When Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax published his now-classic Advanced D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide in 1979, he highlighted “Inspirational and Educational Reading” in a section marked “Appendix N.” Featuring the authors that most inspired Gygax to create the world’s first tabletop role-playing game, Appendix N has remained a useful reading list for sci-fi and fantasy fans of all ages.
In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more. Welcome to the first post in the series, featuring a look at a seminal story by Conan’s creator Robert E. Howard.
Tim Callahan: My Robert E. Howard history is incomplete, at best, but my understanding is that “Red Nails” is the last of the Howard Conan stories, correct? It’s certainly a good one—adjusting for the sexism and racism and xenophobia of the time—and it has plenty of quintessential Dungeons & Dragonsesque moments. It’s the perfect place to start this big Gygaxian reread project, don’t you think?
Mordicai Knode: Definitely. Conan is probably the place most non-gamer’s minds go when you say “Dungeons & Dragons,” after J. R. R. Tolkien, but the stories are also the ones most distorted by pop culture interpretations. I actually think there is probably a lot more complex stuff on race in these books than people give them credit for. Valeria is supposedly a deadly fighter, but I wonder if that will be more “tell” than “show”—you’re right to point out Howard’s track record in that regard.
TC: Before I pull out some of the absurdly sexist bits of narration, and then mock everything about it, let’s talk about some of the aspects that make this so D&Dish. Besides the general swordplay and combat, there’s also a flight through the wilderness, a hidden city, creepy catacombs, warring factions, ritual sacrifice, and foul sorcery. It’s got it all—in a package too small to even be called a “novella.”
“Red Nails” doesn’t just seem like an inspiration for the flavor of D&D, it seems like an inspiration for the very nature of the types of adventures most often undertaken in the game. I’d say the average campaign module or the average home-brew adventure is closer to the events detailed in “Red Nails” than the kind of fancy high-adventure epics of the Tolkien school.
MK: I mean, there is a giant mega-dungeon; it hardly gets more D&D than that. The two elements that really strike home here in terms of inspiration are the populated dungeons as its own character of rivalry and strife, and black magic. The city as one massive labyrinth is great, as is the characterization of its architecture & embellishment—gleaming corridors of jade set with luminescent jewels, friezes of Babylonianesque or Aztecish builders—but it is the logic of the city that shines brightest to me. “Why don’t the people leave?” There are dragons in the forest. “What do the people eat?” They have fruit that grows just off the air. “Where do all these monsters come from?” There are crypts of forgotten wizard-kings. There is a meaningful cohesion to the place; Howard manages to stitch dinosaurs, radioactive skulls, Hatfields and McCoys, and ageless princesses into something cogent.
TC: I don’t know if I’d say there’s logic behind all of that, but there sure is an internal consistency. Ultimately, the whole thing hinges on madness, though, and that’s what makes it scary and... kind of illogical in its extreme social pathologies. But it’s a Conan story, and so it should be more about weird characters and cool scenes than anything else, and “Red Nails” has plenty of those things. It layers the weirdness on thick, the deeper Conan and Valeria go into the dungeon—and into the conspiracies within the warring tribes.
I have a question for you, before we get into more specifics about the story and a vital D&D connection I want to bring up: How does the Conan presented in “Red Nails” compare to the Conan in other Howard stories? My understanding was that he was originally more of a roguish swashbuckler type of character, far from the dunderheaded barbarian we’ve seen in movie versions. Yet “Red Nails” presents him as kind of halfway between those states. He’s roguish, but also blunt and aggressive. Is that how he is in some of the other stories too? He’s a far cry in “Red Nails” from the way he seems in either the Milius film or the Roy Thomas comic books, and I’m just wondering who the “real” Conan is.
MK: Well therein lies the brilliance of Conan as a character: he isn’t static! There isn’t a “real” Conan, because the changes in Conan are built in the stories. They weren’t released chronologically, but when you look at them as a single corpus there is an arc. Howard said the Conan stories just came to him, as if he were a historian getting snippets of the life of the Hyborian Age. At the beginning of the second chapter of “Red Nails,” Conan offhandedly remarks about being a kozak, a pirate, the leader of a desert tribe... and he alludes to his future destiny as King of Aquilonia. He can be a brute or a brooder, a thief or a chieftain. He’s certainly smarter and more lithe than people tend to think of his pop culture portrayals, though.
