>This specific book hasn’t been around long enough to be forgotten, as it was just published in 2005. Nor is it likely that most folks who have an appreciation for pulp, adventure or fantasy fiction will have forgotten the name Robert E. Howard as being a writer well worth reading. What I think is likely though is that the names of some of his more famous characters — Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane, King Kull of Valusia — and their exploits in darker worlds full of swords and sorcery tend to overshadow his other work. To fully appreciate Howard and his abilities as a writer, one must explore these other branches of his output as well.
During his lifetime, boxing was the sport in America, and Howard was a huge fan. From the introduction by editor Chris Gruber:
As an adult, Howard developed into more than just a fan of boxing: he lived for the sport. His surviving papers show that Howard was an astute scholar of prize-fighting, spending many hours scrutinizing fight reports, taking precise notes on each boxer’s ring tendencies, and recording height, weight, and ring records. He would sometimes travel clear across Texas — hitchhiking if he had to — just to catch a fight card live. Some of Howard’s letters contain laments at having missed even minor local contests. All of this suggests a love for the sport that bordered very near to devotion.
Howard even took up boxing himself, honing his body into condition as if he really were a professional pugilist.
For this collection, Gruber selected sixteen stories and three poems from the mass of work Howard had devoted to the sport. Ten of the stories feature the character Sailor Steve Costigan and his bulldog companion Mike, as they sail around the world to various ports of call and take on villainous opponents ashore. Costigan, a generally warm-hearted bruiser, fit the archetype that Howard seemed to favor, at least in his stories: the “Iron Man.” These are fighters that maybe aren’t the most skilled, but could take one hell of a beating and keep getting up. Sooner or later their overwhelming punching power would carry the day as their opponent got tired or frustrated and the bruiser was able to land the killing punch.
What I enjoyed most about these stories is the humor — Robert E. Howard could turn a funny phrase as well as anyone, and some of the situations his characters put themselves in through their own missteps and mistakes are laugh-out-loud funny. One doesn’t see so much of that in a Conan story, for example. There is also a real warmth to these stories in the love the characters show toward those loyal to them, and, in Costigan’s case, to his dog, Mike. I particularly enjoyed the story “The Fightin’est Pair” where the dog, Mike, is stolen. Costigan is beside himself to find the animal; it is a very funny, and very tender, little story. Howard even gets a little political in how he views dog fighting very early in the story, when a man name Porkey tries to talk Costigan into pitting Mike against another dog, Terror, the “pit champeen of the Asiatics.” The story is written in first person, and this is what Sailor Steve has to say about it:
“Not a chance,” I growled. “Mike gets plenty of scrappin’ on the streets. Besides, I’ll tell you straight, I think dog fightin’ for money is a dirty lowdown game. Take a couple of fine, upstandin’ dogs, full of ginger and fightin’ heart, and throw ’em in a concrete pit to tear each other’ throats out, just so a bunch of four-flushin’ tin-horns like you, which couldn’t take a punch or give one either, can make a few lousy dollars bettin’ on ’em.”
“But they likes to fight,” argued Porkey. “It’s their nature.”
“It’s the nature of any red-blooded critter to fight. Man or dog,” I said. “Let ’em fight on the streets, for bones or for fun, or just to see which is the best dog. But pit-fightin’ to the death is just too dirty for me to fool with, and I ain’t goin’ to get Mike into no such mess.”
“Aw, let him alone, Porkey,” sneered Johnnie Blinn nastily. “He’s too chicken-hearted to mix in them rough games. Ain’t you, Sailor?”
“Belay that,” I roared. “You keep a civil tongue in your head, you wharf-side rat. I never did like you nohow, and one more crack like that gets you this.” I brandished my huge fist at him and he turned pale and started scrubbing the bar like he was trying for a record.”
If there is any knock on this collection, it would be that after reading the stories one after the other some similarities start to pop up. Many of the fights follow similar patterns regardless of the character or story; many of the themes are similar, and much of the phrasing and word usage is similar. That isn’t that surprising if one considers the environment they were written in. Publishers and readers liked their stories a certain way, and once writers like Howard found the formula they delivered one after the other in rapid succession, often with similar characters with different names being sold to competing magazines.
Regardless, for people interested in a different fictional genre that may be new to them, or for those interested in getting a more fully-rounded view of Robert E. Howard as a writer, this book is essential. As I understand it, these editions of Howard’s work published by The University of Nebraska Press are now out of print, so if you see one — grab it!