Category: robert e. howard

Weird Detective Stories

Solomon Kane: based on the character created by Robert E. Howard and scripted by Michael J. Bassett; directed by Michael J. Bassett; starring James Purefoy (Solomon Kane), Max von Sydow (Josiah Kane), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Meredith), Pete Postlewaite (William), Alice Krige (Katherine), and Jason Flemyng (Malachi) (2009): A second time through, and I again concluded it’s a damn shame Solomon Kane didn’t get at least a couple of sequels. Writer-director Michael J. Bassett plays a bit fast and loose with Robert E. Howard’s quasi-Puritan demon-hunter to give him an origin story with a redemptive arc, but as a whole the movie is fairly true to the character. 

For a fairly low-budget fantasy film, Solomon Kane looks great, is jam-packed with good actors who seem to be invested in their roles, and has a suitably haunted James Purefoy as Kane. In terms of both sword-and-sorcery movies and Robert E. Howard adaptations, I might actually rank this over the original Conan the Barbarian, if only because its lack of pomposity hews much closer to Howard’s writing than John Milius’s bellicose sturm-und-drang. Highly recommended.

Marlowe: adapted by Stirling Silliphant from the novel The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler; directed by Paul Bogart; starring James Garner (Philip Marlowe), Gayle Hunnicutt (Mavis Wald), Carroll O’Connor (Lt. French), Rita Moreno (Dolores Gonzales), Jackie Coogan (Grant Hicks), Bruce Lee (Winslow Wong), and Sharon Farrell (Orfamay Quest) (1969): Enjoyable, typically twisty Raymond Chandler mystery gets updated by 20 years to late 1960’s Los Angeles. James Garner is his typically low-key self as Philip Marlowe — you could see this as an audition tape for the later Rockford Files. Bruce Lee shows up as a mob enforcer; what happens to him is actually pretty hilarious. Recommended.

The X-Files: Goblins by Charles L. Grant (1994): The first original X-Files novel has its pleasures. Released midway through the second season of the series, Goblins was written by veteran horror scribe Charles L. Grant. As with Grant’s own work, Goblins is quiet horror for the most part, implying a lot and showing very little. Unfortunately, the ‘monster’ in Goblins would barely support an hour-long episode of the series, much less a nearly 300-page novel. Grant does a nice job of capturing the Mulder/Scully dynamic and the paranoid tone of the series. Suffice to say, though, that as in the dreadful movie Hollow Man, ‘invisible’ apparently means the same as ‘invincible.’ Lightly recommended.

Department 18: Night Souls by L.H. Maynard and M.P.N. Sims (2010): Night Souls tools along for its first three-quarters as a fairly soapy occult procedural that’s light on horror and originality and really long on really short chapters, I assume because it was meant to be read in installments during every trip to the bathroom.

Alas, with about 75 pages to go, it completely craps the bed. Despite the fact that its climax is rushed and sketchy and amazingly satisfaction-light, Night Souls nonetheless finds the space for back-to-back chapters in which major female characters are raped, murdered, and dismembered in graphic detail. Then it throws in the dismemberment of an old homeless guy in a subsequent chapter because the writers seem to have lost all interest in the procedural aspects of their own narrative. As we’ve already been shown how bad the antagonists can be, these chapters don’t tell or show us anything we don’t know — and the later fate of the rapist-murderers comes and goes with so little effect that there’s no sense of catharsis or justice or really much of anything.

Oh, and one of the women is raped by a lizard-like monster which we’re told on more than one occasion has a foot-long penis with giant barbs on it. Hooray! As the only other horror-novel rape scenes involving monsters with barbed penises that I recall happen in terrible Richard Laymon novels (yes, more than once, barbed-penis-rape-scene fans!), I can only assume this is a grotesque tip of a grotesque hat. There are horror novels that effectively portray rape scenes; Night Souls is not one of them unless you’re a rape fetishist or a connoisseur of unusually large barbed penises. Not recommended.

‘Old’ Books

The Dark Man and Other Stories by Robert E. Howard, edited by August Derleth (1963): Eclectic collection of non-Conan stories from Robert E. Howard, originally published in hardcover by Arkham House. Magazines of the 1920’s and 1930’s originally published everything included here, including the wonderfully named Oriental Tales. Boy, those were the days. Was Edward Said the editor?

