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Saturday in the Castle of the Devil

It’s very nerdy, I will admit that up front. But nevertheless, this is the sort of thing that never fails to tickle me.

*

Some background first.

Like most fans of my generation, I came to Robert E, Howard’s pulp fantasies through Marvel Comics. In particular, Savage Sword of Conan soon led me to the various Howard paperbacks.

You never really forget your first. My favorite of the then-current collections.

My first encounter with Howard’s Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane was the backup in Savage Sword #14, “The Silver Beast Beyond Torkertown.”

Nice story, but not much of a Kane intro.

It was a nice enough little story, but… as an introduction to Solomon Kane, it wasn’t all that great. I was much more impressed with Mike Zeck’s art than I was the story or the character. Certainly there was no indication that of all Robert E. Howard’s heroes, Solomon Kane would become my favorite. He was just some guy that encountered a werewolf.

No, the comic that caused me to fall swooningly in love with Kane came a little later, the two-part adaptation of Howard’s “Red Shadows” from Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin that appeared in Marvel Premiere.

This was AWESOME. I had fallen in love with Chaykin's art the previous issue, with MONARK STARSTALKER.

Now, judging from letters and comments from that era and since, I’m pretty sure that I’m one of the few people at the time that wasn’t horrified by Chaykin’s visualization of Solomon Kane. Most everyone that had depicted the Puritan adventurer up until then had drawn Kane as sort of a cross between Miles Standish and the Shadow.

I actually really like this Mike Grell sketch but you can see what I mean.John Buscema almost makes the Pilgrim thing work.

But Chaykin took a completely different approach. He went WAY off the reservation.

Most folks hated this version. Not me.

I didn’t care so much about the costume, though truthfully I was glad to see the Pilgrim look gone. What I liked was the hair and the face. Remember, I was a Batman guy, and this Kane reminded me very much of Batman. Moreover, so did the events of the story.

BADASS!

“Men shall die for this.” That flash of Batman-esque teeth-gritting toughness still makes me smile today, thirty-five years later. It was a great moment and Thomas and Chaykin really sold it.

Certainly, they sold it to me, who had no preconceptions about Kane and had never read any of the Howard stories about him. Up until that point I only had seen Moench and Zeck’s long-faced Pilgrim guy, and nothing about that story had suggested the 16th-century cool that I saw here. I was instantly in love with the story and the character and decided I couldn’t wait two months for the conclusion of “Red Shadows” to appear in Marvel Premiere. I hustled out to the bookstore to track down the Howard originals.

What I ended up with was this.

There are better Kane collections out there, but I'm sentimental about this one. Look at that cover.

Solomon Kane, a collection from Centaur Press. Great cover by Jeff Jones — it’s still a favorite of mine today — and terrific interior illustrations by David Wenzel. It wasn’t the complete Solomon Kane, but there was a lot of good stuff in it, and the book cemented Kane’s position as my favorite Howard creation. By the time the book was done I was a diehard Kane fan. “Red Shadows,” “Rattle of Bones,” “Blades of the Brotherhood,” “Right Hand of Doom,” the two Kane poems… and also a little fragment called “Castle of the Devil.”

It’s with that fragment that our story really begins today. Preceding was preamble.

*

Those of you out there who are familiar with actual Robert E. Howard prose fiction are almost certainly also aware that his work, the Conan stuff in particular, has been picked over, re-edited, added to, pastiched, and otherwise messed with for over half a century, to the point where the novelty is to simply present the work uncut and unedited.

Truthfully? I never minded this. I could always tell the real stuff from the fake, and I was coming from 1970s comics anyway, where having someone else come in and bat cleanup on your creative endeavors was routine. A guy like me, who grew up on stuff like Bob Haney superhero comics and Star Trek novels, gets used to doing that unconscious mental indexing of what ‘counts’ and what doesn’t.

But “Castle of the Devil” was the first time I’d actually seen one of these legendary Howard fragments, a start with no finish. It begins with Solomon Kane encountering a man named John Silent in the Black Forest. They chitchat a little — Silent’s on his way to Genoa to sign on as a sailor in the fight against the Turks, and Kane’s just wandering the Earth doing good deeds. He gives this example:

“…I find little here but starving peasants, cruel lords and lawless men. Yet ’tis like that I have done somewhat of good, for only a few hours agone I came upon a wretch who hung upon a gallows and cut him down ere his breath had passed from him.”

