Monday, September 27, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Footfalls Within

I've been on something of a Robert E. Howard kick lately, which is why I'm again returning to the works of Two-Gun Bob for this week's post. Much as I admire stories of Conan the Cimmerian, they're not my favorite series by REH. In fact, I hold the tales of Puritan swordsman Solomon Kane in even higher esteem. I've thought about my feelings on the matter for some time, attempting to determine why I Kane has eclipsed Conan in my affections – and I'm still thinking. That said, I think part of Kane's attraction for me is his mystery. We know very little about his origins or the events that led him to take up the life of a wandering avenger, which I find appealing. 

That leads to an uncomplicated directness in most of the dour Puritan's adventures, as we can see in "The Footfalls Within," which first appeared in the September 1931 issue of Weird Tales. 

Solomon Kane gazed somberly at the black woman who lay dead at his feet. Little more than a girl she was, but her wasted limbs and staring eyes showed that she had suffered much before death brought her merciful relief. Kane noted the chain galls on her limbs, the deep crisscrossed scars on her back, the mark of the yoke on her neck. His cold eyes deepened strangely, showing chill glints and lights like clouds passing across depths of ice.

"Even in this lonesome land they come," he muttered. "I had not thought –"

Kane has a particular hatred for slavery and, especially, slavers. The sight of this dead young woman, whose body bears the telltale marks of bondage, enrages him. He vows to find the slavers and mete out justice on them.

"Woe unto ye, sons of iniquity, for the wrath of God is upon ye. The cords be loosed on the iron necks of the hounds of hate and the bow of vengeance is strung. Ye are proud-stomached and strong, and the people cry out beneath your feet, but retribution cometh in the blackness of midnight and the redness of dawn." 

This is precisely what I mean about Kane's stories being uncomplicatedly direct. Howard wastes no time in giving the Puritan adventurer a goal to pursue, nor does he tarry in presenting him with a foe against which to pit him. Kane soon sneaks up on a train of slaves – "More than a hundred blacks, young men and women … stark naked and made fast together by cruel yoke-like affairs of wood" – and spies their drivers.

Of the drivers there were fifteen Arabs and some seventy black warriors, whose weapons and fantastic apparel showed them to be of some eastern tribe – one of those tribes subjugated and made Moslems and allies by the conquering Arabs.

Kane "followed like a brooding ghost and his rage and hatred ate into his soul like a canker. Each crack of the whip was like a blow on his own shoulders." He ponders how best to deal with the slavers until he sees them about to kill another young woman in a most unpleasant fashion – and he acts without thinking.

A pistol was smoking in his hand and the tall butcher was down in the dust of the trail with his brains oozing out, before Kane realized what he had done. 

The Englishman then fights with divine fury, taking down three guards before they overwhelm him. He's then divested of his weapons and taken before the leader of the slavers, a tall, lean man with a hawk-like face named Hassim ben Said, who asks his name.

"My name is Solomon Kane," growled the Puritan in the sheikh's own language. "I am an Englishman, you heathen jackal."

The dark eyes of the Arab flickered with interest.

"Suleiman Kahani," said he, giving the Arabesque equivalent of the English name. "I have heard of you – you have fought the Turks betimes and the Barbary corsairs have licked their wounds because of you."

Kane deigned no reply. Hassum shrugged his shoulders.

"You will bring a fine price," said he. "Mayhap I will take you to Stamboul, where there are shahs who would desire such a man among their slaves."

Now a captive of the very slavers he hoped to defeat, Kane travels with them as they continued their trek toward the market where they would sell him and the others. Along the way, a "lean, gray-bearded Arab" approaches him, identifying himself as Yussef the Hadji. He bears in his hand a wooden staff, one Kane had carried with him and that had been tossed aside during the ill-advised fight that preceded his capture. Kane tells him that the staff had been given to him by his blood-brother, N'Longa the magician. 

Yussuf is impressed with the staff, which he claims to have read about "in the old iron-bound books" and that Muhammad "himself hath spoken of it by allegory and parable!" He goes on to claim that it is none other than the staff by which "Suleiman ben Daoud drove forth the conjurers and magicians and imprisoned the efreets and the evil genii!" Sheikh Hassim scoffs at these claims.

"It did not save the Jews from bondage nor this Suleiman from our captivity," said he; "so I value it not as much as I esteem the long thin blade with which he loosed the souls of three of my best swordsmen."

Yussuf shook his head. "Your mockery will bring you to no good end, Hassim. Some day you will meet a power that will not divide before your sword or fall to your bullets. I will keep the staff, and I warn you – abuse not the Frank …"

As you might expect, Yussuf's words are prophetic. Later, when the slave train passes by some ruins "of a pre-pyramidal age," the staff and Kane's ability to wield it proves decisive, but I will say no more, for the benefit of those who wishes to read the full story. "The Footfalls Within," like so many tales of Solomon Kane, is fast-moving and equal parts spare and bombastic in its verbiage as the circumstances demand. It also contains a goodly dollop of horror in its final half. The result is a terrific story and a personal favorite of mine.

4 comments:

  1. Despite Howard's own shortcomings when it came to race, it's nice to see another sign (next to The Pidgeons From Hell) that he did in fact feel passionately about the centuries of horrific, ongoing injustices black people have had heaped on them. Plus, you have N'Longa, a black man in a heroic role.

    Given the era in which he wrote? The fact that you can tell he was trying to be better is worth giving him a lot of credit for.

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  2. Much like you I favor Kane over any of REH's other characters, although the margin between him and Conan or the rather underappreciated Bran Mak Morn is pretty slim. I think for me it stems from how Kane feels more "real" (using the term loosely) than the others due to his place in history. The world he dwells in is much closer to ours, and less definitely fictional than that of Conan or Kull. Some of the tales set in Europe border on historical fiction, albeit always with a supernatural element.

    There's also the appealingly pragmatic hypocrisy Kane displays about magic. He'll spend pages ranting about how evil it is and its users are tools of Satan, but when he's not shy about using that artifact-grade staff he's lugging around when the situation calls for it, nor does he balk at asking for help from N'Longa - who isn't exactly an angel himself, what with the magical possession stuff he gets up to. As someone who lives in what used to be Puritan country, I find Kane's portrayal surprisingly apt - especially for an author from Texas who wasn't raised with all the history and myth around the loons being force fed to him. :)

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  3. Like you, I find Solomon Kane to be my favorite of REH's heroes, if only by the slimmest of margins. I'm also a fan of Howard's poetry and the one that haunts me the most is "The Return of Sir Richard Grenville" (featuring Solomon Kane). And I'm not sure why.

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    1. There are some quite excellent readings of "Return" to be found on Youtube, which have only increased my liking for the poem.

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