Monday, May 17, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: Red Shadows

Robert E. Howard is rightly celebrated for having brought Conan to life through nearly two dozen short stories and fragments, but the Cimmerian was only one of his many memorable literary creations. Another was the Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane, who made his debut in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales in "Red Shadows." The story begins as Kane, traveling through a forested valley in France, comes upon a wounded young woman, allowing Howard to introduce him succinctly to the reader:
"The fires of Hades!" he murmured. "A girl! What has harmed you, child? Be not afraid of me."

The girl looked up at him, her face like a dim white rose in the dark.

"You -- who are -- you?" her words came in gasps.

"Naught but a wanderer, a landless man, but a friend to all in need." The gentle voice sounded somehow incongruous coming from the man.
Kane learns from the nameless woman that a gang of bandits led by one calling himself Le Loup had attacked and burned her village to the ground. She fled into the forest to escape but the Wolf and his men eventually caught up her. She then dies and Kane says, as if in reply, "Men shall die for this."

The story resumes some time later, as Le Loup's men have begun to grow frightened of Kane -- "a demon from hell," they call him -- who has been stalking them and picking them off, one by one.
"He hunts us down as a wolf hunts deer -- by God, Le Loup, you name yourself Wolf but I think you have met at least a fiercer and more craft wolf than yourself! The first we know of this man is when we find Jean, the most desperate bandit unhung, nailed to a tree with his own dagger through his breast, and the letters S.L.K. carved upon his dead cheeks. Then the Spaniard Juan is struck down and after we find him he lives long enough to tell us that the slayer is an Englishman, Solomon Kane, who has sworn to destroy our band! What then? La Costa, a swordsman second only to yourself, goes forth swearing to meet Kane. By the demons of perdition, it seems he met him! For we found his sword-pierced corpse upon a cliff. What now? Are we all to fall before this English fiend?"
Naturally, Le Loup is confident that, however clever and resourceful Kane may be, he is, after all, just a man and, like all men, prone to weaknesses he can use to his advantage. Of course, the bandit begins to wonder whether he might have been wrong when the Puritan corners him in his lair. Le Loup simply cannot understand Kane's actions.
"Who was the girl?" he asked idly, "Your wife?"

"I never saw her before," answered Kane.

"Nom d'un nom!" swore the bandit. "What sort of man are you, Monsieur, who takes up a feud of this sort merely to avenge a wench unknown to you?"

"That, sir, is my own affair; it is sufficient that I do so."

Kane could not have explained, even to himself, nor did he ever seek an explanation within himself. A true fanatic, his promptings were reasons enough for his actions.
Le Loup tries to bribe Kane with a share of the wealth he and his now-dead men had stolen, but his foe will not be dissuaded from his pursuit of bloody justice. The bandit does, however, distract Kane just enough to be able to escape into the dark recesses of his cavernous hideout, but, as he should have known well by this point, there is no true escape from Kane. Le Loup flees Europe for Africa and still the Puritan follows him. It's in Africa that Solomon Kane meets N'Longa, a "ju-ju man" who will become his friend and a recurring character in later tales. It's also in Africa where Kane at last catches up with Le Loup and their final confrontation occurs.

Solomon Kane is a fascinating character. Speaking for myself, I find him at once more attractive and more repulsive than Conan. His ideals are far loftier than those of the Cimmerian, but the methods he uses in pursuit of those ideals seem very much at odds with them. Whereas Conan, at his worst, is largely venal and self-interested, Kane seems to veer toward the vicious, his zeal for "justice" becoming so overwhelming that it allows no place for mercy or compassion. Howard seems very much aware of this fact, calling Kane "a true fanatic" and yet he doesn't fail to portray Kane sympathetically. Indeed, "Red Shadows" and the stories that follow go to some lengths to show Kane as more than a red-handed avenger, particularly through his friendship with N'Longa, which is a fair bit more complex than a surface reading would suggest.

"Red Shadows" isn't Howard's best story. It's not even his best Solomon Kane story. Nevertheless, there's something very powerful in its words, something archetypal that I find very compelling. I suspect that most of us have, at one time or another, hoped that Justice might be dealt to some evildoer with extreme prejudice and Kane speaks to that hope. He also speaks, I think, to our fears that our cries for "justice" are all too often a mask for revenge, a desire that can taint our loftiest notions and reveal us as no better than those we denounce. I honestly can't say that Howard would have agreed with me; indeed, I rather suspect he would not have. I don't think that changes the fact that, as written, Solomon Kane isn't just a 17th century Paul Kersey and to reduce him to such is to do him -- and his creator -- a disservice.

