Another Robert E. Howard Birthday

This is a good thing.  It’s Howard’s eleventy-first birthday.  I’ve been writing these tribute posts for a few years now, and I’m at the point I’m about to start repeating myself if I haven’t already.

So for those of you who may have stumbled in here from someplace else and aren’t quite sure what’s going on, Robert E. Howard was born on January 22, 1906.  He was  one of the greatest and most influential writers of fantasy and horror of the 20th Century, although those genres constituted only a small portion of his writings.

Rather than regurgitate biographical details or wax eloquent about his greatness, I’m going to pay tribute by looking at one of his works.  This is a practice I’ll be engaging in for other writers about whom I regularly read and blog.

Today I want to discuss “Wings in the Night”.  There will be spoilers.  It’s one of the Solomon Kane stories.  I haven’t heard much about Kane in the last few years.  In fact, there are still some Kane stories I’ve not read, and the ones I have read, I’ve only read once.  There just doesn’t seem to be as much interest in Solomon Kane as there currently is in Conan or Bran Mak Morn.  I’m not sure why that it.  Or even if it really is.  Maybe I’ve just been missing some discussions.

The story opens with Kane in Africa, heading east away from the Slave Coast.  He’s being pursued by a tribe of cannibals.  As he’s crossing a veldt heading towards a plateau and the mountains visible beyond, he comes across a village that has been devastated in some sort of an attack.  By what, though, Kane can’t tell.  The bodies are scattered throughout the village, weapons left beside the bones of the dead.  The thatching on the roofs of the huts has also been torn out.

Kane continues on and soon comes across a young man tied to a post and near death.  His eyes have been removed and most of the skin is missing from his body.  Kane cuts him down and gives the man the last of his water.  Before he dies, the man tells Kane he was tied there as a sacrifice by the priest of his village.  Kane swears vengeance for the man.

Not long after one of the cannibals attacks Kane.  The sun has set, and during the fight, while grappling, Solomon Kane feels his enemy ripped away from him by some giant winged thing.  Kane climbs a tree to spend the night off the ground.  He has a strange dream of a man-like creature with bat wings watching him from a branch.  It wasn’t a dream.

Kane fights and kills one of the things a short time later, but is grievously wounded.  When he finally regains consciousness, he is in the hut of the priest, Goru, who had tied the man to the stake.  Goru tells Kane the man had been tied to the stake to appease the akaanas, their name for the winged creatures.  It turns out Goru isn’t really a bad sort.  He was only trying to keep as many people as possible alive, even if he found what he had to do to be something he would rather not do.

Goru tells Solomon Kane that the akaanas hadn’t attacked while he was recovering because they were fearful of him.  Neither the akaana or the villagers had ever seen a white man before.  Kane promises to remain with the villagers and be their protector, even if it means staying there the rest of his life.

Of course, it’s not going to be that simple.  You can read the story yourself to see how it turns out if you don’t know.

I want to discuss how Howard handled race in this story, “Wings of the Night”, because these days it’s fashionable to paint Howard as a racist simply because he held views that were common for his time and wasn’t as enlightened as we think we are today.  This is a complex topic, and I’m only going to discuss how Howard handles race in this story.  The rest of this post is not intended to be a dissertation on Howard and race.

Solomon Kane is the only white man in the story.  He treats the people of the village as friends an equals.  He befriends a young mother and a boy.  He grows to respect Goru and the king of the village.  He pledges to remain in the village and protect them even if it means he stays there the rest of his life.  He also promises vengeance for young black man to whom he owes nothing.

These are not the actions of someone who harbors racial prejudice.  There were some references to skin color, and how could there not be?  The story is about a white man in a part of Africa where white men aren’t known.  But that’s all they pretty much were, references.  Kane treats the people he encounters with compassion and as equals, with the sole exception of the cannibal he fights.  In this story, at least, Howard doesn’t live up to the reputation he has (mostly among people who don’t seem to have read him) as a racist.

It’s been years since I last read one of the Solomon Kane stories.  I enjoyed this one enough that I’m going to read the few I’ve still not read.  I may post about them here if there’s interest.

20 thoughts on “Another Robert E. Howard Birthday

    1. Keith West Post author

      I’ve been on a diet since August, and alcohol is a no-no. I imbibed a little over the holidays, but now I need to take off what I put on. I as down 33 lbs until then. Not very Howardian, but I drank hot tea in his honor.

  1. Tex Albritton

    Our host said…

    “I may post about them here if there’s interest.”

    There’s interest. Go for it!

    (up in a tree, but not the same one Kane was in)

  2. deuce

    A fine birthday tribute to REH and a good review of WitN. Keep the SK reviews coming.

    January is absolutely jam-packed with the birthdays of literary notables.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Thank you. It’s good to have you on the shield wall. I’m rapidly moving towards not reading much of the newer stuff. I haven’t finished reading through last year’s crop of Year’s Best anthologies, and at this point, I’m not sure I will beyond a few favorite authors whose works I’ve not gotten to yet. I’m still trying to get the taste of some of the critically acclaimed pieces out of my mouth.

      1. Woelf Dietrich

        Hahaha I know what you mean. I’m sticking with old favorites and will only try ones that really pique my interest. I want to expand my library with golden oldies because I have to. The problem is, they are rare and I’m in New Zealand.

        1. Keith West Post author

          Fortunately many are available in electronic format. Have you looked at what Open Road has available?

          1. Keith West Post author

            I think Open Road has print as well as electronic versions. They also have a lot of the good old stuff. I loaded up on Simak, Anderson, Sheckley, Ellison, and Leiber over the holidays when there was a sale.

  3. deuce

    “I’m still trying to get the taste of some of the critically acclaimed pieces out of my mouth.”

    I know the feeling. Are you now properly reeducated and scolded?

  4. JazzFeathers

    I’m visiting from Woelf’s blog. Loved your article.

    I’m a fan of Howard’s work, and while I think Conan is probably his more mature series, Solomon Kane has always been my favourite, I’m not even sure why (I actually own that first book you show up there 😉 )

    I do think there are attitudes in Howard’s work that today we perceive as racist, I also think that back in his time that wasn’t the case. He was marely a man of his time, we should always remember that. I always find very annoying – non to mention unfair – when people judge the past by today’s standards. We consider ourselves so modern and liveral, but what will people think about us one hundred years in the future? Rather than judge, we should try to understand.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Well, JazzFeathers. I agree completely. Howard was a man of his time. I’ve seen things change in my lifetime regarding what is acceptable and what isn’t, and not just concerning race. Like you I’m always annoyed at how sanctimonious some people are, usually but not always folks in their late teens and early twenties, who think that their standards are the absolute regarding race, gender, etc. Ironically, they often deny the existence of absolutes in the same breath they condemn anyone who doesn’t agree with them. I don’t always like the way Howard portrays things, but he lived in a different time and place. His standards won’t be mine. That doesn’t mean his work isn’t without value or worth reading. It just means Howard will give me something to think about.

      Thanks for your comment, and please do so again.


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