"There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with
power to endanger the public liberty." - - - - John Adams

Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Wings in the Night" by Robert E. Howard

Robert E. Howard
1906 – 1936

Here is something a little different for a holiday weekend.

I just hated studying most of the so-called 'Great Literature" in school.  My teachers lectured me that I must study authors like Hemingway, Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Well screw that!  These guys were and are fucking boring

Sorry, but I could not have cared less if Tom Joad ever made it to fucking California or if that old man out in the sea ever caught another fucking fish for the rest of his life.

To me great literature was turn of the 19th - 20th century action, sci-fi authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. P. Lovecraft, Talbot Mundy, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

But for some strange reason my snob teachers did not consider these authors worthy of their attention and looked down on me for even speaking of their existence.

In any case, my favorite author then and now is the very late, but still very great, Robert E. Howard.

Howard is best known to the general public as the author of the Conan stories.  But his published works covered a wide number of genres such as westerns, boxing, sci-fi, poetry, horror and historical fiction.

For those who might like to explore Howard's work, here is one of his best, the short story - "Wings in the Night".  The story features the 16th century Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane hiking through the wilds of Africa and meeting bloodthirsty supernatural horrors along the way.


Wings in the Night
By Robert E. Howard
Published 1932

Chapter I.  The Horror on the Stake

Solomon Kane leaned on his strangely carved staff and gazed in
scowling perplexity at the mystery which spread silently before him.
Many a deserted village Kane had seen in the months that had passed
since he turned his face east from the Slave Coast and lost himself in
the mazes of jungle and river, but never one like this.

It was not famine that had driven away the inhabitants, for yonder the
wild rice still grew rank and unkempt in the untilled fields. There
were no Arab slave-raiders in this nameless land--it must have been a
tribal war that devastated the village, Kane decided, as he gazed
sombrely at the scattered bones and grinning skulls that littered the
space among the rank weeds and grasses. These bones were shattered and
splintered, and Kane saw jackals and a hyena furtively slinking among
the ruined huts. But why had the slayers left the spoils? There lay
war spears, their shafts crumbling before the attacks of the white
ants. There lay shields, mouldering in the rains and sun. There lay
the cooking pots, and about the neck-bones of a shattered skeleton
glistened a necklace of gaudily painted pebbles and shells--surely
rare loot for any savage conqueror.
He gazed at the huts, wondering why the thatch roofs of so many were
torn and rent, as if by taloned things seeking entrance. Then
something made his cold eyes narrow in startled unbelief. Just outside
the mouldering mound that was once the village wall towered a gigantic
baobab tree, branchless for sixty feet, its mighty bole too large to
be gripped and scaled. Yet in the topmost branches dangled a skeleton,
apparently impaled on a broken limb.

Illustration from "Wings in the Night"

The cold hand of mystery touched the shoulder of Solomon Kane. How
came those pitiful remains in that tree? Had some monstrous ogre's
inhuman hand flung them there?

Kane shrugged his broad shoulders and his hand unconsciously touched
the black butts of his heavy pistols, the hilt of his long rapier, and
the dirk in his belt. Kane felt no fear as an ordinary man would feel,
confronted with the Unknown and Nameless. Years of wandering in
strange lands and warring with strange creatures had melted away from
brain, soul, and body all that was not steel and whalebone. He was
tall and spare, almost gaunt, built with the savage economy of the
wolf. Broad-shouldered, long-armed, with nerves of ice and thews of
spring steel, he was no less the natural killer than the born

The brambles and thorns of the jungle had dealt hardly with him; his
garments hung in tatters, his featherless slouch hat was torn and his
boots of Cordovan leather were scratched and worn. The sun had baked
his chest and limbs to a deep bronze, but his ascetically lean face
was impervious to its rays. His complexion was still of that strange,
dark pallor which gave him an almost corpse-like appearance, belied
only by his cold, light eyes.

And now Kane, sweeping the village once more with his searching gaze,
pulled his belt into a more comfortable position, shifted to his left
hand the cat-headed stave N'Longa had given him, and took up his way

To the west lay a strip of thin forest, sloping downward to a broad
belt of savannas, a waving sea of grass waist-deep and deeper. Beyond
that rose another narrow strip of woodlands, deepening rapidly into
dense jungle. Out of that jungle Kane had fled like a hunted wolf with
pointed-toothed men hot on his trail. Even now a vagrant breeze
brought faintly the throb of a savage drum which whispered its obscene
tale of hate and blood-hunger and belly-lust across miles of jungle
and grassland.

