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Red Nails is the last Conan story Howard wrote and the last major fantasy he completed. On the verge of abandoning fantasy for more commercial concerns, Howard devoted considerable thought and effort to his final allegorical statement. Red Nails was important to Howard, and in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, he expressed his feelings about it:
- Sent a three-part serial to Wright yesterday: "Red Nails," which I devoutly hope he’ll like. A Conan yarn, and the grimmest, bloodiest and most merciless story of the series so far. Too much raw meat, maybe, but I merely portrayed what I honestly believe would be the reactions of certain types of people in the situations on which the plot of the story hung…
Red Nails begins in the jungles far to the south of any known civilized or barbarian lands. Into this forest primeval rides Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, an Aquilonian adventurer and pirate. Howard tells us that “She was tall, full-bosomed and large-limbed, with compact shoulders. Her whole figure reflected an unusual strength, without detracting from the femininity of her appearance. She was all woman…”
Valeria is fleeing persecution for killing a would-be rapist. She is followed into this remote region by Conan, a fellow adventurer who is hoping to make her his woman. Conan, as his fans well know, does not have to go out of his way to obtain the favors of the fairest of the fair sex. Obviously, the woman Valeria represents something special to him; like Bêlit she is a woman of action and would make a fitting mate-woman. Valeria does not welcome Conan’s advances, for living as she has among men, she has been routinely subjected to their constant degrading attention and brutish attempts at coercion. Conan is determined to have her, and Valeria is determined to resist. Valeria is as formidable a warrior as many a man, and Conan is at a loss as to how to deal with her. Callous to constant sexual harassment, Valeria is unable to recognize the genuine respect and admiration Conan sincerely expresses towards her when he says, “`I’m not like that Stygian you knifed, and you know it.’” Conan and Valeria’s antagonism is representative of the battle of the sexes, and Howard describes their confrontation as “a scene at once ludicrous and perilous.”
This antagonism is interrupted by the more pressing concerns of survival. A monstrous dinosaur, a sort of carnivorous stegosaurus, attacks, killing their horses. Conan and Valeria take refuge from the “dragon” atop a crag it cannot scale. They are trapped without food and water, and Valeria is fearful of slow death by starvation. Conan is stoic. Valeria is relieved to spot some fruit within reach, but Conan’s broad experience enables him to recognize it as deadly poison. They formulate and execute a plan to fashion a spear, coat it with poison from the fruit, and drive it into the dragon’s mouth. As the poison begins to take effect, Conan and Valeria attempt to flee. The monster, blinded and in pain, catches their scent and pursues them. Unable to outrun it, Conan turns to face the charging monstrosity. His sword-stroke only wounds it, but diverts its headlong charge so it blindly dashes its brains out against a tree.
Conan and Valeria emerge from the forest and make their way toward a strange walled city they spotted from the crag. As they near it, they are puzzled by the unusualness of the city; there are no grazing herds or cultivated fields and the irrigation system lies in ruins. They can only assume that the city is deserted.
At length they arrive at the door, long since rusted shut. Conan’s great strength enables him to open it, and the couple enters a bizarre twilight world. This city, which they come to know as Xuchotl, is a single massive structure completely enclosed and roofed over. A single great hallway runs the length of the city, but there are no other streets or open courtyards. It consists entirely of four tiers of rooms, chambers, and passageways. Xuchotl is constructed mostly of jade, with traces of lapis lazuli, ivory, and other exotic materials. Whenever possible, Howard likens Xuchotl to a modern city. For example, most of the lighting is artificial, and the main source of illumination is “green fire-stones’ which Conan recognizes as “`the petrified eyes of those prehistoric snakes the ancients called Golden Serpents.’” Xuchotl is thus revealed to be illuminated by a kind of fossil fuel. Such a parallel would readily occur to Howard, who in his youth witnessed the desecration of his frontier environment by Easterners in search of the precious petroleum recently discovered beneath the Texas soil.
Conan and Valeria separate to search the seemingly deserted city. Valeria grows uncomfortable; “These silent rooms and halls with their gleaming green clusters of ornaments and burning crimson floors were beginning to depress her.”110 Soon she discovers a small dark man sneaking through the hallways and before long she is involved in a skirmish between the two factions that dwell at either end of the once populous city. Conan reappears in time to aid Valeria, who has managed to overcome a warrior armed with a sorcerous artifact that saps the will of all that behold it. Techotl, their newfound ally, gleefully gloats over his slain enemies, prompting Conan to remark, “`Who is this madman?’”
Significantly, Howard informs us that Conan notices a latent insanity burning behind the eyes of all the city-dwellers. Techotl urges Conan and Valeria to accompany him to the stronghold of his people, the Tecuhltli. En route, they are attacked in the dark by a monstrous snake-like creature, “the Crawler,” which Conan mortally wounds.
