This is a somewhat overdue review, only seventy-eight years after the fact.
‘Red Nails’ is a novella first serialized in 1936 in the July through October issues of Weird Tales, and the last of the tales of Conan the Barbarian penned by Robert E Howard, as well as one of the best. Thanks to the magic of the internet, it is available free of charge to any who care to read it: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/32759 or listen to it: https://librivox.org/red-nails-by-robert-e-howard/
Some of the appeal of this yarn may be lost on any modern reader who has encountered Howard’s many imitators, because this story contains all the elements of the quintessential Conan adventure: from a feisty yet desirable swordswoman, to prehistoric monsters raised by eldritch powers, to lost races (at least two) swimming in their own sadistic corruption and occultism, adepts of black magic (at least three), murder, torture, betrayal, death, and at least one mystic wand issuing a death-ray.
As with all Howard stories, the characters are defined with broad and simple yet bold brush strokes, nor prompted by any complexity of motives to their acts, nor given overmuch to introspection; the action is fast, death is swift, and the mood is one of oppressive eldritch darkness closing in.
In contrast, the theme of this short novel is not simple but somber; it is a meditation on the shared gloom of the robust barbarian man in the dawn of civilization and the corrupt decadent man of civilization’s dusk and death. It a tale about what causes societies to collapse, which, considering the despair of the Great Depression and the Great War, and the rise of pre-civilized neo-barbarians called Nazis and the post-civilized futurists called Communists, was certainly a timely topic in 1936.
As complex and memorable as any major character is the setting: the claustrophobic and terror-haunted city of Xuchotl, ancient beyond all lore, squatting with her many secrets atop her own unexplored labyrinth of catacombs. She has neither fields nor farms nor suburbs surrounding her red walls and windowless towers, nor does any inhabitant enter nor leave. Streets and squares and balconies there are none, for the entire metropolis is roofed over, and the inhabitants never see the sun, or only through narrow slits. The forest outside is said to be thronged by Triassic monsters, brought forward out the deeps the time by long-forgotten arch-wizardry; and these man-eating dragon-gods are adored and placated with human sacrifice, besieging the city of their worshipers with impassible leaguer.
In the opening we meet Valeria the Pirate Queen lost in an ancient forest of monstrous and gloomy trees untrodden for generations by the foot of man. She is the perfect female foil for our barbarian hero Conan, since she is ruthless with a cutlass, as pitiless as any mercenary or buccaneer, beautiful and baleful.
An eldritch monstrosity, perhaps a dinosaur resurrected from the gulfs of time, perhaps a dragon, perhaps something unknown, puts in an appearance. The dinosaurish dragon sets nicely the tone of the story, that is, we encounter things strangely anachronistic and timeless, which might be necromancy of the far past or hypnotic forces and energy weapons from the far future.
While trapped atop a barren crag of rock that peeks above the thick untrodden jungles, with none but a skeleton for company, our two adventurers see the red and black city of Xuchotl from afar, but no light, no movement, no sign of life. There are neither crops nor cattle about the walls. When, after some danger, the pair enters the city to discover it is entirely roofed over. There are corridors and halls, passages and labyrinths, but no streets.
The two adventurers set out to explore the apparently deserted city, but are ensnared in the madness and intrigues of the few remaining inhabitants of this isolated and sunless urban world, for the city holds no one but two small bands or gangs, less than a hundred all told, the still pursuing to the last man the feud initiated by their ancestors. From this feud comes the name of the story:
“Five crimson nails there are to be driven into the pillar of vengeance!”
He pointed at a black column of ebony which stood behind the dais. Hundreds of red dots scarred its polished surface—the bright scarlet heads of heavy copper nails driven into the black wood.
“Five red nails for five Xotalanca lives!” exulted Techotl, and the horrible exultation in the faces of the listeners made them inhuman.
None of the people of Xuchotl spoke loudly. It was as if they had absorbed into their souls the silence of the empty halls and deserted chambers.
The dwellers in this city, a hybrid of Nubians and Egyptians called Tlazitlans, did not build it, but half a century ago had destroyed the decayed descendants of the original magicians who built it, a race called the Xuchotli. These descendants, in their decay, had forgotten both sorcery and swordsmanship, and could not defend themselves from the Tlazitlans. Aided by the treason of a slave, and entering the city by stealth to slay them, the Tlazitlan invaders heaped the dead (or mostly dead) corpses of the Xuchotli in the tunnels far below.
The city is one of immense wealth, with halls of jade and lights that shine from gems — whether this is occult magic or occult science, is unclear. The food is likewise unnaturally grown from fruit-vines that suck their nourishment from the air, and need no husbandry or toil. This leaves the folk of the city free to pursue their endless feud; but not free to leave, because their fear of the dragon-gods of the forest outside pens them within.
In ancient days the two brothers who led the clan fell out in rivalry over a woman, and the rivalry became a feud, which became a war, which became madness.
