Select Reads: Robert E. Howards’ “Red Shadows”

Greetings and salutations!  Its been a few days , but as promised I’ve returned with the first of my short story/lit review with a little analysis and speculation as well. I hope to do this not just with short stories or novels ( or any lit) but films, games , etc. I pondered what to do first, and being that since moving forward with my life as a single man, Ive committed to at least reading one hour a day , two to four times a week, so why not start off with something I’ve read. Or reread, rather. Various times in my life.

Robert E. Howard was a fairly obscure pulp writer in his time, but well known and liked in his circles , (which included fellow pulp writers HP Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith) and is really best known for his Conan the Barbarian character whose popularity skyrocketed in the 60’s, nearly 30 years after his death. This was largely thanks to a rerelease of the Conan stories mixed in with lesser quality, herculean (yet entertaining)pastiche filler to create a sort of commercial pop hero cycle, topped off with its main selling point:  the incredible artwork of Frank Frazetta gracing the paperback covers.

Aside the barbarian Conan, Howard had a whole gallery of heroes of similar thews, drives  and temper. Be it rogue warriors, kings, crusaders, kozaks, to waterfront sailors, Howard had an incredible knack to really put you on the battlefield or in the opium dens and feel the protagonists drives fears and hates.

Perhaps his most popular character second to Conan could arguably be Solomon Kane. A late 16th/early 17th century Puritan avenger Solomon Kane’s obsessions with righting wrongs and sort being the vengeful hand of God  may just be his excuse for getting out the savage that lies within him and perhaps within anyone when pushed too far. He is very akin to say how the punisher ( or his pulp inspiration Don Pendletons The Executioner) operates, sans an origin tale to explain his purpose.

Kane was the subject of several published and unpublished short fiction and fantastically grim poetry and this story, Red Shadows , was not the first written but the first published in 1928, in the August issue of Weird Tales, the classic depression era pulp magazine of weird fiction. Kane is the third of Howards characters ( fourth if you count Red Sonja which really isn’t near the character Howard wrote of at all) aside Conan and Kull to get a movie as well which like the most of the others is less than mediocre and not really worth a view aside a decent lead in James Purefoy.


” Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you”- Nietzche

Red Shadows is comprised of five parts roughly about 42-43 pages in length, and is seemingly on the surface a tale of revenge and adventure spanning months , perhaps years, demonstrating Solomon Kane’s almost unnatural drive to right a wrong done to an innocent. He finds a woman on a roadway, a woman who’s village was raided and burned down with many killed. She implies  without words before she was stabbed brutally ( by the antagonist , a man known as Le Loup, the Wolf) that she was sexually assaulted too and basically dies in Solomon Kanes arms. While Kane has no real origin story, something of this type could easily set a hero on a path to wreak vengeance and that is what Solomon Kane does.

” “Men shall die for this,” he said coldly.” 

Being the Puritan he is he takes to the task of hunting the offenders down and thus the second part shows mostly near the end result of Solomon Kane’s wrath.  It’s basically a confrontation between Kane and Le Loup himself in a cave hideout. Le Loup, who is staggered and impressed Kane tracked down, killed and branded his bandits with his initials carved into them. A bit of braggadocio on both parties and promises of fate and Le Loup questions Kane as to why , to what purpose does it serve him to commit to this sort of chase, Kane reminds him of the girl and the village “many moons ago”. LeLoup recalls the incident and the sexual assault element of it with an evil fondness , enraging Kane to threaten torture Le Loup before death. Shocking Le Loup further is the fact that this was no lover , friend or family to Kane, but a stranger   Kane cannot give an answer as to why he took this up, A brief skirmish occurs and yet Le Loup makes his escape again, driving Kane even moreso to stalk him no matter where it takes him.

And to me , this is where it really gets strange , interesting and even a bit metaphorical, in a heart of darkness sort of way. Its generally implied at the start of the next chapter , that Kane stalked this man for months maybe even years across Europe and ultimately leading to the African continent, which coincidentally many of Kanes further adventures take place in.

Before I continue this is where I believe the abyss stares back to Kane, the abyss of a primordial time where multiple tales of revenge seem to take place on different evolutionary levels but maintaining the same general sense of what retribution is in the natural world ( according to Howard) and the Kanes idea of justice. Ill expand what I mean here as I summarize the events. Also bear in mind this is a story stripped of any sort of  ‘political or racial correctness’ outside the confines of civilized society meant to shock and forewarn ( as well as entertain) the reader that this world still exists outside the softer, safer civilized one, and that a common theme in Howards writing is that any number of events man made or natural can take us right back to these tribal savage trial by blood times. His general point being it takes savage men to thrive in savage times unapologetically.

But I digress. Kane ultimately tracks Le Loup to a coastal village in Africa, where locals claim they saw a man fitting Le Loups’ description into the jungle. Kane pursues into the jungle, hears strange chanting and the story, while keeping its driving theme takes a slight shift in tone. Kane basically hears the chanting towards some sort of black god and drums, as the jungle gets deeper and darker. Its as if he is travelling away from his countryside away from the light so to speak into a more feral primal sort of time warp. The prose itself speaks of ” gods men knew when dawns were young” and such colorful  terms,” of outer darkness” and “monotone drums chanting”. You feel that while Kanes nerves are high he is very much at home with this , for a puritan,I find it interesting. Its almost as if hes willing to travel to what would be a metaphysical hell to see his way true, and I’m sure to him that’s as much a way as being true to his word to god while acting through his urge to fight , avenge and kill, elements while necessary , are often looked down upon in The Bible.

And yet as it seems Kane is comfortable in this strange pre civilized world, there is always someone more at home, especially when its their habitat and the chapter ends with Kane being struck unconscious and captured by what we learn is a tribal brute by the name of Gulka.

