aug 17, 2009 |
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Robert Ervin Howard  (1906-1936) of Cross Plains, Texas, the creator of Solomon Kane and many another hero of fantastic adventure fiction has become a prime favorite weird-fantasy fans.
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For man's only weapon is courage that flinches not from the gates of Hell itself, and against such not even the legions of Hell can stand.
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