Boxing stories of R.E. Howard: Sailor Steve Costigan (1929-1996 )

During his short life, Robert E. Howard was also a boxing enthusiast, who also boxed himself. So in that light, it's not that surprising, that he also wrote several stories about boxing, of which his most prominent work revolves around a hard fisted, heavy weight boxer Steve Costigan. As a note, while Howard's story Skull Face has the main character Stephen Costigan, they aren't the same person, as Stephen is a World War veteran, suffering from severe trauma as well as drug addiction and was never mentioned to be a sailor.

Costigan was the main character in nearly 30 short stories, so I think it's safe to say Howard liked writing about him. If you were wondering 1996 on the year of the publishing, some of the stories were published the first time pretty late.

Steven Costigan isn't a narrator, whose stories should be trusted at face value. He's a man, who seldom sees anything wrong with his own actions, but is quick to point out the shortcomings of other men. While he most of the time get into trouble because of his own actions, be it pure blue eyedness trust toward damsels in distress or his fellow countrymen, he isn't quick to admit if he's been taken for a ride, nor does he even often realize it that quickly, despite he at times does see himself as a brainy type amongst more dimwitted sailors.

Howard is telling all the Costigan stories from a first person point, where Costigan is doing the narration in past tense, recollecting his heroics. He often comes out as someone, who is largely exaggerating his deeds and downplaying not so favourable aspects, like the amount of alcohol, that has lead to the situation he's in at any current story. He paints himself as a chivalric type, who is always willing to help fairer sex or even his competitors in the boxing arena. But doing that, he also often comes out as a stubborn oaf, who isn't able to learn from the mistakes he does, as he's bound to repeat them over and over again. This style leads into many amusing situations, especially when Costigan is after some big payout, a situation which often leads him and his cohorts empty handed because of a reason or an another.

While Costigan isn't the brightest pulp, it has to be noted that he's not a complete idiot either. He might not be as smart as he often thinks he is, but at least he's not a complete simpleton like the main character from the Gent of the Bear Creek, Breckenridge Elkins, is. Sure, Costigan has a tendency to use thick slang and colloquial expression, but he does at least know how to handle himself in the world, despite it often gives him a backhanded slap.

Every story has a pretty similar structure: Costigan, an able bodied seaman of the Sea Lady has just come to port, empty pocketed as always. He's quick to book himself a fight or gets mixed up in a situation that leads into one. The main fight of the story is always a herculean effort, where two heavy weights slug each other in ways that make Rocky Balboa look like a wuss in comparison. This is also where Howard's own boxing background comes in handy, as the matches are, in all their unbelievability, very vividly and kinematically told. The way the action is narrated flows with ease and I'd dare to even say they are among the best-written descriptions of a fist brawls I've read.

The most notable character besides Costigan, is Mike, a white bulldog, that loyally follows his iron fisted master. As far personalities go, Mike mirrors the lummox he follows, and despite he's had a couple of fights himself, Steven is pretty protective of him and even refuses to use him as a combat dog in a couple of stories, despite he's offered good money from placing him on a ring in the shady alleys of Singapore and Hong Kong. Out of the humans aboard the Sea Girl, Costigans best friend is another boxing sailor Bill O'Brien. Sven Larson is a Swedish sailor abroad the Sea Girl, who is often trying to challenge Costigan of the crown of the heavy weight championship of the ship. The captain of the ship is simply called the Old Man, a crusty old sailor, who's also prone to drinking as well as occasionally throwing Costigan out from the crew.

As Costigan is a sailor, the stories take place all over the world, but most often in the eastern region of the world, prominently in the Pacific Ocean area. While his main bouts are mostly against other sailors, he does on an occasion trade punches with the natives as well. On these occasions though it is because he has mixed up with some criminal organization or an other. When that happens, it's not uncommon for his boxing ring challenger to end up helping him in dealing blows with the local crooks.

Costigan stories aren't void of racial slurs or stereotypes. Especially the Chinese are presented in very stereotypical fashion, b y giving them the oh so typical aura of mysticism. There's a slant eye slur here and there as well, but then again, Costigan calls Nordic people square heads as well, so it's not like he's addressing anyone with politically correct manner. Far from it.  

But the way the racial slurs are used does again raise the question of if those slurs and stereotypes exist because of what Howard himself thought about other races, or are they there because of what kind of a personality Costigan was. I do think it's part a little bit both, really. While some of the prejudices in the stories might stem from what Howard himself though, at a part they also feel very natural towards how a man like Costigan would see other people. He's first to admit that he values white people over other races, but at the same time, he doesn't have anything against the Chinese, Africans or Arabs. At the same note, Costigan or the other white folks in the stories aren't really the shining examples of humanity either, so it's not like Howard was blind to human flaws in any race or gender. Costigan also is always willing to praise a person, who is willing to fight bravely, no matter what nationality or skin colour they'd present.

That said, Sailor Steve Costigan stories were a pleasant surprise for me, as I didn't expect much of them when I first embarked upon them. I fully expected them to throw away stories, but that's not really the case with them. Sure enough, they aren't as ambitious as Howard's fantasy tales, but at the same time, they are entertaining and well-written adventures of a hard fisted palooka, who isn't afraid of anything.

If you are interested in reading them, I don't think there's any particular order you'd have to tackle them, as they are relatively self-contained little stories. There's no overlaying story that would connect them all if you don't count Costigans need to be the greatest fighter ever as one. So for some fun, light reading, you could do worse than the (mis)adventures of able bodied seaman Steve Costigan.