We all love vampires. There is something deeply attractive to us about seductive, bloodsucking creatures of the night that has made them a staple in fantasy and horror culture. Perhaps it is the allure of immortality, or the dark romanticism of biting someone on the neck that draws us to them. From the folklore of the dark ages, to modern Hollywood icons such as Count Dracula and the like, we as humans somehow identify with the Nosferatu, and they have become a common theme that pops up quite often in literature, film, and other forms of modern art and entertainment.
One thing that’s for certain, though; is that vampires are usually most often associated with that of the Gothic. When we think of them, images come to mind of dark castles, blood-stained crypts, bat-encircled, full moonlit graveyards, and pale-faced, undead noblemen in Victorian garb, with glistening fangs who sleep in coffins.
I am here to talk about a Sword & Sorcery tale that defies the vampire cliché, and goes beyond that of traditional Gothic lore – “The Hills of the Dead” by Robert E. Howard. This story is very unique to me, as not only is the vampire a fairly uncommon theme in Sword & Sorcery literature, but those featured in Howard’s story are of a savage race that inhabit the jungles of Africa. The creatures are tribal monsters with crimson eyes and black, dusky skin – a far cry from the sensual, debonair bloodsuckers we are used to reading about.
The story features Howard’s earliest character – the sword-and musket-wielding English Puritan, Solomon Kane. Some of the Kane stories contain supernatural elements, and some do not. This is obviously one that does, and one that always intrigued me since I first encountered it years ago in the 1971 Sword & Sorcery anthology, Warlocks and Warriors, edited by L. Sprague de Camp.
“Hills of the Dead” is something of a sequel to the earlier Solomon Kane tale, “Red Shadows,” in which we are introduced to the voodoo Wiseman, N'Longa. In that previous story, when doing battle with the French tyrant, Le Loup, Kane is saved by the mysterious fetish man, who sends his soul forth from his body to animate a lifeless corpse by means of voodoo magic.
In the opening pages of “Hills,” Kane has returned to the savage lands and is once again holding commerce with N'Longa. Over a raging fire, he tells the old Wiseman that although he doesn't understand it, he hears a call from the brooding jungle that is luring him back. He resolves to return to it and face whatever adventure lies ahead. N'Longa gives Kane a voodoo staff to take with him on his journey, and tells him that it is to be used not only as a weapon; but also as a means to summon the fetish man, who will come to him in his dreams.
As Kane begins his travels across the grassland in pursuit of the beckoning jungle, he comes across a native girl fleeing from a bloodthirsty lion. Kane slays the lion with a shot from his musket, saving the frightened girl. He promises to escort her back to her homeland, and as they venture forth, are faced with the horror of the Nosferatu savages. There is soon magic and mayhem abroad, and during the struggle, the voodoo stave is used once again to magically trade souls between beings, and also to fight against the undead fiends.
Kane’s gift from N’Longa is an important artifact that later appears in a few other tales as well, some of which we learn more about the dark history behind it… But in “Hills of the Dead,” the fate of a vanishing race is decided by that of an unlikely and surprisingly natural means; bringing about a clever conclusion to this already great and intriguing story.
While I am still a huge fan of the classic vampire story, it is refreshing to indulge in one so different from that of the usual Gothic yarn. There is no haunted castle or ancestral curse in Howard’s tale – but that’s not to say that it lacks dark romanticism. On the contrary, I would say it was quite Romantic for its time. The vampire lore presented in this story reminds me much more of that of the Haitian voodoo zombie legends which were starting to be used quite commonly as themes in literature and movies around the time the tale was written (the 1932 film White Zombie is a good example of this). Howard would continue to occasionally revisit this type of folklore throughout his career not only in more Solomon Kane tales, i.e. “The Moon of Skulls” and “Wings in the Night,” but also in other unrelated stories such as “Pigeons from Hell” and “Black Canaan”… So prepare not for a slow, plodding, medieval tragedy when reading “Hills of the Dead” – instead, get ready for a wild, pulse-pounding, supernatural Sword & Sorcery adventure in savage lands written by one of the original inventors of the genre.
Matthew Knight is the vocalist/guitarist/songwriter of the epic heavy metal band, ETERNAL WINTER. The band’s forthcoming album, Archaic Lore Enshrined: Songs of Savage Swords and Dark Mysticism will feature songs based on Hills of the Dead and other Sword & Sorcery classics. For more information on Matthew, his music and writings please visit: www.eternalwinter.com and www.majesticmetalrecords.com