The Spectacle Blog

A Puritan Pulp Hero by Robert E. Howard?

By on 7.25.11 | 1:47PM

I grew up reading both comic books and stories about various pulp fiction heroes.  My favorite in the pulp genre as a kid was Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze.  He traveled with his group of highly capable friends and resolved various terrible threats to humanity.  I recently picked one of the Doc Savage stories up in a thrift store and found that, despite the sentimental value, it didn't hold up all that well.

Other notable entries in that publishing space include The Shadow, The Spider, Sherlock Holmes (a contender for the greatest), John Carter of Mars, Tarzan, and Zorro. Despite my disappointing return to Doc Savage (maybe I just got one that was subpar), I have enthusiastically continued to read in the genre.  The Amazon Kindle has facilitated the habit marvelously as I now download the stories very inexpensively. First, I downloaded Sherlock Holmes (to discover a character somewhat more interesting than the one I'd seen on television as a child).  Next, I stumbled upon Robert E. Howard's Solomon Kane.  Jackpot.

Howard is much better known for creating his most popular character, Conan the Barbarian (and his Atlantean predecessor Kull the Conqueror), but his first big success was Kane.  For reasons no one is sure about, Howard killed himself at a tragically young age upon hearing of his mother's death.  We lost many years of exciting stories and characters as a result, but what he wrote during his short life was highly memorable.

Solomon Kane, to my knowledge, is the only great Christian superhero (or pulp hero, for that matter) ever to exist in the popular market.  I call him a superhero, though he theoretically has no super powers, because his strength borders on the superhuman as does his courage, raw toughness, determination, and skill with weapons. He is a tall man, dressed in simple Puritan black, wears two heavy pistols (single shot), a rapier, and a dirk.  Kane also carries a musket, with which he is deadly.  

The dour Puritan is almost never without his slouch hat which rests above his stern face characterized by a pallor almost like a corpse.  His people face religious persecution in England.  Persecution plays a part in Kane's choice to live the life of a "landless wanderer" drawn into many mysterious adventures as though pulled on a line by supernatural force.

As with most great popular entertainments, there is a formula.  Kane typically happens upon some awful injustice and pledges himself to visit vengeance (he feels he is the instrument of God's justice) upon the perpetrators.  At one point, he reassures a frightened woman that "in times past hath God made me a great vessel of wrath and a sword of deliverance. And, I trust, shall do so again." Finding a girl dying in the woods and hearing her story, he comforts her until she passes and simply promises, "Men shall die for this." Part of what makes him so appealing is his single-minded devotion to justice.

A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things, avenge all crimes against right and justice. Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect – he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.

Wandering through the jungles of Africa, he encounters slave traders callously marching natives to ships on the shore.  Observing their mistreatment, he is almost turned inside out with rage:

The fury Solomon Kane felt would have been enough at any time and in any place to shake a man to his foundation; now it assumed monstrous proportions, so that Kane shivered as if with a chill, iron claws scratched at his brain and he saw the slaves and the slavers through a crimson mist.

Kane is a complex character.  Though he is relentless in his pursuit of evil, he is confounded by the means he is provided to conquer it.  In several adventures, he makes good use of a "ju-ju stave" given him by an African medicine man.  Though he disdains it as a Puritan, he is often forced to employ its power.  Intriguingly, he comes to believe it may once have belonged to the great King Solomon in the remote past. He is also often left feeling ambiguous after having sated his need to dispense justice.  Upon dispatching one vile villain, he remarks:

God grant all our deaths be as easy. But my heart is heavy within me, for he was little more than a youth, albeit an evil one, and was not my equal with the steel. Well, the Lord judge between him and me on the Judgment Day.

I can't leave the post behind without offering the obligatory remarks about insufficient enlightenment on Howard's part.  Africa is often the setting for Kane's adventures.  It is a dark place where many horrors of the world have been driven by the "growing light of the western world."  While Kane unfailingly treats the natives as human beings deserving of justice and protection, the narrative description often relies upon the type of evolutionary thinking which might place different races at higher and lower points on the scale of advancement.  

Kane's own reflection upon one African adventure provides a suitable endpoint and helps give the reader a sense of his own good intentions:

The light of God’s morning enters even into dark and lonesome lands,” said Solomon Kane somberly. “Evil rules in the waste lands of the earth, but even evil may come to an end. Dawn follows midnight and even in this lost land the shadows shrink. Strange are Thy ways, oh God of my people, and who am I to question Thy wisdom? My feet have fallen in evil ways but Thou hast brought me forth scatheless and hast made me a scourge for the Powers of Evil. Over the souls of men spread the condor wings of colossal monsters and all manner of evil things prey upon the heart and soul and body of Man. Yet it may be in some far day the shadows shall fade and the Prince of Darkness be chained forever in his hell. And till then mankind can but stand up stoutly to the monsters in his own heart and without, and with the aid of God he may yet triumph.
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