Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai


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The Conan Re-Read 4: Red Nails

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.

Art by Ken Kelly

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.

Art by Oliver Cuthberson

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.

Art by Mark Schultz

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.”
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.”

Red Nails, chapter 3

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.
“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.

Red Nails, chapter 7
Art by Mark Schultz

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.

https://archive.org/details/WeirdTalesV28N01193607

https://archive.org/details/Weird_Tales_v28n02_1936-08-09/mode/2up

https://archive.org/details/WeirdTalesVolume28Number03/mode/2up

And here is an audiobook version is that’s your preferred mode of access.


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The Conan Re-read 3: The People of the Black Circle

My second story choice was a no-brainer from the beginning: The People of the Black Circle, from September-October 1934 Weird Tales, is the first Robert E. Howard story I ever read, forty years ago, when I first bought a copy of the Italian translation of Conan the Adventurer.
So, my first meeting with Conan, and the story that sold me on the character, the world, and the author.

Art by Karel Thole

This novella-length story is probably Howard’s most accomplished in terms of pure plotting and writing. It features a wide cast, a large number of moving pieces, and the plot has been compared to an Elizabethan drama by none else than Fritz Leiber (a writer that knew something about Elizabethan dramas).

Inspired by the adventure/intrigue stories of Talbot Mundy, The People of the Black Circle is set on the mountain-rimmed border of Vendya – the Hyborian equivalent of Mughal India, and it opens with an impressive set piece about the agony of emperor Bunda Chand, whose soul is being tormented by an evil sorcerer. The sorcerer Khemsa, a servant of the Black Seers, worked his dark arts on Bunda Chand on orders from Kerim Shah, a Turanian spy. Such is the torment the emperor is suffering, that he asks his sister Yasmina to release him by killing him.

The king of Vendhya was dying. Through the hot, stifling night the temple gongs boomed and the conchs roared. Their clamor was a faint echo in the gold-domed chamber where Bunda Chand struggled on the velvet-cushioned dais. Beads of sweat glistened on his dark skin; his fingers twisted the gold-worked fabric beneath him. He was young; no spear had touched him, no poison lurked in his wine. But his veins stood out like blue cords on his temples, and his eyes dilated with the nearness of death. Trembling slave-girls knelt at the foot of the dais, and leaning down to him, watching him with passionate intensity, was his sister, the Devi Yasmina. With her was the wazam, a noble grown old in the royal court.

The People of the Black Circle, chapter 1

This theme of death as a release we already found in The Tower of the Elephant, and acquires a darker meaning if we consider that, at this point, the author’s self-inflicted death is about two years away.

Art by Gary Gianni

Yasmina now wants to find those that caused her brother’s death, and travels to the border to seek the collaboration of a bandit king who’s said to be quite effective in achieving results: Conan the Cimmerian. The local governor has seven of Conan’s men in prison, and hopes to reach some sort of agreement with the barbarian. But when things precipitate, Conan makes a grab for Yasmina, and with the girl on his shoulder, makes for the hills.

Here things get complicated – Conan is simply trying to get back to his men, but is attacked and captured by a not-necesarily-friendly tribe, that refrain from killing him simply because in the past he saved the life of their chieftain. On the Cimmerian’s tracks are the Turanian spy – that wants to get a hold on Yasmina; the Vendyan army – that want to recover their princess; and Khemsa and his lover, who have decided to ditch the Black Seers and go solo, using captive Yasmina as a pawn in their bid for power and riches.

Art by Gary Gianni

Nothing goes according to plan: Khemsa kills Conan’s friend, and incites the tribesmen to kill the Cimmerian; Conan and Yasmina escape, Yimsha hot on their heels, but are intercepted by the Black Seers, that kill Khemsa’s girfriend, cast the sorcerer in a ravine, and steal Yasmina. With his dying breath, Khemsa provides Conan with the information and equipment he needs to get into the citadel of the Seers, and Conan goes on, with the Turanian spy Kerim Shah in tow, because after all the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Conan faces the Seers and makes short thrift of them – and of Kerim Shah, two-faced backstabber that he is.
All’s well?
Not exactly – because now Yasmina’s troops from Vendia find themselves faced with the Turanian cavalry, and the battle is decided when Conan’s raiders join the fight on Yasmina’s side.

Art by Ken Kelly

Whew, that was complicated!

But you never feel lost or confused, reading this story – the prose is crisp, the descriptions are impressive and just right, and the characters are absolutely perfect. Yasmina is not just another pretty face, and Khemsa is probably the best bad guy in the whole series.

