Following on from my recent reading of the Conan series, I just finished reading through Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane stories as well. I also watched the film adaptation from 2009 and this video by Raz0rfist gives a great (though expletive ridden), introduction to the character.
What follows will be some general thoughts on the character and stories.
Although Solomon Kane predates the earliest Conan stories, the latter is much better known and I confess I hadn’t heard of the character at all until very recently. I believe I even had him confused with The Shadow at one stage which isn’t hard to do.
Solomon Kane is a far more consistent character than his more popular literary brother but that is not a knock against either of them. Conan’s background as a barbarian who worships a god (or demon), that cares for nothing and nobody is a much more open book for character development. So his going through a period as a young, opportunistic thief, to pirate to mercenary and eventually king is believable. Although there was no official chronology for his stories, most usually have them in that order. Through his experiences outside his native Cimmeria, he grows in knowledge of the world and his simple philosophic outlook is malleable to a variety of situations. While certainly not virtuous (and sometimes utterly ruthless), he does still generally take the side of the just and will risk his life to do it.
Solomon Kane in contrast is very much set in his ways from the moment the reader meets him and unlike the Conan stories, there is a lot more continuity between each story — even those that Howard never finished. Kane is a walking instrument of justice and uninterested in the pleasures of the world. Conan is often heroic but he is never so noble as to refuse an opportunity for material gain or the company of women. Kane will throw his life in danger at the slightest chance of saving an innocent.
Kane also has a lot better one liners
“Men shall die for this,” he said coldly.
This is from Red Shadows and is stated after he comes across a mortally wounded girl who dies in his arms. Kane chases the culprit across the world into darkest Africa to avenge her.
Another quote that is not so much a one liner but amused me:
“Have you not committed all crimes under the sun? Are you not a stench in the nostrils of God and a black smirch on the books of men? Have you ever spared weakness or pitied helplessness? Shrink you from your fate, you black coward?”
This is from The Blue Flame of Vengeance and said to a pirate cowardly begging to be given mercy he’d never shown any of his victims. Kane nonetheless gives him a fair fight before killing him.
Kane is an English Puritan but most of the stories take place in Africa which at the time of writing, still had a romance to it that has been largely lost in recent times. There was still a sense of the mysterious unknown in the early 20th century and hints of Howard’s Hyborian mythology are present in many of the stories of ancient temples and monsters. Despite knowing better, I could still appreciate the sense of mystery and romance that could be found in Africa.
Being set in Africa, it is also quite… insensitive to modern thought… and black Africans are usually found in states of savagery, enslavement or superstition; when not all three. Though it should be said that Howard often has sympathetic black characters but he never pretends the culture isn’t thoroughly primitive and helpfully reminds readers who really did most of the slaving back then too (not white Europeans). Kane does occasionally have help but much like Conan, he is a lone wolf and stoically moves from one adventure to another without expecting so much as a thank you from those he saves.
There are a number of unfinished stories in the collection I read and it is a shame Howard never finished them or wrote more stories for the character. Though remarkably inventive and prolific for someone who lived such a short life, he was also very complicated and troubled man. It is a shame he didn’t live long enough to see more financial success in his lifetime, as we probably would have seen much more of Solomon Kane if he had.