Wings In The Night
In the summer of 1932, the magazine Weird Tales published a story titled “Wings in The Night” by Robert E. Howard. The story revolved around a Puritan adventurer by the name of Solomon Kane. In the end, Howard wrote about a half dozen Kane stories and at least one poem that I have seen.
I did not stumble across Howard’s writings about Solomon Kane until after his Conan stories came out in the late 1960s paperback edition by Lancer Books. Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp had filled in the gaps in Conan’s life with stories of their own in that edition. The covers were illustrated with the paintings of Frank Frazetta. The reality of High School was not someplace I wanted to be, so decamping into the Hyperborian age and adventure without too much risk to my physical wellbeing was high on my list of to dos. I imagine that the Depression had the same effect on a lot of people at the time that this story was released. Weird Tales was probably a welcome escape.
Solomon Kane did not come into my life until after a BA in English Literature. When I read the Conan stories, I did not realize that they were not all Howard stories. I just poured them into my brain with no discrimination at all. Real adventure had come and gone, and good riddance. As Bilbo would say, nasty uncomfortable things, make you late for dinner. But pretend adventures are always welcome especially if they are well written and can make you take that pill of the willing suspension of disbelief. Real adventures are kind of dangerous and sometimes the treasures are not worth it.
The brave adventurer Solomon Kane, an Elizabethan character created by a Texan, wanders East from the Slave Coast of Africa because the darkness of Africa has whispered into his soul. He wanders into a village that is being tortured by mythological creatures from the time of Jason and the Argonauts and the villagers are willing to let him be their god if he will protect them. It does not go well for the villagers. Kane goes mad and all the mythological creatures become history once again.
As an English Literature student that has made it through to the years 2021, having had my adventures with life and looking forward to treasure hunting once again with enough sense to avoid adventures that can get me killed, I get to dissect the reality that the world surrounds me with as if it was a piece of literature, and now that I am retired, the jobs I decide to do can be put together and completed with the same critical process. The gods know that my teachers and job supervisors tortured me enough during school and my day jobs trying to make me to do the job I was supposed to do without thinking about it too much about it.
We have not quite made it through Donald J. Trump in America, but the problems that sit in the heart of America’s soul have been fanned to a white hot glow. We still do not understand that all people are created equal and that we are working for the common good. We have gone through the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror. We have made it through WWI, WWII, the Korean War. We have made it through the Vietnam War (called a police action to avoid that title of War for many years), Falklands War, Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom also known as the War on Terror and the War in Afghanistan, which is still going on, and the Iraq War. Lord knows where the rest of the protections of US interests are.
I feel that out of all this the Christian Clerics in America have taken a page out of the Taliban’s book. They have become the enemy that they were fighting. The word war somehow morphed into a term about any kind of struggle in politics or a philosophical/religious discourse system. I would suggest we start thinking in terms of the term “struggle”. The struggle between good and evil, the struggle against poverty, the struggle against drugs, and the struggle against terror. The word struggle would not be as effective of a recruiting term, but it could be prolonged as a political argument forever because struggles never end whereas wars must end for political survival. Maybe there are not enough donations and taxes to be gained from struggles.
This is one of the interesting things about Howard’s characters. They are strugglers even if they take up civilization’s occupation of war. They are adventurers on the boarders between civilization and what is outside of it. They meet things that are beyond the knowledge of humanity, things beyond reason, yet they are products of their time just as much as the narrative voice in the story is a product of its time. Howard was a product of his racial belief system. It was a belief system than had never evolved much since the American Civil War. The all men are created equal goal was not going anywhere very quickly. Solomon Kane’s view of race was not much different than Robert E. Howard’s. They both accepted that ethnicity was a manifestation of evolution towards something better. In America today, we still do not grasp in a general way that evolution is simply change not in any way a matter of plus or minus. It is just a process that God (She, He, It, or They) uses to make things happen, and S.H.I. or They is an unknowable thing. I am leaning toward agnosticism at this moment.
There is a lot of this social Darwinism in Howard’s writings, things I did not even recognize when I was younger, things I did not have the experience to address on a personal level. I am trying to hope that the United States of America has matured enough to face these issues. The rise of Trump was a bad setback, but it is an ill wind that does not blow somebody some good. It was a real slap in the face of our complacency in the struggle of good over evil. It was even a slap in the face of enlightened self-interest. We have lots of work to do before the aliens let us out of the solar system.