13 comments:

  1. While I love Conan, IMO Kane is a far more intriguing character than the barbarian. There are some depths to the character it would have been interesting for Howard to explore (although at this point in his career I don't think he was skilled enough to explore them). Kane's last tale, Wings in the Night, is IMO one of the best Howard stories and one of the best pure "pulp" stories ever written.

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  2. I suspect that most of us have, at one time or another, hoped that Justice might be dealt to some evildoer with extreme prejudice and Kane speaks to that hope.

    That has its echoes in modern movies, from the "vengeance" flicks of the 70s to last year's "Taken." As for the stories themselves, I only discovered them in recent years and quite enjoy them.

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  3. Marvel comics did a great Kane miniseries in the late 80's that included the Le Loup story, and also the chase to Africa. The stuff in Africa was just great, zombies, Kane going hand to hand with a giant tribesman who killed gorillas with his bare hands. Great stuff. Still got those issues somewhere.

    in the 80's and 90's I worked a So Cal Ren Faire that had these great dudes playing Puritans. One of their biggest schticks was playing up Hypocrisy. Telling us carousing Morris Dancers (actually often storming our stage shows) that we were wicked, then they start drinking and carousing themselves under our bad influence. It was awesome.

    I always thought it would have been great for them to have had a big buff, grim looking dude playing Kane. Unswayed by lust and drink, he'd have come on stage and kicked our asses with the might of the Lord. Aw, to dream.

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  4. Conan is the more complicated character, in that he has an involved history and and evolves over time, but his motives are fairly straight-forward. Kane is the more complex character, in that his motives remain ultimately obscure to himself and the reader, inviting you to try and work them out. Personally, I view Kane as the anti-Kurtz (from Heart of darkness).

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  5. Huh. Reading this (and the Wiki article on Kane) has inspired me to look for one of the collections.

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  6. While I agree that "Red Shadows" isn't the best REH story, or the best Solomon Kane story, considering just how many tales REH wrote it's pretty near to the top. The phrasing "it isn't the best" gives the implication that it's mediocre in comparison to other tales, which is surely not the case. Still, I'm sure this wasn't your intention, as you point out the story's many highlights.

    Certainly it's good enough for Rusty Burke to put the story in the first "Best of Robert E. Howard" volume, a decision I agree with wholeheartedly.

    Gotta agree on the Paul Kersey comparison not being apt: for one thing, Kersey was reacting to something that happened to him personally. His vigilante quest was a personal act of revenge against those who hurt him: Kane's quest is less straightforward. (Another reason that damn film ticks me off).

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  7. And by "that damn film" I meant Bassett's Solomon Kane, not Death Wish.

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  8. I agree that the Marvel comics version from the '80s was surprisingly good and true to the original material. The Kane stories were the first REH stories I ever read and to this day they are still some of my favorites.

    Do any Kane fans here have any experience with the Savage Worlds-based Solomon Kane RPG? I've wondered how well it matches the feel of the original stories, but not enough to warrant a $50 purchase sight unseen.

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  9. I disagree with your separation of justice from revenge. Maybe because like Howard I'm partly Scots-Irish/Ulster, but they seem entirely connected to me. :)

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  10. After reading this I made a very strange connection...remote maybe, and oddly congruent, but a connection nonetheless.

    Solomon Kane is to lawful society as the Hulk is to the chaotic individual. They're both driven by something that neither can completely put a finger on, they're both bloody, and often, in the end, we secretly agree with the outcome.

    Each is a paragon of their respective natures. One chaos and the other pure law. And when I say "law"...I'm not speaking of the law of man, but of, as they say, a "higher court".

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  11. Interesting idea, Jeff. However, I don't see why we should have to secretly agree with Kane's outcomes. After all, any human foes he kills are rapists, murderers and pirates, far from law and order. Supernatural foes are direct dangers to mankind. Thus, I agree with Kane's outcomes quite openly!

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  12. Did Kane ever kill anyone that, as modern ethics go, was innocent? I haven't read enough Kane stories to know for sure, but I'm guessing not from what all of you have said. It just seems like, given that normal, not-crazy-prodigal-son Puritans hung women and crushed men to death with stones, it's not unlikely Kane's extremism could go too far. We at once want to like him because he's killing horrible people... yet there's something frightening and suggestive that it wouldn't take much to end up on the wrong side of his sword. To me, that's what makes the character more interesting than Conan (who I could never get into).

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  13. Did Kane ever kill anyone that, as modern ethics go, was innocent?

    I don't believe so, but my point was more that I think most of us would feel, even in the event of slaying a horrible person, that there's something unhinged about Kane's zeal for "justice." He's a lot like the proverbial Lawful Good paladins who engage in all sorts of unpleasant behaviors against evil in order to achieve their goals. It edges toward ends justifying the means and that makes me uncomfortable.

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