A sorcerer in the service of more powerful sorcerers, Khemsa is motivated by very mundane needs, exemplified by his lover, who is as greedy, amoral and ruthless as he is. Khemsa does not dream of world domination, but just of acquiring enough wealth and power to enjoy the good life with his girlfriend.
Yet, he is the sort of guy that can dismissively order an hypnotized man to kill himself, and that at death’s door manages to turn Conan into the weapon of his revenge.
That’s some first-class evil, but elegant.

“I have no more use for you. Kill yourself!”

The People of the Black Circle, chapter 3

The story is very tight, with no filler, and yet there is so much going on that it turns out to be one of the longest in Conan’s canon – and one of the best sales in Howard’s career, getting him 250$ (that would be over 2000$ in today money).
It features an interesting mix of action, intrigue, gruesome sorcery and exoticism, and would make for a great movie – but of course we’ll never get one.

Art by Margaret Brundage (who else?)

The link at the top of this post leads to the Wiki Commons text of Howard’s novella. For those interested, online scans of the three issues of Weird Tales that featured The People of the Black Circle are found in the Internet Archive

https://archive.org/details/weirdtalesv24n03193409

https://archive.org/details/WeirdTalesV24N04193410saspages4856Damaged

https://archive.org/details/WeirdTalesV24n05193411ATLPM

And here is an audiobook version for those of you that would rather listen than read this excellent story.


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The Conan Re-Read 2: Shadows in the Moonlight

I was somewhat surprised when my friend Germano chose Shadows in The Moonlight, published originally in Weird Tales in the April 1934 issue, as the first of his two Robert E. Howard re-read stories.
Shadows in the Moonlight – that was adapted in a comic as Iron Shadows in the Moonlight – is a story I read a long time ago and barely left a mark. Much as I still remember vividly specific scenes from many other Conan stories, this one… not so much.
But because of this I was very interested in what my re-reading of the story would bring to the table.

Shadows in the Moonlight takes us to the shores of the Vilayet Sea, and with its references to the Kozaki and oriental references, shows us – at least in the opening chapter – Harold Lamb’s influence on Robert E. Howard.

We open with Olivia, once daughter of the King of Ophir but now just a slave girl, being pursued by Turanian potentate Shah Amurath. Conan’s sudden appearance puts an end to Amurath’s lecherous intentions. We learn that after a stint as a mercenary, Conan has been part of a multi-ethnic band of raiders, the Kozaki, that Amurath massacred.
To shake any possible pursuer, Conan and Olivia reach a supposedly desert island, where they find a mysterious abandoned ruin, with a scattering of strange life-like iron statues. Olivia – that is somewhat of a scaredy-cat – has a strange nightmare about the origin and nature of the statues.
Some strange creatures lives in the jungle that covers the island.
Pirates arrive.
Conan is captured. Olivia, chased by the strange creature, rescues him.
Conan kills the creature – a giant ape.
The pirates are slaughtered by the re-animated statues.
Conan takes command of the pirates, takes their ship, and looks forward to a life of piracy, with Olivia as his girl.

Art by Sanjulian

A lot of stuff happens in this story, that as a consequence feels – to me, at least – a little overcrowded.
Mind you, there is nothing wrong about this story.
And indeed, upon re-reading it, I found at least two elements that made it more memorable than I remembered.
First, there is the way in which Conan – only survivor of a disastrous battle, hell-bent on vengeance – first appears on the scene…

Olivia, staring up from the ground, saw what she took to be either a savage or a madman advancing on Shah Amurath in an attitude of deadly menace. He was powerfully built, naked but for a girdled loin-cloth, which was stained with blood and crusted with dried mire. His black mane was matted with mud and clotted blood; there were streaks of dried blood on his chest and limbs, dried blood on the long straight sword he gripped in his right hand. From under the tangle of his locks, bloodshot eyes glared like coals of blue fire.

Shadows in the Moonlight, chapter 1

There is a raw animal nature to Conan as he stalks on the stage, an unrestrained violence, that vanishes as soon as his vengeance is done, and Shah Amurath turned into dead meat.

The second interesting element is the fact that Conan actually needs to be rescued by Olivia – that otherwise would be the standard scared, anxious wench, swoon-prone and in need of being protected, so common in sword & sorcery to have become a cliché. But Conan, for all his combat skills, gets knocked out after a duel, and it’s up to the girl to cut him free.