Conan and Valeria are admitted to the area held by the Tecuhltli and are welcomed by the rulers of this faction, Olmec and Tascela. The Tecuhltli exult in the news that five of their enemies, the Xotalancas, have been slain, and in accordance with a grim custom, five red nails are pounded into an ebony pillar. Conan and Valeria rest and are given sustenance in the form of the artificially produced food consumed by all in the city. This food is manufactured by some mysterious process the Tecuhltli only vaguely understand. Once again Xuchotl parallels a modern city in which the inhabitants but dimly comprehend the processes by which their food is produced and brought to them.
Olmec tells Conan and Valeria the history of Xuchotl. The city was built long ago by another race that dwelt there for centuries doing little besides enjoying their leisure to the fullest. The present inhabitants arrived only half a century before, fleeing a revolution in their native land. A slave of the original rulers, Tolkemec, betrayed his masters and admitted the newcomers whom, though intellectually and technologically less advanced, nonetheless supplanted the architects of the city. Thus the new people came to rule a city they only dimly understood. The lessons of history were not lost on Howard, for he knew that in its declining days Rome was inhabited by foreign peoples, most of whom spoke no Latin and had no appreciation for the higher culture they supplanted.
The newcomers to Xuchotl were led by two brothers, Tecuhltli and Xotalanc, and by Tolkmec. They took over different areas of the city and for awhile lived in peace. However, a feud between the brothers began when Tecuhltli stole Xotalanc’s bride. Tolkemec aided and betrayed both sides for his own purposes, until hideously tortured and cast into the city’s catacombs to die. Since that time, the blood-feud has dominated all life in the city.
Howard was familiar with feuds and their damaging effects on a society, for he was steeped in the lore of his pioneer ancestors who knew the grim, bloody feuds of Texas and the Carolinas. He related accounts of these feuds in his letters and wrote of them in his westerns. In “Red Nails,” feud is described as horrible and utterly detrimental to society, and an added dimension of horror is generated by this feud’s urban setting. This ghastly spectacle is paralleled by the gang warfare that exists in the streets of American cities today. Howard knew something of such conditions, having read Herbert Asbury’s study, The Gangs of New York, published in 1927.
Lesbianism is introduced when the princess Tascela ignores Conan as a sexual object and gazes with “burning intensity” at Valeria. Both Olmec and Tascela covet Valeria, and an undercurrent of sexual tension becomes manifest. When Conan and Valeria retire to their separate quarters, Valeria grins with “gleeful malice” as she imagines Conan “muttering with chagrin as he cast himself on his solitary couch.” The sexual aspects of the story become more bizarre when a slave of Tascela, Yasala, attempts to drug Valeria with the black lotus. Angered, Valeria overpowers Yasala, strips her, binds her, and flogs her to make her reveal the motive behind such treachery. Yasala feigns submission and escapes, fleeing into the catacombs. Before Valeria can pursue her, word reaches her that the Xotalancas have breached Tecuhltli defenses.
The balance of power in the city had shifted with the entrance of Conan and Valeria. Previously, Conan had destroyed the Crawler, and Valeria smashed a supernatural artifact used by the Xotalancas. With these weapons lost and the outsiders fighting for their enemies, the Xotalancas have been driven to a desperate attack to end the feud once and for all. A pitched battle takes place in the great throne room. It ends with the extermination of the Xotalancas. Only Conan, Valeria, Olmec, Tascela, and fifteen Tecuhltli remain alive. Conan and a pair of warriors go to Xotalanc to see if any enemies remain there. Valeria stays behind to have her wounds tended.
With Conan gone, Olmec attempts to force himself of Valeria. He is thwarted by Tascela, who is revealed to be a witch and the stolen bride who originally started the feud. She plans to sap Valeria’s vitality to restore her youth. Meanwhile, Conan has entered Xotalanc, where he finds that the Xotalancas preserve the heads of their victims. Olmec had secretly ordered the two warriors to slay Conan. When they attack, Conan kills them and hurries back to Valeria.
On his way, Conan meets Techotl, who had opposed Olmec and Tascela and now crawls in his own life’s blood to warn Conan of their treachery. Returning to Tecuhltli, Conan finds Olmec bound to a torture device. Conan releases him when he agrees to lead him to Tascela and Valeria. However, Olmec attempts another betrayal and Conan kills him.
Conan bursts in on Tascela and her followers, who are engaged in an orgiastic ritual in which Valeria is held down on an altar, the object of the ceremony. Conan’s leg is caught in one of the steel traps Tascela has concealed near the entrances. He is unable to free himself as Tascela prepares to press her lips against those of the nude Valeria, drawing out her life force as the sycophants gaze on with “hot, lustful eyes.” Tascela and her followers move in an orgiastic frenzy while candles fill the room with smoke that is “disturbingly scented.”
