Solomon Kane and Ozymandias

I just finished reading the Solomon Kane anthology a friend of mine lent me. (

This addition is beautifully illustrated by Gary Gianni, who may be the reincarnation of Howard Pyle.

Bloodshed? Stories written in 1928 are not going to be as gory as what we routinely show our kids on TV, but the events are as gory: more is left to the imagination. When Kane comes across a flayed and bloody torture-victim, eye gouged out, but still alive, screaming and babbling, I assure you what I see is as gross as anything from a modern R-rated film. Times have not changed that much.

In any case, Robert Howard has a knack for describing action which make his stories stand out from a crowd of imitators.

There were two weird elements I noticed in the tales.


Several things that are weird-good, by which I mean, that the savage tale has just those elements that made pulp fans read Weird Tales to begin with: we routinely run across survivors of primordial Atlantis, vampires, African ju-ju witchdoctors able to project their souls across vast distances and possess the bodies of victims, freaks of nature, blooddrinking ghosts, and so on.

One or two things were weird-weird, by which I mean, once or twice Robert E. Howard jarred me out of my suspension of disbelief because he had Solomon Kane do or think something that Conan the Barbarian might do or think, but which it would be rare — rare enough that the author should have explained it, or explained it away — for a Puritan of Cromwell’s day to do or think. 

For example, in more than one place, the writer refers to Solomon Kane as an Anglo-Saxon barbarian, or having the furious temper and ruthless fighting skills of his Aryan forebearers. Normally this kind of, let us call it “pulp racism”, I tend to overlook as being merely the boosterism for your team or race that your average bloodthirsty schoolboy wants to hear when he is reading your average bloodthirsty boy’s adventure tale. I do not think it is real racism, any more than a mother-in-law joke or a “dumb blonde” joke is real sexism. I do not think it is racism at all, but rather, a type of romanticism: the Glorification of the Blond Barbarian.

(One reason why “pulp racism” strikes me as mere boostering, not real racism, is because the dusky races are never treated with Wellsian contempt: they always include bold warriors and true friends. You can call this condescending, if you like, and call it racist, if you insist, but it is very different from the emotion that compels Nazis to drive trainloads of Jews into the gas-chambers. When the Green Hornet has his life saved, and his super-car designed, by Kato, who is one of the most kick-ass death-dealing fighters in pulpdom, you have to twist your words in a hoop to get this admiration for way-cool sidekicks from overseas to be some sort of race-hatred.)

Pulp writers in those days reflected the sentiments of the poets of the previous generation. The idea, the archetype of a lusty and manly barbarian German, wholesome and sound of limb, freedom-loving, and basically healthy and decent meeting and overcoming the sinister, over-civilized, over-rich, over-weak corrupt nations of the crumbling Roman empire, or trampling the lavish and cruel jeweled palaces of Oriental potentates under their barbarian boots was a commonplace. It reflected an impatience with civilization, law and order, and it exalted the spontaneous, the rugged, the raw and natural: not a sentiment I sympathize with, but surely popular at the time.

But this “Glorification of the Blond Barbarian” did not fit the dark-haired and pallid, restless and cold-eyed Puritan described in other parts of the book, if you see what I mean. “Fanatic” is a perfectly good word for a Puritan swordsman, but “barbarian” is not, at least, not when a Cromwellian Puritan, from one of the most civilized times of one of the most civilized nations of Earth, is slogging through darkest Africa fighting cannibals and ape-men.

This romanticism had several branches and offshoots, but one branch that found its way into the pulps is what I call “The Romanticism of Despair” by which I mean, the pulp writer dwells on the existential horror of the world. The world is depicted as ruthless and meaningless, and fate is a thoughtless monster of iron hooves who will trample you. Human life, human history, the human world, are mere specks, microseconds, tiny bits of dirt spinning in a void of darkness about a minor, dim star.