John Silent nearly fell out of his saddle. “What! You cut down a man from Baron Von Staler’s gibbet? Name of the Devil, you will have both our necks in a noose!”

“You should not curse so hotly,” Solomon reproved mildly. “I know not this Baron von Staler, but methinks he has hanged a man unjustly. The victim was only a boy and he had a good face.”

They argue a little more, and as they ride on they reach the road that leads to the Baron’s castle. Kane suggests they check it out.

“You mean go up to the castle?” cried Silent, staring.

“Aye, sir. The Baron will scarce refuse two wayfarers who seek lodging. More, we can ascertain what sort of man he is. I would like to see this lord who hangs children.”

“And if you like him not?” asked Silent sarcastically.

Kane sighed. “It has fallen upon me, now and again in my sojourn through the world, to ease various evil men of their lives. I have a feeling it will prove thus with the Baron.”

“Name of two devils!” swore Silent in amazement. “You speak as if you were a judge on a bench and Baron Von Staler bound helpless before you, instead of being as it is — you but one blade and the Baron surrounded by lusty men-at-arms.”

“The right is on my side,” said Kane somberly. “And right is mightier than a thousand men-at-arms. But why all this talk? I have not yet seen the Baron, and who am I to pass judgment unseen. Mayhap the Baron is a righteous man.”

Silent shook his head in wonder. “You are either an inspired maniac, a fool, or the most courageous man in the world!” He laughed suddenly. “Lead on! ‘Tis a wild venture that is likely to end in death, but its insanity appeals to me and no man can say that John Silent fails to follow where another man leads!”

“Your speech is wild and Godless,” said Kane. “But I begin to like you.”

…and that’s it. The fragment ends there. There is no outline, no clue about where Howard was going to take any of these plot threads. All you have are the words on the page.

You can see how tempting it is to speculate. What was Howard actually going to do? Where was the story headed from this point? Was it going to be a 16th-century buddy movie? Was Silent going to be a hero or a villain? Why was the Baron hanging teenage boys with good faces anyway? Was there a twist? Was it maybe important and necessary for the kid to get hanged?

And so on. I first read that fragment at the age of fifteen and I never forgot it. Every so often, I used to amuse myself thinking of ways to finish it.

Years later, when I was in my thirties and slowly rebuilding my library (after selling most of it off in the early eighties, to finance a series of extraordinarily bad life choices with which I will not bore you) I happened across this paperback collection. Solomon Kane.

I like this book a lot.

The cover painting by C.W. Kelly pleased me since it looked rather like the Chaykin version of Kane I’d loved so much, but really all I needed to see were the words “First Complete Edition.” I’d never actually read all the Solomon Kane stories, and here they were in one convenient place. Moreover, Ramsey Campbell had taken a shot at finishing three of Howard’s Solomon Kane story fragments for inclusion in this collection, including “Castle of the Devil.”

Some Howard fans are hugely irritated by this practice, but as I explained above, I didn’t mind it. Somewhere inside me was an eager fifteen-year-old blurting out, Woohoo! Finally! So what happened?

Campbell did a good job, in my opinion. He went with more of a horror-story tone than a swashbuckling one, but it still feels like a Howard story and there’s plenty of action. In Campbell’s version, the two companions arrive at the Baron’s Castle where they discover that the Baron was blinded years before in a hunting accident. Over a weird and uncomfortable dinner with the Baron, Kane and Silent grow to suspect the Baron is holding a woman prisoner in the Castle, and they decide to set her free. The Baron, meanwhile, is revealed to be completely insane. After dinner, while Kane and Silent are making their plans, the Baron recaptures the boy from the gibbet. He drags Kane and Silent down from their rooms and proceeds to hang the kid again, making sure Kane is powerless to prevent it. The idea is to show Kane not to mess with the Baron’s law, but instead this gambit just pisses Kane off. A lot of fighting and swordplay ensues during which the Baron hits his head, miraculously restoring his sight. He rushes upstairs to the room where he keeps the woman… and…

I won’t spoil it, but what the Baron finds is very nasty. Kane and Silent get out safely and go on their way.

