Robert E Howard’s Solomon Kane revisited


Wrote a retro review for the July issue of SFX Magazine which the editors have graciously allowed me to reproduce here. It was a very different experience reading R.E. Howard again after so many years–and not an altogether pleasant one. Have a read and let me know what you think.


The Savage Taleso of Solomon Kane
Robert E Howard, (Del Rey, 1998)
Writer Clifford Beal considers Conan’s Puritan stablemate

Robert E Howard, who took his own life at the age of 30, was the father of that kanesubgenre of fantasy that would become known as “sword and sorcery”. Best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Howard’s writings influenced a generation of fantasy authors, including Fritz Leiber and David Gemmell.


But before Conan, Howard had created a very different character in Solomon Kane, a mysterious Puritan loner who roams the darker corners of the world, fighting ancient and nameless evil in the early 17th century. Bursting from the pages of Weird Tales in 1928, Solomon Kane fought Lovecraft-inspired deities, demons, pirates and scores of hostile natives to rescue the helpless and right wrong wherever he saw it. Kane is far more conflicted and layered a character than Conan, and Howard portrays him as driven, if not downright psychopathic. In “The Blue Flame Of Vengeance” Kane remarks to a man he is helping: “It hath been my duty in times past to ease various evil men of their lives…” Which is an understatement.

To be sure, this is pulp fiction. You won’t find subplots or shades of grey here, and since these are largely short stories there is a definite headlong rush to get down to the business at hand, usually involving a good amount of swordplay and spilt blood. Anachronisms and cod “olde world” dialogue sometimes sound a sour note, but at its best, Howard’s writing is dazzlingly energetic, vivid and not without poetry. His descriptions of hand-to-hand fighting are compelling as they are brutal but even here there is a mastery of mood and intensity. In one scene, Howard’s imagery is chilling: an avenging Kane overpowers a murderous pirate in a knife fight and intentionally kills him by degrees, plunging in the tip of his dagger, one inch at a time.

kane2Yet there’s a darker side to the swashbuckling. Racial stereotyping was always present in pulp fiction and Asian or African physical features were often used as shorthand for moral turpitude and inferiority. Sadly, much of the writing in Solomon Kane follows this path. A few of the better-known tales such as “The Moon Of Skulls” are set in central Africa, where Kane encounters the remnants of an ancient civilisation ruled over by brutish savages. And here, black skin colour is equated with degenerate evil, with Kane portrayed as a white saviour intent on toppling the evil African queen Nekari. Even the last survivor of Atlantis, whom Kane tries to free from bondage, is worried about his ethnic purity: “I, the last son of Atlantis, bear in my veins the taint of Negro blood.”

But Howard and his characters are full of contradictions. Solomon Kane’s self-professed “blood brother” is a black African wizard and the only real friend that Kane has in any of the stories. And in “The Footfalls Within” Kane risks his life to free African villagers from Arab slavers and then guides them to safety. Solomon Kane’s tales are, like those of Conan, rousing epics, and as part of our pulp-era inheritance they deserve to be read. But like much of our past, it’s not all good. Today Howard’s writing, imaginative as it is, leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste.


British Fantasy Society reviews Gideon’s Angel

BFS_Logo_red_gradientVery nice review for the novel by the British Fantasy Society this week. “Gideon’s Angel is historical fantasy that smoothly combines real characters with fictional ones to create a gripping and entertaining story.” Check it out here: and for goodness sake get a copy before Andras, grand marquis of Hell, pays you a nocturnal visit!



I talk to SF Signal about writing, rapiers, and all-night diners in Providence


My thanks to John and Kristin over at SF Signal for taking the time to interview me about Gideon’s Angel, future projects, and writing craft. It’s a site that’s always chock full of interesting comments, posts and book and film reviews so well worth a visit. You can check out the post here: photo


Daily Mail looks at historical fantasy releases this week



The UK’s Daily Mail takes a look in today’s paper at some recent historical fantasy releases including Gideon’s Angel. I’m pleased to see crossover within genre getting some high-profile attention like this as a category in its own right. You can check out the reviews here:



Review: A Field in England

A retro trippy multi-layered delight—if you like mushrooms

Warning: contains a few spoilers

As the credits rolled and a lovely period tune played with vocals, I felt a bit shell-shocked (not unlike one of the main characters). I’d just seen a piece of original cinema that was disjointed, confusing, frustrating, and often meandering. Rubbing my face there on the sofa, I actually found myself saying, but I liked it. Can’t say my girlfriend agreed. She drifted away after twenty minutes. But that is the kind of film this is. Some will find it intriguing, others pointless.

A Field in England is set during the English Civil War in the 1640s. The action takes place over not much more than a day and involves four deserters from battle, one of whom is working for an Irishman lurking in the said field, a man who we discover is dabbling in the occult arts. The three soldiers are led to the would-be sorcerer O’Neil, to be instantly enslaved as his workmen in a hunt for a treasure that is never specified.

