When modern readers think about pulp fiction, they no doubt tend to imagine sword and sorcery like Conan the Barbarian, lost worlds fiction like The Land That Time Forgot, pulp detectives like Dick Tracy or The Shadow, or horror like the Cthulhu Mythos. They probably don’t envision a dour, glum-faced, musket-wielding Puritan roaming Europe and Africa in the late 1500s/early 1600s. And yet, Solomon Kane was quite popular for creator Robert E. Howard, with nearly as many stories as Conan or his sailor hero Steve Costigan.
Like those two characters, Solomon Kane is frequently overmatched by the enemies he faces, often pulling off seemingly impossible triumphs through luck and alliances with more powerful forces. Unlike Conan or Costigan, Kane’s not the typical muscle-bound sword swinger or athletic sailor with knockout fists. Kane is often described as being tall and lanky, though strong, and he’s never looked upon by others as an attractive man.
One of the biggest reasons Kane succeeds at all is his friendship with the African tribal shaman N’Longa, who calls himself a ju-ju-man. While his depiction does toe the line with (and sometimes cross over) the “magical negro” caricature common in popular media, the development of N’Longa over the arc of Kane’s stories shows a far deeper character. In this, he takes some of the progress from earlier pulp writers like H. Rider Haggard and his character Allan Quatermain, an English hunter/explorer who has a similar friendship with the African tribal chieftain Umslopogaas. As Haggard did with Umslopogaas, Howard makes sure N’Longa isn’t just the “noble savage” that is often depicted in stories from the same time period. Howard is often called a racist, and he surely harbored some racist ideals, but his embrace of non-traditional heroes, including women like Belit and Red Sonja, in addition to N’Longa, should not be overlooked. So did Howard hold racist ideals? Yes, and also misogynistic ones, and we won’t forgive those, but the reality is often more complex than an either/or.
What I have always liked best about Kane were the action sequences when he’s fighting with either a rapier or a musket, particularly against a hulking giant who could shrug off blows from either weapon. Even when he makes the right move, something like parrying a deathblow, he’s never miraculously untouched the way some modern action stars are.
The sense that even the hero is vulnerable and just muddles through is one reason why a film like Mad Max: Fury Road garnered so much appeal (among other possible reasons). It’s also why people nowadays seem to like Batman more than Superman.
Kane is like that for me. He’s not an unbeatable force like James Bond. He isn’t beholden to Queen and country, has no colonial aspirations, and couldn’t give a fig for flesh or other temptations. There are indications that his single-minded attempt to rid the world of evil is founded upon his previous misdeeds, much like some of those modern stories of assassins gone straight, but the backstory that exists in the pure Howard stories isn’t the fleshed out version from the 2009 film starring James Purefoy.
I’ll admit I enjoyed the film version, but only after I was able to divorce it from the source material in my head, much in the same way I can with films like Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers or Total Recall (come to think of it, I like all of Verhoeven’s American released films–yes, even Showgirls–because the satire works on multiple levels), but the reason the Solomon Kane film didn’t excite the ardent fans of Kane/Howard is that the film was an origin film, and that’s never been the point of Kane as a character.
In any case, if you are able to make it through problematic portrayals of non-Europeans, the action sequences are some of the best in pulp fiction, as is to be expected from Howard.