The Conan story “Red Nails” was fermenting in Howard’s mind for several months before he sat down at his Underwood and wrote it in July 1935. It would be the last Conan story he would write and also his grimmest and bloodiest one. Weird Tales owed him in excess of $800.00 at that time and despite his desperate pleas to Farnsworth Wright for payment, the check was not in the mail. This lack of payment undoubtedly forced Howard to turn to other markets that were paying, notably western and adventure pulps.
The primary theme that runs through “Red Nails” is the decay of civilization, or rather “rotting civilization,” as Howard referred to it once to his girlfriend Novalyne Price. While Howard had always espoused his theory that civilization was on the decline, he seemed to become a more fervent advocate of the idea as he got older.
To make his point, Howard gave Novalyne The Complete Works of Pierre Louys for Christmas on December 22, 1934. Louys was a well known author of erotica, with Lesbianism as one of the main themes of his explicit writings. Strong stuff indeed for a small town schoolteacher, which is exactly why Howard gave it to her. Novalyne wrote of her reaction to Howard’s “gift” in One Who Walked Alone:
“It was a little too strong for my blood,” I said defensively. “I didn’t read much of it.”
“Read it… You lead a sheltered life. You don’t know what’s going on in the world.”
That irritated me. “I don’t care to know things like that,” I said hotly. “It seems to me knowing them doesn’t make the world a better place; it only makes you a silent partner.”
“You’re a silent partner whether you like it or not.” He was getting warmed up now. “You see, girl, when a civilization begins to decay and die, the only thing men or women think about is the gratification of their body’s desires. They become preoccupied with sex. It colors their thinking, their laws, their religion – every aspect of their lives.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you girl. Men quit reading fiction because they only want true stories of men’s sexual exploits… a few years ago, I had a hard time selling yarns… about sex. Now, I’m going to have to work to catch up with the market… Damn it to hell, girl, sex will be in everything you see and hear. It ‘s the way it was when Rome fell.”
“Girl I’m working on a yarn like that now – a new Conan yarn. Listen to me. When you have a dying civilization, the normal, accepted life style ain’t strong enough to satisfy the damned insatiable appetites of the courtesans, and finally, of all the people. They turn to Lesbianism and things like that to satisfy their desires… I am going to call it ‘The Red Flame of Passion.’”
A short while after this conversation, Novalyne threw the book deep into the crawlspace under her house.
As the story jelled over the coming months, the title evolved into “Red Nails,” but it still needed something. Shortly after discovering Novalyne was stepping out with his friend Truett Vinson, Howard took off on a pre-planned road trip with him. No doubt it could have been an awkward situation, but Howard seems to have dealt with it in his own stoic way. Heading west, they made their way into New Mexico and Lincoln County, site of the “Bloody Lincoln County War.” The visit had a profound impact on Howard and gave him the material and motivation he needed to round out the Conan story he was working on, as he recounts to H. P. Lovecraft in a July 1935 letter:
Lincoln is a haunted town – yet it is not merely the fact of knowing so many men died there that makes it haunted, to me. I have visited many spots where death was death whole-sale… But none of these places ever affected me as Lincoln did. My conception of them was not tinged with a definite horror as in Lincoln. I think I know why (Walter Noble) Burns, in his splendid book (The Saga of Billy the Kid) that narrates the feud, missed one dominant element on the inhabitants. I think geography is the reason for the unusually savage and bloodthirsty manner in which the feud was fought out, a savagery that has impressed everyone who has ever made an intelligent study of the feud and the psychology behind it. The valley in which Lincoln lies is isolated from the rest of the world. Vast expanses of desert and mountains separate it from the rest of humanity – deserts too barren to support human life. The people of Lincoln lost touch with the world. Isolated as they were, their own affairs, their relationships with one another, took on an importance and significance out of proportion to their actual meaning. Thrown together too much, jealousies and resentments rankled and grew, feeding upon themselves, until they reached