While he’s most popularly known for his fantasy creations of Conan, King Kull and Solomon Kane, Bob Howard’s love of boxing is well documented-both a fervent admirer of the sport of his time, deeply knowledgeable of its history, and also as an amateur pugilist in his own right, taking part in bouts behind the ice-house at Cross Plains, and his passion for boxing is clearly evidenced by the number of boxing yarns he wrote during his short-lived writing career. The Robert E Howard Foundation’s Fists of Iron series, ensuring all his boxing stories, drafts. poems and ephemera are in print, is spread across four substantial volumes of material. My copies have sat on the shelf waiting my attention for far too long- the shipping note and customs declaration for my copy of the first volume, complete with that magical Cross Plains Post Office stamp, is dated June 2013. Other than picking a volume up to browse through or read an isolated story or two, these collections of his Boxing stories have been waiting. And waiting. But 2013? Yikes. And I thought some of my DVDs/Blu-rays had it bad.
So I have decided to strike out and try work my way through these Fists of Iron volumes (albeit I’m sure to become distracted by the pull of some of his other yarns before long, such as his Westerns or Fantasy works, because I suspect constant boxing stories may become wearing, in time, no matter how enjoyable they are). Many of the boxing stories contained in these books are familiar to me, having read most of them at least once before over the decades that I’ve been reading Howard’s fiction, but nonetheless I am certain there are many gathered here that I haven’t read at all, certainly in the pure ‘original text’ versions that the REH Foundation prides itself upon. In the case of this story, there are two different versions, one had featured in Bison Books’ Boxing Stories collection and the other Del Rey’s The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard collection, and both feature in this first Fists of Iron volume. Seems double and triple-dipping isn’t just reserved for home video formats…
“The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux” is a lesser tale of Howards that is perfectly fine, and which has a particular fame for being Howards first professional sale outside of Weird Tales. As one might suspect from it being sold to Ghost Stories (following rejections from the Fight Stories and Argosy pulps), this is a boxing short with a supernatural bent. Its less pronounced in the version here, from one of Howard’s own carbon copies- likely the version Fight Stories rejected. The ghostly stuff features more prominently in the published version- possibly at the request of the Ghost Stories editor or perhaps more an example of Howard tailoring his stories to a particular market, adjusting its tone to more likely get a sale (he even retitled it to “The Apparition in the Prize-Ring”).
Its the story about Ace Jessel and his epic bout with Mankiller Gomez, a brutal, almost primordial fighter who has swept all before him, taking the title from a fighter who Ace had been in line to fight. Ace is clearly outmatched but seems to take courage from a painting of his lifelong hero and inspiration, the boxer Tom Molyneaux, a black boxer who died a hundred years prior. Unbeknownst to Ace, his concerned manager John Taverel is compelled to bring the painting to ringside, and when Ace is bloodied and near-beaten, Taveral unfurls it so that Ace can see it, and the ghost of Molyneaux comes to Ace’s aid.
Which is a lousy summary of a simple story which, while it doesn’t really at all surprise, nonetheless proves to be a perfect example of just how great a storyteller Bob Howard was. I haven’t read any other author who can capture action like Howard could- his description of the bout is riveting and exciting and its impossible not to get caught up in it. I can’t say I have any particular interest in boxing at all, but I really enjoy Howards boxing yarns (the humorous ones are the best, as they demonstrate Howard’s surprising grasp of comedy) and the supernatural element gives this one a particular flavour worthy of a Twilight Zone segment. Its really pretty good.