Art by Mark Schultz

The story also features Howard’s barbarism vs civilization theme, this time served us through the experiences of Olivia, that indeed is – through most of the story – the main point of view character.

Her father, and Shah Amurath, they were civilized men. And from them she had had only suffering. She had never encountered any civilized man who treated her with kindness unless there was an ulterior motive behind his actions. Conan had shielded her, protected her, and–so far–demanded nothing in return.

Shadows in the Moonlight, chapter 2

Shadows in the Moonlight might be considered the “standard” Conan plot – last survivor of a mighty battle, Conan comes to a lost, forgotten place with ruins, finds a woman along the way, faces some wild monster and possibly a crowd of enemies, and then moves on to his next adventure.
Could be Shadows in the Moonlight or The Devil in Iron, Red Nails, The Slithering Shadow or Jewels of Gwalhur, or one of a dozen pastiches or apocrypha.

Readers will probably remember most vividly the first of these stories they read (in my case, it was The Slithering Shadow) and consider the others “also-rans”, at least plot-wise, unless Howard managed to slip in something truly memorable.
In the case of Shadow in the Moonlight, apart from the two points I have already mentioned, on this re-read I appreciated Howard’s prose, and some striking imagery in the description of the mysterious not-so-desert island.

Art by John Buscema & Alfredo Alcala

Shadows in the Moonlight is a fun story, and one that might serve as a nice introduction to the Hyborian milieu – it ticks all the boxes, and does it with economy, and a modicum of elegance. Still it is not among my favorites but just, as I said, because I discovered the same formula story in another of its instances in the Howard catalogue.

The story is also a nice jumping off point to discuss Howard’s inspirations and influences.
Re-reading it I found myself wondering whether Cooper & Schoedsack’s King Kong, that had hit the screens the year before the story’s publication, might have influenced Howard.
And I was also reminded that’s been a while since I last read – or re-read – something from Harold Lamb – whose influence on Howard does sometimes go unremarked (especially in my country, where Lamb is all but forgotten).

As usual, I have added links in this post, to a freely available copy of the story, and to the Internet Archive copy of the April 1934 Weir Tales.
And if you don’t feel like reading, here is the audiobook version of Shadows in the Moonlight


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The Conan Re-read 1: The Tower of the Elephant

Robert E. Howard’s The Tower of the Elephant was published in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tale Magazine, and is the first of the two stories I selected for the forthcoming “Four from Conan” episode of my Italian-language podcast, Chiodi Rossi, that we are recording in 48 hours.

Because with my friend Germano we decided to do only four stories for this episode, and each one of us would select two, the choice was particularly hard. I have read all the original Howard-penned Conan stories a number of times, and I have a handful in my “best of Conan of all time” selection.
Choosing only two is torture – especially because one has to be People of the Black Circle.

So I weighed the pros and cons of each possible choice, I checked my counterpart’s choices, and finally decided to go with The Tower of the Elephant.

Art by Sanjulian

The Tower of the Elephant is one of the “Conan as thief” stories, and shows us a young Cimmerian as he learns to know the ways of civilization.
Indeed, the story includes one of the most quoted lines in the whole Conan canon…

Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.

The Tower of the Elephant, chapter 1

The set-up is quite simple – a brash young thief, Conan decides to ply his trade in the Tower of the Elephant, in which the sorcerer Yara holds the Elephant’s Heart, a jewel that is said to be the source of his power. Smart thieves avoid the Tower, that is guarded both magically and mundanely.
But Conan is young, bold, probably overconfident, and looking for challenges…

Art by Benito Gallego

It is a very basic sword & sorcery plot – a simple heist, and indeed the story has been adapted into a roleplaying game scenario, because, really, it’s the perfect setup for an adventure.
Like any basic heist story, it features a rival for the hero – Taurus of Nemedia – and a number of menaces/traps/tests the hero need to overcome to reach their goal.

But Robert E. Howard at 27 was a more sophisticated and smart writer than your run of the mill sword & sorcery hack, and he slips a stunning twist in the last chapter, while infusing his story with what can be only described as sense of wonder.
Pure, unadulterated, science-fictional sense of wonder.

Art by Mark Schultz

Because the Tower turns out to be the prison of Yag-kosha, a member of a space-faring species that has been on Earth for ages, a witness to the rise of the Hyborian world. Confronting blind, chained Yag-kosha, Conan is offered an overview not only of the history of his world, but also of the wonders of the cosmos, and is finally made into the instrument of the creature’s liberation and revenge.