Valeria listened with morbid fascination. The feud had become a terrible elemental power driving the people of Xuchotl inexorably on to doom and extinction. It filled their whole lives. They were born in it, and they expected to die in it. They never left their barricaded castle except to steal forth into the Halls of Silence that lay between the opposing fortresses, to slay and be slain. Sometimes the raiders returned with frantic captives, or with grim tokens of victory in fight. Sometimes they did not return at all, or returned only as severed limbs cast down before the bolted bronze doors. It was a ghastly, unreal nightmare existence these people lived, shut off from the rest of the world, 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.
The two leaders of the band the adventurers have thrown in with, the Tecuhltli, are a negative reflection of Conan and Valeria, named Olmec and Tescela.
The author against should be quoted:
Olmec was as tall as Conan, and heavier; but there was something repellent about the Tlazitlan, something abysmal and monstrous that contrasted unfavorably with the clean-cut, compact hardness of the Cimmerian. […] If Conan was a figure out of the dawn of Time, Olmec was a shambling, somber shape from the darkness of Time’s pre-dawn.
Tescela is described as being the most beautiful of the women in the city, and only one whose eyes reflect no insanity, but she gazes at Valeria when they first meet with a disturbing hunger amounting to lust. We find out later that this is a lust of hunger for life, for Tescela is a witch, who has kept her youth far beyond natural span by occultic arts, and she feeds off the vitality of young women like Valeria.
I must note, with a snort of disdain, that not one but two reviewers I read in preparation of this article mistake Tascela’s vampire craving for the life and youth of Valeria as a sexual attraction. (This is because we live in a culture, dear readers, as corrupt as that of the degenerates of Xuchotl.)
The war of the two bands trapped in the dead city is conducted only in part by knife and sword. In addition, nameless things or occult weapons are brought forth from the unexplored depths of the catacombs beneath the city, where all the buried dead and not-so-dead warlocks and chieftains of the prior inhabitants of the city lie, and abominations crawl.
As for the balance of the story, I would not dare reveal the rest, and so I will not summarize the various treacheries, escapes, whippings, kidnappings, or exposures to the hypnotic powers of the Black Lotus which ensue. Let us just say that more people end up murdered than at the end of Shakespeare’s HAMLET.
I will, however, reveal the curtain line, which I confess made my heart soar like a hawk. After seeing all the corruption, ruin, occultism, sadism, and vile madness of the catacomb-city, Conan and Valeria are overcome with revulsion, and will not take a single groat, not a gem nor a semi precious stone, lest it be cursed.
“There is enough clean loot in the world for you and me,” she said, straightening to stand tall and splendid before him.
The old blaze came back in his eyes, and this time she did not resist as he caught her fiercely in his arms.
“It’s a long way to the coast,” she said presently, withdrawing her lips from his.
“What matter?” he laughed. “There’s nothing we can’t conquer. We’ll have our feet on a ship’s deck before the Stygians open their ports for the trading season. And then we’ll show the world what plundering means!”
Partisans of feminism no doubt are wondering peevishly whether this boy’s adventure yarn portrays women as being strong characters, since feminists, like all barbarians, are concerned only with strength. The answer is that everyone is portrayed as a total bad-ass and tough as nails, male and female alike.
It is true that the women are all half-nude and gorgeous, but it is also true that the menfolk also tend to follow the Barsoomian fashion of wearing more jewels or weapons than clothes, and they are all built like Adonis.
Despite being a tough as a marine and queen of buccaneers herself, Valeria ends up as a human sacrifice in need of being rescued by Conan. Albeit, before the partisans of feminism read too much into this, it must be noted that the feisty privateeress does take a furious and bloody revenge on whoso has offended her before the tale is over, asking no man’s let; and Olmec, who is much brawnier than Valeria, also needs rescuing by Conan at one point; and the person from whom Olmec and Valeria need rescuing, in both cases, is a woman, the same immortal sorceress who is the source of all the woes of the doomed city. And then that sorceress, before the tale is over, also turns to Conan for rescue when she is menaced by an evil even older, more evil, more insane and deeper lost in the dark arts than she.
So everyone needs rescuing by Conan the Barbarian. (Well, come on, this is a Conan the Barbarian story, after all. If everyone were rescued by someone else, such as the Green Hornet, this would be a Green Hornet story, wouldn’t it?)
In truth, Valeria’s main role is to be the only character capable of seeing both the madness of the city dwellers and the nigh-mystical unity with nature raw in tooth and claw which Robert E Howard attributes to barbarians. This passage is illustrative:
This exhibition of primordial fury chilled the blood in Valeria’s veins, but Conan was too close to the primitive himself to feel anything but a comprehending interest. To the barbarian, no such gulf existed between himself and other men, and the animals, as existed in the conception of Valeria. The monster below them, to Conan, was merely a form of life differing from himself mainly in physical shape. He attributed to it characteristics similar to his own, and saw in its wrath a counterpart of his rages, in its roars and bellowings merely reptilian equivalents to the curses he had bestowed upon it. Feeling a kinship with all wild things, even dragons, it was impossible for him to experience the sick horror which assailed Valeria at the sight of the brute’s ferocity.
I was a little surprised at the number of swearwords found story published in the 1930’s, not to mention at least one gratuitous whipping scene, but aside from that I can recommend this tale to any moderator looking for ideas to steal for a Dungeon and Dragons adventure. It’s got everything.
