The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, by Robert E. Howard

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane, by Robert E. Howard  book coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Random House
Published: 2004
Reviewer Rating: four and a half stars
Book Review by Tim Deland

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“It has fallen upon me, now and again in my sojourn through the world, to ease various evil men of their lives.” So claims Solomon Kane, one of Robert E. Howard’s (Conan, Kull the Conqueror) lesser known, but equally loved, fantasy heroes.

Solomon Kane’s a bit different than the usual sword and sorcery archetype Howard’s famous for pioneering. Rather than a brawny barbarian, Kane is a dour fifteenth century Puritan with a fanatical obsession for fighting evil wherever he finds it. Equal parts swashbucklers and horror tales, the original Kane stories ran from 1928 through the early 1930s, mostly in Weird Tales magazine.

The stories themselves cover a broad range, including a few ghost stories, pirate tales, and the expected strange creature pieces. Through them all, Kane remains the stalwart hero, a wandering swordsman and pistoleer of no equal and a dark-clad enemy of all evil men in the pulp tradition of the Shadow or the Spider. Whether you’ll enjoy these books depends largely on whether you think the above line sounds like a good thing or not. If the idea of a sword-welding puritan slaying demons, monsters, pirates, and voodoo priests galore in the name of good (and the occasional fair-skinned, blond haired maiden) sounds like a dream come true–stop reading this review and head to the nearest book store now.

To those still on the fence, I’ll give you fair warning. These are straight, vintage pulp tales. If you’re expecting conflicted heroes, deep plots, or much in the way of characterization, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Howard’s characters act strictly according to character types–the evil pirate, the swooning maiden, the sinister magician. Most of the plots, with the exception of a few of the short stories and poems (yes, poems), follow a basic framework of: Kane meets villain, Kane pursues villain, Kane defeats villain. Along the way, all sorts of things wind up stabbed and shot.

The two biggest problems I think modern readers may have with these stories are the writing and some of the author’s viewpoints. The writing isn’t necessarily bad, but it is wordy. In an era where slimness of language is being stressed, Howard’s elaborate descriptions and ornate style push the boundaries of what’s sometimes called “purple prose.” Howard was a close friend of H. P. Lovecraft–considered one of the most purple-hued writers of the twentieth century–and his influence, in both the story matter and the writing style, shows.

Most fantasy and sword and sorcery (not to mention pulp) fans are fairly used to such writing though. What they may be less comfortable with is overt racism. Most of the Kane stories take place in “dark Africa” and Howard’s views on the “negroid” are not exactly enlightened by today’s standards (remember these tales were written in the early ’30s, by the Texas born and raised Howard). While nothing in them is likely to shock anyone, some of Howard’s descriptions of “savage, uncivilized” blacks and his occasional ode to the Aryan race may rub some the wrong way. A few examples:

“The [black] girl was of a higher type than the thick-lipped, bestial West Coast Negroes Kane had been used.”

and

“…over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of earth…”

If you find those descriptions overly offensive than you may want to skip this collection, as Howard’s belief in racial hierarchy pervades much of his work. If not, there are other features to commend Savage Tales. As pulp stories go, they are gripping adventure tales with a unique leading character that has rarely been copied, unlike the hordes of Conan-clones that have cropped up since Howard’s passing. There are also occasional passages where these stories rise above their cliched material–such as a scene where Kane’s sometimes ally, a black ju-ju man named N’Longa, steps away from his stereotype to become a fully realized character on equal footing with Kane.

Savage Tales is a complete collection of all the Kane tales, including several short stories, four novellas, and various story fragments. While this collection is not the first Kane collection to come down the pike, two things set this one part apart–the inclusion of all story fragments in their unaltered form (most of these fragments have been published previously in completed form by other writers such as Ramsey Campbell) and the detailed illustrations of Gary Gianni. These Gianni drawings, decorating nearly every page and bringing the story to life in vivid style, place this collection above the norm. In fact, for me, Gianni’s drawings wound up being of greater interest than the stories themselves. Savage Tales also contains a brief Howard biography by Rusty Burke and a memoriam written by H. P. Lovecraft.

If you’re already a Howard fan, and a Solomon Kane fan in particular, this is definitely the collection to buy. If not, this may be the place to start.

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