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Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Can Solomon Kane Go Home Again?

Zaklog the Great, John C. Wright, and Nate discuss the Robert E. Howard poem “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming” in this recent podcast.

My take on this…? The guy that acts like a T-800 terminator cast in multiple year(s) long Taken scenarios is going to continue soldiering away on the vengeance front until he drops.

More importantly, if you’re talking Solomon Kane, then you’ve got to have Howard’s pulp fantasy Africa. Africa, the Dark Continent, land of shadows and horror, of bewitchment and sorcery, into which all evil things had been banished before the growing light of the western world! (One more reason why the Solomon Kane movie isn’t a Solomon Kane movie, y’all!) On one hand, Kane is an evolution of Tarzan’s premise. On the other… he is the original anti-Conan: a civilized man delving deep into the heart of savage darkness!

But that’s just my opinion after reading all the Solomon Kane stories published in Weird Tales from 1929 to 1932. Is there anything in all that that speaks directly to that? Yes there is! The final Solomon Kane installment to be published in the thirties touches on this question directly.

First off, you have to admit that Kane dearly loves his homeland:

“I am no god,” Kane answered, “but a man like yourself. I come from a far land amid the sea, which land, mind ye, is the fairest and noblest of all lands. My name is Solomon Kane and I am a landless wanderer….”

But no matter how desperate, how isolated, how remote a poor, beknighted, terrorized people may be… Solomon Kane will find a reason stick around and pitch in:

Kane clasped his temples with his hands. “You know not what you ask!” he cried. “God knoweth it is in my deepest heart to rid the land of this evil, but I am no god. With my pistols I can slay a few of the fiends, but I have but a little powder left. Had I great store of powder and ball, and the musket I shattered in the vampire-haunted Hills of the Dead, then indeed would there be a rare hunting. But even if I slew all those fiends, what of the cannibals?”

“They too will fear you!” cried old Kuroba, while the girl Nayela and the lad, Loga, who was to have been the next sacrifice, gazed at his wife, their souls in their eyes. Kane dropped his chin on his fist and sighed.

“Yet will I stay here in Bogonda all the rest of my life if ye think I be protection to the people.”

Personally, I really was quite moved by the selflessness Kane displays in this passage the first time I read it. Such compassion! It really is awesome. Naturally, a fair portion of my contemporaries would find it odious– after all… this is a prime example of the notorious Mighty Whitey trope. I have no doubt that the last university educated critic to take a serious look at “Wings in the Night” spontaneously burst into flames.

Is it really that bad? Ah no, it’s worse. Consider:

Kane stood with the ju-ju stave in one hand and the smoking pistol in the other, above the smouldering ruins that hid forever from the sight of man the last of those terrible, semi-human monsters whom another hero had banished from Europe in an unknown age. Kane stood, an unconscious statue of triumph—the ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth, whether he be clad in wolf-hide and horned helmet, or boots and doublet—whether he bear in his hand battle-ax or rapier—whether he be called Dorian, Saxon or Englishman—whether his name is Jason, Hengist or Solomon Kane.

This really is an intriguing passage, and not just because it contains a 5.2 megaton yield of wrongthink. And it is of course pure Howard. According to him, the West is great not because of its science, its philosophers, or even its concepts of rights and freedoms. No, according to him it is because it produced “the supreme fighting man of the earth.” This is so far out there it’s not something I can readily imagine anyone making an effort to champion in the decades after Howard’s death.

Something to ponder!

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Enter the Dame

If you’ve established an intrepid treasure hunter in the first chapter and an unsettling “patron” in the second, what else do you really need? Well… something weird or uncanny is a good bet. But we pretty well have that infusing every single beat already. What’s the next move?

In chapter three of Seven Footsteps to Satan, A. Merritt goes ahead and unleashes the feminine foil:

Two of the loveliest brown eyes I had ever beheld looked up at me. They were deep and tender and pitying, and tears trembled on the long black lashes. Even in my consternation I took note of the delicate skin untouched by rouge, the curly, silken fine bobbed hair under the smart little hat —hair touched with warm bronze glints, the nose a bit uplifted and the exquisite mouth and elfinly pointed chin. Under other circumstances, exactly the girl I would have given much to meet; under the present circumstances, well—disconcerting.

