Friday, June 17, 2011

Adventure classics -- A doggone sense of humor

The Fightin’est Pair

by Robert E. Howard


When contemplating the tragedies of Howard’s life and writing it’s all too easy to forget his roguish sense of humor. Or, despite the later fascination with Conan, that during Howard’s life one of his most successful characters was the boxing sailor Steve Costigan. Editor Rusty Burke, writing in “The Best of Robert E. Howard, vol. 1,” reports that twenty-one Costigan stories were published during Howard’s lifetime (twenty-two if including one in which the main character’s name was changed to Dennis Dorgan). By comparison, only seventeen Conan stories were published.

Howard himself was an amateur boxer who turned to the sport after a stint of bodybuilding exercises. Fans of the movie, “The Whole Wide World,” based on Novalyne Price Ellis’s memoir, will remember the scene in which Howard acted out a story by shadow boxing his way through Cross Plains, to the astonishment of his neighbors. It’s hard to believe he didn’t find their bewilderment amusing.

Another sometimes overlooked element in Howard’s nature was his love of animals. Despite the bloodshed in his writing, in life he was acutely sensitive to the pain of others, both human and animal. Howard’s father, writing nearly a decade after his son’s death, reported on the mutual devotion between him and his dog Patch (or Patches), a collie-foxhound mix, in a letter quoted by Patrice Louinet, writing at

In 1929, Howard wrote his first Steve Costigan story. And in the third of the Costigan stories, “The Fightin’est Pair,” (first published under the title “Breed of Battle”) the fighting sailor acquires a companion, his beloved white bulldog Mike. (Since the story refers to pit fighting by dogs, I’m guessing that what Howard had in mind was something closer to the American pit bull terrier whose picture illustrates this post than to an English bulldog.)

Costigan sounds like a man who’s taken a few too many punches to the head. But although he’s happy to fight for money, he’s not willing to hire his dog out. “I’ll tell you straight,” he said, “I think dog fightin’ for money is a dirty low-down game. . . (it) is just too dirty for me to fool with and I ain’t goin’ to get Mike into no such mess.”

Obviously, neither of the pair can get out of that opening without a fight.

(Next Friday: Riding into the sunset with one of Howard’s Western stories.)

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