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The Faith of Solomon Kane

Thu, 01/03/2019 - 04:59

June of 1930 saw Solomon Kane take the cover of Weird Tales with the first installment of a two-part serial. And man, it sure is a doozy!

It’s hard to believe, but within these pages Kane would become even more heroic, more imposing, more inspiring, and more awesome than his preceding tales could indicate. Even better, all the great fantasy elements of the 1920’s are here in vivid detail: pulse pounding jungle action, Atlantis, secret kingdoms in the heart of Africa, and beautiful and feral queens of ancient civilizations.

If “Red Shadows” was Fantasy John Wick and “Skulls in the Stars” was Fantasy Mad Max… then “The Moon of Skulls” is Fantasy Taken.

But before we get into that, a word about the cover. It is totally and awfully wrong. It depicts a generic thirties action here and not the dour Solomon Kane. The damsel in distress is not a red head in the story– she’s got curly blonde hair! And the femme fatale triggering the trap door? She’s supposed to be going the full Dejah Thoris by wearing nothing but her jewelry. (Margaret Brundage will have her work cut out for her when she would later come on board!)

But yes, this is an earlier prototype of the sort of tale you see in the Liam Neeson movie “Taken”. And the most striking thing about it is that the heroism, daring, and fearlessness the rescue entails is spread out over years of struggle and daring! It is truly awe inspiring. All the more so because Solomon Kane really doesn’t have any sort of personal stake in the girl he’s seeking to save. She’s neither his daughter nor a potential love interest!

What can possibly motivate the man under these circumstances? The answer is… something that you just don’t see depicted in the action heroes that have dominated the big screen for the past six decades: faith. I daresay that no character in all of fiction can match Kane for this particular virtue.

For one thing, the guy wholeheartedly believes he can take on Satan himself in single combat:

From somewhere in front of him there came a strange indescribable rustling. Without warning something smote him in the face and slashed wildly. All about him sounded the eerie murmurings of many small wings and suddenly Kane smiled crookedly, amused, relieved and chagrined. Bats, of course. The cave was swarming with them. Still, it was a shaky experience, and as he went on and the wings whispered through the vast emptiness of the great cavern, Kane’s mind found space to dally with a bizarre thought—had he wandered into Hell by some strange means, and were these in truth bats, or were they lost souls winging through everlasting night? Then, thought Solomon Kane, I will soon confront Satan himself—and even as he thought this, his nostrils were assailed by a horrid scent, fetid and repellent. The scent grew as he went slowly on, and Kane swore softly, though he was not a profane man. He sensed that the smell betokened some hidden threat, some unseen malevolence, inhuman and deathly, and his sombre mind sprang at supernatural conclusions. However, he felt perfect confidence in his ability to cope with any fiend or demon, armoured as he was in unshakable faith of creed and the knowledge of the rightness of his cause.

Also, he is never going to stop in his quest:

He was a man born out of his time—a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the ancient philosopher, and more than a touch of the pagan, though the last assertion would have shocked him unspeakably. An atavist of the days of blind chivalry he was, a knight errant in the sombre domes of a fanatic. A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things, avenge all crimes against right and justice. Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect—he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.

How can he be so utterly unshakable in his faith? Well… that has something to do with the character of the One he has faith in:

“Oh, heaven!” she cried, clasping her small hands. “Home! Something of which to be dreamed—never attained, I fear. Oh, Captain Kane, how shall we gain through all the vast leagues of jungle which lie between this place and the coast?”

“Marylin,” said Kane gently, stroking her curly hair, “methinks you lack somewhat in faith, both in Providence and in me. Nay, alone I am a weak creature, having no strength or might in me; yet in times past hath God made me a great vessel of wrath and a sword of deliverance. And, I trust, shall do so again.

“Look you, little Marylin: in the last few hours as it were, we have seen the passing of an evil race and the fall of a foul empire. Men died by thousands about us, and the earth rose beneath our feet, hurling down towers that broke the heavens; yea, death fell about us in a red rain, yet we escaped unscathed.

“Therein is—more than the hand of man! Nay, a Power—the mightiest Power! That which guided me across the world, straight to that demon city—which led me to your chamber—which aided me to escape again and led me to the one man in all the city who would give the information I must have, the strange, evil priest of an elder race who lay dying in a subterranean cell—and which guided me to the outer wall, as I ran blindly and at random—for should I have come under the cliffs which formed the rest of the wall, we had surely perished. That same Power brought us safely out of the dying city, and safe across the rocking bridge—which shattered and sundered down into the chasm just as my feet touched solid earth!