Yeah, the only thing that could conceivably persuade an adventurer to settle down and live an honest life. And it’s right there! The stakes go up tremendously and the complications as well. Is she actively colluding with the bad guys? Or is she in trouble, being coerced in a similar fashion as our protagonist? No idea!

What does the hero do when it finally comes clear just how helplessly outmaneuvered he is at the moment…? Let’s see:

“Eve!” I exclaimed. “All this time I’ve been away from you—and you haven’t even kissed me!”

I lifted up her chin and—well, I kissed her. Kissed her properly and in no brotherly manner. I heard Walter cursing under his breath. How Consardine was taking it I could not tell. Indeed I did not care— Eve’s mouth was very sweet.

I kissed her again and again—to the chuckles of the hoods, the giggles of the girls, and horrified exclamations of the dignified old gentleman.

And the girl’s face, which at the first of my kisses had gone all rosy red, turned white. She did not resist, but between kisses I heard her whisper:

“You’ll pay for this! Oh, but you’ll pay for this!”

I laughed and released her. I did not care now. I was going to go with Dr. Consardine wherever he wanted to take me—as long as she went with me.

Woah.

This book is on fire. The conflict. The stakes. The sense of dread. It’s just plain awesome.

Even better, to contrast the rugged masculinity of the hero here, you get something not seen in popular culture for decades now: unadulterated femininity.

And Merritt really does go all the way with this one:

A powerful car stood at the curb. Consardine gestured. Eve’s hand firmly clasped in mine, I entered, drawing her after me. Walter had gone ahead of us. Consardine followed. The chauffeur closed the door. I saw another liveried figure on the driver’s seat. The car started.

Consardine touched a lever and down came the curtains, closeting us in semi-darkness.

And as he did so the girl Eve wrenched her hand from mine, struck me a stinging blow across the lips and huddling down in her corner began silently to weep.

What a way to close out a chapter!

Let’s see here. Which is the more compelling character?

The sassy babe from Terminator Genisys rolling into the opening scene in an armored car and barking orders at the guy that thought he was traveling back in time to save humanity? Or this girl Eve here that is reduced to tears by the end of the second chapter.

I know which one I’d rather read about!

It’s definitely worth sticking around for the followup scene. Seriously, check out this repartee:

And as I looked at the lips I had kissed so ruthlessly, a quick rose tinted her face.

“Eve—this is Mr. Kirkham,” it was Consardine’s voice, faintly amused. “Miss Demerest and you have met, I think.”

“I think,” I answered, slowly, “that I am seeing Miss Demerest for the first time. I am hoping that she—will consider it so.”

It was as near to an apology as I could come. Would she take the proffered olive branch? Her eyes widened as though with reproachful surprise.

“To think,” mused Eve, mournfully, “that a man could so soon forget having kissed me! It seems hardly a compliment, does it, Dr. Consardine?”

“It seems,” said Consardine, truthfully, “impossible.”

“Ah, no,” sighed Eve. “No, Mr. Kirkham. I can’t think it is our first meeting. You have, you know, such a forceful way of impressing one with your personality. And a woman cannot forget kisses so easily.”

I flushed. That Eve was a consummate little actress she had given me plenty of convincing proof. But what did this bit of by-play mean? I could not believe that she was so bitterly offended by my actions in the Subway; she was too intelligent for that. Yet if she distrusted me, disliked me, how could I help her?

“My remark,” I said, “was prompted wholly by politeness. The truth is, Miss Demerest, that I consider those kisses generous payment for any inconveniences of my interesting journey here.”

“Well, then,” she said coldly, “you have made your trade and the slate is clean. And do not trouble to be polite with me, Mr. Kirkham. Just be yourself. You are much more amusing.”

Dang.

This guy’s got his work cut out for him here. But it gets better. His rival for Eve’s affections is none other than Satan himself.

This is gonna be good!

Adventure. ADVENTURE!