The Romanticism of Despair is found most clearly in H.P. Lovecraft, whose chthonic monsters and trans-cosmic horrors, despite his clumsy writing, have gripped the imagination of SF fans for decades, far, far beyond the merit of his short-stories would explain. What Lovecraft did was give (unpronounceable) names and (indescribable) forms to the basic ideas of modern existential despair. Between Copernicus and Darwin and Freud and Marx and Einstein, man has been thrust from his geocentric role as the favored creation, into a shocking minor position of astronomical smallness, no longer (if Freud is to be believed) in charge of his own mind, no longer (if Marx is to be believed) master of his own history. The blind inhuman forces of history, for Lovecraft, become blind and mad things indeed, Azathoth and the other insane, inhuman, infinite and utterly indifferent gods of his pantheon. Even the devil in Milton was more human than any of the Other Gods of Lovecraft. Lucifer lusts after the beauty of Eve, he pities the innocence of Adam, he regrets his loss of paradise, he is motivated by hate and despair, he clothes his actions in concern for public good, he speaks of freedom and rights, and, in every way, seems like a human being writ larger than life. Cthulhu is not human at all and not properly alive.

Robert E. Howard wrote in the same vein. When Solomon Kane comes across an ancient monument or a lost city, the far past is always depicted as horrible; the things he fights are ancient survivals or cruelly inhuman sports of nature producing life blindly, things as powerful as Man, but not like Man. According to the ideal of the Romanticism of Despair, the past was not a Golden Age, for that would be too cheery a view: the past is where the primordial serpent-men of Valusia come from, or the inhuman sorcerer-kings who ruled Egypt before Adam, beast-headed gods and shambling horrors.

The central point of this type of Romanticism is to have an Ozymandias moment: an traveler in an antique land comes across a crumbling monument, and his mind reels like a boy on a rollercoaster, because the vistas, the immensities of the eons seem to open up before his gaze, and his soul is pierced with desolation. The immensities are, of course, an immense wasteland, not an immense garden, because the point of an Ozymandias moment is to show the littleness of all human aspiration and ambition.

Lovecraft, of course, merely had his characters quail when they saw the eons open their huge and unhuman eyes; Robert E. Howard’s characters react with the fury of Nietzsche or Byron, and they blow a horn or wave a scarlet banner and draw their swords to defy the inhuman fate that rolls toward them like a faceless juggernaut. 

Now, what is wrong with this? Nothing, except that my suspension of disbelief suffers when the Puritan stops to reflect on the meaninglessness of life and the glory of pointless defiance of an empty and inhuman universe; or when a Puritan pauses to reflect that man is merely one beast among many, created by evolution as a blind sport, a plaything of random chance: and the monsters that the Puritan adventurer fights are beings created just as blindly by the evolutionary forces of nature, weird offshoots of human life, or subhuman crawling things stirred up to monstrous mockeries of humanity….

I am not saying no Puritan can think that way; but I am saying the author has to explain why a god-fearing fanatic from the Sixteenth Century is having thoughts so unusual for someone who believes in God to have.

You would think, when he sees a tribe he vowed to protect torn to bits by winged horrors, a Puritan would blame himself, or think it was the justice of an angry God, or blame the dark mechanizations of Satan, that sultan of all fiends. He would not stop to contemplate the blind meaninglessness of the forces of Evolution and Entropy, much less draw his sword and defy them. He would think that a Wrathful God (Puritans were big on wrathful God)  had created the monsters to test the faithful. Or something.

