Reductionist arguments rejecting an author’s work are easily found while wandering across the internet (sword in hand, I suppose), or even in general conversation: Dostoyevsky and Milton are terrible because of their misogyny crops up frequently, as if one particular element often arising from historical or geographic context will negate the entire literary output of an author. However, with acknowledged classics critics are at least willing to acknowledge that there’s more to a work than just that one problematic thing. In genre works, that forgiveness tends to evaporate. Thus, I’ve only known Chinua Achebe to actually insist Joseph Conrad is most assuredly not classic literature due to his depictions of Africa (primal, savage, uncivilized, driving white men to madness…), but most arguments don’t take the path of “Joseph Conrad’s stories are horrible and you’re horrible for liking them” despite the racist undercurrent to much of his work. However, this is exactly the sort of treatment showered on literature not espoused by Howard Bloom, that is, literature that’s not actually literature. Robert E. Howard falls pray to this for his apparent misogyny (to which I would direct you to Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s review of “The Sword Woman”), but much more often, for his racism. Bringing up racism and Robert E. Howard has always been touchy for Howard’s fans, mostly because it can’t be denied. Yet the fact critics take this is the sole defining feature of his work seems a tad close-minded, and follow exactly the sort of reasoning I mentioned above:
“Robert E. Howard’s stories are horrible because they’re racist and you’re a horrible racist for liking them.”
Which brings me to “The Racist Hand of Doom”. I’ll ignore, for now, that the author consistently misspells N’longa’s name as “N’longo”. No, I’m chiefly thinking about this:
The inherent problem with the Kane stories is that “Africa” is used as a shorthand for “the forgotten, untamed parts of the world that civilised people don’t understand”, but defining it in that manner implicitly denies any sort of civilisation on the part of Africa’s inhabitants. As the stories develop a consistent internal mythos, it turns out that Africa is not a uniquely evil place; many of the demons and monsters that Kane battles were banished to Africa by other cultures, which drove them out of Europe and Asia. The racism of the Kane stories is born out of ignorance, but slides into hatred all too easily.
On the other hand, this has the inadvertent effect of making the character of Kane more interesting than he may have been originally; the way the stories are written allows the reader, a lot of the time, to ascribe the nastier views to Kane as opposed to Howard; thus, Kane is transformed from square-jawed champion of civilisation to terrifying psychopath, wading throughout Africa in response to a strange calling that he does not understand and doesn’t wish to think about, speaking more and more in awkward King James Bible English as he does, and recognising within himself – and, by implication, within European “civilisation” the exact same primitivism and savagery that is manifested openly in precolonial Africa.
It’s the the last sentence which makes me wonder how the author could think this was “inadvertent” on Howard’s part, as it perfectly sums up a running theme through much of Robert E. Howard’s fiction, that civilization is often just a thin veneer over savagery. It becomes particularly striking in the Solomon Kane stories because, unlike most of Robert E. Howard’s serial characters, Kane buys wholeheartedly into the dominant western world view to start out with. That is, rather than a barbarian among civilized folk, he’s one of those civilized folk amongst the barbarians, and his narrow view of the world is eventually broadened and ultimately shattered. Is there racism? Why yes, we have one instance in “The Moon of Skulls” where Kane comes to a thoroughly anachronistic conclusion:
…who built this place, and why were the negroes evidently in possession? He knew this was the work of a higher race. No black tribe had ever reached such a stage of culture as evidenced by these carvings.
This is the nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas of race applied to a sixteenth century European—who, in traveller’s accounts, were perfectly willing to acknowledge Africans as having kingdoms and so forth—the same sort of thing that had archaeologists convinced the ruins of great Zimbabwe were built by Phoenicians despite displaying a clearly local architecture. “The Moon of Skulls” is perhaps the most conventional of the Solomon Kane stories, following most of the colonial adventure tropes we find in H. Rider Haggard and, well, Joseph Conrad.
That colonial adventure model becomes tempered somewhat by the character of N’Longa, who subverts expectations by appearing as a doddering magical negro stereotype before showing himself a great deal wiser and more eloquent than Solomon Kane. Consider the following from “The Hills of the Dead”:
Kane listened unspeaking, seeing for the first time in N’Longa’s glittering eyes something stronger and deeper than the avid gleam of the worker in black magic. To Kane it seemed almost as if he looked into the far-seeing and mystic eyes of a prophet of old.
This comes from a devout, indeed fanatical, Christian; N’Longa is undoubtedly pagan. That might be what makes the Kane stories stick out, the clash between his unwavering belief and the world he actually sees. At one point, it becomes too much for the Puritan.
So we’re back to “The Racist Hand of Doom” and the idea that Howard didn’t mean for any subversion, that this is an alternate interpretation imposed by the reader. My real answer is another question: How do you explain “Wings in the Night”, a story that’s a very obvious subversion of one all-too typical colonial narrative?
