fiction writing

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.


Authors reviewing authors

Is it an “ethics alert” or “just business”?

I was never really a committed book reviewer. Sure, I’ve got a shelf on Goodreads, albeit rather sparse compared to some folks on that site (just keep forgetting to add all of my books), and I have in the past given out stars and comments on some of the books there. Just had too much fun reading books, lots of them, and not writing about them after I’d done so. But since joining the ranks of published novelists, I’ve begun feeling somewhat queasy about the idea of authors reviewing authors. And I’m not sure why.scratch

All authors started out as readers you might say, so why can’t they continue to write as readers and review the works of others? Well, they can and do. Some rather well. But with the rise of the internet, there are now channels other than the Sunday papers and book sections with which to post book reviews from both professional literary critics and the proverbial man-in-the-street. Reviews are an important fact of publishing life now that Amazon rules the roost. Some authors are even developing a whole new form of OCD in which they incessantly Google their work daily to check their reviews (what! moi?). This leads to “coping behaviours” in psych parlance—like writing your own reviews of your novel under clever pseudonyms. Or how about “reviewing circles” where author A promises to review author B’s book in return for similar treatment?

I think part of the reason I’m uneasy about this is because for people reading my reviews, it might call into question my motives for writing them. If I pen a good one, some might say I was looking to curry favour, like fishing for that next cover blurb from Stephen King. Slam a fellow scribe’s lifework and I’m just a jealous hack settling scores. Scratch my back I’ll scratch yours is a powerful driver, especially for authors who are insecure and fretting at the best of times. Wanting to be liked and having one’s work liked is also a basic emotion. Would writing a review—good or bad—affect how my novel is reviewed in future?

I don’t have a definitive view on this, rather a vague sense of disquiet. Like that unidentified noise in the cellar. At night. When you’re all alone. I suppose there are exceptions to everything but how often do you see artists writing as art critics? Or chefs blogging as restaurant reviewers? Perhaps something to be considered (and I might try it if I can get motivated enough to start writing reviews again) is for authors not to review in their own genres. That would at least remove most of the suspicion from readers’ minds. I first published non-fiction history before moving over to historical fiction and fantasy. I’d feel more confident reviewing non-fiction if I was no longer writing it for publication myself. Just a thought. What are your views on authors reviewing authors? I’d be happy to post some responses to this blog once I get a chance after checking my Amazon rankings. Again.

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


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.



Stealth drivel: the pitfalls of self-editing

In defence of editors and why delving into that drawer of old photos might be a mistake

I’m currently going through my editor’s parse of my final manuscript and he’s done a damn fine job of it I must say. What bothers me though is after I had been through it 99 times, he managed to find a lot of superfluous rubbish, awkward modifiers, twisted phrases, and even missing text. It’s truly amazing how one’s mind works when reading and proofing something you’ve written yourself. It’s like the eyes and brain just don’t connect to spot the bleeding obvious. Some of the worst offending phrases go into a sort of stealth mode right there in front of you. But once it’s highlighted by someone else, it jumps off the page, grabs your necktie and slams your forehead onto the paper. So kids, always remember to get an adult to check your work for you. Your readers deserve it.

And in a completely unrelated development, I came across some shocking photos from about 15 years ago, taken at Lewes Castle in Sussex. Those of you who know me may recall that I used to indulge in a bit of SCA swordplay. Or at least talk a lot about it. Well, here’s the proof of those halcyon days when all you needed was a stout piece of rattan and a 2-litre bottle of Strongbow for afters.

Your author checking the bookmaker’s odds pre-fight

About to fire with a left snap…maybe.



Gee, just like Game of Thrones        






Taking Liberties

Historical fantasy and fact vs fiction

If writing historical fiction sometimes requires taking liberties with the truth for the purposes of storyline, writing historical fantasy makes this almost a dead certainty. But half the fun of writing historical fantasy is in weaving the fantastical elements seamlessly with actual events without rewriting the historical timeline as we know it. You can even inject a fantasy device that directly triggers an actual event.

High fantasy demands world-building from the ground up. Historical fantasy is more like renovating a listed building without permission. You keep the fabric and build on what’s there but also construct some rather strange additions. Working on Gideon’s Angel (Solaris 2013) gave me the opportunity to introduce several real life figures into a fantasy/horror scenario and have them interact with the protagonist and other fictional characters. All of this obviously requires some good research to remain true to the actual person and the time period. But there can be something reassuringly comforting about making a real person one of your characters—like watching an old familiar friend in a new adventure that no one knew about. Who would have thought that Abe Lincoln had a second line of work in vampire hunting?

And readers will get the opportunity to meet characters they thought were fictional but are actually figures from true life. Without giving away the game, one of these is Charles de Batz-Castelmore, better known as d’Artagnan. Alexandre Dumas plucked him from the

The real version of musketeer d’Artagnan lives again in Gideon’s Angel

pages of history and dropped him into The Three Musketeers but in real life d’Artagnan lived almost the same adventure: as a soldier for King Louis XIV, as a trusted confidante of the great Cardinal Mazarin, and as an international man of mystery.

Less well known, but equally real, is Elias Ashmole. Ashmole, scientist, mathematician and founding member of the Royal Society, is best remembered today for the museum at Oxford that he began and that still bears his name. He was also a dedicated alchemist and astrologer. The 17th century was the twilight of an earlier age: new science was discovering physics and the circulation of blood at a time when most people still believed in hobgoblins and that the little old lady down the street was a witch. This head-on collision of medieval and modern makes the period especially fertile ground for historical fiction and fantasy. Gideon’s Angel takes that premise and runs with it. It hits the streets next March in the US and UK.