The memory of his flight and narrow escape was vivid in Kane's mind,
for only the day before had he realized too late that he was in
cannibal country, and all that afternoon in the reeking stench of the
thick jungle, he had crept and run and hidden and doubled and twisted
on his track with the fierce hunters ever close behind him, until
night fell and he gained and crossed the grasslands under cover of

Now in the late morning he had seen nothing, heard nothing of his
pursuers, yet he had no reason to believe that they had abandoned the
chase. They had been close on his heels when he took to the savannas.

Illustration from "Wings in the Night"

So Kane surveyed the land in front of him. To the east, curving from
north to south ran a straggling range of hills, for the most part dry
and barren, rising in the south to a jagged black skyline that
reminded Kane of the black hills of Negari. Between him and these
hills stretched a broad expanse of gently rolling country, thickly
treed, but nowhere approaching the density of a jungle. Kane got the
impression of a vast upland plateau, bounded by the curving hills to
the east and by the savannas to the west.

Kane set out for the hills with his long, swinging, tireless stride.
Surely somewhere behind him the savage demons were stealing after him,
and he had no desire to be driven to bay. A shot might send them
flying in sudden terror, but on the other hand, so low they were in
the scale of humanity, it might transmit no supernatural fear to their
dull brains. And not even Solomon Kane, whom Sir Francis Drake had
called Devon's king of swords, could win in a pitched battle with a
whole tribe.

The silent village with its burden of death and mystery faded out
behind him. Utter silence reigned among these mysterious uplands where
no birds sang and only a silent macaw flitted among the great trees.
The only sounds were Kane's cat-like tread, and the whisper of the
drum-haunted breeze.

And then Kane caught a glimpse among the trees that made his heart
leap with a sudden, nameless horror, and a few moments later he stood
before Horror itself, stark and grisly. In a wide clearing, on a
rather bold incline stood a grim stake, and to this stake was bound a
thing that had once been a man. Kane had rowed, chained to the bench
of a Turkish galley, and he had toiled in Barbary vineyards; he had
battled red Indians in the New Lands and had languished in the dungeons
of Spain's Inquisition. He knew much of the fiendishness of man's
inhumanity, but now he shuddered and grew sick. Yet it was not so much
the ghastliness of the mutilations, horrible as they were, that shook
Kane's soul, but the knowledge that the wretch still lived.

For as he drew near, the gory head that lolled on the butchered breast
lifted and tossed from side to side, spattering blood from the stumps
of ears, while a bestial, rattling whimper drooled from the shredded

Kane spoke to the ghastly thing and it screamed unbearably, writhing
in incredible contortions, while its head jerked up and down with the
jerking of mangled nerves, and the empty, gaping eye-sockets seemed
striving to see from their emptiness. And moaning low and
brain-shatteringly it huddled its outraged self against the stake where it
was bound and lifted its head in a grisly attitude of listening, as if
it expected something out of the skies.

"Listen," said Kane, in the dialect of the river tribes. "Do not fear
me--I will not harm you and nothing else shall harm you any more. I am
going to loose you."

Even as he spoke Kane was bitterly aware of the emptiness of his
words. But his voice had filtered dimly into the crumbling, agony-shot
brain of the man before him. From between splintered teeth fell words,
faltering and uncertain, mixed and mingled with the slavering
droolings of imbecility. He spoke a language akin to the dialects Kane
had learned from friendly river folk on his wanderings, and Kane
gathered that he had been bound to the stake for a long time--many
moons, he whimpered in the delirium of approaching death; and all this
time, inhuman, evil things had worked their monstrous will upon him.
These things he mentioned by name, but Kane could make nothing of it
for he used an unfamiliar term that sounded like akaana. But these
things had not bound him to the stake, for the torn wretch slavered
the name of Goru, who was a priest and who had drawn a cord too tight
about his legs--and Kane wondered that the memory of this small pain
should linger through the red mazes of agony that the dying man should
whimper over it.

And to Kane's horror, the man spoke of his brother who had aided in
the binding of him, and he wept with infantile sobs. Moisture formed
in the empty sockets and made tears of blood. And he muttered of a
spear broken long ago in some dim hunt, and while he muttered in his
delirium, Kane gently cut his bonds and eased his broken body to the
grass. But even at the Englishman's careful touch, the poor wretch
writhed and howled like a dying dog, while blood started anew from a
score of ghastly gashes, which, Kane noted, were more like the wounds
made by fang and talon than by knife or spear. But at last it was done
and the bloody, torn thing lay on the soft grass with Kane's old
slouch hat beneath its death's-head, breathing in great, rattling

Kane poured water from his canteen between the mangled lips, and
bending close, said: "Tell me more of these devils, for by the God of
my people, this deed shall not go unavenged, though Satan himself bar
my way."

It is doubtful if the dying man heard. But he heard something else.
The macaw, with the curiosity of its breed, swept from a near-by grove
and passed so close its great wings fanned Kane's hair. And at the
sound of those wings, the butchered man heaved upright and screamed in
a voice that haunted Kane's dreams to the day of his death: '"The
wings! the wings! They come again! Ahhh, mercy, the wings!"