Solomon Kane is not a bad man. He hates slavery and slavers. But it is not his Puritan leanings that keep him alive in this story. It is not some all-powerful God and reason that gets him to this anti-slavery stance. It comes from some place much darker. It comes from deep in the subconscious of his soul. He has been the captive of slavers and has the marks of the whips on his back. He has been in the inquisitional dungeons of Europe’s witch hunts. His hate of slavery is not reasoned, it is personal. His loathing of the forces outside of man and God are from personal experience. It is not reason and God that keep him alive; it is the struggle and madness deep in the nature of things that does. It is the little gods.
In the first line of the story, he is seen leaning on the magickal staff that his blood brother, a fetish man from the coast has given him. His musket was smashed fighting vampires in an earlier story. He has been saved my this magick a few times through Howard’s tales. In this tale, it does not. God with a capital G does not save him. It is insanity and whatever the gods with a smaller case g are. There is a whole chapter titled “The Madness of Solomon”.
“It was madness that saved him . . . god gave him a brain.”
God, in Kane’s mind, may have walked him through alive, but in the reality of the story it was god, with a small g that did. Solomon may not have believed that in his conscious thoughts, but the narrative voice seems to.
“The enraged Puritan charged forward seeking new victims, he was their god and he had failed them.”
“And was he not a symbol of Man (capital) staggering among the tooth marked bones and severed grinning heads of humans, brandishing a futile axe and screaming incoherent hate at the grisly winged shapes in the Night (capital) that make him their pray, chuckling in demonic triumph and dripping into his eyes the pitiful blood of their human victims.”
This is very much an image that could have come from Elizabethan thought, Shakespeare’s “flies to wanton boys, they kill us for their sport.” But it is filtered through a 1930s Texan mind who is wrapped up in the struggle of the Great Depression. There are lots of wings in the night that echo through Howard’s writings without a lot of God, with a capital G, as a reasoned architect of creation. For his Conan character the struggle is the center of his existence. Conan has a wine and women habit that is lacking in Solomon Kane. I wonder if Howard’s Conan character is not just a future version of Kane or what he viewed Kane as if he was born in a different age? We never do see Kane grow old through Howard’s stories.
Reading Robert E. Howard, with all the story’s flaws gave me two things that never went away in life. The desire to write pulp fiction and the desire to find adventure and treasure. The last two go hand in hand making them one thing in my fantasies. They teach a person to struggle because they both draw you to look over the edge of what civilization controls. Within the confines of what is known by society, most of the adventure and treasure has been eaten up by humanity. When that happens, humanity turns on each other trying to get their excitement.
His writing career was short, like his life. There is something very Richard Cory about my admiration of Robert. E. Howard’s short life and his getting to write so much published material. I wonder how many people went out looking for the weird because of his stories. I was a victim of circumstances in my early adventures, but those circumstances were pushed further than if I had not read Howard’s stories. I would not have gone looking deeper into the void if it were not for reading other people’s stories that were inspired by Howard.
Weird tales are good. They help us struggle and imagine, and like Solomon Kane, madness can help fend off the wings in the night. As Kane did in this story, we can silently recant our blasphemy when the madness ends, and we can turn to face the East again on our journey. Howard, as a Westerner used the East road to adventure in an Orient sense of the word. It a mystical place filled with the fantastic. Howard was born and raised in the American Literature West of what lies beyond civilization. East was where you go to get to the weird.
The wings in the night make great adversaries in stories of the East. The wings seem to carry devilry with them. When you are born in the West, it is the wings in the day that you struggle with in your day job all the time, so much so that they are just boring, dangerously tedious. Us average day laborers are mentally numb by the time the wings at night flutter. Night wings are the stuff of fantasy and dreams to our day job. We are mostly just trying to make it to the weekend and payday. Then our adventures could happen. That is how we wind up with the quiet desperation of our lives.
Pulp fiction, escapist literature, the movies, they keep us going in that desperation. If all of us taxi drivers, dish washers, janitors, and sanitation engineers went off to the gold fields the landed gentry would starve. Writers like Howard might have kept civilization from falling apart by helping the people in the trenches of existence to keep their heads down.