More to the point, I can recommend this tale to any reader eager for a glorification of bloody adventure and barbarian primitivism, provided one is in the mood for a theme as bitter as day-old black coffee without sugar, bitter as wormwood.
I assume I do not need to explain to anyone why civilization is better than barbarism — the matter is self-explanatory. Barbarians, in addition to lacking laws and letters and machines for moving great weights, commerce by land and sea, and in addition to living lives that are poor, nasty, brutal and short, also lack the capacity to pen fantasy tales glorifying barbarism. That is a civilized vice, and, ironically a vice known only to civilizations already in decay.
But it is a vice we must not be too hasty to condemn! In moderation, it is vice that hinders the growth of the opposite vice, which is the vice called self-satisfaction, worldliness, pride. Civilization is not Eden and certainly is not the New Jerusalem. Like everything outside of paradise, there are costs civilization demands, drawbacks, fair things lost for a season or for forever. Civilization produces pollutions both physical and spiritual, and makes possible vices and evils unimaginable to the primitive hunter-gatherers.
The prime vice that afflicts comfortable civilizations is cowardice. In cowardly days we see the rise of men too womanly even to bear arms in their own self defense, and wishing to deny to others the right to carry weapons, and wishing to press on others the duty to defend them. Barbaric days at least do not allow for that comfortable illusion to persist: the constant savagery, uncertainly, danger and brutality do not allow for cowards to walk abroad unashamed. That is the main appeal of a Conan story.
And there is a real loss to the simpler life of tribe and village where each man knew his place in the world, and most died before age twenty-five within twenty-five miles of where he was born. Instead of being bombed in a sterile an impersonal fashion by a jet aircraft flying too high to be seen, you would most likely be killed by a man staring you in the eyes as he thrust pike or pilum into your guts, and you would have hours in which to die, and speak your last words. Instead of an anonymous bureaucrat assigning you to a death camp, a king or warlord well known to you through your whole life would order your public stoning. It was a world lacking that anonymous complexity of the modern age.
While I myself have no sympathy for the simple life of the days of yore, and no desire to return there, I understand the appeal and do not dismiss it. As much as I admire the conveniences of modern life, and adore the civilized virtues of law and order, self-restraint, courage, temperance, honor, discipline, and proper roles for men and women, nonetheless I also lack sympathy for the sterility and inhumanity of modernity. In sum, I do not regard the mass massacres of Hitler’s Germany or Planned Parenthood’s America as being superior for any reason to those of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan.
So I at least understand the appeal of glamorizing barbarism; but it is a fictitious appeal, a mirage caused by distance. It is as bogus as the daydreams of transhumanists who think technology will usher in a utopia by re-engineering humankind to higher standards. Transhumanism is also a mirage caused by distance in this case, it is merely the golden age set in the the future rather than the past. The noble savage was no more nor less noble than the modern man. The ‘good old days’ ended with expulsion from Eden.
In this case, however, Howard’s thought seems to be that there was something clean and honest in the savage brutality of barbarism, a directness to the life of a brigand or pirate, which civilization corrodes and weakens. The ultimate endpoint of this weakness is seen perfectly exemplified in the hellishly claustrophobic and corpse-choked city of Xuchotl, surrounded by monsters from prehistory. The concern of the last of the feuding Xuchotli is only for death and torture and war and revenge, and the supernatural super weapons to which they turn corrupt them further. At one point, the text says that the Xuchotli have even lost the urge to have children — a particularly chilling note to read now, that we live in an age where the West is suffering underpopulation, and many nations are not even bothering to reproduce at replacement rates.
“We are a dying race, even as those Xuchotlans our ancestors slew. When the feud began there were hundreds in each faction. Now we of Tecuhltli number only these you see before you, and the men who guard the four doors: forty in all. How many Xotalancas there are we do not know, but I doubt if they are much more numerous than we. For fifteen years no children have been born to us, and we have seen none among the Xotalancas.
“We are dying, but before we die we will slay as many of the men of Xotalanc as the gods permit.”
Compared to that, well, honestly, barbarism does seem clean and simple.
So I do not mock the raw and red-splattered daydreams of glamorized barbarism. One service that tales of sword and sorcery provides to the imagination, even the most poorly told of such tales (and ‘Red Nails’ is far, far from being poorly told!) is to rip the reader out of the dull platitudes and quotidian concerns of the present day, and show him the world is larger and stranger and more dangerous than he imagines, and it challenges him to imagine strengths equal to meet those dangers. The suffocating box of modern materialistic thinking has a hole, if only a small one, to penetrate its thick iron, and from without comes a roar of trumpets, the clash of godlike cymbals, the shrieks and screams that issued never from any human throat — but also a refreshing gush of cold, clear air.
There is nothing we cannot conquer. Sweet muses, what a line! We’ll show the word what plundering means! These are the last words Conan, through the pen of Robert E Howard, ever spoke.
And fit words, too. Adieu, great conqueror!
If you enjoyed this detailed foray into the world of Robert E. Howard’s most famous character, peruse other full reviews in John C. Wright’s ongoing Conan review series here. And please read and support John’s work on Patreon! Reprinted with permission.