Welcome back to the latest installment of Hither Came Conan, where a leading Robert E. Howard expert examines one of the original Conan stories each week, highlighting what’s best. Keith Taylor talks about “Red Nails.” It was the last Conan story written by Howard, who was moving on from fantasy. Read on!
“Red Nails” happens to be one of this writer’s favourite Conan stories, of that particular length, along with “People of the Black Circle” and “The Black Stranger” (which REH also wrote as a Black Vulmea pirate yarn, “Swords of the Red Brotherhood”).
Aside from their general length, they have other elements in common. One is the usual rip-roaring, headlong action, inventiveness, and raw violence which Howard’s name on a story guaranteed. Another is a pattern of shifting alliances and double- or triple-crosses. Yet another is a furious resolution at the end, involving the gory deaths of some of the main players.
The background against which the story unfolds in “Red Nails,” the mad, claustrophobic lost city of Xuchotl, is almost a major character in itself. For a contrast, at the beginning, Howard opened his story in the natural world outside, an immense forest of ancient trees, rocky crags and wild beasts. He introduces his protagonists there, Conan and the Aquilonian pirate, Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. Valeria has killed a mercenary officer who tried to rape her, and before that, had to jump overboard from a pirate ship because “Red Ortho wanted to make me his mistress.”
Conan has followed her south from the mercenary camp with that identical idea. They are almost about to come to sword-strokes when a dragon kills their horses and interrupts the scene – described by Howard as “at once ludicrous and perilous.”
The dragon is interesting. In general design it’s like a stegosaurus, right to the spiked tail, armour plates along the spine, and “absurdly short legs.” The head, though, is not tiny but decidedly big, its vast gape armed with rows of carnivore fangs. It turns out later that the dragon and its kind had in fact been extinct for an epoch or so, and nothing remained of them in the forest but their bones, until the magicians of Xuchotl resurrected them, “clothed in flesh and life.”
Killing the dragon – which Conan does with a makeshift poisoned spear driven into the soft angle of its jaw, from the relatively safe vantage of a high rock – makes a vivid, dramatic episode in itself, but as usual with REH stories, that’s just the curtain-raiser.
Passing from the wilderness into Xuchotl, Conan and Valeria find themselves in a weird, hermetically sealed little world, the entire city built under continuous roofs on four levels, with no open streets or plazas, just endless chambers, halls and corridors, made of jade, marble and other minerals, lit by the eerie, deathless light of glowing fire-jewels.
Beneath its lowest tier lie the ancient, haunted catacombs where at least one monster lurks, and sorcerous devices and weapons may be found by anyone reckless enough to go searching there. It isn’t even necessary to raise crops or herds in Xuchotl; one bit of knowledge that survives among its people is the art of growing food that obtains its nourishment from the air. Therefore, it’s not even necessary to do something as normal and (literally) down-to-earth as work the fields to survive.
Aside from the environment’s being claustrophobic and unreal, it also contains horrors like the skull of an ancient wizard which induces madness merely to see, and a set of pipes whose music sends people into homicidal frenzies. Being born and raised in Xuchotl would be a fate that pretty much ensured insanity. Valeria describes the place as “this crazy city,” succinctly and truly.
The inhabitants of Xuchotl when Conan and Valeria arrive are not its original builders. These are extinct. The squatters are a race who seem like a Hyborian Age version of Meso-Americans. They are generically called Tlazitlans and have names like Techotl, Xatmec and Olmec.
(In passing, the name “Tlazitlan” sounds much like “Aztlan”, the legendary country from which the Aztecs claimed to have come origin- ally. Howard, a voracious reader, with a strong interest in the lore of the Southwest, would surely have known that.)
Since coming to Xuchotl they have divided in two factions, each barricaded into its own stronghold at opposite ends of the city, locked in a demented, mutually suicidal feud.
“It was a ghastly unreal nightmare existence these people lived … caught together like rabid rats in the same trap, butchering one another through the years, crouching and creeping through the sunless corridors to maim and torture and murder.”