“Think you that having led me this far, and accomplished such wonders, the Power will strike us down now? Nay! Evil flourishes and rules in the cities of men and the waste places of the world, but anon the great giant that is God rises and smites for the righteous, and they lay faith in him.

Wow!

This is of course the exact same Providence that in The Lord of the Rings saw the ring of power delivered into the hands of just the sort of hobbits that could put an end to Sauron’s bid for world domination. But note the freedom that Howard has in being as unsubtle in making the point as is conceivable!

It’s mind-blowing. It’s also the chief reason I would argue that Robert E. Howard is at least the equal to the Oxford don and one of the greatest fantasists of all time.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Solomon Kane and the Specter of Modernity

Tue, 01/01/2019 - 01:24

June 1929 saw the publication of the third Solomon Kane story, this one more of a flash fiction piece of the sort Fredric Brown would become famous for.

If you’re reading Robert E. Howard stories specifically to beef up your D&D game, this one is the sort that could be used with practically no changes at all. Everyone has a bandit of Gaston the Butcher’s sort that has gotten away from the players at one time or another. The Inn of the Cleft Skull can be placed in just about any forested area on your campaign map. All characters encountered by Solomon Kane in this story are in great need of killing, so they will fit seamlessly into any old school D&D session.

One thing stands out about the Solomon Kane stories in contrast to H. P. Lovecraft’s and even A. Merritt’s horror tales. Having an explicitly Christian hero from a wilder time, there is no need for the sort of skeptical protagonist that holds out for the shred of a chance that he’s really just seeing something that appears supernatural and which (in his mind) no doubt has a perfectly naturalistic explanation.

Like Lord Dunsany, Howard had the capacity and the desire to write stories where the specter of modernity was is not accommodated even in passing. It makes for intrinsically better storytelling— particularly when dealing with the sort of collision between fantasy and horror elements you have here.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Solomon Kane, Mad Max, and Vengeance

Mon, 12/31/2018 - 03:15

January 1929 saw the release of the second installment of Solomon Kane’s adventures.

And it is interesting to see this action hero mashup of Keanu Reeve’s John Wick and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-1000 spring up crystal clear in a time when people might suspect something that awesome couldn’t exist yet.

But what’s truly intriguing are the things this tale contains that have been gone for so long, they are almost unimaginable today.

Consider:

There above the dead man’s torn body, man fought with demon under the pale light of the rising moon, with all the advantages with the demon, save one. And that one was enough to overcome the others. For if abstract hate may bring into material substance a ghostly thing, may not courage, equally abstract, form a concrete weapon to combat that ghost? Kane fought with his arms and his feet and his hands, and he was aware at last that the ghost began to give back before him, and the fearful laughter changed to screams of baffled fury. For man’s only weapon is courage that flinches not from the gates of Hell itself, and against such not even the legions of Hell can stand.

Astonishing.

Here you get not just horror with its metaphysical aspects still intact as opposed to being reinterpreted through a materialistic or naturalistic frame… but you get a surprisingly profound take on the nature of truly transcendent courage. Platitudes that might seem patronizing coming from the pulpit of some small town church are here made viscerally real.

More surprising than that is the reactions of the town folk to Kane at the conclusion:

“Life was good to him, though he was gnarled and churlish and evil,” Kane sighed. “Mayhap God has a place for such souls where fire and sacrifice may cleanse them of their dross as fire cleans the forest of fungus things. Yet my heart is heavy within me.”

“Nay, sir,” one of the villagers spoke, “you have done but the will of God, and good alone shall come of this night’s deed.”

“Nay,” answered Kane heavily. “I know not—I know not.”

Now, this final scene here is very reminiscent of the famous ending to the 1979 Mad Max film where the title character has finally tracked down the last nomad cyclist responsible for the deaths of his best friend, his wife, and his child. It takes an entire film, but this guy finally snaps and becomes at least as brutal as the cycle gang that was terrorizing pre-apocalyptic Australia.

And we all loved that movie, right? Max was not some goody two shoes “white hat”. He was an anti-hero. He was cool. He was… well… Mad!