And the blood burst in a torrent from his lips and so he died.

Kane rose and wiped the cold sweat from his forehead. The upland
forest shimmered in the noonday heat. Silence lay over the land like
an enchantment of dreams. Kane's brooding eyes ranged to the black,
malevolent hills crouching in the distance and back to the far-away
savannas. An ancient curse lay over that mysterious land and the
shadow of it fell across the soul of Solomon Kane.

Tenderly he lifted the red ruin that had once pulsed with life and
youth and vitality, and carried it to the edge of the glade, where
arranging the cold limbs as best he might, and shuddering once again
at the unnameable mutilations, he piled stones above it till even a
prowling jackal would find it hard to get at the flesh below.

And he had scarcely finished when something jerked him back out of his
sombre broodings to a realization of his own position. A slight
sound--or his own wolf-like instinct--made him whirl.

On the other side of the glade he caught a movement among the tall
grasses--the glimpse of a hideous face, with an ivory ring in the flat
nose, thick lips parted to reveal teeth whose filed points were
apparent even at that distance, beady eyes and a low slanting forehead
topped by a mop of frizzly hair. Even as the face faded from view Kane
leaped back into the shelter of the ring of trees which circled the
glade, and ran like a deer-hound, flitting from tree to tree and
expecting at each moment to hear the exultant clamour of the warriors
and to see them break cover at his back.

But soon he decided that they were content to hunt him down as certain
beasts track their prey, slowly and inevitably. He hastened through
the up- land forest, taking advantage of every bit of cover, and he
saw no more of his pursuers; yet he knew, as a hunted wolf knows, that
they hovered close behind him, waiting their moment to strike him down
without risk to their own hides.

Kane smiled bleakly and without mirth. If it was to be a test of
endurance, he would see how savage thews compared with his own spring-
steel resilience. Let night come and he might yet give them the slip.
If not--Kane knew in his heart that the savage essence of his very
being which chafed at his flight, would make him soon turn at bay,
though his pursuers outnumbered him a hundred to one.

The sun sank westward. Kane was hungry, for he had not eaten since
early morning when he wolfed down the last of his dried meat. An
occasional spring had given him water, and once he thought he glimpsed
the roof of a large hut far away through the trees. But he gave it a
wide berth. It was hard to believe that this silent plateau was
inhabited, but if it were, the natives were doubtless as ferocious as
those hunting him.

Ahead of him the land grew rougher, with broken boulders and steep
slopes as he neared the lower reaches of the brooding hills. And still
no sight of his hunters except for faint glimpses caught by wary
backward glances--a drifting shadow, the bending of the grass, the
sudden straightening of a trodden twig, a rustle of leaves. Why should
they be so cautious? Why did they not close in and have it over?

Night fell and Kane reached the first long slopes which led upward to
the foot of the hills which now brooded black and menacing above him.
They were his goal, where he hoped to shake off his persistent foes at
last, yet a nameless aversion warned him away from them. They were
pregnant with hidden evil, repellent as the coil of a great sleeping
serpent, glimpsed in the tall grass.

Darkness fell heavily. The stars winked redly in the thick heat of the
tropic night. And Kane, halting for a moment in an unusually dense
grove, beyond which the trees thinned out on the slopes, heard a
stealthy movement that was not the night wind--for no breath of air
stirred the heavy leaves. And even as he turned, there was a rush in
the dark, under the trees.

A shadow that merged with the shadows flung itself on Kane with a
bestial mouthing and a rattle of iron, and the Englishman, parrying by
the gleam of the stars on the weapon, felt his assailant duck into
close quarters and meet him chest to chest. Lean wiry arms locked
about him, pointed teeth gnashed at him as Kane returned the fierce
grapple. His tattered shirt ripped beneath a jagged edge, and by blind
chance Kane found and pinioned the hand that held the iron knife, and
drew his own dirk, flesh crawling in anticipation of a spear in the

But even as the Englishman wondered why the others did not come to
their comrade's aid, he threw all of his iron muscles into the single
combat. Close-clinched they swayed and writhed in the darkness, each
striving to drive his blade into the other's flesh, and as the
superior strength of the Puritan began to assert itself, the cannibal
howled like a rabid dog, tore and bit.

A convulsive spin-wheel of effort pivoted them out into the starlit
glade where Kane saw the ivory nose-ring and the pointed teeth that
snapped beast-like at his throat. And simultaneously he forced back
and down the hand that gripped his knife-wrist, and drove the dirk
deep into the savage wrists. The warrior screamed, and the raw acrid
scent of blood flooded the night air. And in that instant Kane was
stunned by a sudden savage rush and beat of mighty wings that dashed
him to earth, and the cannibal was torn from his grip and vanished
with a scream of mortal agony. Kane leaped to his feet, shaken to his
foundation. The dwindling scream of the wretched savage sounded
faintly and from above him.

