Red Shadows (first published in Weird Tales, August 1928)
by Robert E. Howard
Traveling on a moonlit night the puritan wanderer named Solomon Kane discovers a mortally girl. Asking what fiend had done this to her the girl gives the name Le Loup. As the girl’s body goes limp, Kane’s is filled with righteous rage and swears an oath, “Men shall die for this.”
Later, at the lair of bandit Le Loup, his men tell tales of Solomon Kane vengeance as if he were demon. Kane has slew nearly all of Le Loup’s men leaving the initials SLK carved into the cheeks of the dead. Even now the last remaining bandits escaped with barely their lives. In fact, these survivors have led Kane back to Le Loup’s lair. It is only by treachery and trickery that Le Loup escapes Kane.
Months, perhaps even years, have passed since the confrontation between Kane and Le Loup. The trail has lead Solomon to the Dark Continent of Africa after his quarry. The fire of vengeance no less intense even after countless miles. Kane has his ship wait for seven days afterward they can assume that he will never return from the jungle. Solomon attempts to sneak upon the African village that Le Loup has joined in hopes of surprising the Wolf and finishing what Kane believes to be God’s justice. As stealthy as Kane is, he bested by a humungous African warrior named Gulka, the gorilla-slayer.
Kane painfully awakens bound in a hut with a ju-ju man. N’Longa, the ju-ju man, offers deal to Kane to work together to bring down Songa the chief of the village and his new partner Le Loup. Before Kane can react, he and N’Longa are pulled from the hut and bind him to a post in front of the Black God, a huge, black parody of the human form. He meets again with Le Loup who is cockly describes all the near misses two of them had in their chase from Italy to Spain. Le Loup explains that he was never truly concerned to confront Kane, but found the chase far more enjoyable. That is until now. Now he has decided he has grown weary of the game and it must end with Kane’s death to the Black God.
Suddenly N’Longa appears as if by magic only to be felled by the great brute Gulka. Also tied to a post it appears that N’Longa and Solomon Kane are to burn in sacrifice to the Black God. As one of the villagers begins to set fire to N’Longa, the ju-ju man threatens his enemies with magic he has never let living men see. The torch man falls dead seemingly of fright. N’Longa goes into a trance and the once dead man rises once again and moves toward chief Songa…
While this is not my favorite Solomon Kane story, I do think it is an excellent example of the tenacity of the character. The story also foreshadows Kane’s future adventures in Africa has well as the strange friendship between the puritan and N’Longa the ju-ju man. The story’s basic frame Kane seeking to help a young girl/woman for no reason beyond it being God’s will or good will be seen again in The Moon of Skulls.
I also think it is important to spend sometime in this review to go over the racism or perceived racism found within this and other Robert E. Howard (REH) stories. Yes, Howard describes Gukla as having an ape like head and many of the African villagers having flabby red lips. Chief Sulka is given a particularly unsavory description. Even N’Longa speaks pigeon English in this story. However, I do not believe it was Howard’s intent to make the Africans seem inferior rather Sulka and Gukla are villains and as such given ugly features as short hand to their villainy. In the later story The Hills of the Dead, N’Longa speaks highly eloquently in Kane’s dreams due to the ju-ju man’s vast intelligence not bound to the crudeness of language. In fact N’Longa demonstrates in that story to understand the universe better than Kane or really any other white man with his knowledge of the supernatural. Finally on this subject, I will state that REH lived in rural portions of Texas his entire life in the early part of the twenty century. There is was nothing stopping him from being much more racist that he writing are given the place and time he lived, and yet some of his writing seems to contradict this. I won’t say that his stories don’t have any racism when view through contemporary values, but that I believe that his critics are far more harsh toward him that he truly deserves.
I want to finish up by stating that Solomon Kane is my favorite Robert E. Howard protagonist. I enjoy his adventures far more than Conan’s exploits. However, I can see why Conan has wider appeal. Kane is too rigid and fanatical in his cause seeming less like a man and more, as I’m sure Howard intended, a weapon of God’s justice. REH himself noted that using earth’s own history was often times more of a noose that required far more research for creating a story than it was worth. While nearly all of Conan’s world has a fairly obvious real world equivalent, Howard used this a short hand and changed the parts he wanted or was ignorant of to serve plot of Conan tales.
Bottomline: Red Shadows was still early in Howard telling of his stories and has a few rough parts. Additionally, the African depictions could be offensive to modern readers depending on how they interpret them. However, this story is a very good tale of swashbuckling and sword and sorcery.