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.


Anti-Santa makes a comeback

Say hello to Krampus

225px-Krampus_at_Perchtenlauf_KlagenfurtMy mother Face-Timed me yesterday, rather upset, to say she had received a “very disturbing” Christmas card from my sister. It showed a sleigh and children but instead of Santa there was a jet-black, horned and cloven-hoofed demon driving. Pictured with a red tongue that would put Gene Simmons of KISS to shame, the creature was stuffing a frightened boy into a wicker basket. Turns out this was a Wilhelmine-era German Christmas card showing Saint Nicholas’s seldom-seen other half, Krampus. In Central European Christmas mythology,  old Saint Nick was always a double act: he would reward good children with sweets and toys while the bad kids got a visit from Krampus instead and a lump of coal. If you were really bad, Krampus would take you on a one-way trip to Krampusland. Great parental leveraging tool.

225px-Gruss_vom_KrampusI should have known this tradition having been married to a German woman for many years but strangely didn’t. However, Krampus celebrations are not universal in Germany, having started in the Alpine regions and then spreading into Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In the Netherlands and northern Germany, St. Nicholas’s “helper” is “Black Peter”, usually portrayed as a man in blackface makeup. In recent years, some have called for Black Peter to be cut from parades because of perceived racist overtones. But the southern tradition of the hairy, horned demonic creature who accompanies St. Nick on his travels actually predates Christianity as he was once part of pagan winter rituals. It was most probably grafted onto Christmas when that festival displaced Yule in early medieval times. For most of the 20th century, civic and church authorities had repressed this ancient tradition, and in many places, St. Nick lost the flip side of his coin. But that is beginning to change and Krampus celebrations are having a bit of a comeback in southern Germany. After I decided to blog about this, I saw that the Guardian ran a short piece on the same subject yesterday. They put the resurgence of Krampus down to a societal reflex against the commercialization of Christmas and all the saccharine trimmings that accompany it. Sort of getting back to one’s roots really.krampus kidCostumed performers are now popping up everywhere (including some big US cities) during the Feast of St. Nicholas on 6 December, prancing through the streets and frightening the bejeezus out of little kids. Sweet. I think I’m a bit envious the tradition wasn’t around for me when I was a kid. Beats the hell out of Rudolph and his red nose.



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!



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.

Gideon’s Angel: the cover has landed

Illustrator Adam Tredowski has done a fabulous job in capturing impending otherworldly menace as Richard Treadwell comes face to face with a Black Dog. Solaris are also working up a second cover so you might end up with two! More to come in the weeks ahead.

Dark Roots

World Fantasy Convention 2013 to honour old masters and their hair-raising tales

OK, so it’s over a year away but the next World Fantasy Convention is still worth getting

Arthur Machen

excited about as more details emerge. Organisers of WFC2013 have announced that one of next year’s themes will be a tribute to late-Victorian fantasy author Arthur Machen whose 150th birthday falls in March. Organisers plan to have several events on the programme featuring Machen’s work as well as that of some of his contemporaries in the genre. To quote from the WFC2013 website:

Machen worked as a clerk, teacher, actor and journalist while writing stories of horror and fantasy rooted in the myths of his homeland. H.P. Lovecraft named him as one of the four “modern masters” of supernatural horror fiction (alongside Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany and M.R. James). Probably best known for his classic 1894 novella ‘The Great God Pan’ (which Stephen King described as “Maybe the best [horror story] in the English Language”) and the short story ‘The White People’, Machen’s novels include The Inmost Light, The Shining Pyramid, The Three Impostors and The Hill of Dreams.

I haven’t yet read Machen but last year read several of Blackwood’s works and am

Algernon Blackwood

currently devouring M.R. James and his definitive collection of ghost stories. Prose style has changed dramatically over the last century to be sure, but many of these stories hold their power to grip and frighten. Blackwood’s The Wendigo or The Willows definitely requires the hall light being left on all night. And as a longtime H.P. Lovecraft fan, it brought a smile to my face when reading James’s The Treasure of Abbot Thomas to find a character chillingly describe the unwanted embrace of a tomb-dwelling demon: “legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body.” The seed of the Cthulu Mythos? Many of these stories do seem to have the

M.R. James

elements of what Lovecraft would use to make himself a master of horror in the 20th century: half-remembered legends, ancient sleeping evil, and blundering professors and sceptics waking it all up. Authors have always built upon what has gone before, either consciously or unconsciously. Even these late Victorian and Edwardian scribes were indebted to the likes of Poe, Polidori and Shelley. I’m pleased to see the old masters of weird tales get the attention they deserve and frankly, they’re still a damn good read.

You can visit the World Fantasy Convention website at: www.wfc2013.org