My feeling reading the story was mostly, Well, okay then. That settles that. Not really Howard, but Campbell did it better than de Camp did that sort of thing with Conan, and it’s kind of nice to ‘know what happened,’ sort of. It felt like the itch had been scratched.

What I wasn’t aware of was that someone else had already tried to answer the same question about the Castle of the Devil, in comics.

*

Just six months or so after I first read Howard’s “Castle of the Devil” in 1977, Don Glut and Paul Kupperberg made a run at devising their own ending in Savage Sword of Conan #19.

Their version is interesting too. I think I prefer Campbell’s, but that’s not to say that what Glut and Kupperberg did was bad. They made one change — it’s not a boy Kane cut down off the gallows, but a girl. (I guess that makes the Baron’s evil a little more heinous.) And Glut apparently decided that the cover story should be a little more than just two wayfarers cadging a meal, so he has Kane and Silent try to enlist in Von Staler’s crew. But otherwise we have essentially the same start.

This one was okay. I think if I'd seen it at the time I'd have been a little disappointed though.

However, Glut writes a finish where the title of the story is a little more literal. In this version, it turns out Von Staler really has been dealing with the Devil.

Dance with the Devil, you get the hooves.

Baron Von Staler had been engaged in Satanic rites of a vile and terrible nature, and now was desperate to get his lower half less goaty and more human. To this end, he needed to sacrifice a virgin girl. His first recruit turned out to be not too virginal, so he hanged her and sent his posse out to find another. Kane and Silent stumble upon the sacrifice just in time to rescue the girl and there is much mayhem.

Boy, I hate when that happens.

The Baron is defeated and Kane and Silent go on their way.

This one, if you are curious, is reprinted in the new collection from Dark Horse, The Saga of Solomon Kane.

I heart this book so much.

As I said, I don’t think it beats Campbell’s, but it’s not bad. Most of my problem with it’s the art, which is a bit pedestrian. Paul Kupperberg inked by Sonny Trinidad is not a match made in heaven, and I think it would have worked better if either had been replaced by someone else… the two styles clash badly.

But anyway, I’d wanted to see how it turned out and now I have two choices. That’s kind of cool.

No, wait, as of just this last year I now have three. And the new one’s really the pick of the lot.

This is definitely the best one.

Dark Horse’s 2009 Solomon Kane mini-series, Castle of the Devil from Scott Allie and Mario Guevara, is easily the best finish yet. Of course, they took more time with theirs and had more room to expand — Campbell and Glut each took less than twenty pages to finish their takes on “Castle of the Devil,” whereas Allie and Guevara took six issues to give us their take on Solomon Kane and John Silent’s fateful meeting with the Baron.

Allie and Guevara’s is a little expanded in the beginning, as well. They insert a brief action scene with Solomon Kane taking out a couple of German bandits in the Black Forest, before he meets John Silent. This works as a brief intro to Kane, demonstrating his swordsmanship as well as his devotion to justice.

Just in case anyone wondered -- Kane is HARDCORE.

But otherwise we’re more or less opening with the same scene.

I'm still not crazy about the Pilgrim look, but damn that's gorgeous.

Even so, I still think Scott Allie had the most interesting solution overall to the questions we were left with after reading the original fragment. And I can’t emphasize enough how much this story is lifted up by the artwork. Mario Guevara’s just amazing.

To take just one example, it’s worth noting how much better-paced Guevara’s depiction of the fragmentary Howard material is here than it was in the old Savage Sword book. Even though the new Castle of the Devil goes on a lot longer, the comics version of the genuine Robert E. Howard pages runs about the same length as it did from Glut, Kupperberg and Trinidad way back when… but this new take on it is superior in every way, simply in its layout and in the way Guevara depicts the characters. Even the last actual Howard sentence, where Kane says, “But I begin to like you,” comes off about a hundred times better in the new than the old.

This is such a cool moment.

