I continue to slowly work my way through the Del Rey collection of Howard’s Solomon Kane stories. One recent story, “The Moon of Skulls,” put me off a bit and led me to pull out one of its inspirations: She by H. Rider Haggard (I own this Haggard omnibus). Howard’s story suffers from the comparison.
Which should not be read as a criticism of Howard. Howard remains one of my top three favorite pulp writers; it’s just that “The Moon of Skulls” happens to be one of my least favorite Howard stories. And I cannot yet make any real judgment about Haggard, because She is the first Haggard book I’ve read. The comparison between the two stories, though, is I think a very interesting one.
They have a lot of similarities. Both take place in Africa. Both have white, European protagonists. Both feature lost, dead civilizations (She was a pioneering work in the Lost Worlds sub-genre). Both feature a tribe ruled by a deathless queen (in She’s case, the titular She). Both feature an incongruous white women in that hidden African tribe. Both feature explicitly Christian protagonists and a Christian worldview.
The two stories differ in that, to my mind, She is by far the superior story and in other interesting ways.
Why is it that She is so effective where “The Moon of Skulls” is not, notwithstanding the similarities between the two stories?
She is a very Victorian story that features two aristocratic gentleman adventurers. There is a reason that is a trope, and Haggard has a lot to do with it. Howard’s story, on the other hand, features the dour and zealous Solomon Kane.
“The Moon of Skulls” does include three great defining statements on Kane:
- This explanation Kane himself believed. He never sought to analyze his motives and he never wavered, once his mind was made up. Though he always acted on impulse, he firmly believed that all his actions were governed by cold and logical reasonings. 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 somber clothes 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.
- “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, I shall do so again.”
- He was brave, as the bones on many a battlefield could testify, but the thought of dying like a sheep, helpless and with no chance of resistance, turned his blood cold.
(It is hard to imagine a character described with most of that in a contemporary novel who isn’t a villain. If you were weaned on the weird D&D bias against Paladins and want to learn how to play or write such a character, you should definitely pick up Howard’s Solomon Kane stories.)
These are great descriptions (and inspired me to write this meme), but Kane’s best African stories are the ones that feature N’Longa. N’Longa allows Howard to show, not just tell, that Kane has “more than a touch of the pagan.”
N’Longa also softens the way that Howard talks about black characters. Throughout the Howard stories I have read, the text refers to blacks with casual harshness, but black characters, like any other character, are given the opportunity to demonstrate their worth (notably, for example, Ace Jessel in “The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux”). This language adds verisimilitude to stories set in the historical South (although I am generally fine with stripping it out), and it actively enhances his horror stories. Here, in my view, it only detracts, and N’Longa isn’t around to soften it.
Haggard takes a different approach. The African tribesmen, and Africans more generally, are initially referred to neutrally. The exceptions are the working class Job (because of course the working class have to get picked on—Haggard was a major influence on Tolkien, but Tolkien would redeem his working class countrymen in his depiction of Samwise Gamgee) and She herself. Our gentlemen adventurers Holly and Leo eventually come to a dim view of the tribesmen, but only after the tribesmen earn it. And if the tribe as a whole is despicable, it provides two admirable characters in Billali and Ustane.
Haggard manages to play against our expectations, even today. His “white” queen—She-who-must-be-obeyed—is actually Arabic. Unlike Nakari, “the Vampire Queen of Negari” (I was disappointed that she didn’t wind up being a real vampire), She is one of the great villains of English literature. A lot of ink has been spilt situating She within a broader context of what was going on with women in Victorian England at the time. But She is too vibrant and fully realized a character to serve as any real archetype or a mere metaphor. She also gives the greatest response of all time to the charge that she is acting emotionally:
“My moods and changes are the little clouds, and fitfully these seem to turn; but behind them ever blows the great wind of my purpose. Nay, the men must die; and die as I have said.”
Solomon Kane is a great character, but She benefits from its gentleman adventurers. Solomon Kane is too focused to appreciate the grandeur of the remnant of a once-great civilization that surround him. Haggard’s prototypical English gentleman adventurers are better suited to do so.
Howard explains his lost civilization, tying it into his greater Atlantis mythos. Lest Howard be accused of being a white supremacist, the brown Atlanteans subdued and enslaved “all savages, red, white or black.” Kane discovers the last Atlantean from a final colonial outpost of a once great Atlantean empire (the similarities to Tolkien’s history of his Atlantis-inspired Númenor and its colonies are obvious, although it isn’t clear if Tolkien read any Howard prior to writing The Lord of the Rings). That single solitary remnant of Atlantis can dump a lot of information on us.
“Long eons ago—ages, ages ago—the empire of my race rose proudly above the waves. So long ago was it that no man remembers an ancestor who remembered it. In a great land to the west our cities rose. Our golden spires split the stars; our purple-prowed galleys broke the waves around the world, looting the sunset for its treasure and the sunrise for its wealth. Our legions swept forth to the north and to the south, to the west and the east, and none could stand before them. Our cities banded the world; we sent our colonies to all lands to subdue all savages, red, white or black, and enslave them. They toiled for us in the minds and at the galley’s oars. All over the world the brown people of Atlantis reigned supreme. We were a sea-people and we delved the deeps of all the oceans.”
She, on the other hand, explains very little about the Kor. Even the 2,000-plus-year-old She arrived after the last of the Kor was long gone. The mystery is to the story’s benefit.
Howard and Haggard are stylistically different—Haggard’s prose is much more “Victorian”—but there are similarities there as well. Both writers combine often rough prose with frequent flashes of brilliance. Take, for example, this passage from She:
To the west loomed the huge red ball of the sinking sun, now vanishing down the vapory horizon, and filling the great heaven, high across whose arch the cranes and wild fowl streamed in line, square, triangle, with flashes of flying gold and the lurid stain of blood. And then ourselves—three modern Englishmen in a modern English boat—seeming to jar upon and looking out of tone with that of measureless desolation; and in front of us the noble buck limned out upon a background of ruddy sky.
Haggard also imbues She with gut-wrenching, visceral imagery. I won’t be forgetting the image of the “hotpotting” or the “dance” any time soon.