The first chapter of Seven Footsteps to Satan presents a quite familiar figure: the down on his luck adventurer in desperate need of a way to make a quick buck. Granted, this is a staple of Classic Traveller much more than D&D, hearkening back not just to the original rules of that perennial space gaming favorite, but to the inspiration for the game itself: the intrepid Dumarest of Terra.

Chapter two presents us with the inevitable answer to such a premise: the mysterious patron with an offer that can’t be refused!

“That ferryboat yonder,” he pointed, seemingly unaware of my scrutiny. “It is an argosy of potential adventure. Within it are mute Alexanders, inglorious Caesars and Napoleons, incomplete Jasons each almost able to retrieve some Golden Fleece—yes, and incomplete Helens and Cleopatras, all lacking only one thing to round them out and send them forth to conquer.”

“Lucky for the world they’re incomplete, then,” I laughed. “How long would it be before all these Napoleons and Caesars and Cleopatras and all the rest of them were at each other’s throats—and the whole world on fire?”

“Never,” he said, very seriously. “Never, that is, if they were under the control of a will and an intellect greater than the sum total of all their wills and intellects. A mind greater than all of them to plan for all of them, a will more powerful than all their wills to force them to carry out those plans exactly as the greater mind had conceived them.”

“The result, sir,” I objected, “would seem to me to be not the super- pirates, super-thieves and super-courtesans you have cited, but super- slaves.”

“Less slaves than at any time in history,” he replied. “The personages I have suggested as types were always under control of Destiny—or God, if you prefer the term. The will and intellect I have in mind would profit, since its house would be a human brain, by the mistakes of blind, mechanistic Destiny or of a God who surely, if he exists, has too many varying worlds to look after to give minute attention to individuals of the countless species that crawl over them. No, it would use the talents of its servants to the utmost, not waste them. It would suitably and justly reward them, and when it punished—its punishments would be just. It would not scatter a thousand seeds haphazardly on the chance that a few would find fertile ground and grow. It would select the few, and see that they fell on fertile ground and that nothing prevented their growing.”

This is a fascinating passage.

Note that in 1927 you have what the patron is offering up being explicitly termed as being an ADVENTURE. It’s no accident that this term is synonymous with almost any tabletop role-playing game scenario. Combine insane risks with the potential for even more insane rewards and you instantly get the most exciting experience you can have while chucking dice at the tabletop. After all, nobody wants to role-play as some dweeb that never took a chance on anything.

Whether you’re talking about Bilbo Baggins, The Man With No Name, Han Solo, or some random murder hobo named Ed, this is serious business. (And if there happen to be any practicing psychologists reading this, why do you think that boys in particular would find such scenarios to be absolutely captivating? Anybody?)

I love how ominous this guy is, though. Sure, the title of the novel sort of tips A. Merritt’s hand with this. But he follows up a mild “God is an absentee landlord” argument with the insinuation that this other guy can run things waaaaaay better than the fellow that used a parable about seeds and sowing to break down how life really works.

And note the cognitive dissonance there. The patron is suggesting the protagonist give himself over to this mind control or coordinated demonic possession for the purposes of some scheme… but no, it’s not like slavery at all! See, throughout history… everyone was controlled by God/Destiny anyway. Of course, this God/Destiny was never concerned enough to take direct control of an individual. Which makes God/Destiny dumb. Which also makes this proposed demonic possession slavery in a way unlike what Napoleon or Cleopatra experienced as figures of history.

Which means our protagonist here is about to get involved with some seriously bad stuff. He’s being offered a chance to become one of these guys:

Dude, run!

Anti-femininity, Achievement, Eschewal of the Appearance of Weakness, and Adventure, Risk, and Violence

The American Psychological Association knows what men like! To tell you the truth, I haven’t seen the precepts of traditional masculinity articulated so concisely anywhere else. Seriously, dig this litany of masculine virtues from their recently released “guidelines to help clinicians improve the health of boys and men”:

Anti-femininity, Achievement, Eschewal of the Appearance of Weakness, and Adventure, Risk, and Violence

Inspiring! Truly it is a shortlist of awesome, capturing everything I aspire to, everything I admire. And not incidentally, everything I look for in a tale of thrills and wonder.

