Hello Sailor!

Thursday , 27, April 2017 15 Comments

Robert Ervin Howard was an incredibly prolific writer, and produced a bibliography so full as to make those of us with limited reading time weep.[1]

Some modern (and not so modern) critics have apparently dismissed Howard as a kind of idiot savant who was able to succeed despite his lack of education and training mainly by luck of having his own obsessions so closely aligned with what the publishing world (and readers) wanted at the time.[2]  This of course denies Howard’s strong autodidactic streak, and ignores the evidence in his work of having read widely and deeply, not only in the pulps of the day – which obviously he would have had to have known well in order to be successful – but also in history, geography, and philosophy.

Some also dismiss Howard as a one-note wonder, and to some extent this isn’t an entirely unfair comment: it’s true that the heroes he’s known for – whether  we’re thinking of the iconic Conan stories or others such as Solomon Kane, Bran Mak Morn, the various Cormacs, perhaps even Dark Agnes or Jack Kirowan! – often seem to be cast from very much the same mold. But although the characters Howard created had a great deal of overlap, it’s not as though other writers have never played with a recurring archetype, searching for just the right formula. Howard was no different.

And if we look more closely at some of his less known characters, we can actually see elements of his more iconic works starting to take root. One such example is Sailor Steve Costigan.

Sailor Steve was first created by in 1929 with the story “The Pit of the Serpent” published in Fight Magazine (July issue) and features in a total of 27 stories, of which only 22 were published during Howard’s lifetime. The total could be raised to 37 stories of course, if one counts the stories Howard wrote using the character Dennis Dorgan – not unreasonable since Dorgan is, other than in name, basically identical. [3]

Steve (and Dorgan) is a lesser-known player on Howard’s stage, in large part because of the simple fact that the magazine in which most of the stories were published – Fight Stories – was not only relatively short-lived, but so niche and bound in time that it simply doesn’t figure on most pulp historians’ horizons.[4]

This is a real shame, because despite the first-glance impression people get from tightly marketed magazines like Fight Stories the tales are very definitely not just a blow by blow account of brawling. In fact, the Sailor Steve Costigan stories share many of the traits that make other Howard heroes so compelling.

One very interesting dimension of pulp era stories featuring a recurring protagonist is the way in which character development is spanned over multiple stories – which may well be written out of chronological sequence.

This is definitely true of Steve, and we learn quite a bit about him over the course of the stories – usually in little dabs here and there in each. And this feels entirely natural: the stories are written in a very engaging and natural first person style that feels like the kind of tall tale an adventurous able seaman like Steve might tell across the table in a bar somewhere.

Of course, it’s never quite clear where Steve’s fantasies take over from reality, but it’s very clear from the stories that, despite his rough manners and violent lifestyle, Steve sees himself as a kind of gentleman and the stories often revolve around mishaps that stem directly from his strict sense of honor and propriety. He often ends up in trouble because he refuses to break faith in one way or another, or because of his compulsion to defend one or another of the young women he meets in his travels – women who as often as not turn out to be foils in the troubles that entangle him.

Here we have what is clearly intended to be a kind of modern-day (and slightly thuggish) incarnation of the knight errant from the chivalric romances[5] who speaks in a broken, under-educated style but nevertheless has elevated dreams and ideals and for that matter makes occasionally surprising literary and historical references that make it clear that there is more to Steve than meets the eye. This is a rich and deep character that at first glance might seem like a kind of “blue collar” caricature, but it really doesn’t take very long at all to realize that – like any real person – he has real substance, and dismissing him for his rough appearance and his blunt, unembellished  speech is a serious mistake. There are depths here. Costigan himself modestly positions himself as a mere brawler (if as the best of brawlers) but you can so obviously place the man alongside Howard’s other heroes that it’s easy to imagine him as yet another reincarnation of some ancient ideal speaking through Howard’s pen.

So all this is grand, but what does Howard do with him?

As the nature of the venues in which they were mostly published suggests, the Steve Costigan boxing stories do indeed feature rather a lot of fighting, and Howard treats us to descriptions of Costigan’s battles that – while very accessible to even a naif of the Noble Art – will likely be the more vivid to readers who know exactly what he is describing.

That said, Howard doesn’t waste time on detailed blow by blow – yes, he describes specific exchanges, but mainly these serve to give the reader a more vivid impression of the styles of the fighters, and to set up the flow of events which Howard describes in much more general terms. We’re certainly not drowned in the kind of detail that, say, MilSF would throw at the reader.

And even so, the fact of the matter is that the fights themselves are actually a relatively small part of far more sophisticated stories that actually revolve around such things as revolutionaries, criminal plots, assassination attempts, mysterious puppet-masters, missing jewels, kidnappings, daring rescues, even comedies of error and romance, all set in exotic venues ranging from Hong Kong and South East Asia to a circus on the coast of California and even Howard’s own Texas.

By the time Howard really hit his stride with these Sailor Steve Costigan stories, we can already see his growing skill at painting the fantastic realms of his various swordsmen – but I think that in no small measure it’s here in the Costigan stories that we can see Howard experimenting with the ultimate essential elements of his universal hero type.

These stories are definitely worth the time for anyone who finds the other echoes of Howard’s universal Platonic ideal of the hero compelling; they’re a refreshing change of pace from  the usual sword and sorcery of the pulps while also being very different from the gumshoe stories and planetary romances that are most people’s other experience with the period.