I know. I’m geeking. But this sort of thing fascinates me, the process of doing an adaptation from one medium to another. What do you leave in? What do you take out?

Scott Allie and Mario Guevara certainly acquit themselves well here. Their solution of how to finish the story is remarkably inventive, and I won’t spoil any of it here but instead simply suggest you go get this book right now. Even the most hardcore Kane fans would approve, I think. Though I don’t know that it feels quite as Howard-esque as, say, Ramsey Campbell’s did (I don’t think Robert E. Howard ever would have written a scene where the reader would feel any ambivalence about Kane or his mission, and certainly not one where Kane gets bawled out by a fellow good guy and tacitly concedes the point afterward.) I nevertheless loved this book from start to finish. I even got over my decades-long distaste for the Kane-as-scary-Thanksgiving-Pilgrim look just because Guevara’s art is so damn gorgeous.

This was cool too.

As an added bonus, in the trade paperback collection you also get some lovely gallery and sketch pages, and also the little preview Kane story that Allie and Guevara did as well.

It’s a good time to be a Solomon Kane fan.

For one thing, Scott Allie and Mario Guevara are following up their previous success with a new Kane effort, “Death’s Black Riders.”

Haven't actually gotten to this yet, I'm waiting for the trade. Sure looks good though. I love what this Guevara kid is doing.

This also finishes out another Howard Solomon Kane story fragment, which oddly enough also was done in the old Savage Sword magazine from Marvel.

Not the finest hour... ...for Kane, Conan, or Roy Thomas himself, to be honest.

In that version, “Death’s Dark Riders,” Roy Thomas was really getting his geek on by finishing it out as a two-part time-travel story where Kane teams up with Conan the barbarian…. not the finest hour for anyone involved. It’s reprinted in the Dark Horse Saga of Solomon Kane collection as well, but I have faith the new version from Allie and Guevara will be a lot better. The first couple of issues are on stands now as you read this, I think.

There’s also a Kane movie in the works. I’m skeptical of how it’s going to turn out, though I admit the trailer looks kind of cool.

But honestly I’m more interested in seeing the novelization, since it was done by none other than….

Looking forward to this more than the movie, honestly.

…Ramsey Campbell. Let’s hope he brings all the passion and expertise to it that he did with his previous Solomon Kane efforts. I think I’m more interested in seeing this book than the movie it adapts.

Of course, if you are a Howard purist, you can always go back to the originals. Available once again in this really nice edition, The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane.

I love the illustrations in this one.

I’m enough of a geek to enjoy the sneaky “Savage Tales” reference, intentional or not, and anyway the Gary Gianni illustrations are breathtaking. They’re reason enough to buy the book, though it’s nice to have the original stories presented in their pristine, un-messed-with condition as well.

And in the mail a couple of days ago, I received this volume….

I've never actually read the Ralph Macchio stuff that comprises most of this book.

The Chronicles of Solomon Kane, reprinting, among other things, the two-part Thomas and Chaykin adaptation of “Red Shadows” that started the rock rolling down the hill for me, all those years ago. So I think I’ll be settling in with that, this afternoon; this collection also reprints the 1980s miniseries by Ralph Macchio and various others that I managed to miss the first time around.

So apparently there’s two different versions of “Red Shadows” here, too. It’ll be interesting to see the differences… because, as I explained, I’m a big nerd and I’m fascinated by process stuff like that.

See you next week.

15 Comments

Great column! I’m a Solomon-nerd as well and have been enjoying this recent boom.

Louis Bright-Raven

January 23, 2010 at 10:46 pm

One of the managers at my LCS commissioned me to do a Donald Duck as Solomon Kane sketch roughly two years ago:

http://bright-raven.deviantart.com/art/Solomon-Duck-Commission-77416320

Wow, I’m so out of touch I didn’t even know there was a book with finished versions of Howard’s unfinished Kane fragments. *sigh* Now I have to go and look for yet another book…
As to your point about dieharard Howard fans, although I understand now why purists might be put off by all of the editing and expanding of Howard’s worlds of Conan, Kull and Kane, I think it’s also true that the comic licensing of these characters in the 1970s gave them a new lease on life and made them more popular than they ever would have been otherwise. How many of us comic fans back in the 70s (& later) would have bothered looking for the books if not for “Conan the Barbarian,” “Savage Sword,” etc.?

