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.