Rattle of Bones
Rattle of Bones brings Kane back from the wilds of Africa and places him firmly on European soil. The genre shifts along with the setting bringing us back to the ghost stories that opened the collection. Here, in his (almost) native habitat, Kane feels more true to character. I can't help wishing that Howard had told more of this kind of story and I do note that other authors who have handled the character seem to share my tastes, keeping their Kane away from "exotic" locals.
Speaking of other authors, Rattle of Bones feels like a spiritual cousin to Anthony Boucher's They Bite. Boucher's is the superior work, but Howard's attempt to handle the material is nothing to sniff at. I avoid mentioning specifics since much of the effect of They Bite relies on surprise and I wouldn't want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn't read it. The only problem with Howard's story, in fact, is that, unlike Boucher's, the ending is too predictable. The rest of the piece, from atmosphere, to characters, to pacing, is spot-on.
The Castle of the Devil and Death's Black Riders
These look like more of the kind of adventures I would want to read. I'm out of luck, however, as Howard never went beyond the introduction of either piece. I have seen the comic book versions of the continuations of both at the store. Maybe I'll have to break down and pick them up.
The Moon of Skulls
Even though it takes us back to Africa, I have to say that this is the best story of the lot so far. Howard taps in to the rich genius of G.K. Chesterton to give his Puritanical character the religious back-drop he so richly deserves. What's that you say? Howard and Chesterton? That's right. Howard was a big fan of G.K.C.'s Ballad of the White Horse and used it as a model for his own unique brand of quasi-historical fiction. That added religious kick enables Howard as an atheist to finally nail Solomon Kane's psychology and the pay-off allows him to move the character out of his European context without any of the waffling that occurred in Red Shadows. It also allows Kane, for all his fanaticism, to become a more likable character than Conan. Conan has a sense of mirth, but at the core he's melancholy and alone. Kane mopes, mutters, and rages, but in the end he emerges as a compassionate and gentle man. He's a swashbuckling hero in the old-mold.
The Moon of Skulls is also worthy of note for the deft way in which Howard weaves the story into the larger story of Kane's life and the greater imaginary world that Howard was in the process of creating for his characters. Nods to other stories like Red Shadows and The Blue Flame of Vengance make us feel the richness of Kane's life and give hints into the development of his character. The furthering of the pre-Hyperborian Atlantis mythology is skillfully woven in to the narrative without disrupting it and adds a sense of cosmic drama into the mix in a way that complements the snatches of Chesterton's haunting poetry that open each section.
The only defect I have to complain of in The Moon of Skulls is a general problem in Howard's work and in many works from this period: it can't go near Africa without immediately descending into racist stereo-types. That sort of nonsense has marred much good writing and it's a pity it has to be present in one of Howard's best stories with this particular character.