Not amazingly, they are dying out. No children have been born among them for years. The feud obsesses them so completely that they do not care. It’s a situation reminiscent of the murderous Southwestern feuds REF depicted in stories like “The Valley of the Lost” and “The Man on the Ground.” In the latter, the protagonist is so consumed by hate that he doesn’t notice he is dead until after he has killed his enemy.
So much for the setting and the situation. The characters Conan and Valeria meet in Xuchotl are as bizarre. Olmec, prince of the Tecuhltli faction, is a Minotaur-like figure, huge, massive and powerful, brutish but cunning, with a thick blue-black beard falling over his chest. He’s treacherous, lustful, cruel, and a villain in general.
Olmec is cruder and less intelligent than his co-ruler in Tecuhltli, the quasi-immortal witch, Tascela. Nor does she share Olmec’s – and the rest of their faction’s – mad obsession with the feud. She is cynically unconcerned with its waste and sadistic monstrousness, and seems to regard her sojourn in Xuchotl, decades long though it has been, as merely a phase in her existence. We’re told that “Valeria found her indifferent callousness more repugnant than Olmec’s naked ferocity.”
Valeria has been somewhat slighted in this review so far, and slighting Valeria of the Red Brotherhood is unsafe. Even if you’re Conan. Valeria is a hellion to stand with that other REH sword woman, Agnes de Chastillon. When Conan follows her through the vast forest and asks her, “Haven’t I made my admiration for you plain?” she answers scornfully, “A stallion could have made it no plainer.”
When the confrontation goes as far as Valeria drawing her sword, and he asks if she wants him to take “that toy” away from her, she tells him these are nothing but big words, and no man breathing can disarm her bare-handed. Conan has to acknowledge that as the simple truth.
When she first encounters the madmen of Xuchotl in a desperate three-to-one fight (and the women, when she meets them, turn out to be just as crazy and cruel), she splits the skull of the first in a hot second, then runs another through the belly, but he doesn’t die at once and Valeria is hard pressed for a while. Finally, she gets an advantage, spits “Dog of hell!” and cuts off the last maniac’s head. After that she hurls it across the room.
Techotl, the man she rescues from his foes on that occasion, seems less insane than the rest. He conceives an admiration for the strangers that brings a touch of normal warmth to his soul, lacking in his fellows, whose lives are “cold, loveless and altogether hideous.” He watches over the outsiders, tastes their food for them, and in the end suffers the usual fate of minor spear-carriers.
Allied with the Tecuhltli faction – mainly because they met them first, and as Conan says, “I’d as soon kill Xotalancas as anybody,” – the adventurers discover that the other side has an advantage in magical devices and techniques. It turns out, though, that they are fewer than their enemies, and they stake everything on a desperate onslaught. It’s probably not a spoiler to reveal that it fails. Then the betrayals begin. Olmec and Tascela double-cross Conan and Valeria. After that, they double- cross each other. However, Conan isn’t dead, as Olmec thinks.
Tascela has taken possession of Valeria, by this time, for her own purposes. Valeria had never liked the way Tascela looked at her, but she suspected Tascela of being Sapphic. Instead, it transpires that Tascela means to renew her youth by sacrificing Valeria, and with Valeria on the altar, Tascela gloating with a knife in her hand, Conan caught in a man-trap and their only real friend in Tecuhltli dead, things are looking bad.
However, a weirdo even more insane than the rest intervenes at the last minute (he’s been referenced or hinted at several times, so this isn’t cheating on Howard’s part) with a deadly electrical wand, and starts killing everybody. The finale makes the last act of Hamlet look like a Sunday school picnic. As Conan observes with some understatement, “It’s been a hell of a night!”
“Red Nails” first appeared as a serial in Weird Tales, over four issues (July – October) in 1936. No review of it would be complete without a mention of the legendary Margaret Brundage’s cover for July, depicting Valeria naked on the altar with Tascela about to slay her – a fairly kinky tableau even by today’s standards.