For the edits and expansions of REH’s work have always been problematic, and I didn’t realize why until I read the unabridged stuff that has been published over the past 10 years. Expanding a story is one thing, but I had problems with editing to make the story’s less objectionable to modern sensibilities. REH used quite a few racist tropes in his writing…that’s a fact of life that most people capitalizing on his legacy would rather that you didn’t think about. But in spite of the cringe-worthiness of that, he writing tends to get neutered when washed through a modern editing cycle.

I’ll also say that the paperback line from which ‘Savage Tales of Solomon Kane’ comes from…has been lovely at reminding me of the depth of REH’s writing. They have two ‘Best of…” and a “Horror Stories of…” which show off how many more characters and worlds beyond Conan, Kane, and Kull that REH used. Each are really fun reads.

Really interesting column. One of my favorite Raymond Chandler stories is Poodle Springs, even thought it was finished by someone else after his death, and to be honest you can pretty much tell. There’s just something magical about these ‘unfinished’ works.

They have two ‘Best of…” and a “Horror Stories of…” which show off how many more characters and worlds beyond Conan, Kane, and Kull that REH used. Each are really fun reads.

Oh, absolutely. I always had a soft spot for the Oriental adventure stuff — Sowers of the Thunder, etc. And Breckinridge Elkins as well — A Gent From Bear Creek is fall-down funny.

As for the finished-by-other-hands thing… I can certainly see the point of those people who just want their Howard — or Conan Doyle, or Chandler, or whoever — left alone. I have always been able to tell where the real stuff stops and the fake picks up, too. But in my head, I’m putting the ‘real’ stuff over here, off to one side, and then over there are all the pastiches and so on.

It’s a trick you learn reading comics and shared-universe stories, I think. Any Trekkie or Batman fan could easily rattle off the list of stories that are ‘canonical’ and the ones that aren’t; hell, even as a kid, I knew that Bob Haney’s World’s Finest was not really part of Superman and Batman’s history.

The catch is, another trick you learn reading that stuff is thinking in terms of continuity, treating the stories as news dispatches from an alternate universe. (The Baker Street Irregulars started this, I think, but it was Stan Lee and Roy Thomas that really made it a sales point back in the Silver Age.) So the unfinished things become really maddening, not because you’re greedy for another story but because you want to know what happened. In fact, Peter David once mentioned that when he was writing Imzadi that was what drove the engine: finally getting to tell the story to all those people wanting to know what had originally happened with Riker and Troi, and that was the great lure of writing this shared-universe stuff.

It sounds a little nutty when you write it out like that, but there it is. As long as there are genuine, uncut editions out there for those who don’t want to play along, it’s a harmless enough hobby.

I know almost nothing about Solomon Kane- I never liked Conan or Kull much, so I figured Kane was the same stuff except set on Puritanical times. In fact the only thing I knew about Kane was that he killed Marvel’s Dracula (temporarily anyway) which considering how powerful that version is, is quite a feat. But I never felt compelled to read more about him. Until now; I must admit your coverage of the character is intriguing- besides, when you stop to think about it, Puritanism on an Howardesque hero is a contradiction that, if explored well, could be interesting. (For the record, no, not every Puritan was a witch-burning fanatic.)

Interesting points about finishing somebody else’s pieces… wonder why Howard never finished Castle of the Devil? Did he intend for the reader to finish it in his or her mind? Ran out of interest, ideas, or money? Or was just interrupted by Life and never got back to it? In any case, as you said, I have no trouble with later writers continuing another’s work- as long as a) the original version remains available and b) the extensions make it clear they are not the original.

And now you’ve got me curious as to what the last Castle of the Devil interpretation is… I’m going to have to Google for it. Curse ye, hatcher! ; )

I picked up “The Saga of….” just before Christmas and I’ve enjoyed the first quarter or so I’ve gotten to. Just wondering if “Chronicles” has any overlapping stories?

