It felt right to end our overview of Robert E. Howard’s Conan with the final Conan story, and the one that gave our podcast its name: Red Nails, published between July and October 1936 in Weird Tales. This was my friend Germano’s second choice, and is one of his favorite Conan yarns – while I have always been somewhat cold towards this story in particular.
I first read this story in English, in the paperback of the same title, edited by Karl Edward Wagner, and I agree with Wagner when he says that our knowledge that this is the last Conan story often colors our reading experience, the shadow of Howard’s death weighing heavy on the text, somehow causing us to dislike the story.
The story is set in the jungles at the far south of the Hyborian continent, where Conan follows piratess Valeria, herself on the run after killing a man who tried to rape her. After an encounter with a “dragon” (actually a dinosaur of some sort), the two adventurers reach a strange city; here they get entangled in the feud between two factions that in the last fifty years have been killing each other for control over the city. The arrival of the two foreigners – and their involvement in the feud – is the unforeseen event that causes the situation to precipitate, in a series of betrayals and murder attempts that leave Conan and Valeria as the two sole survivors.
Red Nails was to be the last Conan story, and the last fantasy from Howard – in 1936, Weird Tales was owing the author 1350 dollars (over 27.000 dollars in today money), and Howard had decided to leave the field, and move on to writing westerns – a genre in which he was enjoying a great success and regular payments.
Maybe the decision to leave Weird Tales and fantasy behind explains some of the characteristics of Red Nails – a story Howard himself described as his raciest and darkest.
The people of the lost city of Xuchotl are engaged in a turf war that has been dragging on for five decades, and is fueled by the twisted culture of the citizens – that in various scenes describe in almost obscene fashion the pleasure they got from torturing their enemies.
“Tolkemec warred on both clans. He was a fiend in the form of a human, worse than Xotalanc. He knew many secrets of the city he never told the others. From the crypts of the catacombs he plundered the dead of their grisly secrets—secrets of ancient kings and wizards, long forgotten by the degenerate Xuchotlans our ancestors slew. But all his magic did not aid him the night we of Tecuhltli stormed his castle and butchered all his people. Tolkemec we tortured for many days.”Red Nails, chapter 3
His voice sank to a caressing slur, and a far-away look grew in his eyes, as if he looked back over the years to a scene which caused him intense pleasure.
“Aye, we kept the life in him until he screamed for death as for a bride. At last we took him living from the torture chamber and cast him into a dungeon for the rats to gnaw as he died. From that dungeon, somehow, he managed to escape, and dragged himself into the catacombs. There without doubt he died, for the only way out of the catacombs beneath Tecuhltli is through Tecuhltli, and he never emerged by that way. His bones were never found, and the superstitious among our people swear that his ghost haunts the crypts to this day, wailing among the bones of the dead. Twelve years ago we butchered the people of Tolkemec, but the feud raged on between Tecuhltli and Xotalanc, as it will rage until the last man, the last woman is dead.”
To complicate matters, the obviously evil Tascela, a sort of vampire femme fatale who rules over a portion of the city, has singled out Valeria as her next victim, with the purpose of drinking her life essence and preserving her own youth. Tascela’s attitude towards Valeria is patently homosexual in nature – another example of the “extreme” themes Howard is dropping in his story.
She came down from her dais, playing with a thin gold-hilted dagger. Her eyes burned like nothing on the hither side of hell. She paused beside the altar and spoke in the tense stillness.Red Nails, chapter 7
“Your life shall make me young, white woman!” she said. “I shall lean upon your bosom and place my lips over yours, and slowly—ah, slowly!—sink this blade through your heart, so that your life, fleeing your stiffening body, shall enter mine, making me bloom again with youth and with life everlasting!”
Slowly, like a serpent arching toward its victim, she bent down through the writhing smoke, closer and closer over the now motionless woman who stared up into her glowing dark eyes—eyes that grew larger and deeper, blazing like black moons in the swirling smoke.
The presence of an immortal evil woman as an antagonist in Red Nails signals the story’s debt towards the works of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs – here mixed with the classic “standard Conan plot” featuring a lot city,a woman in peril, a strange monster and some human adversaries.
But this take on the story is much more nihilistic and dark than the usual commercial Conan story, and the sense of decay and despair is impossible to ignore.
Once again Howard provides us with a strong female character, seriously undermining some critics’ claim of generalized misogyny or sexism in Howard’s writing. When he wanted, Howard was more than capable to put on the page fully-developed female characters that were not just ornaments or “men with boobs”.
For sure, in his last outing, Conan goes out with a bang, and Red Nails is enjoyable and masterfully written . despite a few choices that almost seem to be tongue-in-cheek send-offs of the fantasy genre.
“There’s more than one way of skinning a panther.”Red Nails, chapter 1
As usual, I have provided the link to the online text of the story, above, and here are the links at the three issues of Weird Tales in which it was serialized.
And here is an audiobook version is that’s your preferred mode of access.