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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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."

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

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....

...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'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....

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.

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