Great column, Greg. Every time I take the time to plow through one of your epics, I think that I need to make a point to read your stuff weekly. And then I forget, because I’m an easily distracted nerd.

In addition to them being well-written, I love your posts because they expose me to avenues of fandom I haven’t gone down. I’m a mid-range Conan fan – handful of old Marvels, one or two prose stories, the movies (and adaptations), the Busiek-Nord relaunch – but I’ve never explored the other Howard heroes. I’m definitely adding the Allie-Guevara trade to my wish list, and we’ll see where it goes from there.

Thanks!

I think that trailer looks pretty f’n sweet, btw. James Purefoy is in my Thomas Jane club of bad-asses in need of a franchise, so I’ll be seeing it asap.

Odd: On the one hand, they hire Mignola to do a cover for Castle of the Dead, though he didn’t work on the inside. One the other hand, that “Chronicles of Solomon Kane” trade does have a beautifully drawn Mignola story in it (inked by Al Williamson!) and they don’t even advertise that on the cover.

Just wondering if “Chronicles” has any overlapping stories?

“Blades of the Brotherhood,” “Hills of the Dead,” and “Wings In The Night” are redone along with “Red Shadows.” The Ralph Macchio mini-series was six issues in the 1980s and it was those four, plus two originals.

“Solomon Kane’s Homecoming” is illustrated again too.

Saga is really the better deal of the two collections, and probably sufficient for the casual reader. I mostly wanted the color stuff in Chronicles because I’d never seen the Macchio mini-series and I liked the idea of having my beloved Chaykin version of “Red Shadows” in a nice trade collection. But I’m thinking it’s strictly for completists.

Every once in a while it would be great to here from a reader of the original works who then sought out the adaptations. This almost never happens which is pretty telling of our culture and it’s lack of regard for reading prose.
I am heartened that comic readers sought out the prose after the fact.
As for the adaptations of fragments, it’s not my favorite example of creativity especially with the author long dead. It’s easy to second guess a writer’s intentions, especially when whatever the finishing author has wrought can not be called into accounting by the guy who set up the premise. Dead men not only tell no tales, they also aren’t likely to complain about the treatment of their ideas. Fans are not the most unbiased of observers even as they often rely on the consumer mindset, buying anything remotely attributed to the focus of that fandom.
With that in mind, they’ll always be divided by the expertise they believe they have by virtue of being “die hard fans”.
And woe be to any “purists” who call fowl for messing with that fragment at all. Fans will have their product, quality of work and professional ethics be hanged. Entertainment will not be held to standards we all otherwise expect as long as no family member is around to sue anyone over mistreatment of their deceased artist’s work.

I totally agree with you Greg about separating the ‘real’ versions from the follow-ups/ stuff by other authors/ whatevers. This is all fiction any, so none of it is ‘real’ anyway, just more good (or sometimes awful) stories or characters you love to enjoy.

Also, on a slightly related note, as someone who has only just recently seen the Arnie Conan film, only has vague memories of the late 80s cartoon and has had no other experience with any books/ omics/ whatever, where to start getting into Conan (and Howard’s other stuff)? I’m not normally into fantasy like that but I thought the film was a blast (I know its not supposed to be very faithful, but I’m a big Arnie fan)

You are not alone.

The Chaykin version was my intro to the character as well, and I read and reread those two issues of Marvel Premiere as a teen in the 70s. Of course, I was already a big fan of Howard’s style via his Swords of Sorcery, Ironwolf, Scorpion, and a Batman story in Detective so I was fully on board with that. Not long after, I found a paperback reprint of REH’s Kane stories, and devoured that too, along with the knowledge of how SK was “supposed” to look. The Miles Standish meets Lamont Cranston look is fine, but I still admire just how audacious Chaykin’s redesign was, and that “Men shall die for this” panel absolutely kicks ass, 30+ years later.

I like Gary Gianni’s take a lot; while the new Dark Horse releases are very well written, I’m less sold on Guevara’s early-Image inspired “Conan the Puritan” renderings.

My introduction to Solomon Kane was also via Marvel, but it was those three issues of Kull and the Barbarians.

That was easily 30 years ago but I still have them.

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