Monday, October 04, 2010

Death's Black Riders

I mentioned in my post about the Robert E. Howard Conan fragment sometimes called The Hand of Nergal that the other Howard Fragment that fascinates me is one featuring Solomon Kane called Death's Black Riders. It's very short, only a few paragraphs, but it seems to have so much potential that I wonder why Howard abandoned it.
The story begins with Kane riding a narrow path through a deep forest. The trees press so close that the sky is blotted out and there is scarcely room for one horse on the path. Then:

"And down this trail, as Solomon Kane halted and drew his pistol, a horseman came flying. A great black horse, incredibly gigantic in the grey light, and on his back, a giant of a rider, crouched close over the bow, a shapeless hat drawn low, a great black cloak flying from his shoulders."

Kane tries to rein aside, but there isn't room. He sees two glowing eyes below the brim of the hat and catches the gleam of a sword. Kane fires point blank into the face of the rider, but it doesn't slow him down and then, as the rider passes over him, Kane feels a blast of icy air and he and his horse go down. Both Kane and horse are up almost instantly and impossibly they are unhurt. The fragment ends right there.
I've never really understood if Howard was trying to say that the rider had no actual tangible form, but that's how I read it, as if the rider passed not over Kane and his horse but through them and that the passing left them numb with the cold from some black and nameless gulf.
Dark Horse comics tried an adaptation of this fragment too, but I can't report on it because I found the artwork so messy and the storytelling so confusing in the first issue that I didn't read the rest of the mini series. Feel free to let me know if it got better. Maybe I'll check out the trade collection.
Roy Thomas adapted the fragment (Though he adds a couple of riders, but hey, the fragment is called Death's Black RIDERS not rider.) as the opening for a two part Savage Sword of Conan story, but the opening has little to do with the rest of the story which involves a team-up between Solomon Kane and Conan. Still, it was nice to see it drawn and the art by Colin MacNeil was pretty sharp. (I'll add a picture later. blogger is acting up.)
I noticed that writer C.J. Henderson has taken a stab at finishing the fragment, but I haven't had a chance to read his version. I used to read Henderson's Jack Hagee private eye books back in the day, and I know Henderson is a big fan of Howard and Lovecraft. I'll check it out when I get time and report back here.
Anyway, Lord of the Rings fans might almost think that Solomon Kane had a run in with a Nazgul. Not that J.R.R. Tolkien could have had any influence on Robert E. Howard, who died a year before the publication of the Hobbit and many years before publication of the Lord of the Rings. Still, some grist for fan fiction there for anyone with the time and energy. Not me.
So yet again, another fascinating fragment to speculate over. What was the rider in black and where was he bound? Perhaps there is a clue in the last words of the poem that REH used to preface the fragment.

The hangman asked of the carrion crow, but the raven made reply:
"Black ride the men who ride with Death beneath the midnight sky,
"And black each steed and grey each skull and strange each deathly eye.
"They have given their breath to grey old Death and yet they cannot die."

Words to ponder.


Taranaich said...

Argh, so tantalizing, isn't it?

As for Nazgul doppelgangers, there's also the Riders of Ollam-Onga from the Tombalku fragment. Interesting how many cool parallels can be made with REH and JRRT.

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Once again you've forced me to go back and reread something, Al. I pulled the Tombalku fragment out last night. I had actually forgotten the black riders in that one. Yet another concept I'd like to have seen Howard elaborate on. If they get the fan fiction area up and running at the Conan forums I may have to take a swing at one of these fragments.

Anonymous said...

Charles, by my count, "Death's Black Riders" has been completed by other hands at least five times.
Fred Blosser was the first to have a go. His effort was published in Fantasy Book 12 in 1984.
In 1994, as you say, Roy Thomas used the fragment as a jumping-off point for an unlikely time-travel team-up between a young Conan The Barbarian and an elderly Kane.
Later in 1994, Spanish author Javier Martin Lalanda completed the fragment as "Los Negros Jinetes de la Muerte" in his Las Aventuras de Solomon Kane, a book that has eluded me so far. I'm told that Lalanda decided to make the mystery rider into Odin (picking up on the raven reference and with an eye on another REH story, perhaps).
CJ Henderson's version was published in 2002. Like Roy Thomas, Henderson chose to set the story late in Kane's life and as a sort of 'last hurrah'.
Most recently, Scott Allie used the fragment as the basis for the Dark Horse comicbook (which was disappointing, I agree).
-- Mike G

Taranaich said...

I think the incomplete Howard yarns would make for some fun "round robins", but then, considering how Ghor: Kin-Slayer turned out, maybe it's for the best!

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Mike G, thanks for the info. I was unaware of the Blosser and Lalanda versions of Riders. Henderson's version is actually online now and I read it last night.

Al, yeah I have kind of sworn off pastiching, but the fragments are tempting. Maybe I'll just write something with a similar plot and use my own characters. We'll see.

stan said...

I did a completion of the story a few years ago...cant recall if I ever posted it anywhere. I think I still have the file somewhere I hope. Im called Sermon Bath on the recently started Conan board. Personally I think its pretty good and explains somethings Howard left dangling. Maybe if I find it I will post it right here...obviously im pretty proud of it. peace