I do want to talk about Valeria here, because she really is the crux of the story. Howard follows the trope of the “blonde, redhead & brunette” with Valeria, Red Sonja, and Bêlit (or Zenobia). Even if Sonja isn’t technically a Conan character; I’d say she’s been grandfathered in. Valeria is... what is the word people say when they realize something is sexist but they still like the source material if you can look beyond the sexism? Ah yes, problematic. It isn’t all bad! Valeria is a more than competent sword fighter who holds her own in all of the fights in the book, and she even saves Conan from falling to his death when they are fighting the “dragon.” And sure, she panics when the monster appears, but that is explicitly the theme of civilized versus savage, not genderpolitik. For all that, Howard peppers a liberal amount of “female malice” nonsense, and makes sure to stress that even though she’s tough, she’s still feminine. That macho posturing really undercuts the story, and Conan’s casual use of terms like “wench” and “hussie” is the character at his most unlikeable.
TC: That charged, pulpy sexuality is abundant in the story, for sure. “Red Nails” radiates heat, in a sleazy, almost overbearing way. It’s such an absurd counterpoint to the other end of the fantasy spectrum—anchored by the Lord of the Rings books—where everything is chaste and romanticized to death with a tweedy puritanical streak. This “Red Nails” stuff is raunchy by comparison. Even if we give a pass to the sexism of Conan’s language toward Valeria, and his lusty approach to every conversation with her in the first third of the story, how do you excuse the bondage scene later.
I mean... old school D&D was often accused of fostering some kind of shopping mall Satanism, but if any of those Bible-belt moms read the Robert E. Howard source material, I imagine they would have been burning books by the ton. Valeria’s held down on an altar, naked, near the end of the story. It’s pretty gratuitous, even if you give Howard the artistic leeway to exaggerate vulnerability for the sake of heightened conflict.
What do you think? Does the sexism and female victimization go so far that it ruins the story? It certainly super-charges it toward... something.
MK: I guess I’ll say it undermines the story. I mean, it is still a story where a dragon née dinosaur chases Conan and Valeria through a jungle, into an ancient arcology, where they deal with psychotic feuds, strange wizardry, an undying princess and one of my favorite action scenes in Conan—the creeping duel between Conan and the mad priest with a wand that shoots lightning bolts... but only if there is a direct line between him, his victim and something conductive. Howard certainly can write the heck out of a short story... but it is punctuated by these queasy bouts of misogyny. It takes me out of the story and makes me wistful for a story with an unambiguously fierce female hero. If Valeria was a match for Conan, rather than being tossed under the bus by Howard—was he afraid that a legitimate rival to Conan would be emasculating? How embarrassing!—this story would really be fantastic.
The pin-up nature of the character, heck, even the “erotic spanking” scene with the handmaiden, I could argue about that sort of thing, but what we’re given is just simply less than. The story still has plenty of great bits in it—as a series of vignettes it excels—but overall it doesn’t hang together, because the author tears down one of the main characters for no other reason than her gender. My verdict: it is totally worth reading but you have to keep your critical goggles on and that shouldn’t be too hard, because the treatment of women in the story is pretty baldly rubbish. What about you?
TC: Oh, I think it’s absolutely worth reading as an example of trashy sword and sorcery that’s never dull for a moment and acts like a sleazy D&D game highlight reel. It’s also notable that it’s one of the inspirations for Tom Moldvay’s 1982 module, “The Lost City,” which amped up the insanity of the warring factions, provided a multi-level dungeon, and then gave a map of an underground complex and asked Dungeon Masters to make up their own adventures in this Howardesque world. I bought that module when I was a kid, and adapted it into a 4th edition game for my own children a little while back, and they became the less-sleazy heroes of the underground world. Also, my daughter ended up being descended from the former kings and queens of the Lost City. Because you always need to make your daughter a secret princess when you play a D&D campaign, it turns out.
MK: It is hard to talk about Conan without mentioning the art accompanying it. Frazetta may rule the minds of all who read about the Cimmerian, but the edition I read had interior illustration by Gregory Manchess, who brought a great Aztec vibe to the story, though I was disappointed that the “dragon” he drew wasn’t in keeping with the “carnivorous stegosaurus” from the story. There is also, supposedly, a forthcoming cartoon adaptation of this story that I have high hopes for; keeping the good and winnowing the chaff—like making Valeria an unambiguously cool character—could pay off big time. I’m keeping my fingers crossed till then.