Field-in-England-Poster-640x480The film is shot in black and white and this works well to convey a starkness of mood as well as to focus attention on textures and the central characters. It is extremely evocative of 1960s arthouse cinema and low-budget psychological drama. The director (Ben Wheatley) himself discusses this on the film’s website and lists some influences such as the 1964 BBC docudrama Culloden and The Trip from 1967. It actually reminded me in many ways of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God from 1972 which starred the slightly mad Klaus Kinski.

afie19-reece-shearsmith-as-whitehead-by-dean-rogers-low-resMadness is a central theme to the film (like in Aguirre)and the viewer is left to decide for themselves whether there is actual magic taking place or just a bad trip brought on by the ingestion of some hallucinogenic mushrooms. And the “trip” sequence taken by the captured lacemaker Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) is pure retro sixties cinema (think Easy Rider). Though the trailer refers to alchemy, the main villain of the piece is more necromancer than alchemist. Actor Michael Smiley portrays O’Neil as a callous and driven killer whose fixation on finding the treasure of the field through the use of enchantment on the innocent deserters, drives the plot to its chilling conclusion. But it’s a rather leisurely drive which sometimes loses its energy along the way.

Costuming is done well, capturing both the elegance and grubbiness of a country at war in the 17th century. Equally, the script (Amy Jump) does a solid job of handling the cadence and vocabulary of an earlier era without getting too bogged down in cod-historical speak. That’s not an easy balance to strike in books or film and some writers opt for using modern language to boost viewer or reader affiliation. This film takes a middle road but it does make the viewer work though. A lot of ideas are being thrown around in these 90 minutes and there are many period references that will be meaningless to those not familiar with the time. A mention of one character “wearing an angel” around his neck is not explained and most people would not know this refers to an English coin used as a “touch” amulet by the king’s hand to heal those afflicted by scrofula (what we call today tuberculosis). Given the linear progression, there is a lot of backstory taken for granted and precious little dialogue exposition to put anything into context for the viewer.. The soldier banter and humour is a high point though and the down-at-heels pikeman character, only referred to as “friend” (Richard Glover) has some of the best lines. Shortly after making a run for it through a hedgerow and away from the battlefield, one of the others remarks that they won’t even be missed to which the pikeman comments reflectively, “I often leave a wake of disinterest behind me.” There’s also a great death speech scene where you think the character is about to launch into a “tell her I love her” routine only to hear him say “tell her I hate her” about his soon-to-be-widow and admitting to adultery with her sister. The climax is bloody, if not unexpected, but does liven things up.

A-Field-In-England-poster-detail-3I think I’ll have to give A Field in England  a second viewing to fully appreciate it. That I’ll watch it again must be an indicator that this is a good film. It’s challenging, original if somewhat flawed, but overall a delight to those who like me love the time period and for those who wish to discover it.

Historical Fantasy requires “world-building” too

If you don’t know it already, head on over to MyBookishWays, a very entertaining blog site atlasthat covers fantasy, suspense and horror fiction. I’ve just done a guest post for Kristin, the website’s very capable editor and moderator,which talks about how authors of historical fiction can’t ignore their world-building skills any more than those who craft epic fantasy.



51 Shades of Grey: Has traditional good vs. evil had its day?

Over at Mythic Scribes, Codey Amprim has posted a thoughtful blog about the trend imagestowards “grey” fantasy in the last few years and how traditional black hats vs. white hats storylines seemed to have waned in genre fiction.

A lot of this trend is down to RR Martin of course, but there are others as well that are creating characters that embody both good and bad qualities—just like a lot of real life people. Westeros isn’t the only place where it’s difficult to tell who’s your friend and who’s not. I remember reading the Thomas Covenant books back in the 70s and being shocked by Donaldson’s handling of his “hero”. Many of Michael Moorcock’s characters such as Elric also come in shades of grey bordering on black. Even my own hapless protagonist in Gideon’s Angel has done quite a few things that are nothing to be proud of. As Codey points out in his post, grey can really help by throwing unpredictability into the plot and spicing things up.

It’s a bit of a red herring to debate whether this reflects a hardening of the society we live in today as some have done. People have been writing characters like this since—well, since they started writing stories. And I don’t think that writers will ever abandon good vs. evil storylines. The power of archetypes appeals to all of us in an almost unconscious way as both Jung and Campbell expounded years ago.

Injecting moral ambiguity into characters can be a great writer’s tool but Codey also notes there are significant drawbacks as well. Unpredictability can lead to a plot becoming directionless with  too many twists, dead ends, and dead characters. The result can be, as he puts it,  “endless repetitive soap opera” and waning reader loyalty and interest. Words of wisdom there and a warning to those who think grey is the new white.