Monday, October 5, 2020

Solomon Kane vs Dracula

I have often said – too often, most likely – that the period from the late 1960s to mid-70s was one of incredible creative ferment. That Dungeons & Dragons appeared during this time is not at all surprising, especially when you consider everything else that was going on at the time. Just take a look at comics from the era to get an idea of what I'm talking about (including their influence on early D&D). 

Marvel Comics played an outsize role in this period of artistic upheaval. One of the reasons for this was the company's willingness to push boundaries in the pages of its black-and-white comic magazines, such as The Savage Sword of Conan. Because these offerings were magazines rather than comic books, they weren't subject to the Comics Code Authority's rules, allowing writers and artists to produce things that wouldn't otherwise have been allowed at the time. (The distinction between a "magazine" and a "comic book" is a complicated and somewhat arbitrary one in this context, but, for historical reasons, it was a real one)

Besides Savage Sword, Marvel published Dracula Lives!, which premiered in June 1973 and ran for a total of thirteen issues (plus an annual). The magazine was sort of the grown-up companion to The Tomb of Dracula and featured some of the same creators (most notably, Gardner Fox). Roy Thomas, whose lasting fame is based to a great extent on his work on Conan the Barbarian, was a regular contributor to Dracula Lives!, starting with its very first issue. His contribution to issue #3 (October 1973) is of particular interest to me (and, I hope, readers) because it features not just the Count himself but also Robert E. Howard's Puritan swordsman, Solomon Kane. Even more significantly, it answers that age old question, "Who would win?"

The story, entitled "Castle of the Undead," begins with Solomon Kane beset by wolves in a Transylvanian forest.

Wounded, tired, and surrounded, Kane is near defeat – until he is rescued by a mysterious stranger.
The stranger is, of course, Count Dracula, who explains that he had raised the wolves from cubs and it was only his familiarity with them that enabled him to survive where Kane nearly did not. Kane thanks him for aid and explains that he is in Transylvania seeking a young woman named Rosella Carson. Rosella is the daughter is a friend back in England and he has vowed to return her safely to her father. Dracula claims to know nothing of Rosella but offers Kane a place to stay the night. Kane accepts and promises Dracula any boon he asks in payment for his having rescued him from the wolves.

When Kane awakens just before dawn, he finds himself assailed by "a vision of sensuality incarnate, whom he memorably rejects.
Dracula has enthralled Rosella Carson, making her one of his vampire brides. Horrified, Kane confronts her and is left with no choice but to slay her, which he does by piercing her heart with his shattered walking stick. Soon after, he goes to find the Count, who, it turns out, is waiting for him, sword in hand.

Kane duels Dracula and seems to gain the upper hand. Despite the vampire lord's skill at arms and preternatural strength, Kane overcomes his defenses and stabs him. Dracula topples backward and laughs, for Kane does not yet fully understand the "rules" that govern the undead's damned existence. Dracula gets up and mocks the Puritan for a fool. Kane is not so easily beaten, though, and, as the Count ridicules him, he reaches for his coin purse and tosses the silver coins within at the vampire.
With this maneuver, Kane gains the upper hand. He reaches for a nearby axe to chop off Dracula's head. Before he can do so, the Count craves the boon Kane had earlier promised him: to spare his life. Honorable and upstanding even when dealing with a spawn of Hell itself, Kane agrees. A good Christian gentleman, he will not break any oath he made and relents. Dracula mocks him one last time for abiding by his moral code and the story ends.

Once one gets past the initial absurdity of these two literary characters meeting and fighting, "Castle of the Undead" isn't half-bad. It's not great literature, to be sure, but I think it's broadly in keeping with the spirit of Howard's Kane stories, if not necessarily Stoker's Dracula. Indeed, I'd say it's a better original story than the 2009 Solomon Kane movie, which wasted James Purefoy, not to mention probably the only chance we'll get for an adaptation of the character. Say what you will about Roy Thomas – and many have – but he certainly understood REH and his characters better than have anyone in Hollywood over the last half-century.

8 comments:

  1. I love this story!
    There are also a second story, continuation of this, in which Kane come back to Transilvania to kill Dracula once and for all, armed with a wooden sword (!). But I don`t know in what magazine this other story was published, because in my country these Kane stories were published in various different titles.

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    1. I was unexpectedly impressed with this one, so, if there is a sequel, I will see if I can find it.

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    2. According to my copy of Crossovers, the sequel is titled "Retribution in Blood" and it was originally printed in "Savage Sword of Conan" #26, then reprinted in The Saga of Solomon Kane.

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  2. Inclined to agree, Roy Thomas "got" REH's style much better than most people who've done pastiches of his work - Robert Jordan, for ex.

    This story always reminds me Hammer Films' Captain Kronos movie - which I see is conveniently up on Youtube:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsWAVsRefSg

    The good captain isn't Kane by any means (far too randy for our Puritan pal) but there's something of the same feel to the flick as there is in the Roy Thomas tale.

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    1. Sadly, I can't move comments, only delete them.

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    2. I deleted and moved to the proper article. I hope.

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