4 out of 5
Not having read a Robert E. Howard Conan the Barbarian story before, my assumptions as to what it would be like were informed by the cultural image of the character – movies, comics etc. And while the swarthy, muscular, braggadocio-infused warrior is, absolutely, the Conan we meet in Red Nails, and there are other assumed genre trapping sprinkled in – like busty pirate Valeria; lots of bone-cleaving slaughter – I was completely surprised by how well-crafted of an adventure the tale was, but then also how much more the world and characters felt developed than those (mainly visual) judgements suggested. Red Nails is, apparently, considered one of the best Conan stories, so maybe I started at the top of the pile, but by the tale’s end, I was wholly convinced of the legacy Howard’s creation has earned, and intrigued to check out more.
Part of the fun of the story is how standalone it is, while also referencing a wider set of lore: Valeria is new to readers, but she’s treated like a familiar to Conan, as they run across one another in their explorations. Howard doesn’t skimp on describing Valeria’s physical beauty, and the barbarian’s appreciation of it, but this is also well buffered by giving her her own agency and ability throughout the story – she has a personality; she has intelligence; she has strength. And she also gets to let her eyes dawdle on Conan’s musculature in turn. Howard still dips into some random, and unnecessary, tie-the-girl-up moments, which I’m not against, per se, if they’re in tune with the story, but here they feel tossed in and dawdled upon as an old-school form of fan service.
The remainder of the text is fascinating, though, skipping between action, banter comedy, and horror! quite seamlessly: after escaping from a dinosaur-like creature, Conan and Valeria take refuge inside of a gigantic, castle-like structure, which turns out to be the permanent living quarters for two, warring tribes: the Xotalanc and Techultli. Taking up residence in opposite wings of the building, their shared belief that the same dinosaur Conan and Valeria fought is part of a larger group which will assail them if they leave the castle has led them to find all they need – food and water – within. Howard’s explanation of these cultures, and the history that turned them against one another, forms the bulk of the story’s midsection.
The horror elements come from some supernatural abilities seemingly wielded by the Xotalanc – we’re interacting mostly with Techultli members throughout – and a cellar that links parts of the structure which is rumored to house grotesqueries, some of which we run in to in the story. The way Howard presents these aspects can really be chilling, but I appreciate that he offers just enough grounding to suggest some biological or scientific source for what we’re seeing.
The Xotalanc / Techultli history is, perhaps, a tad over-complicated – it’s actually a three-way conflict, and that sometimes felt like one way too many – but Howard provides strong characterizations to help guide the story, and keeps things moving along logically for Conan’s and Valeria’s involvements.