Monday, April 29, 2013
Red Shadows (1928) by Robert E. Howard
Solomon Kane was one of Howard's first adventure heroes. He certainly was one of his most unique. He was a sixteenth century English puritan driven to wander the Earth righting wrongs and battling evil. A religious fanatic, he himself believed that it was his god that drove him on, while Howard suggested that it was in fact his own wanderlust and insatiable desire for adventure. He was a tall, rangy man who dressed entirely in black and was an expert with both rapier and musket. He would track down an enemy relentlessly for years to exact vengeance, yet he also had a soft spot for all innocents and was described by Howard as a "kindly" man.
Red Shadows was Howard's first published story about Solomon Kane, and it has some of the defects found in many of Howard's early tales from the 1920s. He had not yet mastered his style at this point, and the writing does not have the swift, smooth narrative flow that his later stories have. In fact, it seems a bit clunky in spots. What it has going for it is a brilliant plot, Howard's usual sense of dark atmosphere, and fully developed characters. The evil Le Loup, The Wolf, is in fact one of Howard's most memorable villains.
The story begins when Kane encounters an injured girl lying in the shadows beneath some trees. She has been ravaged and stabbed by the evil Le Loup, who along with his bandits has sacked her small village. She dies in Kane's arms. Kane says simply, "Men shall die for this." He proceeds to hunt down and kill Le Loup's men one by one. He finally confronts The Wolf himself in a cave, but the villain escapes him.
Eventually Kane tracks down Le Loup to Africa, a local that Kane will frequently return to in future stories. As one would expect, Robert E. Howard's Africa has very little relation to the real place. Most of what Howard knew of Africa seems to be what he read in H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Howard's Africa was a true "dark continent", a lost world as fantastic as Conan's Hyborian Age. It was filled not only with savage men and animals, but also monsters and magic.
Le Loup has managed to insinuate himself among a native African tribe, where he has become second only to the king himself. Solomon Kane is captured and as a prisoner he meets the magician N'Longa, who becomes an important character later in the series. N'Longa is upset that Le Loup has taken some of his own prestige in the tribe and he offers to help Kane escape. Later Kane is, of course, tied to a stake to be burned alive. I shall not describe how N'Longa ends up helping Kane or how the story ends, so as not to spoil it for those unfortunate enough not to have read it. It is enough to say that it involves the raising of the dead, a vengeful Gorilla, and the brilliant final battle between Kane and the fiendish Le Loup. Yes, this story really does have a grand payoff at the end.
In the Kane series one can really see how Robert E. Howard progressed as a writer. By his later Kane stories he had mastered his talent. Tales like The Hills of the Dead and Wings in the Night are pulp masterpieces. Howard was not there yet with Red Shadows, but he was getting close. Solomon Kane was already fully developed as a character at this point. Howard's plotting and sense of pace were excellent. It was only his writing style that he had yet to master, for at that point it still felt overly garish and a bit clumsy. Later he would take the best of pulp language and craft a unique narrative style that could create action, scenery and atmosphere beyond compare.
Red Shadows can be found in The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. And, just to show how highly regarded the tale is, it is also included in The Best of Robert E. Howard Volume One: Crimson Shadows.