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‘Costigan of the Sea Girl’
The Pit of the Serpent by Robert E. Howard

Reading from pages 3-18 of Boxing Stories, 2005, University of Nebraska Press

Steve Costigan and the brutish company of sea tramps are the very opposite of their ship, the Sea Girl—as it should be. Their ports of call are places to seek their opposite and to compete with their peers. Irish goons proud to be the merchant marine sons and grandsons of the men who were war slaves to the nation that beat the Spanish at Manila Bay—aligned with romantic notions of honor, comically prey to confidence men, gangsters and all the thugs and thieves of waterfronts worldwide, Sailor Steve Costigan and his mates are an ad hoc Gaelic clan stranded in a half sissy future. In these tales I am reminded of stories told by his peer, who long outlived him, Louis L’Amour, who worked as a merchant mariner and was party to waterfront affrays, including knife fights, a pro boxer who wrote boxing stories of the same ilk as Howard.

Howard must have spoken to someone who led this tramp steamer life, because his setting creeps with shadowy truths. But where L’Amour wrote higher on the literary scale and had a more seasoned fighter’s downbeat view of combat mechanics, Howard maintained that furious amateur thirst for the exchange of blows, the elemental sense that keeps a Costigan forever at the trial horse level, unable to separate himself from the fight and reduce the art of combat to a biomechanical equation.

In this bluntly plotted yarn, Steve falls for a pretty “frail,” a high end Filipino hooker and stumbles drunkenly into a bet fight against a better boxer, arranged in a concrete pit where the locals had once fought snakes and cocks. This bare knuckle affair is realistically related by Howard, who knows the difference between a hook and a swing and also the difference between eating gloved punch and a bare-knuckle one. The difference between male and female—as it is in prize-fighting venues, where selection for brawn and arm-candy beauty, where there come together many Beauty and the Beast pairings—is striking, even by Howard’s standards. Gender disparity in The Pit of the Serpent is taken to a 9 in gender contrast, with the Conan tales being an 8 and the unfinished novel, Almuric, where the men and women are nearly two different species, a 10.

Like everything in Howard’s fiction, Steve’s situation devolved into a test of wills and no writer articulates will as a heroic upwelling of masculine affirmation better than Robert E. Howard.

A Well of Heroes

A Well of Heroes: Two:

Literary Impressions of the Prose and Verse of Robert E. Howard

Add Comment
ShepJanuary 8, 2018 7:27 PM UTC

My physical jabs are only good for timing and measure, but my verbal ones pack the wallop of a thousand exploding suns!
ShepJanuary 7, 2018 1:58 PM UTC


When in Hyperborean mode, nothing other than "Wench" will do.

If a Costigan/Philip Marlowe mood arises, nothing beats "Dame" in the general and "Toots" in the specific. (The latter has to be delivered with Bogart's malocclusion accent.)

For those who place poon on a pedestal, I am told that "O pearl of great price" is a real crowd-pleaser.

And for the frail, small-souled bugman of the Current Year, the commissars have already mandated "Xe" and/or "Xir", depending on the breaks. (Not sure how either one of those is pronounced, and I don't wanna know.)
responds:January 8, 2018 9:04 AM UTC

Thanks, Shep!

My nose split in half at "poon on a pedestal."
ShepJanuary 7, 2018 2:51 AM UTC

I'm on it.
responds:January 7, 2018 3:02 PM UTC

Sir, we need a masculine lexicon permitting the proper address of women.

The fate of Barbarism itself depends on it!
ShepJanuary 5, 2018 3:40 PM UTC

"Education of a Wandering Man" by LL'A is one of the most interesting books I have ever read.

Do you know any of the titles of his boxing stories?
responds:January 6, 2018 12:12 AM UTC

His boxing stories are mostly in his short story collections, like Off the Mangrove Coast. The novel Lando has a great boxing theme.