Monday, October 5, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: Rattle of Bones

The pulp fantasies I discuss in this series share many qualities with one another; one of the more common ones is brevity. In large part that's because the majority of them come before the age of Doorstopper Fantasy. Short stories and novellas were the norm prior to the 1970s, when Tolkien imitators showed publishers that there was big money to be made by stretching out tales to hundreds of pages – and series to a dozen or more books. 

At the same time, I can't help but think that the writers of these older fantasy works saw genuine value in concision, or at least learned to employ it to good effect. A case in point is Robert E. Howard's "Rattle of Bones," which appeared in the June 1929 issue of Weird Tales and consists of only a little more than 2500 words. The story is the third published yarn of Howard's Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane and has the feel of a 1950s horror comic in the way it barrels ahead to its satisfyingly telegraphed conclusion. 

The story begins as Kane and his companion-by-chance, a Frenchman named Gaston l'Armon, come upon a strange tavern in the Black Forest. The tavern bears a sinister sign, that of a cleft skull, but the two men are so weary from their travels that they are willing to overlook both this ominous clue and the peculiar nature of its host, whose "small red eyes" and "animal-like" beard did not sit well with them. Once shown to their room, the Puritan admits his concern to Gaston.
"Let us see if there be any way to make fast the door," said Kane. "I like not the looks of mine host." 

"There are racks on door and jamb for a bar," said Gaston, "but no bar." 

"We might break up the table and use its pieces for a bar," mused Kane. 

"Mon Dieu," said l'Armon, "you are timorous, m'sieu." 

Kane scowled. "I like not being murdered in my sleep," he answered gruffly.

"My faith!" the Frenchman laughed. "We are chance met – until I overtook you on the forest road an hour before sunset, we had never seen each other."

"I have seen you somewhere before," answered Kane, "though I can not recall where. As for the other, I assume every man is an honest fellow until he shows me he is a rogue; moreover, I am a light sleeper and slumber with a pistol at hand."
Working together, they poke around the upper rooms of the tavern, discovering that, not only are they the only guests but that none of the rooms have windows to the outside. The floor of one room is darkly-stained, leading Kane to mutter, "Men have died in here." Further exploration reveals a hidden chamber in one of the rooms, inside of which a skeleton of a man, with one leg shackled to the floor and its skull split – no doubt the "grim reason for the name of this hellish tavern."

With these details established, Howard swiftly provides the reader with a series of revelations, one after the other that, while not, strictly speaking, surprises nevertheless jolt the reader into re-assessing what he has read up to that point. The end result is enjoyable and the character of Solomon Kane is a major reason why. He is so unflinchingly earnest, so steadfast in his convictions, and so upright in his behavior that he could have been, in another writer's hands, dull. That he is not is a testament to Howard's talents. He was only twenty-three at the time this short story was published and he was already demonstrating a knack for presenting unbelievable situations and characters in a way that deftly avoids a descent into absurdity. 

"Rattle of Bones" is far from Howard's best Solomon Kane story, let alone his best work overall. Yet, there's a lot to like in it, not least of which being its economy of storytelling. Howard packs quite a bit into very few words and I admire that. Would that more writers followed his example.


  1. I read all Howard’s Solomon Kane stories and was surprised how much I liked them. I like Howard’s overall breakneck pace and conciseness, and there was a depth in them I didn’t expect ... it seemed that ultimately Kane was unable emotionally to deal with all the evil he confronts. He seemed to almost go insane in his outrage at evil and injustice. He cares deeply and takes too much on himself. I felt for him.

  2. Kane is actually my favorite of REH's many characters, edging out Bran, Conan, and Kull by a fair margin. Really envy writers who can be concise while still making an impact on the reader. It's becoming something of a lost art, what with modern paperbacks regularly reaching 800+ pages and editors afraid to tell authors they need to trim the fat out of their stories.

  3. One of the things I love about Kane is that he's not self-aware. Howard's narration makes it clear Kane isn't aware of how or even why he does what he does. Howard makes sure we know Kane doesn't examine his own motives because he wants to believe he's driven by god's hand and not his own adventurer's soul. This makes him unique among pulp heroes and intriguingly flawed.