“This Solomon Kane is a demon from Hell, I tell you.”
—Red Shadows, 1928
§.00 In the introduction to The Elements of Style (Strunk & White, 1999, p. xv.), the authors implore the reader thrice over to “Omit needles words!” Robert E. Howard’s Red Shadows (first published in Weird Tales, August 1928)—the first of the Solomon Kane stories—follows this dictum to a near-fanatical degree. No word is wasted and no description is deployed that does not advance the plot. The bare bones approach is so pronounced that at numerous points in the tale I wished it was less minimalistic.
In almost every way, Howard’s spare, swift, repetitive and concise style is the complete opposite of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft’s, whose writing is long, winding, labyrinthian and baroque (though both maintained a thoroughgoing interest in historicity, evidenced by Lovecraft’s remark to E. Hoffman Price after Howard’s death, “I always gasped at his profound knowledge of history… and admired still more his really astonishing assimilation and visualisation of it. He was almost unique in his ability to understand and mentally inhabit past ages…”).
§.01 (*The following contains details concerning the plot) The tale begins in a unspecified location (presumably France), with the titular protagonist, Solomon Kane, a Puritan wanderer, stumbling across a terribly wounded young woman near a ruined village. Kane inquires what happened and is told that a bandit named Le Loup (the wolf) descended with a band and waylaid the town. The woman then tells the traveler that it was none other than the bandit leader who had ravaged and mortally wounded her. The woman then succumbs to her wounds and Kane swears vengeance upon the criminals.
§.02 What is really compelling about the tale is, firstly, its protagonist, who is quite a unique creation. Kane is a somber man, with a “gentle voice,” polite (described as “not a profane man”) and yet obsessed with violently stamping out evil wherever it may reside. It is this latter quality which throws him into conflict with his religion, for how can a cool-blooded murderer (albeit of other murderers) be also a man of God, a Puritan? His answer is simple: He is an instrument of providence, an agent of divine retribution. Yet, he waxes uncertain as to the veracity of this belief and it is this uncertainty that lends him a depth of humanity and the believability required of his status as protagonist.
Le Loup himself is also a interesting character and a effective villain. Intelligent and debonair, yet haughty, vain and avaricious. So consumed by greed is the detestable rogue that he murders his own subordinate, Rat, so that the plunder need not be split two ways. Despite this, towards the end of the tale, when he could have ambushed Kane, he decides instead to meet him in a duel in the open, suggesting some lingering chivalric sentiments, some as-yet uncorroded honor.
The other two main antagonists, introduced in the latter-half of the tale, though they don’t recieve as much development as the wolf, also prove effective, particularly in driving the themes of the tale, for the thing which all three of the central opponents of Kane—Songa, Gulka and Le Loup—share is a penchant for capricious betrayal.
Le Loup betrays his own men, then the African sorceror, N’Longa, whilst Gulka and Songa both join in on the usurpation. As a consequence, they rise high—for a time—but end up facing death alone for want of aid. Yet Kane, despite constantly being thrust into similarly harrowing circumstances, receives aid firstly, and intentionally, from N’Longa, and secondarily, and unintentionally, from the gorilla that hunts Gulka down. The actions of the three knaves ultimately bring about their demise—Songa meets his end at N’Longa’s hand, Gulka is slain by the gorilla whose mate he cruelly slew, and Le Loup is struck down by Kane. Not a hand raises to aid them. Condemned by their selfsame, corrosive agency, their eschewing of all civility. For such creatures, death at the hands of their vengeful fellows is all but assured, when they are not first claimed by Solomon Kane.
- Robert E. Howard. (2007) The Best of Robert E. Howard, Vol. 1.
- Strunk & White. (1999) The Elements of Style.