Friday, March 21, 2014

Robert E. Howard’s Puritan Hero

H. P. Lovecraft was highly critical and disparaging of his Puritan heritage, excoriating it in stories like The Picture in the House (1921) and The Unnamable (1925), among others.  Yet for all his avowed materialism and atheism, he was never able to escape the influence of his religious upbringing. Christian imagery and references are frequent in his work, which shows a preoccupation with religious practices, albeit without much hope of salvation.

However, his colleague Robert E. Howard was able to fashion a hero with “the spirit of the crusader, the fire of the zealot—the fanatic who devotes his life to battling the powers of darkness.”  This is not Conan the Barbarian, but his more devout stepbrother, Solomon Kane.  Kane appeared in numerous stories by Howard, mostly published in Weird Tales, beginning in 1928 with Red Shadows.  There were about nine of these Solomon Kane stories, not counting several fragments.

The Hills of the Dead is representative.  It was published in the August 1930 issue, along side of The Electric Executioner, a collaboration between H.P. Lovecraft and Adolphe de Castro, and August Derleth’s Just a Song at Twilight. The character of Solomon Kane had already appeared in several earlier stories at this point, fighting the powers of darkness in various areas of the world. 

The story is set in Africa, and features Kane’s friend and ally N’Longa, a “voodoo man of the Slave Coast.”  Racial stereotypes abound in this tale, as they do in the pulp literature of this time period, but there is some nuance:  Kane and N’Longa are blood-brothers, and N’Longa provides Kane a wooden staff with magical powers that comes in handy later in the story.  Near the end, Kane describes his friend

“…seeing for the first time in N’Longa’s glittering eyes something stronger and deeper than the avid gleam of the worker in black magic.  To Kane it seemed almost as if he looked into the far-seeing and mystic eyes of a prophet of old.”

For his part, N’Longa views Kane as “a little child lost” with respect to understanding the ancient and mysterious ways of magic.  N’Longa is of course much older than Kane, preternaturally so.  In The Hills of the Dead they team up to defeat an ancient city full of African vampires. 

It being a Howard story, this will involve considerable blood, crushed skulls, and serious puncture wounds—Kane makes greater use of the physical properties of the wooden staff than its magical ones.  Kane’s musket is fired a few times, (lions), and there is also evisceration by vultures followed by a climactic purifying fire.  Like his relative Conan, Kane is thorough.   In the process, a young woman and her village are rescued from the depredations of the vampires.

You can tell that Solomon Kane is Puritan by his faux early 17th century dialect:  “Tend ye the fire and awake me if aught untoward occur.”  He prays fervently for the ‘God of Hosts’ to help him vanquish the blood sucking fiends.  He feels queasy about using the paraphernalia of black magic and dealing with disembodied spirits.  In the end, he acknowledges that the best way to fight black magic is with more black magic.  He asks God to have mercy on him for engaging in dark arts, “…but demonry must be fought with demonry…”

This is not great literature, but it does not have to be in order to entertain.  The Hills of the Dead is a fun read, especially if one can follow it up with some of Solomon Kane’s other adventures.

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