Fists of Iron: Round 2

firsts of iron round 2As frequent visitors to my site know, I’m a pretty big fan of Robert E. Howard’s writing. I’m not any kind of a boxing aficionado, but some years back I decided to pick up a copy of The Incredible Adventures of Dennis Dorgan, a Zebra paperback with a bevy of Howard’s tales about an American sailor named, wait for it, Dennis Dorgan. We see very little of Dorgan at sea, however, unless he’s just getting off his boat, because all of the tales involve him battling in one kind of boxing ring or another. I never finished the book, so I can’t tell you exactly why I went ahead and invested in the first two books of the complete boxing stories of Robert E. Howard.

Come to think of it, maybe I can.

Robert E. Howard was a consumate storyteller. When I think how much he could pull off by the time of his death at age 30 I ache to know what he could have done if he’d had more years to write. The boxing stories are tall tales, intended for long-vanished pulp magazines dedicated to attract fight fans and they’re thus crammed with details about hand-to-hand combat. A lot of the battles are with boxing gloves and are waged by boxing rules, but some of them are more bare-knuckled bruisers. In the series stories there’s usually not too much going on apart from the obvious, but part of their charm is the main character’s unreliability and inability to see the obvious. Hard as it may be for the uninitiated to believe, Robert E. Howard had a knack for comedy.

dennis dorganFists of Iron: Round 1 was released last year and dealt mostly with serious standalone boxing stories written earlier in Howard’s career. I’ve yet to finish it, although I’ve enjoyed what I’ve tried. But I have read my way through Fists of Iron: Round 2 since my return from vacation, probably because every tale within is centered around sailor Steve Costigan, and they’re more polished than many of the stories in Round 1.

Here’s the funny thing about that old Dennis Dorgan book. ALL the Dennis Dorgan tales were originally Costigan stories, with a name change so that REH could sell them to a different market. Confusing, huh?  REH was a working writer and had to find a way to get stories into as many markets as possible so as to put bread on the table. If that meant changing the titular Steve Costigan to Dennis Dorgan and the name of Steve’s bulldog Mike to Spike, then so be it.

Here’s what you’ll get in Round 2: the first half of the Steve Costigan stories (the second half is to come with the printing of Round 3) and various related fragments that have wisely been left in the appendices rather than mixed in with the complete stories. Series editors Patrice Louinet, Christopher Gruber, and Mark Finn have done an excellent job in the introductions and afterwords to both volumes, placing the stories in historical context, evaluating them, and digging deep into their themes. I typically take some issue with the way editors describe or evaluate stories, but so far these three have been bang on the money with everything, saying just enough in their evaluations to provide insight without actually giving everything away. Once I finished reading a story I always went back to their analysis of it and sometimes proverbial light bulbs lit above me.

These stories are formulaic, a fact Howard himself was trying to overcome, although as he discovered, if he varied from formula too much the magazines didn’t seem to want to publish them. Fists of Iron: Round 2 collects both published AND unpublished Costigan stories, and so you’ll see a trick or a plot angle that was used in an unpublished story used again later, in a story that WAS published if you’re reading the collection straight through. This can, unfortunately, add to the feeling of sameness, but it also provides you with an eye towards how REH worked. By God, if he had a plot idea he liked in a rejected story, he’d plug it into some new story, knowing that the other would never see print. (Likely he could NEVER have foreseen that there’d be a foundation to preserve his works.)

Round1-smallA reader shouldn’t gorge on these, but enjoy a little bit at a time, as a reader would have done if he or she were  subscribing to a magazine where the story would have been but one selection in a table of contents. That way the repetitive nature of the stories doesn’t pound you over the head. Spacing them out a little at a time over the last weeks I found myself looking forward to whatever ridiculous scrape Steve Costigan would get himself into, whether it be fighting for some wild-eyed Texans, battling for his skipper’s ship’s papers, or trying to locate his lost bulldog, Mike, in what is arguably the strongest short story in the entire collection, “The Fighten’ist Pair,” which succeeds best because of an added layer of complexity, humor, and actual concern over what’s been done with Steve’s loyal canine friend.

