Thursday, April 24, 2014

On the Fistic Horizon

Robert E. Howard’s The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux was originally published in the magazine Ghost Stories in April of 1929.  This is an interesting story combining several of the author’s favorite subjects:  fighting, race relations, supernatural beings, and idolatry.  (When it first appeared it was under the title The Apparition in the Prize Ring, which tends to give much of the story away.) 

Fans of politically correct speech will likely blanch at the occasional N-word and the depiction of one of the characters as a “son of the black jungle…ape-like, primordial—the very spirit of that morass of barbarism from which mankind has so tortuously climbed…”—this is the bad guy, by the way.  The hero of the story—actually, there are two—is also of African origin.   

Unfortunately, the author has the good guy, Ace Jessel, speak in an archaic dialect more akin to that spoken by Jim, Huck’s enslaved friend in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  It may be that this was the model Howard used to make his character sound authentic.  Readers will want to keep in mind that Robert E. Howard wrote this story nearly four decades before the first diversity training class was taught.

Political correctness may also conceal some of the important nuance here.  Both Ace Jessel and the evil Mankiller Gomez, (real name: Balanga Guma, “a born killer” from Senegal), routinely defeat their white challengers through skill and talent, and are international stars on the fighting circuit.  John Taverel, the narrator of the tale, is Jessel’s manager, and his relationship is one of intense respect and sympathy for the struggles of the fighter.  In the end, Taverel helps make Jessel’s victory possible.   Their interaction is very similar to that of Howard’s character of Solomon Kane and his sidekick, the African witchdoctor, N’Longa.

The racism encountered in early 20th Century pulp fiction—and there is admittedly quite a lot—is not monolithic or homogenous across authors of the time period.  Compare Robert E. Howard’s treatment of race to the venomous descriptions that H.P. Lovecraft writes for anyone who is not a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  For yet another perspective, look also at Francis Steven’s perception of ethnicity in her Unseen—Unfeared (1919).  If one looks carefully, what appears superficially as racial stereotyping actually contains evidence of changing attitudes and perceptions towards ‘the other’, even in the 1920s and 1930s.  (But one has to look especially hard for this in H.P. Lovecraft’s work.)

The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux is about an epic prize fight between Ace Jessel and Mankiller Gomez, as told by Jessel’s manager, John Taverel.  Typical of a Howard Story, every round of the fight is lovingly depicted—blood, broken ribs, dwindling consciousness, hysterical crowd—as are the distinctive styles and personalities of the two fighters.  The narrative reads like a newspaper story, an actual blow by blow account, creating a feeling of intense action and immediacy.  This is clearly one of Howard’s strengths when compared to his pulp fiction colleagues: his ability to vividly convey the action and violence that drives the plots of his stories.

And smack in the middle of all this amplified realism is a supernatural manifestation, a kind of sports fan idolatry taken to its weirdly logical extreme.  Readers learn early on that Jessel’s idol—literally—was a famous African American fighter named Tom Molyneaux, who died in Ireland a century earlier.  Ace has a portrait of the fighter that he has repeatedly consulted as some might talk to the statue of a saint.  His manager makes effective use of this fact.  The portrait of the deceased fighter gives the author an opportunity to expound upon the power of images when used to invoke the spirits of the dead.  The religiosity implicit in The Spirit of Tom Molyneaux—good and evil physically duking it out in front of us—makes this a memorable fight story.

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