Saturday, December 20, 2014

Solomon Kane, Emancipator

In Robert E. Howard’s Black Canaan (1936), discussed a few weeks ago, southern whites were barely able to put down a Voodoo-enabled uprising among poor African Americans in the Louisiana swamps, circa the late nineteenth century.  Unabashedly racist in tone, the novella was suffused with white anxiety about retribution for slavery, which had ended only a century before.  (See also An Insurrection, Emboldened by Voodoo). 

However, a few years earlier, Howard published The Footfalls Within (1931), a short story which expressed almost the opposite point of view.  Insofar as authors—and people in general—change their perspectives with greater maturity and life experience, one would expect that Black Canaan was the earlier story, and that The Footfalls Within came later, showing greater sympathy and concern for social justice.  That it did not suggests that Howard was either ambivalent or undecided about matters of racial justice.  Or that there was an event or a psychological change that led him to take the more regressive view expressed in Black Canaan.

H.P. Lovecraft modified his appalling views on race and ethnicity little, if at all during his career.  Regarding psychological changes affecting the perception of racial differences, it is interesting to read a letter Lovecraft wrote to his Aunt Lillian in 1926, during his short, unhappy stay in New York City.  It is an extremist rant against nearly every immigrant community in the city, and ends with him recommending segregation or suicide—“a bullet through the brain…”—as the only remedies. 

Lovecraft’s family and friends were afraid he might select the second option, and urged him to return to Providence for a time.  His friend Samuel Loveman believed that during this difficult emotional time Lovecraft was carrying a bottle of poison for just this purpose.  (This episode is described in L. Sprague de Camp’s 1975 book Lovecraft, A Biography.) 

Robert E. Howard also struggled with mental illness and emotional instability, culminating in a suicide at age 30—the same year and month that Black Canaan was published.  Not to oversimplify, but it does seem that extreme feelings and assumptions about racial difference reflect internal psychological issues, that racist ideology is an external expression of inner torments that may or may not be directly connected to race.

In this regard, The Footfalls Within is a very interesting story.  It features Howard’s popular character of Solomon Kane, the brooding Puritan strongman who wanders the world to administer violent and righteous justice.  He is a lot like Conan, but wears more clothes, is better armed, and is biblically literate.  The Footfalls Within is strongly influenced by biblical and also Lovecraftian imagery—an unusual mix.

On the trail of some cruel slavers somewhere in Africa, Kane ponders some evidence of their carnage:

“Destruction goeth before them and death followeth after.  Wo 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.”

Similar language can be found in the books of nearly every Old Testament prophet, where the concern is often for justice and deliverance from oppression, by violence if necessary.  Should the Good Lord be a bit too slow at turning the wheels of justice, (in human understanding), Solomon Kane is there to expedite things.  Howard lovingly describes his weapons: two heavy pistols, a dagger, a long two-edged sword, and most importantly, a “cat-headed stave hardened into iron.”

Fans of the Solomon Kane stories will remember that this is no ordinary staff.  Kane obtained it from his comrade in arms and blood-brother, “a black magician of the Slave Coast, named N’Longa.”  The story provides a lot of detail about the staff, though its origin and even composition remain unknown.  Before N’Longa gave it to Kane, it had been used by the Pharaohs, Moses, and King Solomon, among others.  Mohammed “himself hath spoken of it by allegory and parable”.  Only in a Howard story would a weapon rise nearly to the level of one of the characters in the plot.  It seems a useful item to have, and is later critical in a climactic struggle with a very Lovecraftian monster.

In The Footfalls Within, Solomon Kane is somewhere in Africa, where he observes the cruel treatment of recently captured natives by their Arabic masters.  Enraged, he attacks the slavers, but is captured after chopping, slicing and impaling about a dozen of them.  The author clearly sympathizes with the Africans, and has his character endeavor to free them, even risking his life.  However, he describes the Arabs and their evil leader in this way:

Hassim, Kane ruminated, was the very symbol of militant Islam—bold, reckless, materialistic, sparing nothing, fearing nothing, as sure of his own destiny and as contemptuous of the rights of others as the most powerful Western king.

Were such travesties as I.S.I.S. not in the news these days, it would be easier to dismiss this passage as caricature and stereotype.  At least his comparison of the Arab to western despots circa the early 17th Century indicates some balance in Howard’s view.

Kane and his captors travel on, where they eventually encounter the ancient ruins of what appears to be a mausoleum.  Obscure Hebraic letters are carved into a massive door which is sealed with an enormous lock.  Furthermore, the ruin sits in

…a strange clearing among giant trees—strange because nothing grew there.  The trees ringed it in a disquieting symmetrical manner and no lichen or moss grew on the earth, which seemed to have been blasted and blighted in a strange fashion.

Similar settings may be found where “…a traveler in north central Massachusetts takes the wrong fork at the junction of the Aylesbury pike just beyond Dean’s Corners” or more likely, “west of Arkham” where “there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut”.  Kane thinks he hears massive and ominous “footfalls within” the mausoleum.  Something large and powerful is pacing about in the darkness, trapped, waiting to come out.  But his captors are oblivious of this and commence breaking the lock on the door.  Readers will suspect at once that this is a bad idea.

The fictional image of a structure—house, room, castle, temple, even mausoleum—is often a representation of a mind or personality. Its entrances, walls and compartments are metaphors for memories recalled or repressed, or storage places for unresolved torments and traumas.  (Think of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, or stories about haunted houses in general.)  The release of the amorphous monster from the mausoleum in The Footfalls Within brought the liberation of Solomon Kane and the enslaved Africans.  But what was pacing about inside Howard’s mind at this time, awaiting release?  

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