Straining his eyes into the skies he thought he caught a glimpse of a
shapeless and horrific Thing crossing the dim stars--in which the
writhing limbs of a human mingled namelessly with great wings and a
shadowy shape--but so quickly it was gone, he could not be sure.

And now he wondered if it were not all a nightmare. But groping in the
grove he found the ju-ju stave with which he had parried the short
stabbing spear that lay beside it. And here, if more proof was needed,
was his long dirk, still stained with blood.

Solomon Kane

Wings! Wings in the night! The skeleton in the village of torn roofs--
the mutilated warrior whose wounds were not made with knife or spear
and who died shrieking of wings. Surely those hills were the haunt of
gigantic birds who made humanity their prey. Yet if birds, why had
they not wholly devoured the torn man on the stake? And Kane knew in
his heart that no true bird ever cast such a shadow as he had seen
flit across the stars.

He shrugged his shoulders, bewildered. The night was silent. Where
were the rest of the cannibals who had followed him from their distant
jungle? Had the fate of their comrade frightened them into flight?
Kane looked to his pistols. Cannibals or no, he went not up into those
dark hills that night.

Now he must sleep, if all the devils of the Elder World were on his
track. A deep roaring to the westward warned him that beasts of prey
were aroam, and he walked rapidly down the rolling slopes until he
came to a dense grove some distance from that in which he had fought
the cannibal. He climbed high among the great branches until he found
a thick crotch that would accommodate even his tall frame. The
branches above would guard him from a sudden swoop of any winged
thing, and if savages were lurking near, their clamber into the tree
would warn him, for he slept lightly as a cat. As for serpents and
leopards, they were chances he had taken a thousand times.

Solomon Kane slept and his dreams were vague, chaotic, haunted with a
suggestion of pre-human evil and which at last merged into a vision
vivid as a scene in waking life. Solomon dreamed he woke with a start,
drawing a pistol--for so long had his life been that of the wolf, that
reaching for a weapon was his natural reaction upon waking suddenly.

His dream was that a strange, shadowy thing had perched upon a great
branch close by and gazed at him with greedy, luminous yellow eyes
that seared into his brain. The dream-thing was tall and lean and
strangely misshapen, so blended with the shadows that it seemed a
shadow itself, tangible only in the narrow yellow eyes. And Kane
dreamed he waited, spellbound, while uncertainty came into those eyes
and then the creature walked out on the limb as a man would walk,
raised great shadowy wings, sprang into space and vanished.

Kane jerked upright, the mists of sleep fading. In the dim starlight,
under the arching Gothic-like branches, the tree was empty save for
himself. Then it had been a dream, after all--yet it had been so
vivid, so fraught with inhuman foulness--even now a faint scent like
that exuded by birds of prey seemed to linger in the air. Kane
strained his ears. He heard the sighing of the night wind, the whisper
of the leaves, the far-away roaring of a lion, but naught else. Again
Solomon slept--while high above him a shadow wheeled against the
stars, circling again and again as a vulture circles a dying wolf.

For the other chapters of this story go to:   Gutenberg.net.au

Although he had his faults as a writer, Howard was a natural storyteller, whose narratives are unmatched for vivid, gripping, headlong action... In fiction, the difference between a writer who is a natural storyteller and one who is not is like the difference between a boat that will float and one that will not. If the writer has this quality, we can forgive many other faults; if not, no other virtue can make up for the lack, any more than gleaming paint and sparkling brass on a boat make up for the fact that it will not float.
L. Sprague de Camp, Conan of the Isles, "Introduction", 1968

Solomon Kane is a character created by the pulp-era writer Robert E. Howard.

A late 16th/early 17th century Puritan, Solomon Kane is a somber-looking man who wanders the world with no apparent goal other than to vanquish evil in all its forms. His adventures, published mostly in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, often take him from Europe to the jungles of Africa and back. 
Howard described Kane as a sombre and gloomy man of pale face and cold eyes, all of it shadowed by a slouch hat. He is dressed entirely in black and his weaponry usually consists of a rapier, a dirk, and a brace of flintlock pistols. During one of his latter adventures his friend N'Longa, an African shaman, gave him a juju staff that served as a protection against evil, but could easily be wielded as an effective weapon. It is revealed in another story, "The Footfalls Within", that this is the mythical Staff of Solomon, a talisman older than the Earth and unimaginably powerful.

The great James Purefoy starred as Solomon Kane in a 2009 European
made film not widely distributed.

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