The story was reprinted in The Sword of Conan in 1952, then by Lancer Books and Sphere Books in Conan the Warrior in the 1970s. Marvel Comics produced a graphic version of “Red Nails” in 1973, scripted by Roy Thomas and brought to life by the superb art of Barry Windsor-Smith. It would have taken Smith to do justice to the story, and he did.
“Red Nails” won’t be out of print, or cease to be sought after, for a long while yet.
From the Dusty Scrolls (Editor comments)
With Red Nails, it seems that Robert E. Howard was done using sword and sorcery to expound on barbarism vs. civilization. In a letter to HP Lovecraft (not Clark Ashton Smith, as has been identifed before), he wrote:
“The last yarn I sold to Weird Tales – and it may well be the last fantasy I’ll ever write – was a three part Conan serial which was the bloodiest and most sexy weird story I ever wrote. I have been dissatisfied with my handling of decaying races in stories, for the reason that degeneracy is so prevalant in such races that even in fiction it can not be ignored as a motive and as a fact if the fiction is to have any claim to realism. I have ignored it in all other stories, as one of the taboos, but I did not ignore it in this story. When, or if, you ever red it, I’d like to know how you like my handling of the subject of lesbianism.”
Finally, in his last Conan story, Howard created a female character who could hold her own against Conan. Sort of. Valeria of the Red Brotherhood is the (in my opinion) the only female lead who could have starred in her own series. She is a first class fighter, fiercely independent, and more than capable of handling herself. Though, Conan saves her life not once, but twice in the story. And she needs to be saved another time by her would-be-slayer. It seems that Howard simply couldn’t resist hanging the ‘damsel in distress’ tag on heroines.
I’m going to write an essay on the moral challenges of Conan. And his first encounter with Valeria in this story is going to be included.
Roland Green’s Conan and the Gods of the Mountain begins immediately after the end of “Red Nails.” With the natives being of a mesoamerican styling, it varies from the usual jungle native/Kushite/similar tropes used in various stories. I’ve read worse Tor pastiches, but also, quite a few better ones. I didn’t think it worth re-reading for this week’s essay. The very end does show that Valeria was ready to acquire a ship and continue traveling with Conan. But he has other ideas:
“Buy you (not us) a ship. Two of us on one ship would divide the crew. I’m for turning landsman, anyway, until the Barachans have forgotten the name of Conan the Cimmerian.”
An animated version of “Red Nails,” starring Ron Perlman and with art from Mark Schultz, never came about.
Marvel’s Savage Tales covered this story in issues 2 and 3.
Prior Posts in the Series:
Here Comes Conan!
The Best Conan Story Written by REH Was…?
Bobby Derie on “The Phoenix in the Sword”
Fletcher Vredenburgh on “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”
Ruminations on “The Phoenix on the Sword”
Jason M Waltz on “The Tower of the Elephant”
John C. Hocking on “The Scarlet Citadel”
Morgan Holmes on “Iron Shadows in the Moon”
David C. Smith on “The Pool of the Black One”
Dave Hardy on “The Vale of Lost Women”
Bob Byrne on Dark Horse’s “Iron Shadows in the Moon”
Jason Durall on “Xuthal of the Dusk”
Scott Oden on “The Devil in Iron”
James McGlothlin on “The Servants of Bit-Yakin”
Fred Adams on “The Black Stranger”
Stephen H. Silver on “Man Eaters of Zamboula”
Next week, it’s Ryan Harvey on “Hour of the Dragon.”
The award-winning Keith Taylor, who has appeared prolifically in Weird Tales, is author of the five-novel Bard series, about the Irish bard Felimid mac Fal. He also cowrote two Cormac mac Art books with Andrew Offutt. I like his in-depth look at Black Vulmea.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!).
He also organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series.
He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.
And he is in a new anthology of new Solar Pons stories, out now.