“Read a Damn Book – 172: Red Nails”

in #reviews11 months ago (edited)

When I say the word, “barbarian,” how many people instantly think of the name, “Conan?” (I’m betting quite a few.) The character, Conan the Cimmerian, was created by Robert E. Howard (a frequent correspondent of H.P. Lovecraft) somewhere around 1931, (according to the Wiki page), and the first Howard story that mentions him was “People of the Dark,” published in 1932 in pulp magazine, Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, although I’ve never read that particular tale. Unfortunately, Howard committed suicide in 1936, a mere five years after conceiving what is arguably his most lasting contribution to fantasy fiction. Today, I’m looking at the FINAL Conan story written by Howard, Red Nails.

red nails 1 - (peg).jpg
[This is from the first page of the public domain reprinting of this book. There is no official cover, although there is a thumbnail…]

red nails 2 - (peg).jpg
[…which is too low-res to use as a cover, hence my decision to use the opening blurb… These images are included for review purposes only!]

Robert E. Howard – Red Nails (1936)

Red Nails was originally serialized in 1936 in the pages of Weird Tales, and the version that I read for this review is something I found as a freebie on Amazon, as (again according to the Wiki) the rights to all the Conan stories written by Howard were allowed to fall into the public domain in the 1980s and ‘90s. This version, besides not having a cover or ANY publication information, does have a short introductory note included in it that I’m sure was from the original magazine intro, explaining that readers will probably already know Howard from the many tales he had already published in that magazine, AND, as far as public domain freebies go, it's a good reprinting. I found very few typos or weird formatting errors that might distract from the story. Unfortunately, this would also be the last Conan story that Howard would write before killing himself. In all, he completed 21 Conan tales, and 17 of those were published during his lifetime.

This story, (it’s technically a novella---runs about 85 pages on my machine), as the blurb above indicates, DOES suffer from a common affliction of the era (present in the writing of many folks, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, Ian Fleming, and H.P. Lovecraft): presenting dark skinned folks as “degenerate” races who need to be saved by a white person. If you read a lot of “old” stories, like I do, you run into this post-colonial attitude very frequently, even (as was the case with Conrad) when the author is ultimately trying to speak out AGAINST the cruelty caused by racism. The belief in white “civilization” coming to “help” or “save” people with different skin-tones has caused as much, if not more, damage to world cultures than the warriors and conquerors who came with swords drawn or guns blazing. There is no escaping the racist elements of this tale (or the sexualization of the two primary female characters, although they are both strong, unique figures, as well…)

So…. What can I say about a racist, sexist, pulp story written by a man who committed suicide the very same year that his novella was published? Despite its obvious flaws (which SHOULD be talked about and understood), the story is EXTREMELY good. Howard was a talented writer who knew how to create suspense, how to describe action, how to establish a creepy mood, and how to involve his readers in his narrative. As far as straight-up, adventure fantasy goes, this tale is about as good as you can get, in both tone and quality of writing.

The tale focuses on two primary characters, Valeria---a blonde, curvaceous female pirate, who can certainly hold her own in a brawl and is deadly with her sword, and Conan---the strong as a god, clever warrior, capable of dismantling an entire army of mere mortals with a wave of his axe. These two characters, after some misadventures in a jungle with an ancient and deadly beast, head to a strange, walled city to escape further battles with more monsters. The city appears to be both ancient and deserted as they approach, but once they reach the doors they discover a “degenerate” people who are at war---an ancient war that they were born into---with a separate clan within the city. (It becomes clear, as the story progresses, that these people didn’t BUILD the great city, but merely inhabited it after the original builders either died out or moved on. This is a common racist trope used in Victorian thinking to explain how wonderful structures, like the pyramids, could have been built by “primitive” peoples. They didn’t BUILD those structures, they FOUND them---or they had HELP constructing them. This is complete bullshit, of course, and founded on a belief that white folks are the only ones “civilized” and “advanced” enough to make great things. Ridiculous.)

Conan and Valeria, inevitably, get mixed up in the war, which involves monsters found in the catacombs below the city, sorcerous figures with powerful magical weapons, and a lot of hacking and slashing. As I said above, a great deal of the action that takes place in this story is VERY well written, very exciting, and perfectly paced. There aren’t really any DULL places in the story, and the MOOD is very creepy, claustrophobic, and dripping with decay. These two clans have been fighting for so long that only a few dozen of each are still alive, and the “red nails” of the title refers to the practice by one clan of driving a nail into a wall, painted blood red, to represent another enemy life claimed.

It is a gruesome tale, which (if you’re a fan of the types of stories published in the pulps in the 1930s) is exactly what you want! There is some (described) nudity and sexual suggestion in this story, but no actual sex, although it’s probably still not particularly appropriate for younger folks or religious types.

And, to be fair, the PRICE was right!

Conan would become a much more popular character after Howard’s death, including a really well done Marvel comic in the 1970s featuring stunning artwork by Barry Windsor-Smith. (I used to have the first issue, but I sold it in a moment of weakness when the price topped a hundred bucks… Sad to think that I did that now…) And one of my favorite comics of all time, Sergio Aragones's classic, Groo the Wanderer comic is a direct parody of Conan. There were also a couple movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger back in the '80s, (I liked them at the time, but haven't watched them in many years), and about a million more pop culture artifacts based on Croms' favorite warrior---way too many to list here. (Just check out the Wiki for more details if you’re interested.) In my opinion, though, it often pays to go back to the source, out of curiosity if for no other reason. In this case, it turns out that Howard was a great writer. His ideas were flawed and rather unpleasant by today’s standards, but the guy could spin a yarn. Final word: If you like fantasy, but think Tolkien is a bit too slow, give Howard a try, but be aware that his tales may horrify you in ways you hadn’t expected them to!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)

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I haven't read much pulp-era fantasy, although I have begun adding that to my library insider requests. In D&D games, the Barbarian character class is arguably based on Conan, but in the few stories I've read, he's much more well-rounded than a game character template. He can go full rogue when circumstances demand. He can think enough to outwit a wizard when the situation arises. And, of course, if you need someone to hit the thing until it stops moving and leaks out all its red goo, he can do that, too.

As for the post-colonial attitude, that is indeed a feature of the era. I like G. A. Henty's historical fiction books from the late 1800s, but they do suffer from some of that, too. For his era, he's generally pretty good, but still, it shocks modern sensibilities. One of his books in particular from early in his career as I recall was much more blatantly racist. later on, he improved to proper gentlemanly Victorian paternalistic colonialism.

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