I don’t happen to think that  everything Howard wrote was gold (EVERYTHING he wrote that was published in his lifetime was written in a short span of years before his death at 30, so some stuff is obviously  going to be rougher than others). I discovered that I was pretty uninterested in a recent collection of his weird menace stories, for instance. Your own REH mileage may vary. I can predict that some of you even with shared taste wouldn’t quite find these to your liking. They certainly aren’t PC, or especially refined, and there are no real female characters to speak of… but then nearly everyone is a stereotype, including Costigan himself, as befits a tall tale.

HeroesOfBearCreekOn the other hand, if you want some great examples of hand-to-hand combat mixed in with some tall-tale humor, Round 2 is a great place to get them. Most of the stories may not be quite top drawer Robert E. Howard, but they’re a lot better than you’d think they’d be, even if you’re not a boxing fan (I suppose that if you ARE, you’ll be super pleased).

I have a large stack of TBR books, some of them quite long, and some of them bound to be impossible to put down. In the midst of too many writing projects I just don’t have the time to read long absorbing works, so it has been a sincere pleasure to sit back with a short Steve Costigan tale every other night or so for the last couple of weeks, enough that I miss having new ones and look forward to the release of Round 3Round 2 left me with a smile on my face. I suppose while I’m waiting for Round 3 I can dig back into my collection of REH’s tall tales about his western hero, Breckenridge Elkins. Another series that’s good for some laughs and that shouldn’t be read back to back.

My final verdict? I am pleased to have purchased the book, and look forward to reading the rest of the series. I commend the Robert E. Howard foundation and the series editors for taking such good care of these neglected works.



6 Comments on “Fists of Iron: Round 2

  1. I have a hardback of Dennis Dorgan stories that I read from time to time.

    “I stood him on his neck in a corner.” has to be one of the most evocative phrases in the English language.

    • There’s lot of great stuff like that in these, and if you read too many in a row I discovered that they don’t stick out as easily.

      There’s a sort of rough draft one in this second volume that’s really the first Costigan tale that’s cracking me up more than some of the official ones.

  2. I’m a big fan of REH (like a lot of people my age, I cut my teeth on paperbacks with Frazetta covers), but I’ve never even heard of Dorgan (ha!). Kull, Conan, Dorgan, Costigan, the shifting names are for similar characters. I’ve got a friend who’s even more fixated on REH than I am – I think he’s attracted to the strong, unequivocal leads – and I’ll have to bring this up to him. Actually, I’ll forward it to him, right now!

    • Well, the boxing stuff is totally worth it, so long as you keep the caveats above in mind.

      Incidentally, we’ve been watching Attack On Titan. Mostly enjoying it, although I tire that the characters stand around talking about their emotions and how they’re GOING to take action and fret that they’re NOT worthy… entire episodes are eaten up with that stuff.

      Still, it’s the most engaging anime series I’ve seen since Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood (not to be confused with the other Full Metal Alchemist, which went off the rails when it stopped following the manga). But it can’t really hold a candle to the plot arcs and character development and pacing of FMAB.

      • You’ve got me pretty excited about FMAB, it’s next on my list. A on T is good, but the characters constant doubts are a little agonizing – and sometimes they had the same doubts, when I wanted them to move on to other issues. That said, it was still good, and I’m still looking forward to season 2.

  3. Hello Howard! Thanks for the kind words. You’re a true advocate for the great pulp era authors. Mark Finn and I have bellowed long and loud as advocates for these stories. Patrice Louinet has steered this project with more skill and aplomb than even the Old Man himself. One could say that this series is our very own Sea Girl and all of you who enjoy them ought to style yourselves as the toughest crew aboard the trimmest tramp windjammer on the Seven Seas! Anyway, all hyperbole aside…

    For the fan or scholar who wishes to better understand Howard, and the time period that helped mold him as a modern man, these stories shine a direct light on his life and reveal the kind of man we might likely have met were we to bump into him on a dusty side street in 1930s Cross Plains, Tx. With the intros and essays, we made sure to place these stories into the proper historical context so that the reader might understand the powerful force that boxing was in America. The stories are gems and the best of them deserve inclusion in the ‘best of’ boxing fiction anthologies.

    What a great writer! Thanks for the review!

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