Just going through the opening chapter of A. Merritt’s Seven Footprints to Satan, you can see nearly every one of these notes hit in rapid succession.

For achievement, we are introduced to a protagonist that has just made a fortune selling some Yunnan jades to a wealthy philanthropist. This guy is like Indiana Jones– but minus the archaeological rival taking away his find in the opening scenes. An epic achievement by any standard!

Our hero is no bungler– except in matters of high finance. The brokers have burned through all of his assets! And note how he handles his misfortune:

“Bit jerky, aren’t you, Jim?” he asked. “What’s the matter? Been on a bender?”

“Nothing like it, Lars,” I answered. “Too much city, I guess. Too much continual noise and motion. And too many people,” I added with a real candor he could not suspect.

“God!” he exclaimed. “It all looks good to me. I’m eating it up— after those two years. But I suppose in a month or two I’ll be feeling the same way about it. I hear you’re going away again soon. Where this time? Back to China?”

I shook my head. I did not feel like telling Lars that my destination was entirely controlled by whatever might turn up before I had spent the sixty-five dollars in my wallet and the seven quarters and two dimes in my pocket.

“Not in trouble, are you, Jim?” he looked at me more keenly. “If you are, I’d be glad to—help you.”

I shook my head. Everybody knew that old Rockbilt had been unusually generous about those infernal jades. I had my pride, and staggered though I was by that amazingly rapid melting-away of a golden deposit I had confidently expected to grow into a barrier against care for the rest of my life, make me, as a matter of fact, independent of all chance, I did not feel like telling even Lars of my folly. Besides, I was not yet that hopeless of all things, a beachcomber in New York. Something would turn up.

“Eschewal of the appearance of weakness”? Check!

And for the trifecta of “adventure, violence, and risk”, try this on for size:

There had been that mock arrest in Paris, designed to get me quickly out of the way for a few hours, as the ransacked condition of my room and baggage showed when I returned. A return undoubtedly much earlier than the thieves had planned, due to my discovery of the ruse and my surprise sally which left me with an uncomfortable knife slash under an arm but, I afterwards reflected pleasantly, had undoubtedly left one of my guards with a broken neck and another with a head that would not do much thinking for another month or so. Then there had been the second attempt when the auto in which I was rushing to the steamer had been held up between Paris and the Havre. That might have been successful had not the plaques been tucked among the baggage of an acquaintance who was going to the boat by the regular train, thinking, by the way, that he was carrying for me some moderately rare old dishes that I did not want to trust to the possible shocks of fast automobile travel, to which the mythical engagement on the day of sailing had condemned me.

Jackpot!

Notice that by clearly establishing this character’s bona fides in the realm of traditional masculine virtues, A. Merritt automatically secures his likability as a person and a character. You actually care about his predicaments… and want to see him wield his creativity, cunning, and strength in overcoming them.

Authors bred in the ethos of cultural suicide that has given rise to the American Psychological Association’s recent bizarre pronouncements typically lack the imagination to craft such a sequence. For instance, books like The Man in High Castle (1962) and Beserker’s Planet (1975) highlight the push to repudiate heroic characters and replace them with attempts at giving cowards and dweebs their moment in the spotlight, which supposedly right the literary wrongs of the supposedly less sophisticated pulp era.

But I see we have overlooked one more virtue here: anti-femininity. And I have to admit, this one does not explicitly appear in the pages of this tale because it is indeed a sort of a special case.

What is it exactly?

“Anti-femininity” means the male characters do nothing to demonstrate that their creators have submitted to the relentless propaganda directing them portray men indulging in feminine traits and virtues a la the 1972 Free to be You and Me campaign.

Such a thing was unheard of in 1927 when A. Merritt was writing this novel. As such, there is no such Satanic force for him to bow the knee to in that respect. Which means his story is about whatever that independently wealthy author wanted it to be about– and not what it could have been meant to do to you by people that hate you.

One more reason not to read anything after 1940!

The Faith of Solomon Kane

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.

Wow!

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.