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Boxing Stories
Robert E. Howard
Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 314 pages

Boxing Stories
Robert E. Howard
Robert Ervin Howard (1906-1936) is best remembered for his classic sword and sorcery tales of the brawny Cimmerian swordsman Conan, though he wrote stories in a number of genres: horror (Pigeons from Hell, Worms of the Earth), oriental adventure (The Lost Valley of Iskander, Swords of Shahrazar), westerns both humorous (A Gent from Bear Creek) and conventional (The Last Ride, The Vultures of Whapeton), boxing (The Iron Man), and others. Howard's tales of Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Turlogh O'Brien and Solomon Kane created and defined the sword and sorcery genre, leading to innumerable pastiches and outright ripoffs of Howard's characters.

Howard was born in Peaster, Texas, and at the age of 13 moved to the central Texas town of Cross Plains, where he would live the rest of his life. As a boy Howard was small and bookish, and formed a very close relationship with his mother, staying home to avoid being the prey of local bullies. Howard discovered what would now be termed bodybuilding and boxing and remained a sports and exercise enthusiast the rest of his life. The bullying of the now 5'11", 200 lbs (1.8 m, 90 kg) teenager ended, and while Howard did not retaliate he maintained lifelong grudges and developed quasi-paranoid notions of lurking enemies.

Howard was variously described as moody -- ranging from quickly angered to having gloomy black moods -- introverted, and living in a fantasy world where at times real life became trivial. While Howard took some business classes after high school, as early as the age of 15, he had expressed his desire to write for a living. Howard sold his first story to Weird Tales in 1923 and the rest of his literary output is history. In 1930, despondent over the death of his dog "Patch," Howard was sent on a vacation by his parents who feared he might kill himself if left to brood at home. Six years later, on June 11, 1936, despondent over his mother's impending death, Howard went to his office and typed out:

All fled — all done, so lift me on the pyre;
The feast is over and the lamps expire.
He then went out to his car, took his gun out of the glove compartment and shot himself in the head.

ISFDB Bibliography
R.E. Howard Site: 1, 2, 3 (in French)
Robert E. Howard Museum, Cross Plains, TX
Conan the Barbarian movie fan site: 1, 2, 3
Conan fan site: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
SWORD a Conan fan magazine
Red Sonja fan site
Books available: 1, 2
The Whole Wide World biographical movie on R.E.H.
Review of The Whole Wide World

Some offline information on Howard:

  • De Camp, L. Sprague. 1976. The Miscast Barbarian: Robert E. Howard. p. 135-177. In Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers. The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House.
  • De Camp, L. Sprague; De Camp, Catherine Crook; Griffin, Jane Whittington. c. 1985. Dark Valley Destiny, The Life of Robert E. Howard the Creator of Conan. New York: Bluejay. 402 pp.
  • Ellis, Novalyne Price. 2000. One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard the Final Years. Hampton Falls, NH: D.M. Grant Books.
  • Lord, Glenn. 1977. The Last Celt. New York: Berkley. 416 pp.
  • Lord, Glenn (ed.). 1976. The Book of Robert E. Howard. New York: Zebra, 345 pp.
  • Lord, Glenn (ed.). 1976. The Second Book of Robert E. Howard. New York: Zebra, 368 pp.
A review by Georges T. Dodds

[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other collections of Robert E. Howard stories].

It's been over 25 years since I read Robert E. Howard's boxing stories in two Zebra Books paperbacks (The Iron Man and The Incredible Adventures of Dennis Dorgan), and I had my nagging doubts whether the stories would hold up. They better than held up! They're the best thing I've read in months: I was in those stories, bobbing and weaving, taking the body shots, reeling from the uppercuts... and I haven't watched boxing with any interest since Muhammad Ali retired. Is the writing basic, the action bloody and are the plots and characters clichéd as he—? Sure... but something makes these stories lock you in a clinch and not let go: that something is a writer who was a hardcore boxing fan, a boxer himself (at the amateur level), and a Storyteller — passion, experience and talent.

Chris Gruber who edited this collection, which collects only a small portion of Howard's large output of boxing stories, is obviously both a fan and a scholar of Howard's work. For many of the stories, some never reprinted before, he has gone back to the original typescripts or magazine appearances: restoring 10,000 words to "The Iron Man" cut by the editors of Fight Stories (a cut perpetuated in the Zebra paperback); restoring Sailor Steve Costigan as the protagonist of Dennis Dorgan stories, a name change brought on by Howard having to disguise his authorship to avoid having two stories under the same by-line in a single magazine issue.

