Thursday, April 10, 2014

On the Road to Torkertown

After a theological bruising in which I was outnumbered and outgunned by liberals, atheists, and liberal atheists, (see the last three posts), it sure would be helpful to have someone on my side for once.  

Someone like Solomon Kane for example.  He is a fascinating character of Robert E. Howard’s creation—Conan the Barbarian’s more devout stepbrother.  Officially, Kane is a fanatical Puritan armed with a sword and pistol, administering rough justice to natural and supernatural villains alike.  Yet in more reflective moments he toys with such notions as reincarnation, astral projection, and spirit possession.  His unlikely comrade-in-arms is the loquacious N’Longa, an African witchdoctor.

In Skulls in the Stars (1929), Solomon Kane is somewhere in rural 17th century Britain, wandering towards the community of Torkertown.  It is not clear why he is going there—Kane tends to do a lot of wandering in these tales.  He has the choice of taking two roads into town: a hazardous winding trail through swamp land or the even more treacherous direct route through the upland moor, where several travelers have lately been brutally murdered.  Nobody lives near the moor, except for old Ezra the Miser, whose maniac cousin Gideon disappeared some time ago.  Hmmm. 

A youngster from a nearby village warns him to avoid the moor road.  When Kane asks him why, the boy describes a terrible apparition that preys on anyone foolish enough to take this route.  Kane concludes that the apparition is a curse laid on the countryside by the “Lords of Darkness.”  “A strong man is needed to combat Satan and his might”, Kane tells the boy.  “Therefore I go, who have defied him many a time.”

Readers know that Kane will indeed encounter the apparition, who is not the Prince of Darkness, but pretty close.  The ensuing struggle is the most interesting part of the story.  As with his werewolf stories, Howard is creative in laying down some unique rules about the nature of vengeful spirits.  Kane is unable to vanquish the entity on his own, and is severely wounded in the fight.  But the struggle provides an opportunity for him to receive a communication from the spirit world that is critical in bringing about justice.

The scene of Kane’s struggle with the apparition is eerily like the Old Testament account of Jacob’s wrestling with God in Genesis, (32: 24-26).  Kane is most certainly not wrestling with God but with an evil, vengeful spirit.  Yet in both accounts, the heroes are wounded by the altercation, and also come to important insights as a result.  Howard may or may not have gotten the idea for this scene from the Genesis story, but the parallels are interesting and resonant.

As in most of these stories, justice must be done, and gruesomely.  This is Solomon Kane’s special calling.  In another reversal of Biblical imagery, the villain is left fastened to a tree, where his death will vanquish a great evil.  Remarkably, Kane wanders away from this event with a heart heavy with doubt and perhaps even remorse.  When the villagers attempt to reassure him that he has done the will of God and brought about good, he shakes his head and says “I know not—I know not.”  Moments like these elevate Solomon Kane’s adventures above mere tales of vengeful fighting and mayhem.

Skulls in the Stars was originally published in the January 1929 issue of Weird Tales, along with H.P. Lovecraft’s The Silver Key, August Derleth’s An Occurrence in an Antique Shop, and some poetry by Donald Wandrei, among others.  

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