But now jump back to 1929. When Solomon Kane is working through almost precisely the same sort of scenario (ie, “sentencing a man to death in cold blood”)– not only does Kane have the unanimous support of all the townspeople, but when he expresses his regret about it the townspeople flat out tell him that he is doing the will of God.

That’s how much our culture changed in the span of a mere fifty years. What was almost self-evident in the twenties could only be perpetrated by a madman in the seventies.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Solomon Kane’s Pitch Perfect Debut

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 21:00

From “Red Shadows”, published in Weird Tales magazine in 1928:

The man whose long, swinging strides, unhurried yet unswerving, had carried him for many a mile since sunrise, stopped suddenly. A movement in the trees had caught his attention, and he moved silently toward the shadows, a hand resting lightly on the hilt of his long, slim rapier.

These are the first sentences describing Solomon Kane and check it out: just one brief aside about the way he walks and you catch the fact that he’s basically The Terminator. Unhurried yet unswerving. This guy has a mission and he will not be distracted from it even for a moment!

This is a note Howard will touch on yet again before the first section break:

Slowly he rose, mechanically wiping his hands upon his cloak. A dark scowl had settled on his somber brow. Yet he made no wild, reckless vow, swore no oath by saints or devils.

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

Mechanical… like a death machine robot from some dark future.

And yet it’s tempered. He can betray a strain of gentleness when speaking to a dying girl, sure. But more than that… this is someone that works for the guy that instructed his followers to “swear not at all”.

Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

The sermon on the mount is serious business– especially when there are men that need killing! Speaking of which, how do these guys stack up against words that will not pass away?

“Hell’s devils!” cursed the Wolf, hauling him upright and propping him in a chair. “Where are the rest, curse you?”

“Dead! All dead!”

“How? Satan’s curses on you, speak!” The Wolf shook the man savagely, the other bandit gazing on in wide-eyed horror.

Ugh. Now too well. Those oaths look pretty tacky now…!

Of course, Kane himself is far from perfect. But just the fact of his slipping up on something like this is going to be a bad sign:

“Le Loup, take care!” Kane exclaimed, a terrible menace in his voice, “I have never yet done a man to death by torture, but by God, sir, you tempt me!”

The tone, and more especially the unexpected oath, coming as it did from Kane, slightly sobered Le Loup; his eyes narrowed and his hand moved toward his rapier.

Who is this guy?!

We have to have this hunt range half way around the world and on into the darkest depths of Africa to find out:

“Why have you followed me like this? I do not understand.”

“Because you are a rogue whom it is my destiny to kill,” answered Kane coldly. He did not understand. All his life he had roamed about the world aiding the weak and fighting oppression, he neither knew nor questioned why. That was his obsession, his driving force of life. Cruelty and tyranny to the weak sent a red blaze of fury, fierce and lasting, through his soul. When the full flame of his hatred was wakened and loosed, there was no rest for him until his vengeance had been fulfilled to the uttermost. If he thought of it at all, he considered himself a fulfiller of God’s judgment, a vessel of wrath to be emptied upon the souls of the unrighteous. Yet in the full sense of the word Solomon Kane was not wholly a Puritan, though he thought of himself as such.

What a guy!

And yet there’s so much more here. This is not a straight ahead tale of vengeance a la John Wick. It moves from rapier and dagger action in France to the excitement of a Tarzan style jungle story, yes… but then on to the bizarre black magic, talking drums, and dark gods of a truly weird tale!

I haven’t seen any recent Solomon Kane adaptations, but I suspect there would be a strong tendency to edit out this sort of thing in contemporary handlings of this character. Kudos, however, to anyone that dares go against the tide on that! Because you know that nine times out of ten, people are going to replace the awesome with ill conceived backstory, unnecessary character arcs for the protagonist, and lame scenes that compromise the very concept of the character created by Robert E. Howard.

Fortunately, the real thing is freely available and you don’t have to settle for cheap knockoffs!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Dead Horses, Nerdly Discomfort, Swoleplaying, and Sadhu Sunder Singh

Mon, 11/26/2018 - 01:48

Over on Twitter, Yakov Merkin laments the state of cultural criticism:

You know, if all these YouTube personalities seen as much time promotion quality indie works instead of repeatedly hitting the dead horse that is SJW “creators,” we’d probably be able to make more positive cultural change. But negative videos gets more views I guess.