Basically, one gets some contemporary horror stories, of which “Pigeons from Hell” is the marvelously titled best, and at worst Howard’s second-best pure horror story. Howard’s ancient Pict leader Bran Mak Morn shows up a few times, even after he’s dead. Some Lovecraftian horrors show up, as do a few ghosts and demons and one malevolent magic snake.

Roaming freebooters of the Middle Ages, Turlogh O’Brien and Athelstane, have a couple of adventures involving lost civilizations and massive bloodshed. And a couple of (then) modern-day Americans suddenly flash back to past lives of adventure, as happens a lot in Howard’s stories. Viva reincarnation! Recommended.

Cinder and Ashe: written by Gerry Conway; illustrated by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez and Joe Orlando (1988): Solidly written thriller from Gerry Conway, Cinder and Ashe follows private detectives Jacob Ashe and Cinder DuBois as an enemy from their shared past in Viet Nam long thought dead suddenly turns up in a case they’re working in 1988.

This miniseries, from that long-lost era when DC Comics regularly released non-superhero work under the main DC banner (as opposed to under the Vertigo banner) has never been collected into book form so far as I know, so you’ll have to check out the back-issue bins.

Conway’s writing does the job — you can see how he would seamlessly transition from writing for comics to working for the Law and Order franchise in the years to come .

And the art, by longtime DC mainstay Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, is fantastic — beautifully detailed and fluid. Because Garcia-Lopez works here on normal people and not super-heroes, his artistic similarity to the great Milton Caniff and other comic-strip giants really shines through. Not only does the art alone make a case for permanent collection, it makes a case for oversized permanent collection so that the often exquisite linework becomes fully visible. Recommended.

Why a Duck?

Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge: Only a Poor Old Man: The Complete Carl Barks Disney Library Volume 12: written and illustrated by Carl Barks (1952; collected 2012): While it’s chronologically the 12th volume in the Fantagraphics Books Carl Barks Library, Only a Poor Old Man is the second of these volumes to be published. That’s because the general consensus among critics is that the Golden Age of writer-artist Carl Barks started about ten years into his comic-book career, as he fleshed out the character and motivations of Donald Duck’s Uncle Scrooge, a character created by Barks for the Disney comic books in the 1940’s.

This collection prints about a dozen one-page ‘gags,’ but the meat of the book comes with the longer adventures. And they truly are adventures on land, on sea, and in the air. These are some action-packed ducks.

Barks remains a wonder. The cartooning and the writing are both still fresh and funny. There are moral lessons here, but they’re not rammed down the readers’ throats. And the story of the hidden city of Tralala is about as pessimistic a tale about human nature as I can imagine in a comic book aimed squarely at children. Capitalism turns out to be toxic, but there’s no conceivable escape from it. Whee, fun! That story remains funny nonetheless even as it verges on being a Jonathan Swift satire, with ducks.

Once upon a time in the 1950’s, these were the best-selling comic books in North America. It’s a tribute to the pop-cult sensibilities of Carl Barks that they’re also rewarding, breezy entertainments that make the typical superhero comic book of the time look ham-fisted by comparison. Mmm. Ham. Highly recommended.


Solomon Kane Volume 3: Red Shadows: adapted from the work of Robert E. Howard; written by Bruce Jones; illustrated by Rahsan Ekedal and Dan Jackson (2013): Solid work from Bruce Johns and Rahsan Ekedal in adapting two stories from Conan creator Robert E. Howard about the heroic 16th-century Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane and his crusades against evil in England, Europe, and Africa. Jones eschews the wordiness of some adapters of Howard in favour of letting the artist draw what Howard has described, and it works for the most part, though some captions explaining Kane’s thoughts would make the adaptation more true to Howard. Recommended.

Jonah Hex: No Way Back: written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray; illustrated by Tony DeZuniga with John Stanisci (2010): Ill-served by an egregiously awful Hollywood movie, Jonah Hex nonetheless remains a terrific comic book character who’s had extraordinary luck in terms of writers and artists. Set in the post-Civil War American West, the original graphic novel Jonah Hex: No Way Back brings legendary (and, sadly, soon-to-be deceased) Hex artist Tony DeZuniga back for a look at Hex’s dark past.