Ruthless and amoral he can be, but Conan holds a barbarian’s simple sense of justice, and his horror at the condition of Yag-kosha counterpoints the awe the reader feels for the wonders the creature describes.

The story is fun, surprising, and carries the raw energy of Howard at his best.
It is compact and essential, and still packs quite a punch.

We saw men grow from the ape and build the shining cities of Valusia, Kamelia, Commoria, and their sisters. We saw them reel before the thrusts of the heathen Atlanteans and Picts and Lemurians. We saw the oceans rise and engulf Atlantis and Lemuria, and the isles of the Picts, and the shining cities of civilization. We saw the survivors of Pictdom and Atlantis build their stone age empires, and go down to ruin, locked in bloody wars. We saw the Picts sink into abysmal savagery, the Atlanteans into apedom again. We saw new savages drift southward in conquering waves from the arctic circle to build a new civilization, with new kingdoms called Nemedia, and Koth, and Aquilonia and their sisters. We saw your people rise under a new name from the jungles of the apes that had been Atlanteans. We saw the descendants of the Lemurians who had survived the cataclysm, rise again through savagery and ride westward, as Hyrkanians. And we saw this race of devils, survivors of the ancient civilization that was before Atlantis sank, come once more into culture and power—this accursed kingdom of Zamora.

The Tower of the Elephant, chapter 3

There are a number of reasons why I chose this story.
I love the setting, the city of Arenjun in the nation of Zamora, and the disreputable neighborhood of the Maul, a kaleidoscope of peoples, deftly described in a single scene.
I like young Conan as he tries to come to terms with civilization.
There is a good deal of action, including a fight with a giant spider (together with giant snakes, quite a common specimen of Hyborian fauna).
We also get a thumbnail summary of Hyborian history.
And the whole third chapter, with Yag-kosha’s narration and death, and then Conan confronting Yara the Sorcerer to dish out some barbarian justice, is absolutely excellent.

This is also one of the rare stories in which Conan does not get the girl – for the simple reason that there is no girl.
And it’s OK like this.

The Tower of the Elephant is a short story, and yet it offers a perfect balance of worldbuilding, action, adventure, horror and wonder. It is strikingly visual, and this explains probably why so many artists have created paintings and sketches based on it.
I have placed a few examples in this post.

I have also linked the electronic text of the story, in Wikisource, and the complete scans of the March ’33 issue of Weird Tales in the Internet Archive.

And as an extra bonus, here is an audio-drama adaptation:


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Re-reading Conan (for starters)

In 2022 I launched an Italian-language podcast called Chiodi Rossi (Red Nails), together with my friend Germano – who is a fine writer and an excellent editor, and a fellow Howard fan.
We started every two week, reviewing and discussing a classic… well, “classic” 1980s fantasy movie – and we started with John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian.

The podcast was well received, and we have somewhat widened our scope – we did a couple movie trailer reviews, we covered the eight episodes of the Amazon Prime series The Rings of Power. Our listeners were reasonably happy with what we did, so we are experimenting further.

And so we said, OK, we are both writers – but discussing our own writing would be in poor taste. Why not discuss the stories that we like from the authors that we love, within the sword & sorcery and fantasy genre?

As a test run, we’ll do an episode about four of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories – having selected two each. We will re-read them, and take notes, and then talk, and record, and inflict the result on our unsuspecting listeners.

The four stories we selected are

  • The Tower of the Elephant
  • Shadows in the Moonlight
  • People of the Black Circle
  • Red Nails

As I mentioned, the podcast is in Italian*, but I’d love to do something for the blog here – maybe a single post on the four stories, maybe a post each.
And then, maybe, do it again with other Conan stories, or other non-Conan stories from Howard, or with stories from other classic authors.
Watch this space.

(* – i can add that I’d love to do an English-language podcast, but first, my spoken English is VERY rusty, and second, in the past I have found out that I am no good when I have to carry a whole episode by myself… but who knows…?)


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Researching the Cimmerian

It is always good when a new job provides the opportunity to go back to a character we love. Right now, I am struggling with doctor John Watson’s voice as I try and finish my first Sherlock Holmes pastiche (the editor’s waiting), but in the meantime, I’ve had to dug out a few books about my old friend Conan the Cimmerian.

Of the various books, none is as thorough as GURPS Conan, but certainly none is as gorgeous as Roy Thomas’ huge Conan – The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Most Savage Barbarian (classy title, uh?), that has been sitting here on my shelf for ages, waiting for the right moment to be something more than a private pleasure, and turn into a research item.

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