Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCLVI

The Return of Sir Richard Grenville

The Sir Richard Grenville mentioned in the poem is probably this one who died fighting against the Spanish.  This poem is swift and eerie -the sort of thing that wouldn't stand by itself but helps add color to an already established world.  This sort of multi-genre world-building is reminiscent of what Tolkien was attempting at the same time period in his unpublished Silmarillion.

Wings in the Night

As predicted, Howard uses the wilderness of Africa to test the faith of Solomon Kane and in the face of overwhelming suffering it for a moment breaks.  There are some key points to notice here:

The first is that the interruption of Kane's faith allows Howard's real beliefs to come through: the triumph of Aryan man through a violent process of natural selection (Blech!).  There's one horrid little paragraph here that reads like something straight out of Hitler's Reich.  The sad thing is that these views were considered respectable and scientific in the 1920s and that Howard was only spewing what so many people of his era held for fact.

Second, Howard keeps returning to Kane's kindness.  It is precisely Kane's kindness that drives him insane at the sight of intense suffering and motivates his rage against a cruel and wicked world.  His momentary collapse of faith is not a refusal to believe in the existence of God but a questioning of his goodness in light of human suffering.  In the end, it seems as if Kane interprets his continuing success in fighting injustice as proof of God's care for the world as He empowers His agents to fight evil; a very Puritan notion.

Third, we should have anticipated Kane's trial in the wilderness from the beginning.  The Christological parallels are too good to pass up, but Kane also has a fascination with the occult and adventure for adventure's sake that has to be chastened.  He confesses as much to N'Longa in The Hills of the Dead.

So there you have it: the penultimate complete story of the saga of Solomon Kane.  Here, perhaps, lies a critical insight into Howard's abandonment of the character: to make Kane into a character that Howard could continue to believably write, Howard would have to break him to pieces and transform him into something completely different.  I don't know why Howard didn't simply do this (it was his character after all and he could do as he liked), but I'd like to think his refusal stemmed from artistic integrity: to let his creation be what it was, to obey the rules of his own game.  If so, then he let Solomon Kane stand as he was, devote to the core, and moved on to create a hero more after his own heart: Conan the Barbarian.     

Monday, January 20, 2014

And Then the World Opens Up (Final Fantasy VII): Platypus Nostalgia

Squaresoft stopped working with Nintendo right about the time I was finishing high school.  I and Nintendo went one way, Square went the other.  In retrospect, it seems like Squaresoft made the right decision.  Nintendo's killer apps remain wonderful, but they've been lagging ever since.  Now what all this means is that I only played through an hour or two of Final Fantasy VII when I was a teenager.  I remember sitting in a friends attic one summer and getting a look at it.  Then other friends came over and we moved on to Resident Evil...  Anyhow, time marched on and I never did manage to pick up a Playstation.  Then, just this past Christmas, some of my students tipped me off to the fact that Steam was selling Final Fantasy VII at an absurdly low price.  I jumped on it and have logged about fifteen hours on the game.

I have to admit, it took me a little time to get used to post-apocalyptic, heavy-industrial feel of the game.  Once I got my bearings, however, it turned out to be an enjoyable experience.  Midgar seemed like an interesting, quirky world that I could enjoy getting to know.  Then Sephiroth killed the president of Shinra Corp. and Cloud and company drove right off the map.  Suddenly, I realized that what I thought was the entire world of the game was only one little city in a vast world.  The feel of taking those first few steps beyond the dome and seeing the old, familiar map screen was enchanting.  That's how far I've gotten -but now I understand why people put Final Fantasy VII forward as one of the best games of all time. 

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCLV

The One Black Stain

In an interesting twist, the world of Solomon Kane is revealed not only in prose but in three short, narrative poems.  The meter of these poems has the bounce of country ballad required for narrating stories of this kind and it's an excellent addition to the world.  Howard apparently learned from this inventing entire faux epic cycles to quote from in his Conan tales.  One distinction from the Conan narratives, however, is that the Kane poems attempt to link Kane in to our real world by means of characters and places.  The One Black Stain, for instance, features a show-down between Solomon Kane and the historical figure Francis Drake.  This real-world element gives Howard's Kane a sense of immediacy in a way that the characters of the mythical Hyborian age lack.  Quite frankly, I like it, and wish he'd been able to write a few more of Kane's exploits before moving on.