monstrous proportions and culminated in those bloody atrocities which startled even the tough West of that day. Visualize that narrow valley, hidden away among the barren hills, isolated from the world, where the inhabitants inescapably dwelt side by side, hated and being hated, and at last killing and being killed. In such restricted, isolated spots, human passions smolder and burn, feeding on the impulses which gave them birth, until they reached a point that can hardly be conceived by dwellers in more fortunate spots. It was a horror I frankly confess that I visualized the reign of terror that stalked that blood-drenched valley; day and night was a tense waiting, waiting until the thunder of the sudden guns broke the tension for a moment and men died like flies – and then silence followed, and the tension shut down again. No man who valued his life dared speak; when a shot rang out at night and a human being cried out in agony, no one dared open the door and see who had fallen. I visualized people caught together like rats, fighting in terror and agony and bloodshed; going about their work by day with a shut mouth and an averted eye, momentarily expecting a bullet in the back; and at night lying shuddering behind locked doors, trembling in expectation of the stealthy footstep, the hand on the bolt, the sudden blast of lead through the windows. Feuds in Texas were generally fought out in the open, over wide expanses of country. But the nature of the Bonito Valley determined the nature of the feud – narrow, concentrated, horrible. I have heard of people going mad in isolated places; I believe the Lincoln County War was tinged with madness.
Thus did New Mexico’s Lincoln County become the city of Xuchotl in “Red Nails,” and with the final piece of the puzzle in place, Howard wrote his yarn. Taking a cue from Louys’ writings, he also managed to work in some veiled Lesbianism and sado-masochism themes, no doubt hoping to get a shot at being the Weird Tales cover story – it worked and Margaret Brundage painted it. However, Howard did not live to see it; the issue with the first installment of “Red Nails” was published shortly after his death.
The story opens with Valeria fleeing after slaying an amorous Stygian officer with Conan pursuing her with his own amorous agenda. They soon meet, but are almost immediately drawn into a battle with a dragon that has killed their horses. They retreat to a crag where Conan thrusts a makeshift poison tipped spear into the jaws of the monster, but the poison only blinds and enrages the dragon, which pursues them by their scent. After catching up with them, Conan faces the beast and lures it to its death.
Now on foot, Conan and Valeria come upon a walled city called Xuchotl where they encounter a man named Techotl, and they soon learn the bizarre history of the lost city. In earlier times, Tolkemec, a slave betrayed his masters and let in the newly arrived Tlazitlans, who invaded the city and put to death the original builders. The victors were led by two brothers, Tecuhltli and Xotalanc, who afterward ruled peacefully over the city until a feud developed when Tecuhltli stole the bride of his brother Xotalanc. The slave Tolkemec betrayed both sides for his own purposes and was exiled to the catacombs.
Howard makes the point that for the two warring factions, the self-contained city of Xuchotil is the whole world, a world they have turned into a perpetual battleground. The whole mood of the story is one “tinged with madness,” with the only sane inhabitants of the city being the reluctant visitors, Conan and Valeria:
Techotl pointed to a black column of ebony which stood behind the dais. Hundreds of red dots scarred its polished surface — the bright scarlet heads of heavy copper nails driven into the black wood. “Five red nails for five Xotalanca lives!” exulted Techotl, and the horrible exultation in the faces of the listeners made them inhuman…
Soon Conan and Valeria find themselves siding with the Tecuhltli clan in a bitter, ages old feud against the Xotalancas faction. Luckily, they are on the winning side and survive the treacherous machinations of the leader of the Tecuhltli tribe, Olmec and his mate Tascela. The story culminates in a climactic moment when Conan kills a dangerous and deranged Tolkemec, who had been living in the catacombs of Xuchotil for ages, returning to deal out death with a wand that fires a laser-like flame.
The story ends with Conan and Valeria leaving the city as the sole survivors of the last chapter of the bloody and futile feud within the walls of Xuchotl that Howard paralleled so magnificently with the Lincoln County War.
Part I / Part III /Part IV