“…for if the brazen-hoofed gods made Man for their sport and plaything, they also gave him a brain that holds craft and cruelty greater than any other living thing.”
And lucky for us! (Sort of…) The quote comes near the end of Robert E. Howard’s marvelous Wings in the Night, a heady mixture of mythology, Calvinist theology and Aryan racial theory. It contains some of Howard’s most rhetorical passages, and often departs—though not for long—from his usual phantasmagoria of violence and mayhem.
The novelette was published in the July 1932 issue of Weird Tales, alongside Hugh B. Cave’s The City of Crawling Death, Donald Wandrei’s poem The Little Gods Wait, and some verse by Mary Elizabeth Counselman, (Echidna) among others. Counselman, by the way, was one of a handful of competent women writers to be published in Weird Tales and other pulp fiction magazines at this time. (See also Mary Elizabeth Counselman’s ‘Black Stone’.)
Readers may recall that the Harpies, in Greco-Roman mythology, were half bird, half women monsters who would steal the souls of evil people and carry them off to a mythological version of hell. There they would be tormented by vengeful, infernal goddesses. Short of this, Harpies would at least attempt to grab and ruin the dinners of the wicked. (The Greek root for Harpies means “snatcher”.)
In one legend, Jason—of the Argonauts—and his crew ward off and kill these creatures to rescue a king whom the Harpies had been harassing regularly at meal time. In one version, two of Jason’s crew, both descendants of the North Wind, chase the Harpies far away, across the Mediterranean Sea—to Africa, according to Robert E. Howard. The creator of Conan the Barbarian artfully reworks the Greek myth and fits it seamlessly into another Solomon Kane adventure, circa the early to middle seventeenth century.
In Wings in the Night, Howard reimagines the Harpies as bloodthirsty, flying humanoids who may share a branch of the evolutionary tree with humans. Kane encounters them not far from the Slave Coast of Africa, where he has been on the run from some hungry cannibals. He comes upon a ruined village, and later discovers an African man, tied to a stake, who has been horribly mutilated. Before the man dies, he tells Kane something about the mysterious “Akaana” and a village witch doctor named Goru. The man is traumatized by the sound of bird’s wings flapping nearby, and soon expires.
Kane is well armed, with two pistols, a long rapier, a dirk, and importantly, the “cat-headed stave” his friend N’Longa had given him in an earlier adventure. Unfortunately, he is without his musket, which had been lost “in the vampire-haunted Hills of the Dead” during a previous exploit. (See also Robert E. Howard’s Puritan Hero.) A musket is really what he needs most to use against aerial attacks from the Harpy-like Akaana.
Lovingly detailed carnage follows, as Kane and a band of beleaguered villagers attempt to fend off nightly attacks by these enormous bat-like predators. Though a stand-in for vaguely biblical or mythological demons, the Akaana are also very much a material part of the local ecology. This is the most remarkable aspect of the story, aside from the almost unrelenting violence. Howard provides a biological explanation for the horrible depredations of the Akaana against the villagers.
Humans, it turns out, are not the natural prey of the Akaana, who favor the wild goats and pigs that were once prevalent on the plateau below their hilltop cave dwellings. With the arrival of the villagers, driven north by a civil war and hemmed in by bands of roving cannibals, humans and Akaana were forced to compete for the same sources of protein—which also draw in other local predators like lions. With the ecology out of balance, humans became the principle source of protein. However, Howard makes clear that this unhappy situation is also causing both human and Akaanan populations to decline, reducing biodiversity.
One wonders if something could have been worked out, but this is probably impossible in a Howard story. There is a final confrontation, but not before Howard makes this remarkable statement, as Solomon Kane connects the mythological Harpies with their physical manifestation as Akaana:
If this myth of the harpies were a reality, what of the other legends—the Hydra, the centaurs, the chimera, Medusa, Pan and the satyrs? All those myths of antiquity—behind them did there lie and lurk nightmare realities with slavering fangs and talons steeped in shuddersome evil? Africa, the Dark Continent, land of shadows and horror, of bewitchment and sorcery, into which all evil things had been banished before the growing light of the western world!
And then Howard makes this one, when Kane realizes that his culture and traditions may not furnish a solution to his and the villager’s dire situation:
But he stayed in Bagonda…and racked his brains for a plan. He sat and gazed for hours at the ju-ju stave, hoping in desperation that black magic would aid him, where the white man’s mind failed.
Solomon Kane attempts to ‘finish the job’ that Jason and his Argonauts began millennia ago, but his struggle—in keeping with Greek legend—is surely a Pyrrhic victory, and comes at great cost. Contemporary readers may blanch at the Aryan racial theory that is pervasive in Howard’s work. However, compared to his peers there is considerably more nuance and ambivalence about racial and cultural prejudices. (For example, compare Howard’s Wings in the Night to H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 story The Horror at Red Hook.) This is one reason why Howard continues to be an interesting author of the early twentieth century.