Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Red Shadows by Robert E. Howard

Brutal good fun
Red Shadows, a brief novella by Robert E. Howard, was originally published in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales magazine. It is the story in which Howard introduces his popular recurring character Solomon Kane, and for that reason it is often reprinted under the alternate title of Solomon Kane.

In the first few pages, Kane stumbles upon a girl who has been “violated” and left for dead. With her dying breath, she tells him that she was attacked by a group of bandits under the direction of Le Loup (The Wolf). With five simple words—“Men shall die for this.”—Kane vows to avenge her. Let the carnage begin. The narrative structure of Red Shadows is like the disembodied second half of a spaghetti western—all righteous retribution with no back story to precede it. There is no Solomon Kane origin story here. In fact, the reader ends the story knowing very little about the character. In a couple of spots he is described as an Englishman and a Puritan. The description of his dress and choice of weapons indicates the story perhaps takes place in the 17th century. Beyond that, there are few clues given to establish time and place, and little character development to get in the way of the action.

Kane eventually tracks his prey to Africa, where he encounters a tribe of savage natives. The African characters are not described in a flattering light, but this has less to do with any overt racism on Howard’s part than with his desire to create a nightmarish atmosphere populated with frightening villains. From reading Red Shadows it is easy to understand the enduring appeal of Howard’s stories and characters. The 21st-century action movie fan will feel right at home in his bleak and brutal world. Other classic pulp adventure writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, or Harold Lamb always hang on to some vestige of propriety in their tales which makes them seem tame by comparison. In their stories, the violence has been romanticized to the point where the bloodshed loses its harsh edge. Howard’s writing is no holds barred. He turns all the knobs up to 11. When someone dies in a Howard story, it hurts.

As a fan of historical adventure, I prefer Solomon Kane over Howard’s more famous creation, Conan, because Kane is more grounded in historical reality. Nevertheless, this is fantasy fiction, and supernatural events do take place. Howard’s great strength as a storyteller is that he has a knack for treating such fantastical occurrences with the same gritty authenticity in which he would describe a sword fight or a pursuit on horseback. For those who appreciate pulp fiction, Red Shadows is a gripping and entertaining ride. When all is said and done and the last man’s standing, you’ll be dying for more tales of Solomon Kane.

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