Monday, 14 March 2011

Review: The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane by Robert E Howard (1998)

Solomon Kane is a perfect example of Howard's technique of completely immersing himself into his characters until, like a method actor, his own personality would fade and he'd even start talking like his fictional offspring in real life.   Kane is one of Howard's lesser known characters, which is a pity because he is a stunning contrast to his better known creations like Conan. Where Conan is the embodiment of Howard's ideas about barbarism; a vital historical force that is man's true state of nature and one, given time,  guaranteed to overwhelm any civlisation like the sea bashing against rocky cliffs,  Solomon Kane is a much more complex character representing man's refusal to bow before a hostile universe.  Ostensibly a Puritan and a "landless man" from Devon in the days of Sir Francis Drake, Kane is a remarkable contradiction.  A man from a mysterious past who roams the world with only sword and pistols as baggage, he seeks out wrongs to right–not as a knight errant, but as the self-styled instrument of God's wrath.  This is not entirely affectation because he's been known to cross entire continents to slay a stranger girl's murder.  However, Kane may be a fanatical Christian, but there is more pagan than monk about him.  Never showing much of God's love, he is a man given to vengeance more fitting to a Viking warrior and for all his denial of self, Kane cannot abide the thought of ever being mistaken for a coward, which at least once was almost his undoing.

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane is a collection of Howard's Kane stories interspersed with poems and story fragments about the Puritan warrior.  Following Kane as he deals with English ghosts, French rogues, pirates, slavers, and the like, the bulk of the stories deal with Kane's wanderings in a central Africa that owes more with H P Lovecraft than Edgar Rice Burroughs.  Not only does he deal with wild beasts and cannibals, but Kane also does battle with lost civilisations collapsed into horrible decadence, voodoo, hordes of vampire zombies, harpies, and things that literally defy description.  Through it all Solomon Kane walks as a symbol of defiance before horrors that laugh at man and mock justice.  It's a hard anvil of a world that Howard draws, but it captivates and remains long after the average airport novel has faded into dim memory.

It's entirely possible to finish off a volume of Robert E Howard stories in an afternoon, but that's like saying that one can wold down a plate of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, dripping, new potatoes, and sauteed asparagus in ten minutes, but why would you want to do so?  The whole point of either is to savour the richness and flavour in every bite. I'd recommend at least a week to read this collection with a time out between course to cleanse the palate with lighter fare.  A crisp 1925 P G Wodehouse might suffice.

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