Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Red Nails, by Robert E. Howard
(hb; 1977: third book in a four-book fantasy/horror anthology series, edited by Karl Edward Wagner & supervised by Glenn Lord)
From the inside flap:
"Red Nails, the third volume in the authorized edition of Conan edited by Karl Edward Wagner and supervised by Glenn Lord, trustee of Robert E. Howard's estate, assembles the authentic versions of three of Howard's greatest Conan stories: 'Shadows in Zamboula,' 'Beyond the Black River,' and the long novelette 'Red Nails.' These first appeared in Weird Tales during the flowering of the pulps in the 1930s. Since Howard's tragic suicide in 1936, no one has written tales of such magnitude. Also in this volume is Howard's own masterful essay on the world of Conan, 'The Hyborian Age.'
In 'Beyond the Black River,' we find Conan in the employ of the governor of Conajohara, defending the settlement on the westernmost frontier of civilization. The town Velitrium and the protecting Fort Tuscelan are under attack by the Picts, a barbarian tribe whose land the settlers have taken. But it becomes apparent that their real enemy is the wizard Zogar Sag and his demon spirits. In a struggle to the death, Conan prevails over Zogar's hideous manifestations.
"In 'Shadows in Zamboula,' Conan falls into the hands of a mercenary inn-keeper who drugs and sells innocent guests to a nearby tribe of cannibals. But ever-alert Conan outwits everyone, rescues a beautiful damsel from the tribe's hungry clutches. . . For her favors, Conan fights a deadly duel with the evil lord Totrasmek and his grotesque minions.
" 'Red Nails' chronicles Conan's adventures in the demon-haunted city of Xuchotl and his encounter with Valeria, the fiery adventuress."
Howard's vivid, brutal, overheated and sexist/xenophobic sword & sorcery fare is, once again, on full display here, within the intense and fantastical scope of these Conan tales.
1.) "Beyond the Black River," with its atypical-Conan tale structuring, is an homage to the American Western, with a sword & sorcery overlay. This is one of my all-time favorite Conan stories.
2 - 3.) "Shadows in Zamboula" sports an Asian fairy/horror tale feel, with its treacherous inn-keeper set-up, twists (some of them predictable, some of them not) and less focus on Conan's rude version of chivalry and romance - an element that's also, refreshingly, downplayed in "Beyond the Black River." Again, excellent, clever work.
"Shadows in Zamboula" was "freely adapted" into comic book form in issue #14 of The Savage Sword of Conan, by Roy Thomas (writer), Neal Adams and "The Tribe". This magazine was published by Marvel Comics in September 1976; it was republished in expanded, graphic novel form (The Savage Sword of Conan Volume Two) by Dark Horse Books in March 2008. (The cover for that graphic novel, illustrated by Boris Vallejo, follows this review.)
4.) "Red Nails" is the weakest of the stories in this collection. Part of the reason for its disappointing delivery is because of its extended length - it's a novelette, not a short story.
The tale's familiar set-up is stock and generic. "Red Nails," more ambitious in its piled-upon elements, sports less twists, and Conan - as pointed out by Karl Edward Wagner in his dead-on "Afterword" - is less a down and dirty adventurer this time out, due to the presence of Valeria, a woman who (for the most part) dishes back what he throws at her.
Valeria is interesting, because while she's more of a fully realized character than most of Conan's women, she occasionally she lapses into Howard-familiar, spiteful hussy fits. At the same time, the tale is more generic in its delivery because she casts Conan in a more heroic light.
This last tale is still an okay read.
5.) "The Hyborian Age," a Howard-penned overview of Conan's world, is interesting in that it not only shows what came before Conan, but also shows Howard's fictional-bible/history that the author adhered to when writing his Conan stories.
Worth owning, this, if you enjoy pulp-y fiction.
Followed by the series-novel The Hour of the Dragon.