The Blue Flame of Vengeance

This is that title than which no pulpier can be thought.  True to its name, The Blue Flame of Vengeance is a pure swashbuckling adventure complete with sword-fights, pirates, a damsel in distress, a hero in the making, and the wise, old mentor figure that shows him the way.  Kane flourishes in this decidedly English and decidedly non-supernatural setting.  Howard had a knack for creating strong characters that could survive being moved from genre to genre thus allowing him to avoid telling the same story over and over again.  In this case, Kane does just as well at mundane adventuring as he does in the world of occult detection.  My question is: "do we have anyone today creating characters that are this flexible and, if so, what is there any direct link back to Robert E. Howard?"   

Then Hills of the Dead

Back to Africa.  This story appears to be the start of what was intended to be a string of "African Adventures."  I suppose it would be followed by a string of "Oriental Adventures," and then perhaps "Colonial Adventures."  It's a great idea and I wish Howard had stuck with the character long enough to perfect it.  The real question, though, is what would be left of Kane when the adventures were over?  As with Mike Mignola's Sir Edward Grey, Hills of the Dead seems to suggest that constant run-ins with the occult might unravel Kane's solid Puritan faith.  N'Longa explicitly challenges him with the idea at the end of this story.  I have to ask: "is a Kane without his Puritanism still Solomon Kane?"

Several other fragments follow these stories which I'm not going to comment on due to their incomplete status.  Hopefully I can finish out the final complete pieces in this collection in the next post.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCLIV

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.   

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCLIII

Red Shadows

It's onward with Solomon Kane for the time being right now.  After the grim success of the first two stories, I decided to press on to the third.  Red Shadows takes Kane on his first globe-trotting mission as he seeks to avenge the brutal murder of a young girl by a roguish French thief.  The fight will eventually take Kane where most early 20th century pulp goes: the heart of Africa.

While chocked full of swashbuckling adventure, I felt that Howard occasionally lost his hold on the character in this third Solomon Kane offering.  Howard, whether he knew it or not, writes like a true Nietzscheian worshiping strength with ardent zeal.  What he really wants is an excuse to throw his character into one of the boxing matches that he so obsessed over in the real world.  This passion, perhaps fully resolved in the creation of Conan, remains in tension with the fundamentally religious and Puritan character that Howard created in Kane.  Every Puritan has to have his "dark gods in the blood" to wrestle with, and Howard wisely saw the narrative potential there, so we'll see if his writer's sense prevails and he reestablishes an unwavering lock on the character in later pieces.

The above defect was slight, and not a deal breaker.  The main hindrance to enjoyment comes in his racist portrayal of the African tribesmen Kane encounters.  H. Rider Haggard has more respect for Africans (maybe because he actually lived there) than Howard does in this piece and that's saying something.  I find that odd given that Howard is supposed to have taken H.P. Lovecraft to task over the author's racist attitudes.  Maybe greater experience with life in general and African-Americans in particular helped correct some of Howard's prejudices as he got older.  At any rate, we'll see if this element persists in the other stories.

All told, this was an interesting story, but not as good as the first two.  I'm looking forward to the next tale which looks like its set in England.  Returning Kane to his proper English Gothic setting, I hope, will restore Howard's grip on his character and enable him to continue to explore the exciting potential of the heroic oddity that is Solomon Kane.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

The Platypus of Truth 2013 Review

It's a new year of blogging here at Platypus of Truth, and what better way to begin the new year than with a review of last year's posts.  Let's note that 2013 was the busiest year yet with 117 posts.  That's a full 14 (or two weeks worth) more than the already record-breaking 2012.  Two things helped fuel this phenomenal spike in content: another "Summer of Shannara" and trips to Italy and New England.

The New "Summer of Shannara" starts here.
"Italian Reflections" begins here.
"New England Reflections" begins here.

Platypus of Truth has always been more of a literary blog than anything else, but I have enjoyed my foray into travel blogging.  Since all that travel has left available funds rather low, I don't know if I'll have a chance to do any more of this sort of blogging in 2014.  Still, you never know what the future holds.  One new thing that I tried this year that didn't cost anything was posting "Fragments," or little lyrical pieces that never found a home in a larger post.

On a glassworks in my hometown.
On New England and the Eschaton.
On Autumn and St. Augustine.
On looking out over the valley to Monroe.
On the problems of communication.

It's been a long time since I posted any real poetry on this blog, but 2013 was also a year for poetry with a few odd pieces on themes old and new.

On the Angel of Hadley, William Goffe.
At the Icon Exhibit.
The Last of the Darjeeling.
Our Lady of the Wastes.
What Kassandra Said.
At the Oxford Martyr's Shrine.

Finally, it wasn't poetical, but I did enjoy this little form-follows-function review of Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.

That's the year in review at Platypus of Truth.  All told, 2013 was a great year for blogging with a diversity of topics and forms.  I can't wait to see what new adventures in writing await in 2014.  Until then, remember: the Platypus speaks Truth.