Red Nails is one of Robert E. Howard’s most interesting and accomplished pieces of fiction. The title refers to a gruesome procedure used by one of the story’s warring factions to log successful acts of vengeance. The novella was first published in three installments in the July, August-September and October 1936 issues of Weird Tales. It appeared in print immediately after the author’s death in June of that year.
As with his friend H.P. Lovecraft’s later works—The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941), The Shadow Out of Time (1936) and At the Mountains of Madness (1936) come to mind—Howard’s Red Nails seems to be a consolidation and distillation of his favorite themes and techniques. Heroes and villains, male and female alike, are vividly drawn, muscular characters. They exude physicality—as well as blood, sweat, tears and other effluvia in the course of events. Conan and Valeria, the “good guys”, have an earthy good-naturedness that readers can identify with. They are clearly equal partners in this adventure. As for the treacherous Prince Olmec and his creepy, ageless wife Tascela—well, not so much.
There are a lot of bodies in Red Nails, and also a lot of wounds, fractures, torture, excruciating pain, profuse bleeding, decapitations, and not long after, fresh corpses, few of them intact. There is a surprising amount of sadism, which may show the influence of the shudder pulp style. Howard on occasion wrote for these less reputable but popular publications. (This influence can also be seen in one of H.P. Lovecraft’s collaborations with Hazel Heald, the 1932 story The Man of Stone. See also Lovecraft as Shudder Pulp Writer:The Diary of "M.... But Lovecraft was never as convincing with this type of material as Howard.)
Also striking, given the time period, is the depiction of Valeria as a powerful, courageous heroine, easily Conan’s equal, and not entirely dependent on him. Valeria is a successful and respected pirate, a member of the Red Brotherhood, and like Conan, often hired as a mercenary. She does not have the classiness or regal standing of the Devi Yasmina, another of Howard’s strong female characters—she appears in The People of the Black Circle (1934). Nor does Valeria have the tragic, self-destructive, impulsive craziness of Bêlit in Queen of the Black Coast (1934). Rather, she is the barbarian-girl-next-door, and a good match for her hyper-masculine comrade-in-arms.
Conan and Valeria help each other out, each relying on the other’s unique strengths and skills. There is a sort of running joke following various battles: each at one point nags the other to get a fresh ankle wound bandaged. It is a subtle touch, intended to show that the two are equals in the fight. Howard also plays with his readers’ expectations about heroes and heroines. There is the obligatory scene where Conan must rescue the captive and abused Valeria. She is lying naked on an altar before the villainess Tascela, about to be exsanguinated in a cult ritual designed to perpetuate the evil princess’s immortal beauty. But he fails miserably (!) and becomes a captive himself. It is left to a supernatural interloper to halt the grim proceedings.
Red Nails is entertaining simply as an adventure story. There are monsters, evil villains, numerous bloody sword fights, supernatural forces, and a weird, almost sci-fi location. However, as in many of Howard’s stories there is considerable depth if one pauses to look for it amidst all the desperate struggles, pursuits and retreats. The novel is rich in historical allusions, interesting psychology and symbolism. Several philosophical gems are thrown here and there for additional sparkle.
Most of the action takes place inside the weird city of Xuchotl, the interior of which has an interesting, mirror like symmetry that Howard carefully lays out along a north-south axis. There are also four levels, the lowest being the catacombs of the dead, and the highest providing a limited view of the domes and towers of the city. But there are no streets or squares, no open places, and almost no windows. In fact, Conan and Valeria discover that Xuchotl is a claustrophobic series of chambers, halls and stairways, an enormous enclosed palace, with few if any workable exits.
It is a physical and psychological trap, especially for the doomed inhabitants, two clans who are at eternal war with each other, their population gradually diminishing under the curse of endless bloodshed. Xuchotl is clearly Howard’s vision of Hell, an underworld of darkness and unceasing torment that the two adventurers desperately strive to escape.
The horizontal and vertical dimensions of the city could easily serve as the diagram of some tortured psyche, or even the figurative map of a troubled, violent world. Red Nails is a meditation on the theme of revenge, but with the appearance of a monstrous serpent threading its way through the carnage, it also becomes a reflection on the enduring power of evil. Serpent imagery is pervasive in many of Howard’s stories, as a kind of shorthand for regression, atavism and the diabolical.
Howard artfully contrives a dramatic triangle of three factions vying for control of the city, which is also a struggle to possess and control a woman, the mysteriously ageless Tascela. The conflict precedes the arrival of Conan and Valeria by decades. The two living clans, the Tecuhltli in the west and the Xotalanc in the east, continue a bloody feud that started between two brothers over the hand of Tascela. Their respective camps are literally mirror images of each other.
A third suitor, the wizard Tolkemec, had earlier been cruelly vanquished, tortured and left for dead. Mortally wounded, or so it seemed, he vanished years before into the subterranean regions of the dead, leaving no trace, and eventually becoming a terrifying legend. A triangle of course is the least stable form of human relationship, and by taking sides with the Tecuhltli, Conan and Valeria have upset the ecological balance that has kept the blood flowing for so long.
There is an air of decadence—Valeria actually uses this word—hanging over Xuchotl. The references to necromancy, ever present torment and unremitting darkness, both physical and spiritual, seem to be an echo of Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique cycle of stories.
There is also an incongruent overlay of science fiction imagery: the interior of Xuchotl is dimly lit by “green fire jewels” that never run out of energy, and a final conflagration with the wizard Tolkemek includes a weapon that emits a form of lightening and requires metallic surfaces to operate properly. Guards use an elaborate series of mirrors and lenses—the “Eye”—that comprise a vizi-screen with which to watch the enemy as they approach the fortress door. (A similar contraption appears in Howard’s 1934 story Rogues in the House.)
Scattered here and there in Red Nails are wonderful philosophical moments that bring an unexpected depth to the story. During an early altercation with a necromantically reconstituted dinosaur, Conan has this reflection:
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 on 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.
Later on, two Tecuhltli guards begin to wonder what will become of them if their clan, with the help of Conan and Valeria, manages to destroy the enemy once and for all. “Will it not seem strange, to have no foes to fight?” one asks. They cannot imagine a future that will be different from their past.
Interludes like this, as well as the playful banter between Conan and Valerian and the grim psycho-geometry of the doomed city of Xuchotl, elevate Red Nails well above the typical sword and sorcery tale. It should be considered mandatory reading for weird fiction enthusiasts.