More so than his Conan and Solomon Kane stories, these stories seem personal to Howard, one almost feels him living them out as he wrote them. At the risk of seeming sexist, I will however say that I can't really see too many women enjoying these particular stories: first, the few women that do appear tend towards 30s conceptions of either angelic or treacherous "dames;" and second, Howard describes in gruesome, graphic, bloody detail the sort of fights that went on in dingy 3rd string boxing clubs, with crooked promoters, shady managers, drunken has-beens, and punch-drunk "iron men" fighters put back in the ring to make a buck, at the risk of ending up "cutting out paper figures" in a mental institution.

The first half of Boxing Stories is devoted the more humourous tales of Sailor Steve Costigan, a merchant seaman who finds a fight in every port. Steve's a man's man, not one of those namby-pamby bookish types, he's a straight arrow, defender of dames and his oppressed fellow men, and while he has some street smarts, he's open to being bamboozled by shifty characters which populate his world. The stories are told from a first person point-of-view, giving one a further sense of how personal the stories were to Howard. However, unlike a number of Howard's heroic characters who seem to have a lingering doom hanging over them, the Costigan stories, from "The Pit of the Serpent" to "Hard-Fisted Sentiment" are light-hearted and humourous. Along with a cast of recurring characters, from his shipmates to people in the boxing world (who recur in many non-Costigan stories), Howard created a fully-developed boxing world as detailed and internally consistent as his Hyperborea.

The second half of Boxing Stories are individual tales, a number of them, "The Iron Men" in particular, about "iron man" fighters, men with poor to middling boxing skills, but who through their seeming imperviousness to head shots (said to be associated with a genetic condition providing thicker meninges around the brain and mild mental retardation) were able to stand in the ring with champions, be beaten to a bloody pulp, but never go down for the count. Here the stories are somewhat less humorous, tinged with the impending doom of death or debilitating brain damage for the "iron men," few fighters make it to the top, many end up drunken (if eventually rehabilitated) wrecks. Howard, a long-time boxing fan, weaves in the stories of a number of real fighters, cross-references fighters and fights through the stories, building a world which is vibrant and as real as fiction can be. And throughout, the action grabs you, you're in there with the fighter, in the mayhem, in the blood, hanging from the ropes, pounding the living crap out of your opponent, your eyes puffed closed, your hand broken, on the verge of panic when your best shots leave your opponent battered but standing, waking up in the dressing room not knowing if you won or lost.

The tales in Boxing Stories are not stories of today's boxing, with boxing commissions, ring doctors, fighters called out on TKOs at the first sign of a cut or a bout of dizzyness, they're much more primal, more along the lines of Charles Bronson in Hard Times (1975) (especially the Steve Costigan stories), or, if brought up to date, in 1999's The Fight Club. These stories are neither politically correct nor do they pull any punches in terms of graphic brutality. They are, however, among Howard's most personal works and a must read for any Howard fan, for any boxing fan, for anyone who wants to see how a great storyteller weaves his magic.

Boxing Stories
Title Some Other Appearances
Introduction (Chris Gruber)  
In the Ring (poem) REH Fight Magazine, No. 4, Oct. 1996
The Pit of the Serpent Fight Stories, July 1929
Vikings of the Gloves Fight Stories, Feb. 1932
Waterfront Law as "The TNT Punch" in Action Stories, Jan. 1931
The Bull Dog Breed Fight Stories, Feb. 1930
Cultured Cauliflowers as "In High Society" in The Incredible Adventures of Dennis Dorgan FAX Collectors' Edition, 1974; Zebra, 1976
Texas Fists Fight Stories, May 1931
A New Game for Costigan as "Playing Journalist" in The Incredible Adventures of Dennis Dorgan FAX Collectors' Edition, 1974; Zebra, 1976
The Champion of the Forecastle as "Champ of the Forecastle" in Fight Stories, Nov. 1930
Hard-Fisted Sentiment REH Fight Magazine, No. 4, Oct. 1996
The Fightin'est Pair as "Breed of Battle" in Action Stories, Nov. 1931
Kid Lavigne is Dead The Ring, June 1928
The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux as "The Apparition in the Prize Ring" in Ghost Stories, April 1929 (as by John Taverel)
Crowd-Horror Argosy All Story Weekly, June 20, 1929
Kid Galahad Sport Story Magazine, Dec. 25, 1931
When You Were a Set-Up and I Was a Ham REH Fight Magazine, No. 2, Sept. 1990
Iron Men abridged as "The Iron Man" in Fight Stories, June 1930
The Iron Man, Zebra, 1976
Fists of the Desert as "Iron Jaw" in Dime Sports Magazine, Apr. 1936
The Iron Man, Zebra, 1976
They Always Come Back The Iron Man, D.M. Grant, 1976; Zebra, 1976

Copyright © 2005 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association and maintains a site reflecting his tastes in imaginative literature.

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