June of 1930 saw Solomon Kane take the cover of Weird Tales with the first installment of a two-part serial. And man, it sure is a doozy!
It’s hard to believe, but within these pages Kane would become even more heroic, more imposing, more inspiring, and more awesome than his preceding tales could indicate. Even better, all the great fantasy elements of the 1920’s are here in vivid detail: pulse pounding jungle action, Atlantis, secret kingdoms in the heart of Africa, and beautiful and feral queens of ancient civilizations.
If “Red Shadows” was Fantasy John Wick and “Skulls in the Stars” was Fantasy Mad Max… then “The Moon of Skulls” is Fantasy Taken.
But before we get into that, a word about the cover. It is totally and awfully wrong. It depicts a generic thirties action here and not the dour Solomon Kane. The damsel in distress is not a red head in the story– she’s got curly blonde hair! And the femme fatale triggering the trap door? She’s supposed to be going the full Dejah Thoris by wearing nothing but her jewelry. (Margaret Brundage will have her work cut out for her when she would later come on board!)
But yes, this is an earlier prototype of the sort of tale you see in the Liam Neeson movie “Taken”. And the most striking thing about it is that the heroism, daring, and fearlessness the rescue entails is spread out over years of struggle and daring! It is truly awe inspiring. All the more so because Solomon Kane really doesn’t have any sort of personal stake in the girl he’s seeking to save. She’s neither his daughter nor a potential love interest!
What can possibly motivate the man under these circumstances? The answer is… something that you just don’t see depicted in the action heroes that have dominated the big screen for the past six decades: faith. I daresay that no character in all of fiction can match Kane for this particular virtue.
For one thing, the guy wholeheartedly believes he can take on Satan himself in single combat:
From somewhere in front of him there came a strange indescribable rustling. Without warning something smote him in the face and slashed wildly. All about him sounded the eerie murmurings of many small wings and suddenly Kane smiled crookedly, amused, relieved and chagrined. Bats, of course. The cave was swarming with them. Still, it was a shaky experience, and as he went on and the wings whispered through the vast emptiness of the great cavern, Kane’s mind found space to dally with a bizarre thought—had he wandered into Hell by some strange means, and were these in truth bats, or were they lost souls winging through everlasting night? Then, thought Solomon Kane, I will soon confront Satan himself—and even as he thought this, his nostrils were assailed by a horrid scent, fetid and repellent. The scent grew as he went slowly on, and Kane swore softly, though he was not a profane man. He sensed that the smell betokened some hidden threat, some unseen malevolence, inhuman and deathly, and his sombre mind sprang at supernatural conclusions. However, he felt perfect confidence in his ability to cope with any fiend or demon, armoured as he was in unshakable faith of creed and the knowledge of the rightness of his cause.
Also, he is never going to stop in his quest:
He was a man born out of his time—a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the ancient philosopher, and more than a touch of the pagan, though the last assertion would have shocked him unspeakably. An atavist of the days of blind chivalry he was, a knight errant in the sombre domes of a fanatic. 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.
How can he be so utterly unshakable in his faith? Well… that has something to do with the character of the One he has faith in:
“Oh, heaven!” she cried, clasping her small hands. “Home! Something of which to be dreamed—never attained, I fear. Oh, Captain Kane, how shall we gain through all the vast leagues of jungle which lie between this place and the coast?”
“Marylin,” said Kane gently, stroking her curly hair, “methinks you lack somewhat in faith, both in Providence and in me. Nay, alone I am a weak creature, having no strength or might in me; yet in times past hath God made me a great vessel of wrath and a sword of deliverance. And, I trust, shall do so again.
“Look you, little Marylin: in the last few hours as it were, we have seen the passing of an evil race and the fall of a foul empire. Men died by thousands about us, and the earth rose beneath our feet, hurling down towers that broke the heavens; yea, death fell about us in a red rain, yet we escaped unscathed.
“Therein is—more than the hand of man! Nay, a Power—the mightiest Power! That which guided me across the world, straight to that demon city—which led me to your chamber—which aided me to escape again and led me to the one man in all the city who would give the information I must have, the strange, evil priest of an elder race who lay dying in a subterranean cell—and which guided me to the outer wall, as I ran blindly and at random—for should I have come under the cliffs which formed the rest of the wall, we had surely perished. That same Power brought us safely out of the dying city, and safe across the rocking bridge—which shattered and sundered down into the chasm just as my feet touched solid earth!
“Think you that having led me this far, and accomplished such wonders, the Power will strike us down now? Nay! Evil flourishes and rules in the cities of men and the waste places of the world, but anon the great giant that is God rises and smites for the righteous, and they lay faith in him.
This is of course the exact same Providence that in The Lord of the Rings saw the ring of power delivered into the hands of just the sort of hobbits that could put an end to Sauron’s bid for world domination. But note the freedom that Howard has in being as unsubtle in making the point as is conceivable!
It’s mind-blowing. It’s also the chief reason I would argue that Robert E. Howard is at least the equal to the Oxford don and one of the greatest fantasists of all time.