Glenn Lord, who edited a wonderful collection of Howard’s work back in 1976, describes an early period of discouragement following the author’s initial success selling to Weird Tales. Between 1924 and 1929, Howard experimented with various fiction genres, (even the “confessional”), and eventually sold four short stories, all about boxing, to various publications. One of these was Fight Stories, where he submitted his work with some regularity for several years. Howard published 12 of his pugilist tales in this magazine between 1929 and 1932. His stories had titles like Stand Up and Slug, The Waterfront Wallop, Shore Leave for a Slugger, and a personal favorite, Cannibal Fists.
The 1929 story The Pit of the Serpent—also known as Manila Manslaughter—is representative of Howard’s work in this subgenre. Glenn Lord notes that this tale introduces the character of Sailor Steve Costigan, who would appear in around 27 other stories, (not all of them published). The character is a fighter and a boxer, as was Howard himself. He seems to be Howard’s fictional alter ego, in the same sense that Randolph Carter serves that function for H.P. Lovecraft.
Costigan and another nautical roughneck named Slade are seamen aboard rival merchant marine vessels. While on shore in Manila, the two encounter each other in a dance hall, and vie for the attention of the ambivalent and untrustworthy Raquel La Costa. She is a caricature that more sensitive readers may find politically incorrect. But this is after all a fight story. Enabled by alcohol, the two go off to duke it out in a fight club on the outskirts of town—a place where Slade already has an established reputation.
Though not containing any specific supernatural element, The Pit of the Serpent makes an allusion to one of Howard’s favorite horror themes: that of a subterranean evil expressed through reptilian or serpentine imagery. While Costigan gets ready to fight Slade, his handler provides some history about the location of the fight club:
“This house used to be owned by a crazy Spaniard with more mazuma than brains,” said the dip, helping me undress. “He yearned for bull fightin’ and the like, and he thought up a brand new one. He rigged up this pit and had his servants go out and bring in all kinds of snakes. He’d put two snakes in the pit and let’em fight until they killed each other.”
Like the ill-fated snakes, Costigan and Slade are soon battling in the narrow confines of the ex-serpent pit, and this forms the dramatic core of the fight story. (Imagine cage fighting conducted between stone walls instead of chain link fence.) This being a Howard story, the violence of the fight is described lovingly in graphic detail. Every fractured finger, every bit of scraped or avulsed flesh, every loose and ensanguined tooth is reported with journalistic breathlessness. Though some of the passages about the fight made me wince, as the suspense built, I soon wanted to know who was going to win, and how much longer the loser could remain standing. There are a couple of ‘Go Figure!’ twists at the very end of the story that are entertaining.
Despite the grimness of the setting and action, The Pit of the Serpent is much lighter in tone than Howard’s typical barbarian or horror fantasies. The story is filled with amusing word play, innuendo and bantering among the characters, and the ending makes it clear that if there is any residual doom, it is only that the characters will meet again and resume their contest at some other port of call.