Updated: Dec 18, 2019
For someone accustomed to Robert E. Howard’s darker, richer stories – and most of us are, since we come from Conan, Solomon Kane, etc – the Steve Costigan sailor/fighter stories can be a hard bite to chew at the beginning, and unless you are a big Howard fan, you might not stick around to see them turning.
But believe me, they do turn.
The first three stories reminds us of those old Hollywood movies from the golden era, very naive, very innocent, with a type of humor so childish to these days it’s almost not funny. They have very straightforward, simple narratives that end up quickly in boxing fights, with absolutely none of Howard’s fabulous descriptions of scenes and places. Noteworthy in them, only the very good presentation of the main character and its placement among the ship’s crew - the toughest on all seven seas - and the boxing matches that I personally imagine would be very hard to describe in a griping way - but that Howard of course is able to picture with his usual maestro. Aside from that only Mike the bulldog stands out!
It’s really on the fourth story – “Winner take All” – that the Howard we know begins to show. More complex plots starts evolving, with Chinese secret societies, gloomy streets and dark back alleys. An atmosphere of lurking menace begins to thrill us as Singapore, as Howard imagines it, looms out of the night - foggy and mysterious, 'dangerous in the daytime; pure Hades at night.'
The difference from the first three stories is astounding, sharp as a cliff rising from the sea. Even the language feels different. Sounds like a real sailor/fighter would talk and it’s kind of cool even now, like gutter-type wise-ass talk: '“One side!” I roared, drawing back my famous right. “I’m fighting somebody here tonight, get me?”'
And then the boxing match description reaches its perfection: it’s organized, limpid and well paced, and you can see the punches and the interaction between the two fighters happening before your eyes. Here, Howard's description has all the rhythm and dynamism of a real fight and keeps you glued to the lines as if you were watching it on TV, eager not to miss a knockout that could happen at any second: '“I missed with a looping left, took a right to the ribs and landed hard under the heart. He spat on my face and began working his arms like pistons – left, right, left, right, to the face and body.”'
As a fighter Steve Costigan is no mayflower, but a Tyson mixed with Ali. Like Ali he could take punches - as the King proved in his legendary fight against Foreman - and like Tyson he carried a bomb on his right hand. Costigan is an easy character to like. He is frank, loyal, kind-hearted and naively romantic. All that on a six-foot, two-hundred pound brute of a sailor-boxer. As he goes on dreaming about the girl he always deems to be perfect - and 'perfectly square,' as he says – he engages in vicious rounds of gory boxing matches watched by dangerous blood-thirsty mobs, and it becomes clear that Costigan is a brute with the heart as soft as a dame and a mind as naive as a child’s. And that’s Steve Costigan right there: a brute in the ring and a fool with the ladies.
The change remains consistent through “Alleys Of Peril,” a really great story. Here Howard mixes crooked managers and babes, dark alleys and secret tongs. The whole atmosphere is menacing and gloomy, just as we like it. And Steve rises up to the challenge, becoming more and more dangerous and formidable, fighting not only on the ring, but knuckled bare and against vicious thugs with knifes and overwhelming numbers. Interesting characters appears,
like Shifty, the crooked manager, a cynical villain to the funniest grade.
Then comes “The Sign Of The Snake” and another notable change happens. It’s way more violent, more brutal, and you think about Conan or El Borak - no flamboyant humor or innocence whatsoever. There’s also a completely different feeling to it, a grandiosity that is highlighted at the end when they philosophize about China.
As the stories go on, a more rascal Steve appears, not a scum, but daring and edgy, like in “Vikings Of The Gloves,” where he pretends to be a Swede to enter a match. And here you reach the best story of them all, just perfect. The right mix of humor and action and twists, that near its end reaches notes of epic proportions. Simply fantastic!
Bottom-line folks, the sailor/fighter stories show a different Howard at the beginning, but I guess that was just him warning up to show really great stories on the way – ones that I will be coming back to very soon. So, I guess you Howard fans that don’t know Steve yet got two choices: either you go straight to “Winner Take All” or “Alleys Of Peril,” or you can take the longer course through the first three stories and see everything for yourself.
Either way you go, not reading it ain’t a choice.