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Saturday, October 5, 2013

ROBERT E. HOWARD'S CORNER MEN

ROBERT E. HOWARD’S CORNER MEN

MARK FINN

The minute I stepped ashore from the Sea Girl, merchantman, I had a hunch that there would be trouble. This hunch was caused by seeing some of the crew of the Dauntless. The men on the Dauntless have disliked the Sea Girl’s crew ever since our skipper took their captain to a cleaning on the wharfs of Zanzibar – them being narrow-minded that way. They claimed that the old man had a knuckle-duster on his right, which is ridiculous and a dirty lie. He had it on his left. ~ Robert E. Howard, The Pit of the Serpent

Robert E. Howard is best-known for (some would say “forever saddled with”) the creation of Conan the Cimmerian, the invention of sword and sorcery, and also the weird western. These are laudable and important things, to be sure, but what very few people know is that Howard made a good living writing and selling boxing stories in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Primarily humorous in nature, Howard’s boxing stories featuring Sailor Steve Costigan were popular and in-demand by the publishers of Fight Stories, Action Stories, Sport Story, Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine, and others.  They were critical to Howard’s development as a writer, both creatively and financially. And now, at long last, all of Howard’s boxing fiction is being collected into a massive, four-volume set of books published by the Robert E. Howard Foundation Press.

Iron Fists: The Collected Boxing Stories of Robert E. Howard, has been a labor of love for myself and fellow editors Chris Gruber and Patrice Louinet. We have been long time champions and defenders of these stories, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, they are about boxing – and I mean, deeply mired in the language and lore of the squared circle. Howard was an amateur boxer and an enthusiastic fan of the sport, and you can tell from the second you read one of his riveting prize-fight scenes. He really knew his stuff. 

Second, these stories are funny. And I don’t mean a little bit, either. I have described Sailor Steve Costigan, the champion of the merchant marine Sea Girl, as having a heart of gold, fists of steel, and a head full of rocks. Costigan is a classic unreliable narrator, and these stories are all written in first person unreliable. The malapropisms and near-swear invective, not to mention that Costigan is just not smart enough to do anything other than punch his way clear of trouble, makes these stories a joy to read. 

Not all of the boxing stories are funny, though. Howard did write a number of more serious pieces exploring various aspects of what he considered made for a great boxer. One story, Iron Man, is a veritable saga that has only recently been restored to its original intended length. 

So, if these stories are so great, how come you’re just hearing about them now? Great question. All I can tell you is, blame Conan. Most people are unaware of Howard’s massive output of humorous writing – over a hundred stories, including the funny boxing and his later funny western stories. Mostly because prior editors and stewards of Howard’s legacy felt it would be better to focus on Conan and the brooding young man who wrote those tales. Reading Howard’s humorous fiction casts a different light on the brooding loner who wrote of imaginary lands and strange monsters. 

Over the past ten years, we’ve done what we could. I produced a series of old time radio plays featuring Sailor Steve Costigan. I wrote the introduction to Waterfront Fists, from Wildside Press. Chris Gruber edited and introduced Boxing Stories from the University of Nebraska Press. We pressured our friend Rusty Burke until he felt obliged (he insists it was convinced) to include boxing stories in the two volume Best of Robert E. Howard books from Del Rey. 

All of those results brought more folks around to the boxing stories. We had new fans left and right. Sailor Steve Costigan began appearing in everyone’s list of Howard’s heroes when they were name checked. These were nice efforts, but it wasn’t enough, because there was so much boxing material that no one had ever seen, and it was languishing. Until now.

The project took a year to do, and it’s the first publication to make full use of the Glenn Lord archive. Multiple drafts were consulted, and extra pieces and parts were discovered. Now Iron Fists will contain literally every scrap of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that Howard wrote about boxing in his lifetime. Patrice Louinet has painstakingly consulted every page of text to determine the order in which these stories were all written. His findings are published in a four part afterword. Gruber and I traded off on the introductions to the books. He got volumes 1 and 3. I got volumes 2 and 4. That way, we each get to talk about Steve Costigan, our favorite Howard hero. A few of the stories are now more complete, thanks to Patrice’s text corrections with the drafts that were discovered in the Glenn Lord archive. For completists, it’s your dream come true. 

We couldn’t be more excited or proud.  But Gruber and I aren’t stopping there. We have another project, related to the boxing stories, that I can’t tell you about right now. But suffice to say, it’ll be a unique and very relevant item that die-hard boxing fans won’t want to miss out on. 

The foundation is currently offering the books as limited edition hardcovers. Depending on how fast they sell out, we may see trade paperbacks after that. For more information about the books, as well as a table of contents, you can visit the Foundation’s website here: http://www.rehfoundation.org/

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