At this juncture the final chapters, the climax and descending action occur. In every respect Kane awakens to a sort of personal hell. He meets a Shaman ( or as the character calls himself, a ju-ju man) N’Longa who also was captured  and swears an oath of loyalty if kane does kill Le Loup who is in this village and essentially  planned Kanes’ ambush via Gulka, known as a gorilla slayer in his tribe ( and evidenced by a corpse on display to their ‘Black God’ idol, some sort of ancient not man-but-not-ape statue) At this juncture everyone seems to have cross grudges . N’longa with a competing shaman  in the tribe, Kanes’ with Le Loup now Le Loup is begrudged over Kane squandering Le Loups hard stolen fortunes over time and chase and one other far more ancient yet resonant . Le Loup took up with this tribe with money and desperation; (he hangs in their good favor on a very thin line) still cannot fathom this mans fanatical sense of justice and before a ritual blood sacrifice and again asks Kane for some sort of deeper motive.

I believe Kane now gazes into his own abyss in his reply: ” Because you are a rogue whom it is my destiny to kill” Kane believes ( or tells himself ) he is doing Gods work he is the hand of Gods Judgment. This I believe is his mask coming off and if he ever realizes it, that’s up to the reader to decide. He cannot explain his purpose other than he needs to kill violent oppressive evil men who harm and terrorize innocents, and at the same time he knows  being a puritan  it really and solely is in Gods hands to judge:


“But God said unto me, Thou shalt not build an house for my name, because thou hast been a man of war, and hast shed blood”- Chronicles 28-3

That’s just something to think on. Kane I’m sure was familiar with this verse, and I think he needed some sort of justification for the urges in his genes, and in his blood. The day of Conan and even pagan Rome was long gone, Christianity has at the least given focus to what I believe is a natural instinct in man to fight , compete and kill. Kane sees now this reflected in a more primal environment.

Right before he is to be sacrificed in blasphemous ritual, N’Longa reappears to him (out of nowhere , but according to narration probably due to some art of stealth) is struck down and seemingly killed by Gulka  eve Kane and the rival tribe king Songa convinced he is dead.  But to more blasphemy ( at least to Kane …and maybe even the rogue Le Loup) N’Longa rises from the dead,  and all hell breaks loose from the shock of the savages to even those born of a civilized world!!It is the sole supernatural element of the story and my thought is, if you read it in the proper context and put yourself in the action, this is as shocking as regans head spin in the exorcist! completely out of place yet highly effective because of its minimal use.

Songa dies of fright, the tribe then turns on Le Loup Kane is freed and pursues his foe to the climax of the story.

All of these events occur quickly with an incredible efficiency on Howards part yet still putting you right in the darkest parts of the jungle. One vengeance has been served Kane has an ally he should be appalled by and now hunts down Le Loup to a final duel.

Naturally Kane slays his rival, at great cost to himself as he is mortally wounded and yet is not free, as Gulka emerges, free to kill the prey he ambushed prior. While kane had no fear and was ready to fight and die ( he was too injured to run) the final grudge finally makes manifest at the end of the yarn in the form of the black god himself, the alpha ape whose mate was the gorilla Gulka had slain and some truly primal ancient justice was about to be doled out. The ape easily snaps Gulkas’ neck ignores Kane and returns to the jungles that time forgot, like Kane his purpose in the tale fulfilled and I believe to some extent Kane sees his own true nature in this action.

Now , does the ape actually know to take revenge? to mourn a mate yes, I believe long studies have shown the very sort of familial nature of mountain gorillas( a fictionalized variety here in the story ) They also show behavior  akin to power reaching and killing their own too. That said its the universal theme of retribution carried across the ages  and what lengths and measures one goes to in my mind, that’s being displayed here. Solomon Kane is of a breed that traversed oceans and jungles into his own ‘Heart of Darkness” ( I’m sure Howard was familiar w Conrad too, don’t quote me but I see that influence in at least two Conan tales, beyond the black river and queen of the black coast)in order to accomplish Gods judgment but in the heart of the jungle , it seems theres maybe a bit of that primal bloodlust within his savage violent nature he needs to satisfy.

So this is one way I read into this. As a reader do you have to go this deeply into it? no this reads just as fine , if not even a bit amateurish as an early foray into fantasy adventure writing. and if you can get past the racial elements ( though I always feel its important for good stories to shake you out of your comfort zone; there’s no introspection entertainment or art if its a ‘safe’ politically correct piece) and dig deep into your own fears urges , this may be a good gateway story into Howards other non Conan adventures, some make this pale in comparison in their brutal rawness. I highly recommend it and I’m sure I will return to Robert E. Howard in the near future.

until then , this is citizen g , signing off

cheers and good reading!

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2 thoughts on “Select Reads: Robert E. Howards’ “Red Shadows”

  1. That was a very interesting and insightful review. Right now I am reading multiple versions of the story. I will finish the original text by REH sometime tomorrow, and I have just finished reading the 2011 adaptation by Dark Horse Comics period and in a few days I will finish reading the 1985 adaptation by Marvel Comics. I have to agree with your analysis, this one is a really good starting point for fans looking to expand beyond the original Conan stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Mike , Thank you I appreciate the kind words and support. I remember the old marvel comic, I never read the dark horse one.I don’t know when I will get back to Howard, I certainly want to hit Lovecraft soon, and I do have a podcast in the works where I do plan to do a Howard -centric episode with Steve Dilks. I followed your blog back and I’m definitely gonna check it out. In the meantime, Ive got posts for some old games and some youtube channelsand tweets that make me chuckle. Thanks again and salut’!

      Like

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