Monday, September 10, 2012

Pulp Fantasy Library: Skulls in the Stars

First published in the January 1929 issue of Weird Tales, "Skulls in the Stars" is the second story of Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane by Robert E. Howard. Though short (just shy of 4000 words), it's a surprisingly effective story that not only nicely reveals the world of Solomon Kane but also his character. Indeed, one of the reasons I like the story so much is that it delves into the man's psychology and morality. Far from being a relentlessly grim avenger, Kane is often plagued by remorse and self-doubt, making stories like this one an important corrective to the caricature of him that many people seem to have.

The story begins by noting that
There are two roads to Torkertown. One, the shorter and more direct route, leads across a barren upland moor, and the other, which is much longer, winds its tortuous way in and out among the hummocks and quagmires of the swamps, skirting the low hills to the east.
Of the two, the swamp road would appear to be the more dangerous; it is also longer and less direct. However, as Kane soon learns, the folk living in the area do not recommend going by means of the moor, since, according to them,
the moor road is a way accurst and hath not been traversed by any of the countryside for a year or more. It is death to walk those moors by night, as hath been found by some score of unfortunates. Some foul horror haunts the way and claims men for his victims.
Naturally, hearing this engages Kane's interest in an unexpected way, giving us some insight into the mind of the man.
Far back in Kane's gloomy eyes a scintillant light had begun to glimmer, like a witch's torch glinting under fathoms of cold grey ice. His blood quickened. Adventure! The lure of life-risk and drama! Not that Kane recognized his sensations as such. He sincerely considered that he voiced his real feelings when he said:
"These things be deeds of some power of evil. The lords of darkness have laid a curse upon the country. A strong man is needed to combat Satan and his might. Therefore I go, who have defied him many a time."
Kane then sets off down the moor road and, before long, he senses that there is something evil afoot. He feels himself being watched in the darkness. Soon, he hears "a whisper of frightened laughter" and, eventually, screams from up ahead. Kane believes that someone is being attacked and he runs forward to rescue them. Unfortunately, he arrives too late.
Kane shouted, striving to increase the speed of his advance. The shrieks of the unknown broke into a hideous shrill squealing; again there was the sound of a struggle, and then from the shadows of the tall grass a thing came reeling--a thing that had once been a man--a gore-covered, frightful thing that fell at Kane's feet and writhed and grovelled and raised its terrible face to the rising moon, and gibbered and yammered, and fell down again and died in its own blood.
The moon was up now and the light was better. Kane bent above the body, which lay stark in its unnameable mutilation, and he shuddered, a rare thing for him, who had seen the deeds of the Spanish Inquisition and the witch-finders.
Not long after examining the mutilated body of the fellow wayfarer, a "misty and vague" creature comes out of the grass and attacks Kane. Relying on all his willpower and might, Kane fends off the creature but not without great injury to himself. Yet, in contending with this "serpent of smoke,
he began to understand its gibbering. He did not hear and comprehend as a man hears and comprehends the speech of a man, but the frightful secrets it imparted in whisperings and yammerings and screaming silences sank fingers of ice into his soul, and he knew.
Armed with this strange knowledge, Kane sets back down the road he came and toward the conclusion of this tale.

"Skulls in the Stars" derives much of its horror from psychology rather than from conventional frights. The beast with which Kane wrestles on the moor road is never described in clear terms; it's a wraith that the Puritan only dimly sees in the darkness. But, throughout, we're treated to Kane's thought processes, learning his motivations -- even when he himself is unaware of them. That, combined with what Kane does with the secrets he learns in the monster's gibbering, is the true heart of this story and the reason why it's worth reading. I make no claim that it's a particularly deep piece of fiction, but it sheds light on Solomon Kane as a character that I think is important for anyone who wants to understand him and enjoy Howard's recounting of his exploits.

4 comments:

  1. And yet I didn't care for the setting or Howard's vision of the puritan traits possessed by Kane. I'm lucky enough to have the Del Rey collection of Howard's Kane stories but it is like reading fragments of good stories buried within a somewhat disagreeable setting and main character.

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  2. Solomon Kane (one of the models for the Witch Hunter career in WFRP, btw) isn't my favorite Howard character, but this story I enjoyed quite a bit, largely for the reasons you describe. In general, I liked the Kane stories set in Europe better than those set in Africa.

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  3. Mr. Ragan has expressed my sentiments exactly.

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  4. Alright, then, I'll step up for Kane. The way I have expressed it before is that while Conan is a complicated character (due to his history), Kane is a complex character (due to his psychology). He's got this fascinating relationship with God, as if he is always testing the idea of omnipotence and benevolence, throwing himself into this situations to see if the Supreme Being is actually All-Good. He's kind of a mirror-image of Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness, committing acts of goodness to see if God really exists.

    I find the Kane stories really quite fascinating.

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