Hex may be a homicidal, bounty-hunting anti-hero, but he still possesses a rudimentary moral code. His origins suggest that code was a reaction to the complete amorality of his father and adandonment by his mother. It’s certainly a place to start, anyway. Palmiotti and Gray have been writing Hex’s regular comic-book adventures for a decade now, and they’re worthy successors to such previous Hex scribes as John Albano, Michael Fleischer, and Joe Lansdale.

Their West is a nightmarish place, part-spaghetti-Western, part-horror-show, just as it as been since Albano first wrote the character in the early 1970’s. And while DeZuniga’s art is somewhat inconsistent at first, by the time the book gets into ultraviolent second half, DeZuniga is operating with his familiar gritty, weathered artistry intact. Recommended.

Solomon Kane’s First Homecoming

Solomon Kane: based on the character created by Robert E. Howard; written and directed by Michael J. Bassett; starring James Purefoy (Solomon Kane), Max Von Sydow (Josiah Kane), Rachel Hurd-Wood (Meredith), Pete Postlethwaite (William Crowthorn), Alice Krige (Katherine Crowthorn), and Jason Flemyng (Malachi) (2009): It’s a shame this origin story for one of Robert E. ‘Conan the Barbarian’ Howard’s finest heroic creations never got a North American theatrical release. As movies based on Howard’s work go, this is immensely good.

Solomon Kane doesn’t have the weird, sweaty, portentous grandeur of the original Conan the Barbarian, but it’s certainly better-acted and better-written than that odd classic. This is a dark yet ultimately hopeful movie, devoid of Camp and metafoolery, committed to its peculiar (and very Howardesque) version of English history.

Indeed, the main cast suggests nothing more than a Masterpiece Theatre production gone rogue into the wilds of American pulp. James Purefoy is great as Solomon Kane at the beginning of his demon-fighting career, and the rest of the talented cast and crew seems similarly invested. It’s like watching real historical drama acted by real actors, only with awesome sword-fights and monsters! Madness! No wonder it couldn’t secure an American distributor!

The story begins in the year 1600. After escaping a demon who tells him that someone has already sold his soul to the Devil, kill-crazy British privateer Solomon Kane retires to an English Abbey to repent of his sins and remake himself into a Man of Peace. He will fight no more forever.

But God’s got other plans for him. Before long, Kane’s trying to single-handedly stop Northern England from being overrun by Satan’s Army. You know, just like it happened in the history books. An invasion of England by Hell really is suitably Howardesque, though, despite the fact that almost nothing in the movie is drawn from Howard’s actual work. The big, gloomy Texan loved to scramble history in his blood-soaked sword-and-sorcery melodramas.

Howard’s stories, fragments, and poems about Solomon Kane only briefly refer to his ‘origins’ as the Renaissance World’s premiere monster-fighter. And this film doesn’t really synchronize with Howard’s references: nowhere in Howard’s work is the suggestion that Kane had to repent of anything. He was an evil-killing machine from the beginning. He probably beat up ghosts while still in the womb. However, contemporary heroic-origin movies tend to need a character arc of redemptive psychology. At least in this case, the psychological growth trends towards Kane’s acceptance of his mission as for the public, and not just the personal, good.

In any event, there’s lots of sword-fighting and musket-firing. There’s crucifixion, an old Howard standby. There are several nicely visualized supernatural beings, including a creepy looking fire demon and some truly unpleasant things lurking inside some supernatural mirrors. There’s a rain-swept, plague-ravaged, burned-out landscape to quest across, a Waste Land to be redeemed.

A little more stillness and time for character development would have been nice. As is, though, this is quite the propulsive action-adventure movie. It’s a shame there won’t be more installments. I’d have liked to see writer/director Michael J. Bassett’s take on Kane’s loopy African adventures amongst the vampires, harpies, shambling super-blobs, evil men black and white, and sympathetic gorillas of the ‘Dark Continent.’ Highly recommended.