and it pointed me to “Wings in the Night,” featuring not Conan but another of Howard’s heroes: Solomon Kane, a kind of Puritanical proto-Rambo, a survivalist bushwhacking through a jungle somewhere in Africa (the “white man’s burden” themes will not diminish themselves hereafter), armed with heavy pistols, a rapier, and his dirk—a long dagger.
When we first meet him here he’s taking in the aftermath of a massacred village. The roofs of the huts have been torn off. Pressing on in the wild, he knows he’s being stalked by a group of cannibals. But the hunters themselves are killed off by humanoid harpy creatures with bat wings. After one of them ambushes him in the daylight, Kane shoots it down and inspects the body:
The thing was like a man, inhumanly tall and inhumanly thin; the head was long, narrow, and hairless—the head of a predatory creature. The ears were small, close-set and queerly pointed. The eyes, set in death, were narrow, oblique and of a strange yellowish colour. The nose was thin and hooked, like the beak of a bird of prey, the mouth a wide cruel gash, whose thin lips, writhed in a death snarl and flecked with foam, disclosed wolfish fangs.
Another attack, and Kane is rescued and nursed back to health by a friendly village, the upper half of the community so viciously destroyed.
At this point Kane learns the history of the Bogondi people. They originated south of their location, but menaced by cannibals and tribal warfare, they fled north and settled along the rim of plateau Kane had been traversing. Soon after establishing Upper and Lower Bogonda, the Bogondi are terrorized by the monsters, who live in the caves of the mountains. The winged devils, that the Bogondi call the akaana, are competing with the humans over the pig and goat population; they kill many Bogondi but let enough live to keep stock for their sport. With the mountains unpassable and the grasslands controlled by the cannibals, the Bogondi are boxed in. They cannot fight because their weapons are only copper. That being said, the akaana themselves are close to being wiped out, with only 100 or so left.
The Bogondi draw lots to sacrifice one of their own to the monsters in order to placate them, but Kane’s presence gives them the confidence to forgo this ritual.
Here comes the moment of the night raid. Kane sees villagers he’d come to know as friends get hideously mauled by the creatures. One of them takes him up into the air, but he stabs the demon with his dagger:
The thatch of a hut broke their fall, and Kane and the dying harpy crashed through to land on a writhing mass on the hut floor. In the lurid flickering of the burning hut outside that vaguely lighted the hut into which he had fallen, Kane saw a deed of brain-shaking horror being enacted—red-dripping fangs in a yawning gash of a mouth, and a crimson travesty of a human form that still writhed with agonized life. Then, in the maze of madness that held him, his steel fingers closed on the fiend’s throat in a grip that no tearing of talons or hammering of wings could loosen, until he felt the horrid life flow out from under his fingers and the bony neck hung broken.
Outside, the red madness of slaughter continued. Kane bounded up, his hand closing blindly on the haft of some weapon, and as he leaped from the hut a harpy soared from under his very feet. It was an axe that Kane had snatched up, and he dealt a stroke that spattered the demon’s brains like water. He sprang forward, stumbling over bodies and parts of bodies, blood streaming from a dozen wounds, and then halted baffled and screaming with rage.
It’s BERSERK levels of gore in its own way, with bones and body parts and “severed grinning heads of humans” raining from the sky.
And Solomon Kane basically goes insane as the sole surviving white witness to this pogrom.
Over many more days, he constructs a chamber of bamboo and vines, lures the remaining Akaana inside, locks it, and sets it on fire. The story ends with him recognizing the scent of burnt human flesh at the end of his genocide.
Easy to see why this was offered as the most violent, but that level of violence also makes the World War 1 allegory much more transparent, stretched to the breaking point really. It doesn’t seem like a reach to create a gleeful misreading, a la Harold Bloom, of the 17th century man Kane’s experiences as the hallucinations of a colonial soldier, horrified by the atrocities committed by his fellow civilized men. The violence of the devil-men from the sky is recognizable, and what’s even more interesting is Kane’s response to the violence, which is simply the more mechanized, modern expression of systematic colonial violence.
Even as the narrator says these lines about Kane as an “unconscious statue of triumph—the ancient empires fall, the dark-skinned peoples fade and even the demons of antiquity gasp their last, but over all stands the Aryan barbarian, white-skinned, cold-eyed, dominant, the supreme fighting man of the earth…” the ideological cloak seems threadbare, if not torn to shreds by the horror that is the real content of European history.