Friday, January 22, 2021


In honor of REH's birthday, I am
rerunning this column from 2017
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

Although best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane, and other sword and sorcery characters, Robert E. Howard (REH) had a lifelong interest in boxing, attending fights and avidly following the careers of his favorite fighters. Even though as a child he was bookish and intellectual, in his teen years he took up bodybuilding and eventually entered the ring as an amateur boxer. 

During the height of the pulp magazine era from the late ‘20s through the ‘30s, REH used this background to make a good living banging out boxing tales for the likes of Fight Stories Magazine, Action Stories, Sport Story, Jack Dempsey’s Fight Magazine, and others. REH actually claimed his fictional fight tales—especially The Iron Man, and the adventures of Sailor Steve Costigan—to be among the best of his works. Primarily humorous in nature, Howard’s most popular and in demand boxing stories featured Sailor Steve Costigan. These tales were both creatively and financially critical to Howard’s development as a writer.

Costigan was a lovable, hard-fisted, and innocent semipro pugilist who regularly squared-off against dastardly villains in exotic ports of call. Tales featuring Costigan were at times laugh out loud funny and brilliant examples of what, in writing circles, is referred to as an unreliable narrator. Written in first person, the voice of Sailor Steve Costigan is full of malapropisms and creative, near-swear invective.

As the undisputed champion of the merchant marine Sea Girl, Costigan has a heart of gold, fists of steel, and a head full of rocks, all of which get him—and his bulldog Mike—tossed into constant trouble. Costigan is lovable for two reasons. First, he is just not smart enough to do anything other than punch his way clear of trouble. And second, when he starts punching, every reader feels the joy of the underdog overcoming the odds with the solid landing of every blow. 

No matter how ridiculous the situation he places Costigan in, REH never ridicules the character, always putting Costigan on the side of the angels. Readers know they should always bet on Costigan coming through victorious in a fight, and they would be more than willing to share a beer with him afterward. Not too many readers would want to share suds with the brutal Conan or the dour Solomon Kane. Costigan is accessible, a larger than life everyman.

Not all of REH’s boxing stories are funny. Aside from essays exploring what attributes REH believed made a great boxer, his other boxing tales were alive with the sound and the fury of the real world of the square circle. In particular, his novelette Iron Man, is a revered saga for those followers not just of REH, but of boxing enthusiasts in general.

Over the years, REH’s boxing fiction has been reprinted in various incomplete collections. However, between 2013 and 2015, the ultimate collection of REH’s boxing fiction was amassed by the Robert E. Howard Foundation Press and published in the four volume Fists of Iron collection. This has finally given these overlooked works their rightful place in the Howard pantheon. 

These beautifully bound and numbered, hardcover editions sport stunning, pulp inspired wrap around covers and contain every story, partial story, and scrap of idea Howard produced in relation to the sweet science of boxing. Editors, Mark Finn, Patrice Louinet, and Christopher Gruber each contributed insightful and extensive introductions to the volumes, in what was clearly a labor of love and appreciation for REH’s work.

The complete compendium of Fist of Iron has not only become a highly sought after collector’s item, but has preserved the two-fisted tales that helped a generation of readers to fight through the Great Depression and the tough years to follow. Even today, REH’s boxing fiction reads with immediacy and storytelling power. If you’ve never met, or never heard of REH’s boxing characters Sailor Steve Costigan, Kid Allison, Mike O’Brien, or Dennis Dorgan, now is the time to lace up your gloves, put up your dukes, and climb into the ring.
NOTE: I would be remiss at this point if I did not mention a collection of boxing tales inspired by REH’s Sailor Steve Costigan Tales. Mark Finn, one of the editors behind the Fists of Iron collection created a series of short stories featuring a two-fisted character as a homage to REH’s Sailor Steve Costigan. As the editor of the Fight Card series of novels (now 50 strong), I had the pleasure of editing and publishing these stories in the collection, Fight Card: The Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey. 
Channeling the best of REH’s boxing tales, The Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey are a terrific blend of weird, historical, and humorous boxing stories to be read and enjoyed.
As for Sailor Tom Sharkey himself, he is one of the greatest heavyweight boxers to enter the legendary squared circle during the Golden Age of Boxing. Standing a mere 5’ 8”, Sailor Tom Sharkey is one of boxing’s most feared opponents…Gentleman Jim Corbett, Bob Fitzsimmons, Kid McCoy, and Jim Jeffries all agreed he was their fiercest opponent and gave them their toughest fights. A colorful boxer both in the ring and out, he retired in 1904 after several legendary and controversial failed attempts to win the championship belt.
That’s the story you know, but it’s not the end of Sharkey’s story—not by a long shot. The Adventures of Sailor Tom Sharkey collects the rowdy, bawdy, burlesque, tall Texas tales of Sailor Tom Sharkey’s shenanigans after he hung up his professional gloves. 
There’s Sharkey’s brush with Hollywood’s “It” Girl, Clara Bow. There are chills as Sharkey and Kid McCoy face down a maniacal bandit. And the heat gets turned up when Sharkey rides the rails with Jim Jeffries and the Vaudeville Carnival into a clash with mad scientists and mummified menaces. And for the softer side of Sharkey, you can watch as he plays Santa Claus to a bunch of Tammany Hall orphans and ends up with a tiger by the tail—literally. These are the untold tales of the wildest tale-teller of boxing’s golden age…

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