So get out there and read them – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

[1] See the full, demoralizing scope of what of REH’s work you have never read or even heard of here.

[2] I suspect we could all point to writers who seem to fall into this category in various ages, including the current one.

[3] But not counting the story “Skull Face” which was serialized in Weird Tales in 1929 and also features a character named Steve Costigan – despite the name, this character is very different and clearly not related to our present sailor, though this is a very interesting story in its own right!

[4] Interest in combat sports has risen dramatically in recent years with things like the various mixed martial arts leagues, but for decades the general interest was quite low compared to the near obsessive interest boxing enjoyed in the 1920s and 1930s.

[5] And in fact the basic story beats are remarkably close to what might be expected in the “misadventure” style of romances!

15 Comments
  • Vlad James says:

    Not going to lie; if I saw a work with that cover, I would buy it on the spot.

    Between the awesome title, the promise of wild fisticuffs, a surly sailor, and his equally mean bulldog, what more could one want?

    As for boxing, the sport was at its most popular from the 1900s to the 1940s. From 1950 onward, it has steadily fallen in prestige and mainstream appeal.

  • Kevyn Winkless says:

    Yes, and the 1920s and 1930s were a particularly strong period for boxing in the United States, with a number of fighters having household name type celebrity (Jack Dempsey for example). I’m not well versed in the sport, so encountering these stories was very interesting for a few reasons – my first few stories were great, but I started to notice certain terms and turns of phrase coming up regularly and got curious: looking into them, I found that Howard was very deliberately using the jargon of the sport to pack description into just a few words. As a complete stranger to the vocabulary, I could still enjoy the description and the story, but for those who can reflexively imagine exactly what he’s referring to I imagine the fight scenes are truly vivid. Obviously, he was writing for a very specific audience of people so into the sport that they would buy a literary magazine with boxing as its theme, but even outside that audience I suspect that Howard was skilfully mobilizing a fact of life: for most people, descriptions of fights in the sports pages or announcers on the radio would have been their most common exposure to fights. The jargon would have been familiar, and would serve to stimulate their imaginations in just the right way. I really think there’s a whole layer to these stories that isn’t really accessible to me because of it.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    I haven’t read any of his boxing stories. And, dang those REH Foundation collections are expensive.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Yes, they are rather pricey – I regard it as a good cause though. That said, nearly all the originally printed stories (ie the ones that weren’t published posthumously when they were discovered in his papers years later) are available as public domain online. They may take a bit of searching – especially if you want the original feel of reading them in the actual Fight Magazine or other venues – but they’re archived all over the place.

      And although they’re billed as “boxing stories” I really think that does them a disservice. The fights are definitely a key feature of the stories, but many of them are also hell-for-leather adventure tales where the boxing really just replaces the swordplay you might see in a sword and sandals fantasy.

      • Jon Mollison says:

        That’s true of the few fight stories magazines I’ve read, too. Except that in my experience the stories were more about human relationships than globe hopping adventure: dealing with a screwup brother, regaining trust, and that sort of thing.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    It has been a long time since I read any of the Steve Costigan stories, but I think you’re spot on regarding Howard’s use of boxing jargon. My father and one of my uncles, both of whom boxed while in the service, liked Howard’s boxing stories as much or more than his Conan or Kull tales.

  • deuce says:

    REH was a devoted boxing aficionado. Not only did he attend boxing matches and write in to serious boxing publications, he amateur boxed himself. There is no longer any doubt of that.

    Check out this link:

    http://www.rehtwogunraconteur.com/category/howard-the-pugilist/

    You’ll have to scroll through posts that just announce publication of the REHF boxing volumes, but there are plenty of excellent blog entries on boxing in the TGR archive.

    Most of the Sailor Steve tales, besides being exciting, are genuinely funny. I got to hear a live, ensemble “radio-style” performance of a Costigan yarn at Howard Days 2006. The whole audience, including kids who had no real idea about REH, was laughing through the performance.

  • Bryce says:

    Great introduction. I’ve always been surprised that there’s not more Costigan talk when people bring up REH.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      Well, I blame you for my current obsession, so I’m glad you liked it.

      I agree: now that I’ve been exposed to the Costigan stories the way the character interlocks with Howard’s other heroes is fascinating and it’s very surprising that there isn’t more discussion of him in any survey of REH’s work. It seems obvious to me that there are ways in which his exploration of this character feeds into the creation of later characters.

      I don’t have half the scholarship in REH literature that others do, so I can’t really do the subject justice, but it’s definitely amazing that no-one has talked about the connections in the past. I can only guess that the stories are “hidden” behind the heroes that shine more vividly in the canon and by the fact they were published in venues that are much less visible today than others.

      (I suspect as well a bit of elitism)

  • Rufusdog says:

    Because of this web site I am reading through the Conan books, really enjoying them, reminds me of L’amour but with a large helping of weird. The short story format was off putting at first, but it’s grown on me.

    • Kevyn Winkless says:

      I’m glad to hear that: shorts are where SFF really shines, when it’s done well. I hope you’ll explore further!

  • Terry Sanders says:

    Louis L’Amour wrore quite a few stories of this sort–complete with the jargon. He went West instead of voyaging through strange realms of time and space, but they started from very similar ports…

    • deuce says:

      L’Amour did a bit of boxing. His tales of Ponga Jim could’ve been the early, sea-borne exploits of REH’s El Borak, albeit set a bit late. Howard wrote some very gritty Westerns along with his humorous tales of Breck Elkins and others.

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