Case Study: “Wings in the Night”
We all know the story: a group of idyllic, child-like (and, of course, non-white) natives living in harmony with nature are ravaged by some outside force against which they are helpless. Our lone, square-jawed white hero comes to their village, is accepted into the tribe as protector, and uses his superior skills and knowledge gained from civilization to defeat that outside force and assert the superiority of white westerners over local customs.
For the beginning, at least, “Wings in the Night” follows this paradigm almost exactly. White, Christian Solomon Kane comes to an African village of passive, kind black folks living in harmony with nature who, unfortunately, have a problem—they must sacrifice one of their number every once in a while to the dreaded Akaana or else risk extinction. The Akaana are harpies, of the leather-winged horror variety. The villagers call for Solomon Kane as their champion because he managed to kill some of the beasts (“Save us from the akaanas!…If you be not a god, there is the power of a god in you!”). Solomon Kane pledges to stop this madness, and we, as readers, know what happens next: our white hero will save the village.
Except he doesn’t.
The village is slaughtered, directly because of Kane’s actions. Kane’s breakdown after this event is truly terrifying, with Howard’s prose reaching a fevered pitch. This really is our “square-jawed champion of civilisation” becoming a “terrifying psychopath” (the chapter in the novella in which this event takes place is even titled “The Madness of Solomon”). More to the point, however, Kane comes to deny the very religion that has sustained him through his previous adventures, shouting “blasphemies”, and he comes to an utterly un-Kane like conclusion:
No, Kane decided, these things were not men. They were the materialization of some ghastly jest of Nature–some travesty of the world’s infancy when Creation was an experiment. Perhaps they were the offspring of a forbidden and obscene mating of man and beast; more likely they were a freakish offshoot on the branch of evolution–for Kane had long ago dimly sensed a truth in the heretical theories of the ancient philosophers, that Man is but a higher beast. And if Nature made many strange beasts in the past ages, why should she not have experimented with monstrous forms of mankind? Surely Man as Kane knew him was not the first of his breed to walk the earth, nor yet to be the last.
He has lost all belief at this point, and only then does Kane see the truth of his world. The message in this story seems fairly clear: it is only when Kane becomes an axe-wielding savage, losing all the trappings of civilization, that he can triumph over the Akaana, not as the civilized fellow rationalizing events according to the Bible, as he did before. Only in barbarism can Kane achieve his revenge.
Yes, the final chapter is titled “The White-Skinned Conqueror”, and we receive a tribute afterwards to “the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting men of the earth”, but it comes on the heels of a fatalistic touch:
[a]n intolerable scent of burning flesh pervaded the atmosphere, and had there been room in Kane’s brain for aught else than insane triumph, he would have shuddered to realize that the scent was of that nauseating and indescribable odour that only human flesh emits when burning.
The triumphalism seems fairly hollow after something like the above. It is, in fact, hard to sympathize with what Solomon has done, and even he feels somewhat ashamed when sanity finally returns to him, and he tries to chalk his doings to God’s work. It doesn’t do much to assuage the fact that, shortly before, he really was stark raving mad and denied the existence of God. There’s something genuinely frightening about his revenge. And still, at the end of the story, the villagers are dead. That same hollowness appears in another Howard short story, “Worms of the Earth” in more explicit fashion.
I always felt that Kane was one of Howard’s most complex characters because of these internal conflicts (Kane really is wrong about the world, and sometimes recognizes that fact), and, in a sense, I think this is where the Solomon Kane stories really end (it was the last one Robert E. Howard published). While Kane might try to shrug off events at the story’s end, his Christian interpretation seems a weak attempt at convincing himself of the rightness of his actions rather than his final word on the subject. In other words, a serial character generally doesn’t change in such a large way though the characters around him do, and there weren’t any Kane stories after this because Solomon Kane would end up a completely different person coming out of it. The dour Puritan was transformed, if only momentarily, into a blood-drenched, axe-waving lunatic. It seemed Howard’s final word on the subject.
I suppose what I mean to say is that many of Robert E. Howard’s stories are much more complex than many critics make them out to be, and reductionist readings only hamper anything else you could pull from a work. The reason why “Wings in the Night” is a powerful story is not because it adheres to a typical colonial narrative, but because it subverts it. Solomon Kane does not save the village. Solomon Kane does not triumph by using his calm, western (white) rationalism to clear up the air, but instead by doing the complete opposite. Howard’s ode to the Aryan barbarian doesn’t revel in the good works of civilization and empire but rather in bestial savagery. Reading “Wings in the Night” as a critique of civilized folk is not “reading against the grain”, but exactly the interpretation Howard was going for.
To quote from Howard yet again (this time from “Beyond the Black River”):
Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.