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Man in black: Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane
Considering the many horror films featuring heroes in black who take out ghoulish enemies with crossbows or holy water bullets -- think of the "Underworld" or "Hellboy" movies, or "Van Helsing," whose titular hero seems inspired by the subject of this month's column -- Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane, a vengeance-seeking Puritan swordsman, is long overdue for the screen.
(Until now, that is. There's a movie featuring Solomon Kane that's reportedly finished, although it's unclear when/if we will see it: Word is that the director is seeking a major distributor, according to various blogs that follow the progress.)
Conan the Barbarian is almost certainly the one fictional creation of Howard's that most people know. But in recent years, publishers have also brought back Kane, whom the author created earlier than Conan, with the publication of "The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane" (Del Rey: 414 pp. $15.95 paper) and "The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard" (Del Rey: 560 pp., $18 paper).
At Dark Horse Comics, what amounts to a full-court press of characters is going on: There's Conan, of course, but also comics featuring Kull and Kane as well as one-offs based on Howard's stories ("Pigeons From Hell," for instance).
Kane is a superb creation. He is the mysterious figure in a roadside tavern no one notices until there's a problem. Then he rises up, barely distinguishable from the shadows, and metes God's justice with his sword and pistols.
In Howard's stories, Kane doesn't shrink from battling spectral beasts or the animated skeleton of a dead magician; and he always takes the haunted path that villagers beg him to avoid. If necessary, he will track a murderer to the ends of the Earth. His success, though, is never certain, for Howard didn't intend Kane as some invincible superhero: When he fights, this guy bleeds, and bleeds a lot. And he can be overpowered if his wrath gets the better of him (although this doesn't happen often).
With Kane, we get an early creative glimpse of the various elements that Howard, who staked out his territory in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s, would successfully combine in the saga of Conan the Barbarian: swordplay and high adventure; exotic, mysterious lands and peoples (as well as racial stereotypes that can be problematic); and evil that is both supernatural and man-made.
Oh, and let's not forget all the distressed damsels and warrior queens with plenty of cleavage and barely enough clothing to cover themselves.
"Look at me, white man -- am I not beautiful?" Queen Nakari asks Kane in "The Moon of Skulls." As ruler of the Negari, she wears bracelets, plumes and feathers (and not much else).
Kane ventures into her kingdom to locate Marylin, a young English heiress held captive by the Negari. His warrior prowess impresses Nakari so much that she wants him to share her throne. Kane grudgingly acknowledges the queen's "tigerish comeliness," but it's no deal. He's there to free the maiden, but it doesn't happen until after Howard gives us -- and Kane -- a 1930s version of late-night Cinemax titillation:
"Nakari halted by the couch, stood looking down upon her captive for a moment, then with an enigmatic smile, bent and shook her. Marylin opened her eyes, sat up, then slipped from her couch and knelt before her black mistress -- an act which caused Kane to curse beneath his breath. The queen laughed and seating herself upon the couch, motioned the girl upon her lap. Kane watched, puzzled, while Nakari caressed the white girl in a lazy amused manner. This might be affection, but to Kane it seemed more like a sated leopard teasing its victim."
And yet, the abundance of half-naked femininity here and in other stories doesn't set Kane's loins on fire. The only fire burning in him is the desire for justice. As Howard explained about his hero's motivations in one of the earliest Kane stories, "Red Shadows," which appeared in 1928:
"All his life he had roamed about the world aiding the weak and fighting oppression, he neither knew nor questioned why. That was his obsession, his driving force of life. Cruelty and tyranny to the weak sent a red blaze of fury, fierce and lasting, through his soul. When the full flame of his hatred was wakened and loosed, there was no rest for him until his vengeance had been fulfilled to the uttermost."
Though romance is never a part of Kane's rewards, the Puritan swordsman isn't entirely without companionship. Howard took the character of N'Longa -- the African witchdoctor Kane helped in "Red Shadows" -- and made him a friend and counselor of sorts (every swordsman needs his occult connections). In " The Hills of the Dead," N'Longa gives Kane a long staff with a head resembling a leopard, a magical staff by which he can communicate with the witchdoctor in his dreams -- and this becomes an implement as valuable as Kane's sword and pistols.
Howard didn't place some private grievance at the heart of Kane's purpose, and I hope the movie doesn't try to address this with the standard Hollywood cliches about a loved one's tragic death at the sadistic hands of some aristocrat or feudal landowner. The fact that Kane is an enigma is appealing; and it's easy to see him as a sibling -- the good one, of course -- to Cormac McCarthy's Anton Chigurrh, the bogeyman of a killer in "No Country for Old Men" whose origins are never explained, and don't need to be.
THE DARK HORSE SERIES CAPTURES all the fantasy violence and slashing swords of Howard's saga, but it also evokes smaller details: Kane's brooding silences and the stately strangeness of his eloquence: "It has fallen upon me, now and again in my sojourns through the world, to ease various evil men of their lives." This remark comes from the story fragment "The Castle of the Devil," which is included in "Savage Tales." Writer Scott Allie effectively imagines the rest of this story in the Dark Horse series (issues 1 - 5, $2.99 each).
These comics are also visually successful. Kane moves through a forest of brooding colors, down castle corridors and past statues of moody angels -- all thanks to the artistry of Mario Guevara and Dave Stewart. After he cuts loose a peasant hanging (and still alive) from a gallows, he travels to a nearby castle to demand some answers. Typical Kane.
His audacity is welcomed by the castle's Lord, whose responses aren't very candid -- and over the course of five issues, we learn that the gallows' victims (for there are many others) are a required sacrifice. Allie comes up with a malevolent source worthy of Howard - and I won't spoil it by describing it here. Suffice to say, however, one can easily imagine an animation crew having a field day with this one.
WHAT GAVE RISE TO the grim, crow-colored swordsman? We may never know -- though I would welcome the input of any devotees of Howard (and there are plenty of you). Perhaps the origin partly lies in Howard's small-town roots and his desire to leave them behind.
Howard was born in 1906, in Peaster, Texas, west of Fort Worth, and the family later moved to Cross Plains, another small Texas hamlet, where he lived until his death in 1936. Kane so often is depicted as traveling across open fields and heaths, plains and flat horizons, that it seems not a stretch to see the autobiographical inspirations for his hero's landscape. Howard's life and career, though, were short and sad. A biographical sketch by Howard scholar Rusty Burke is included in "Savage Tales" and can also be found at the Robert E. Howard United Press Assn. website.
His decision to be a writer -- and to be the caretaker of his ailing mother -- isolated Howard from any significant relationships with other people, especially women, even though he enjoyed correspondence with other practitioners of the weird tale, including H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth. Burke writes that Howard's isolation and his despair over his mother's ill health (culminating with her lapse into a coma) drove him to complete a plan "not to outlive her." He shot himself and died in June 1936.
I don't like to imagine Howard that way. I prefer what might have been: Howard in Hollywood, for instance. Or else, to see him in the romantic vein of his hero in the poem "Kane's Homecoming" -- ever restless, ever elusive. After returning to his Devon home, his feet weary, feeling his age, Kane smells adventure on the wind and vanishes again:
A wild moon rode the wild white clouds,
The waves in white crests flowed,
When Solomon Kane went forth again
And no man knew his road.
They glimpsed him etched against the moon,
Where clouds on hilltop thinned;
They heard an eery, echoed call
That whistled down the wind.
Owchar is deputy book editor of the Times. "The Siren's Call" appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.