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Cold Reads: Red Shadows by Robert E. Howard

Red Shadows (Weird Tales cover)

See the swashbuckling hero smite out evil with the blade of his holy sword! Witness the evil doings of nefarious French criminals and diabolical African warlords! Shiver at the sight of the dead returning from their graves to the beat of voodoo drums as they shamble forth into the mysterious void of the night world! All these thrilling adventures await you in Robert E. Howard's tale of vengeance and bare-chested action that succeeds in both boiling the blood and chilling the flesh.

While wandering through the wilds, Solomon Kane comes upon a woman who has been defiled and left for dead. Just as she breathes her last, the maiden tells Kane that her killer was Le Loup, the notorious French criminal mastermind. Fueled by an overwhelming passion to erase all traces of evil from the face of the planet, the heroic puritan sets out to hunt the fiend down. Kane fails in slaying his enemy who then flees to the steamy jungles of Africa. There Kane must go against the powerful magic of an African tribe and use all of his strength and wit to fight back against the dark forces threatening his life at every turn...

Robert E. Howard is known to most as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, penning the first stories in the ongoing series that managed to combine adventure, fantasy, and horror into a delightful bag of treats and thrills for the reader. The Conan stories, along with the accounts of Solomon Kane, made their first appearances in the pulp magazines of the 1930's. These were the perfect vehicles to exhibit the sensationalist and gripping writing styles that authors such as Howard handled so well.

Howard wrote in what is called the "blood and thunder" fashion. This is to say that his stories, while possessing lurid passages of unimaginable terrors and monsters, still contained a distinct and resonant sense of heart-pounding action that kept readers on the edge of their seats. Each chapter in the story ends on a classic cliffhanger, with our hero having found himself in a seemingly inescapable scenario of danger or death and his fate left unknown. Will Solomon Kane escape from the pit of bloodthirsty badgers?! To be continued...

Howard is wise in making Solomon Kane a unique and mysterious character, a hero who intrigues us and holds our attention for the whole of his adventure. A dark and foreboding atmosphere and typical horror standards (murderous madmen, zombies, black magic, etc.) can only enchant us for so long. A story that is devoid of a sympathetic or at least an interesting protagonist is dead in the water. Solomon Kane seems to be a hero by the general definition of the word: good guy who gets bad guys. But here the association ends. Kane's methods are extreme, echoing the witch hunt-like determination of his ancestors. He tracks down villains in the dark of night, mercilessly slashing them with his rapier as if he were merely crushing insects under his foot.

However, his passion for purifying the world reaches the brink of obsession. Halfway into the tale Kane ruminates on his die-hard resolve to destroy all evil. He does not know why he feels as he does; he simply acts out on his instinct to destroy those who may rule over the weak and oppressed. There is darkness in Kane's soul, darkness that is seen in the very devils he is attempting to hunt. I have always found it much more compelling when the protagonist has some type of internal link to the antagonist(s), a psychological bond that causes one to wonder just how closely the minds of each character is related. It makes the hero's motives appear more dubious and the machinations of the villain appear to be the seed of a sane mind.

All the other characters simply serve to move the story forward and act as archetypes of the adventure genre. Le Loup is a villain taken straight from the pages of a comic book (all "muahahas" included). He haughtily taunts his dogged pursuer and seems to have no qualms about taking pleasure in the pain of others and just being a general ass to everyone he meets. N'Longa is Kane's trusty sidekick. But instead of being an annoying, prepubescent boy in tights, N'Longa is a powerful African wizard who uses his mastery of the mystical arts to get Kane out of a few scrapes with death. The despicable African king and his gargantuan henchman are... well, despicable and gargantuan. These two-dimensional characterizations don't take away from the story at all though. You hardly notice the silly dialogue and blatant racism and just enjoy the engaging adventure of the tale. It's all in good fun and all you can do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

On a side note, I couldn't help but picture Christopher Lee in my mind's eye as I imagined Solomon Kane chasing evil all across the globe. Though Lee is mostly known for playing baddies, Solomon Kane seems like a character that Lee could have easily portrayed. If not for the physical description of a tall, gaunt man clad all in black and possessing a deep, bone-chilling voice, then the fact that Kane is a conflicted character more akin to the obsessed vigilante than the upstanding hero would have made Mr. Lee simply perfect for the part if a film were ever to be made. If Christopher Lee decides to make an audio recording of Howard's stories, sign me up!

"Red Shadows" is an excellent read that is ideal for long, boring afternoons. Looking for a quick, snappy tale that you can turn your thinking cap off for? Perfect! Then do we have the adventure for you! Grab your swords, clutch your crucifixes, and prepare for the escapades of Solomon Kane, puritan hero and evil slayer extraordinaire. Be sure to tune in for next week's episode, same horror-time, same horror-channel!  

It's interesting that you

It's interesting that you mention his obsession with getting the bad guys, sometimes deviating into something closer to the person he's chasing than the puritanical good guy, because he's always kind of reminded me of the Batman archetype. It's even a common thread that the introspective moment in "Red Shadows" models the oft-used argument (by the villains) that Batman is no better than them, and closer to them in motives than he'd like to admit.  It's something interesting to think about as you read Kane's other tales.