Tascela is about to bring the ritual to a bloody climax when the grim tableau is interrupted by a spectre from the past. Tolkemec has returned from “`twelve years among the bones of the dead,’”and bears a weapon left by the former masters of Xuchotl. It is a crystal-tipped wand that fires arcs of electricity to nearby metal, destroying everything in between. It is interesting that Howard wished to present this device as a piece of advanced technology that seems to function in accordance with natural laws, rather than as a magical artifact that flouts natural laws. Tolkemec uses the device to decimate the Tecuhltli until only Conan, Valeria, and Tascela remain. Desperate, Tascela frees Conan. Because Tolkemec’s weapon is subject to natural law, Conan is able to pinpoint its weakness and slay Tolkemec, even as Valeria avenges herself of Tascela with a dagger.
The last inhabitant of the city is dead. Conan takes Valeria in his arms, and this time she does not resist. Scorning the city and its treasure, Conan and Valeria return together to the surrounding wilderness and the world beyond.
In Red Nails one of the most important characters is the city of Xuchotl itself. Howard makes it clear that the city, once shaped by man, now shapes man. In a city, “north” and “south” are replaced by “uptown” and “downtown”; leagues and miles are replaced by blocks and boroughs. In Xuchotl, conventional warfare is replaced by the stealth of urban guerrillas. Wind and weather are no longer a factor, but familiarity with the elaborate network of halls and corridors is essential to the inhabitants, just as modern urban delinquents know the value of being “streetwise.” Knowledge of agriculture is unimportant to today’s city dweller; food appears on supermarket shelves as if by magic. In Xuchotl, Olmec tells Conan and Valeria that their food grows from air.
The people of Xuchotl are held prisoner in the city not just by the dragons they believe to surround it, but by their own complacency. They now prefer their existence (which Howard portrays as a mad parody of normal life) to living in the natural world. Their numbers are dwindling not only because of the feud, but because they can no longer have children. In their artificial environment, they have lost the vitality and perhaps even the instinct to reproduce. All that the people live for is the feud. Only Tascela possesses any sort of instinct for survival, and hers is twisted into a parasitic endeavor to prolong her unnatural youth. The beauty and treasure of the city itself is tainted by the malignant presence of the city dwellers, who do not comprehend or care to comprehend the art, architecture, and technology left to them by the builders.
Into this environment are thrust Conan and Valeria, the elemental man and woman. Their slaying of the dragon early in the story establishes their status as archetypal heroic figures. Howard’s romantic primitivism led him to believe that the presence of such individuals in a decaying society could make a difference; their vitality could perhaps stem the tide of decay. Howard’s contemporary, Aldous Huxley took a more pessimistic view in his 1932 dystopian novel, Brave New World, his “Savage” is held in contempt by civilization, is shunned, and ultimately commits suicide. However, in “Red Nails,” Conan and Valeria’s wills, physical prowess, and untainted mental faculties enable them to alter Xuchotl irrevocably, if only by accelerating its entropy and bringing the hideous charade of life therein to its inevitable denouement. The appearance of Conan and Valeria in Xuchotl brings about its inhabitants’ extinction, but not before they have a positive effect on one of them.
The first person they meet is the warrior Techotl, who develops a strong emotional attachment to them: “In the cold, loveless and altogether hideous life of the Tecuhltli his admiration and affection for the invaders from the outer world formed a warm, human oasis, constituted a tie that connected him with a more natural humanity that was totally lacking in his fellows, whose only emotions were hate, lust, and the urge of sadistic cruelty."
Olmec and Tascela are Conan and Valeria’s urban counterparts. Each possesses physical strength and force of will far in excess of their fellows – they occupy the dominant positions in their society. Olmec is motivated by his obscene appetites and his will to power. Tascela seems to be representative of a certain breed of modern urban woman. Like them, she seeks to prolong her youth by unnatural means and will stop at nothing to achieve her ends.
In “Red Nails,” the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. Tecuhltli and Xotalanc were originally the names of the two brothers who went to war against one another over Tascela, thus initiating the feud. The two brothers, aided by Tolkemec, destroyed the original inhabitants of Xuchotl. This is part of a recurring motif in the story. As the tale opens, Valeria is fleeing the brother of the man she killed. Elsewhere in the story, a Tecuhltli warrior becomes a raving madman when he discovers the preserved heads of his brother and his “father’s younger brother.” Olmec and Tascela, though not siblings, have become the city’s dual rulers, like Tecuhltli and Xotalanc long before, but have a falling out when each lusts for Valeria.
Red Nails reaches its climax with the emergence of Tolkemec from the catacombs, where he has survived for twelve years eating corpses and devolving into something less than human. It was Tolkemec who offered the forbidden fruit of the jade city to the brothers Tecuhltli and Xotalanc; now his very appearance suggests that of the serpent of Eden. Tascela is shocked by Tolkemec’s sudden reappearance, as if he represents fifty years of decadence and decay now catching up with her people. Not surprisingly, it is Conan to whom she turns for salvation from her own depravity.
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- Red Nails • Savage Tales 2-3 (Marvel Comics, October 1973 & February 1974)
- collected in The Chronicles of Conan: Volume 4: The Song of Red Sonja and Other Stories (Dark Horse Comics, 2004)
- Conan: Red Nails (2006) • animated movie (in production)