by Ramsey Campbell
Published by Titan Books, 2010.
By rights this book should be rubbish, let’s look at the evidence. Firstly, Hollywood has not been kind to the legacy left by Robert E. Howard, the Conan films were camped up travesties and Red Sonja was just a travesty. Hollywood seems to take out all the interesting bits of Howard’s writing before focusing in on the most basic (muscly adventure). Second it’s a novelisation, now to me that’s like someone writing a description of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Oh yes, they might be yellow flowers in a vase but that hardly conveys the power of the artists intentions now does it. But…and there are two big buts, this is Ramsey Campbell, Britain’s greatest living horror writer and secondly it features Howard’s most interesting character.
Solomon Kane is a 17th Century Puritan. He fears his soul is owned by the devil because of previous misdemeanours so vows “never to harm another man”, but a chance encounter with a group of travellers changes everything. Not only is Kane forced to revise his moral code but his past indiscretions come back to haunt him with a vengeance.
Now as plots go it’s not much and certainly bears little resemblance to the exotic and esoteric strands that ran through Howard’s short stories but it’s a fun adventure and for the casual viewer goes some way to explaining this complex character. You will probably see the ending coming about twenty pages in but just hang on and enjoy the ride and it’s fine.
What really makes this work though is Kane’s character and most importantly the way this is portrayed by Ramsey Campbell. The Christ like journey Kane undertakes tests the limits of, not just his physical strength but also his faith. This is a man seemingly condemned by God who is forced to try to redeem himself by carrying out Gods work. This duality between religion and violence was always the most fascinating thing about Kane and it is dealt with well here.
Ramsey Campbell manages to take the basic screenplay but weaves in his own subtle dark magic so that the novel sparkles with an undercurrent of deeper, darker things. It’s nothing like his normal fairly dense prose and rightly so. Whilst his normal writing requires concentration and rewards the reader with unbeatable levels of unease, this is an adventure first and foremost and demands the direct style it is given. Credit also should be given that both book and movie have avoided Howard’s annoying habit of portraying Kane’s voice in authentic 17th C Devonian, something which always comes across like a biblical pirate to me.
So it shouldn’t work but it does, don’t get me wrong it’s hardly going to trouble the Booker judges but that’s not what it sets out to do. It’s great to see Robert E. Howard’s legacy given a bit more attention and hopefully it will open up the “sombre and gloomy world” of Kane to a new audience. If you want to try out some of the original stories then my advice would be to get hold of a copy of The Right Hand Of Doom from the fine people at Wordsworth editions here. Expect more (and even better) Ramsey Campbell here soon with a review of the forthcoming Leisure Fiction version of Creatures Of The Pool.
Rating 3.5 out of 5