Grames Barnaby responds with a very generous shout-out to my work:

You need to think more like an anon. It’s not that it gets views, it’s that many of the folks in tg/vidya/or other johnny come lately “lifestyling market” bullshitters that are liberal facing are scared of what they really need to abandon to re-make the spaces to work again. Or to put it in a way that someone like @Aurini has pointed out the frame of most folks in various cultural wars, is mostly about trying to roll shit back to the 90’s because of how comfy it all feels, instead of standing on a set of principles. You want great art? You need to know how great art is made, and what it stands for, not what you liked about it because muh nostalgia.

Oddly enough, even something as innocuous as looking back to old books and games for inspiration is now something that requires a great deal of brainwashing in order to be executed “correctly” today. The once-vital online vintage rpg discussion that made my book possible is currently falling all over itself to virtue signal about how they can do that while still remaining unwaveringly committed to whatever the narrative will demand of us the day after tomorrow.

Here’s Brad J. Murray with the latest dementia in that vein:

There is a lot of resistance to addressing this because cultural problems are messy and even today not everyone is going to agree what was “worse” and what was “better”. Even “genocide is bad” seems to be up for debate in some circles. Nor even which mechanical elements in that game ore are reflective of what’s worse. But also because some of the nostalgia for that earlier time, the reason for mining that old material, might just be a desire for a whiter, maler, more heterosexual context. And the idea that that might be true is rightly uncomfortable as hell. And one thing we nerds know about discomfort: we do not want to talk about it.

But when we make a game that incorporates or emulates material from that past we risk racist, sexist, homophobic regressions. And we don’t have a good way to test for it, especially if we want to ignore it even as a possibility: if you want to ignore an error your first step is certainly to avoid testing for it. Or rather, we do have good ways to test but we do not deploy them. So let’s look up from the dungeon map and take a step and acknowledge that this is a risk. That material with a forty year old context may have side effects (and possibly direct effects) that reflect that context. And that in some if not many cases that would be a bad thing. That would be regressive.

Seek enlightenment through the strenthening of mind, body, and soul. But mostly body. #swoleplaying #brosr

That is precisely the attraction to the old books and old games. They are not just fun, they are largely free of the sort of cowardly, self-hating abasement that happens whenever people attempt to make a virtue out of cultural suicide. That stuff is craven. Disgusting. Ugly. It’s also intrinsically unmanly:

I am old and white and mail [sic]. I wish I could get glasses for my brain that correct for this.

It’s got to be tough living with that amount of self-hatred. I’d almost pity such a person if, you know, they didn’t actually hate people like me more.

It irritates me. Really, it does. And a good old fashioned fisking would be danged fun if NPC’s like that weren’t in charge of schools, universities, newspapers, and HR departments.

But Grames Barnaby is absolutely right. You’re wasting your time contending with these losers. Cheah Kit Sun has– on the fiction side– the right attitude:

The best stories I’ve read have the following characteristics: 1. Tight plot 2. Believable worldbuilding and setting 3. Well-developed characters 4. Authentic tradecraft, mindset, equipment 5. Polished language 6. Inherent sense of ethics 7. Illumination of higher truths

Point six and seven are where the battle is fought most hotly. In fact, the existence of real virtues is why the fake ones have to be pushed so vigorously– and why older works have to be either suppressed or expurgated. It’s like a religion to these people. Or an anti-religion perhaps.

Probably the most insightful statement on this impulse is by Sadhu Sunder Singh:

You will hardly find men who will not worship God or some other power. If atheistic thinkers or scientists, filled with the materialistic outlook, do not worship God, they often tend to worship great men or heroes or some ideal which they have exalted into a power. Buddha did not teach anything about God. The result was, his followers began to worship him. In China people began to worship ancestors, as they were not taught to worship God. In short, man cannot but worship, this desire has been created in him by his creator, so that led by this desire he may have communion with his creator.

See, when Christianity was removed from American culture… we didn’t end up with our old culture minus the old time religion. No, we got an army of breast-beating totalitarians, fire and brimstone zealots intent on tearing down even the remnants of anything that would remind them of who or what we were.

What can you do against that? Well you can start by not bowing the knee. But most importantly, you can be– unapologetically– the thing that they hate. And create as if they have no power over you.