In Robert E. Howard’s defense, Solomon Kane does not mention Darwin (who was not going to be produced by the blind forces of Evolution for another two hundred years) instead Kane contemplates the writings of pagan philosophers who taught that creatures arose from the blind chance of atoms jarring against each other, with no god to guide them and no purpose. Robert E. Howard does not name these philosophers, but a student will recognize this as being the teachings of Lucretius ( DE RERUM NATURA, “On the Nature of Things”). There is a passage in Lucretuis (in book V) that has a haunting similarity to modern notions of natural selection. The poet describes the early days of the world thus: 

In those days also the telluric world
Strove to beget the monsters that upsprung
With their astounding visages and limbs-
The Manwoman- a thing betwixt the twain,
Yet neither, and from either sex remote-
Some gruesome Boggles orphaned of the feet,
Some widowed of the hands, dumb Horrors too
Without a mouth, or blind Ones of no eye,
Or Bulks all shackled by their legs and arms
Cleaving unto the body fore and aft,
Thuswise, that never could they do or go,
Nor shun disaster, nor take the good they would.
And other prodigies and monsters earth
Was then begetting of this sort- in vain,
Since Nature banned with horror their increase,
And powerless were they to reach unto
The coveted flower of fair maturity,
Or to find aliment, or to intertwine
In works of Venus. For we see there must
Concur in life conditions manifold,
If life is ever by begetting life
To forge the generations one by one:
First, foods must be; and, next, a path whereby
The seeds of impregnation in the frame
May ooze, released from the members all;
Last, the possession of those instruments
Whereby the male with female can unite,
The one with other in mutual ravishments.

And in the ages after monsters died,
Perforce there perished many a stock, unable
By propagation to forge a progeny.
For whatsoever creatures thou beholdest
Breathing the breath of life, the same have been
Even from their earliest age preserved alive
By cunning, or by valour, or at least
By speed of foot or wing.

No pulp writer worth his ink could read about the gruesome monsters with astounding visages, without itching for his warrior-hero to meet them with sword and dirk and a battle-cry on his lips.

On last comment, and this one a spoiler. In one story Solomon Kane is given a magic staff by a ju-ju magician, his friend and bloodbrother, N’longa. The Puritan is reluctant to take what seems to be a thing of witchcraft and black magic, but the mystical staff allows him to destroy an otherwise invulnerable zombie-creature. In a later story, this stick turns out to be the magic wand Solomon son of David used to drive the genii out of the Middle East, the Rod of Moses, the scepter of ancient Pharaohs and Sorcerer-Kings of Egypt and Atlantis,  and indeed, a wand made from a tree that does not grow on Earth, because the wand was used by the Elder Ones in their struggles against pre-Adamite horrors older than mankind, older than the earth. Phew.

A Puritan would have been impressed to have the Rod of Moses in his hand. Part seas and oceans at will! Great magic item. Wish my D&D character had one. But that was not old enough, not creepy enough for Robert E. Howard. It had to come from Atlantis, or from the Beyond.

Why Atlantis? Simple. Remember what I said above about the Romanticism of Despair. According to this Romanticism, the past is always a dark, unknown, unknowable, an eldritch wasteland. The central image of the image of Ozymandias: the traveler stands in awe, contemplating gigantic ruins. Atlantis, in Howard’s day, had returned to public popularity by the writings of Theosophists, and, like a fish story, the island described by Socrates had grown to become a continent. The image of a strong and beautiful civilization overwhelmed by the collapse of a continent is the very essential of an Ozymandias image. Islands sinking produces a sense of awe and desolation: whole continents sinking very much more so. Sinking continents occupied by a highly civilized race of men is even better; a race of magicians and superman is better yet; a continent occupied by a race of prehistoric superhuman serpent-kings with the power of telepathy is better yet!

Why does Robert E. Howard and HP Lovecraft live on in the imagination of Science Fiction fans. Surely we science fiction types are optimistic lads eager for tales about how a group of boyscouts can build a rocket in the backyard and fly to the moon and shoot some Nazis? Isn’t the spirit of Yankee “can-do” optimism the opposite of the spirit of Ozymandian desolation?

I suggest that they are not opposites. The contemplation of the vastness of space and the duration of eternity leads to a feeling of awe, that sense-of-wonder, just as much as the contemplation of the ruins of primordial Atlantis and the slumbering of Cthulhu in R’lyeh.

The sense of wonder, the awe at immensity, is a feeling as central to the science fiction genre as the feeling of horror is to horror genre.  



I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.