historical fantasy

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: http://www.britishfantasysociety.co.uk/reviews/gideons-angel-book-review/ 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: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/07/interview-clifford-beal-author-of-gideons-angel/#more-79986CBeal 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: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-2377794/HISTORICAL-FANTASY.html



Gideon’s Angel: UK cover preview

Double plus good! Solaris are releasing Gideon’s Angel with two different covers in the US and the UK. They’re both superb with very different takes on theme and hopefully they will draw you into the intrigue and magic of 17th century England.

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.