This probably isn’t one of Howard’s better known horror stories, and I think in part it’s because it wasn’t published in Weird Tales or any of the other pulps his supernatural tales appeared in. It was published as “The Apparition in the Prize Ring” in the April 1929 issue of the short-lived Ghost Stories.
One of Howard’s life long passions was boxing. He wrote serious and humorous boxing stories, and even in this case, a supernatural boxing story. The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press is currently in the process of publishing Howard’s complete boxing stories in 4 volumes.
This isn’t a particularly scary story, but the ghost angle is central to it. It’s narrated by the manager of boxer Ace Jessel. Jessel is an up and coming fighter, but he doesn’t have the killer instinct to be a great boxer. This is one of Howard’s stories where race is a factor. Jessel is black, as are Tom Molyneaux, the boxer from the previous century he worships, and Mankiller Gomez, the boxer he fights.
There is a clear contrast between the wild Senegalese Gomez (named after the Mexican promoter who first brought him to the ring) and the civilized Jessel. In fact the only use of the N-word is by Jessel in reference to Gomez. To say that Howard engages in the racial stereotypes of his day is to oversimplify his portrayal of race in this work.
Jessel is slated to fight the heavyweight champ when Gomez comes on the scene and takes the title. Soon everyone is trying to get the two men in the ring. Eventually it happens, even though it’s intuitively obvious even to the most casual observer that Jessel doesn’t stand a chance.
Jessel has a life size painting of Molyneaux. The manager comes across Jessel standing before it and asking Molyneaux for help in the upcoming fight. So unbeknownst to Jessel, he takes the painting to the fight. When Jessel is about to go down for the count, he holds it up where Jessel can see it. The painting shakes, and a cold wind blows through the arena, and especially in the ring. Jessel gets up and whips Gomez, winning the title. Only the ref, Jessel, and the manager can see Molyneaux’s ghost.
I know I’ve made the ghost aspect seem trivial and have brushed off the boxing, but I can’t do this story justice in a description. Howard is at the top of his game as he describes the boxing match. The thunder and conflict we see in Howard’s sword and sorcery are all on display. There aren’t a lot of scares in this one, but that’s not the point. The ghost is just the McGuffin that propels the boxing story. This is a different side of Howard many fans haven’t seen. If you’re not familiar with Howard’s boxing stories, this is a good place to start.