If you’re having second thoughts about doing that, do yourself a favor and find a biography of Singh. It’s legitimately inspiring.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Flatliners: Contemporary Fiction in a Nutshell

Mon, 11/12/2018 - 06:17

The 1990 film Flatliners has the interesting premise of sins brought to life by near death ruined by smug smarmy-pants loser writers. What are the ultimate sins? Playground bullying and serial womanizing by attractive/popular people that will go on to become successful in life. Chad finally gets his comeuppance!

To throw in one final fedora twirling insult to this steaming pile of angsty resentment, the atheist played by Kevin Bacon is the one that has the brilliantly Christian idea of seeking out those he had sinned against in order to make things right.

Socially stunted atheist gamma males just naturally know how to Christian better than anybody else. This is simultaneously proof of their superior intellects and also a refutation of Christian “superstition”. Genius!

Such people have no concept of the besetting sins women typically face. Therefore, the Julia Roberts character’s awful AWFUL sin is… discovering her war hero father’s secret shame when she was a child– as if women don’t sin, they are merely damaged by their proximity to men.

This isn’t really art or culture or storytelling in any real sense. It’s merely a mechanism for broadcasting the exact same narrative points that academia and journalism pound away at day in and day out. It corresponds to neither reality nor human nature and thus amounts to little more than just another insipid attack on both the imagination and the soul.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Odds and Ends: Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves and More!

Sun, 11/04/2018 - 03:13

I am AWOL, but not entirely. In the wake of Google+’s passing and the mass exodus of game bloggers from that platform, several people have contacted me to ask where exactly I hang out now.

The truth is… I’m just not online all that much to begin with these days. Last year’s gym membership culminated into this year’s outdoor adventure kick… which culminated into a general habit of constantly trying things I’ve never done before… which then turned into me becoming unusually active and outgoing. It’s exhausting!

I don’t play games near as much as I used to. On the other hand, I have a game group that is even better than the high-school group I had back in the day. Odd thing to me is how quickly the games became secondary to the fun of just getting together and hanging out. But it’s still game night either way!

I still have time to get a good read in, though. Most recently I got ahold of Fenton Wood’s Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves… which pivots effortlessly between weird pulp horror, fairy stories and tall tales. Here’s my tweet-sized review:

What this book does is it takes all of the subversive, dystopian impulses of science fiction between 1940 and 1980 and it turns it all inside out. This is the kind of fiction we could have had if publishing had not been weaponized and turned toward cultural suicide.

The mysterious author of this fascinating work came out of hiding to respond:

I’ve avoided social media so far, but I had to thank you for the good word. This book came as a surprise to me too! I just wanted to write a pure adventure story with no politics.

Pretty awesome! Definitely check it out.

Meanwhile, Grames Barnaby cites both me an Jon Del Arroz “leading a decent charge to restore Christian stoic ideals in fiction.” Wah. Gotta say, it’s very gratifying to be associated with the Christian faith in even a modest way. Honestly, I never imagined that there could be an actual revival of that sort. The people that are actually bringing this stuff forward and putting it into the marketplace are the real heroes in my book.

One of those guys is definitely Jon Mollison. Dig this from his most recent novel:

Tiberan, uneasy spoke up. His words echoed those of the bandit. “Are you sure about this Primus? These men aren’t… civilized.”

“They don’t speak with two meanings, you mean?” I asked him harshly. “They don’t take their oathes lightly? They don’t hide behind paper laws and clever word tricks before slipping a knife into a man’s back?” I snorted. “If that’s what it means to lack civility, I’ll take barbarism.”

Perfect!

But not everyone in the pulp scene is hitting the mark like that. Broadswords and Blasters makes clear how they don’t really want a revival that goes all the way with this stuff:

“Much of old-school pulp is unfortunately EMBLEMATIC of limited cultural ideals that we have no interest in propagating. As such, we encourage DIVERSE characters and welcome stories that SUBVERT the standard pulp formula.”

Here’s my take on the correct “Regress Harder” approach to bringing an authentic pulp ethos back to the table:

“Much of old-school pulp is EMBLEMATIC of superior cultural ideals that infuse the West’s most inspiring tales of myth and wonder. As such, we encourage truly HEROIC characters and welcome stories that SUBVERT today’s dreary literary establishment.”

Zing!

Anyway, I threw this post together to let y’all know that with the passing of Google+ I am now on Twitter here. I’m also on MeWe as “Jeffro Johnson” due to my mates heading over there, but I’m pretty lousy at using it just yet.

Look me up if you’re over that way!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs