Sunday, January 04, 2009

Red Nails Revisited


In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard refers to Red Nails as "the grimmest, bloodiest, and most merciless story of the series so far."
He's not kidding. Red Nails is a blood drenched yarn of murder and battles and torture and sadism and cannibalism and madness. And through it all stalks Conan the Cimmerian. It had been a couple of years since I sat down and read Red Nails and last night, being in a Conan kind of mood, I decided to give it a re-read. Still has the impact of an uppercut.
Conan, in the company of the beautiful but dangerous lady pirate Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, comes across a strange city in the middle of an open plain. The city is constructed basically as one huge building, roofed over, and lacking any real streets. Conan and Valeria wander through chamber after chamber, originally thinking that the city is abandoned. When the inhabitants do show up they turn out not to be the original builders of the city but another race entirely. I won't summarize the whole tale here, (read it yourself) but the basic idea is that there are two warring factions of the city's inhabitants who live on opposite sides of the city. They have been warring on one another for decades and now they are close to exterminating each other. The vast, empty center of the city is their battleground. Conan and Valeria get caught up in the war and also face black sorcery, monsters, and a seemingly immortal villainess. It is indeed strong stuff.
Sadly, it was also the last story of Conan that Howard wrote. In fact he was dead before the three part serial finished running in Weird Tales. It was at least, a strong point to go out on, since many people consider this the best of REH's Conan stories. (The main contenders seem to be Red Nails, The People of the Black Circle, and Beyond the Black River.)
I did notice one thing that had escaped me in previous readings of the tale. Very little of Red Nails is actually from Conan's point of view. Though he is present in most of the scenes, the majority of the yarn is told from Valeria's point of view. Only occasionally do we see what Conan is thinking. In some ways this makes the character stronger since we see only his actions and don't get a play by play of why he does anything. At some point I need to see how many of the Conan stories are told this way. Seems as if many of the later ones use a character other than Conan as the central viewpoint.
Anyway, I was once again borne away by the dark imaginings of Robert E. Howard. There is a force to the man's writing that few other writers can match. It's the reason that his work keeps being read and re-published all these years later when the writings of so many of his pulp era competitors are forgotten.

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