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Red Nails

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Works by Robert E Howard, Fantasy books

"Red Nails" is the last of the stories about Conan the Cimmerian written by American author Robert E. Howard. A novella, it was originally serialized in Weird Tales magazine from July to October 1936. It is set in the pseudohistorical Hyborian Age and concerns Conan encountering a lost city in which the degenerate inhabitants are proactively resigned to their own destruction. Due to its grim themes of decay and death, the story is considered a classic of Conan lore and is often cited by Howard scholars as one of his best tales.


The story was republished in the collections The Sword of Conan (Gnome Press, 1952) and Conan the Warrior (Lancer Books, 1967). It was first published by itself in book form by Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc. in 1975 as volume IV of their deluxe Conan set. It has most recently been republished in the collections The Conan Chronicles Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon (Gollancz,2001) and The Conquering Sword of Conan (Del Rey, 2005) (published in the United Kingdom by Wandering Star as Conan of Cimmeria: Volume Three (1935-1936)), as well as The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume 2: Grim Lands (Del Rey, 2007).

Plot summary

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.

"Red Nails" begins in the jungles far to the south of any known civilized or barbarian lands, where Valeria of the Red Brotherhood and Conan (her would-be lover) are set upon by a "dragon" (actually a dinosaur, though described with the characteristics of a stegosaurus and an allosaur) that mauls their horses. The pair retreat to a crag the monster cannot scale, but have no food or water. Conan recognizes some poisonous fruit growing nearby; they coat the tip of a spear with its juice, and pierce the jaws of the monster with it. Although blinded, the raging monster pursues them by their scent. Overtaken, Conan whirls to face the beast and lures it to its death.

Conan and Valeria emerge from the jungle to make their way to a walled city they spotted from the crag. Finding no grazing herds or cultivated fields around the city, they assume it is deserted. They force the rusted gates and enter a bizarre twilight world: the city is a single massive structure made of jade with traces of other materials, consisting entirely of four tiers of rooms, chambers, and passageways. A single great hallway runs the length of the city, but there are no other streets or open courtyards. The pair separate to search the city. Valeria encounters a man named Techotl whom she saves from his would-be killer; Conan arrives in time to save them from the man's comrades. Techotl invites Conan and Valeria into the stronghold of his people, the Tecuhltli, where they welcomed by the rulers, Olmec and Tascela.

In the stronghold Conan and Valeria learn that the city of Xuchotil was built long before its current inhabitants arrived. The people who created the city had used magic to resurrect "dragons" (actually the jumbled skeletons of dinosaurs) to protect the city. One day, a slave named Tolkemec betrayed his masters to guide a band led by the brothers Tecuhltli and Xotalanc into the city who then slaughtered the original inhabitants. The conquerors afterwards ruled the city in peace until Tecuhltli stole the bride of his brother, leading to a feud in which most of the conquerors were killed. Tolkemec played both sides for his own purposes before he was exiled to the catacombs and assumed to have died there. Nails driven into pillar in their stronghold keeps count of how many of their enemy they have slain, and provides the title of the story.

The arrival of Conan and Valeria precipitates the final showdown in the decades-long feud. Members of the Xotalanc clan manage to break into the Tecuhltli stronghold, but they are outnumbered. With the help of the formidable fighters Conan and Valeria the Tecuhltli win the grim battle, and the Xotalanc are all killed. Olmec is exultant at this final victory, though sorry that none of his enemies was taken alive to be slowly tortured to death - as both sides in the conflict regularly did to prisoners. However, his gratitude to his two allies is definitely short-lived.

Having no intention of letting Conan and Valeria leave the city, Olmec secretly orders his men to kill Conan. While Olmec attempts to force himself on Valeria, he is thwarted by Tascela who imprisons him. She is revealed to be a sorceress and bride whose kidnapping started the feud. Tascela plans to use Valeria's vitality to restore her youth. After killing off his assassins, Conan returns to Tecuhltli, reluctantly frees Olmec, only to kill him when Olmec proves untrustworthy. Conan finds the chamber where Tascela has bound Valeria to an altar, but is caught in a steel trap helpless to save Valeria. At this point Tolkemec enters the chamber, having become a wild man during his exile in the catacombs, and uses a magical wand to kill Tascela's followers. Desperate for assistance, Tascela frees Conan. Conan defeats Tolkemec while Valeria frees herself and kills Tascela with a dagger thrust to the heart. With the last inhabitants of Xuchotl slain, Conan and Valeria depart the dead city.


E. F. Bleiler placed "Red Nails" "among the better Conan stories," citing its "Extravagant adventure embodying a considerable amount of antiquarian lore and imagination." Fritz Leiber, however, rated it among the worst, "repetitious and childish, a self-vitiating brew of pseudo-science, stage illusions, and the 'genuine' supernatural."


Robert E. Howard's stories often express the author's belief that civilizations carry the seeds of their own destruction. Howard found in the lost city genre a vehicle for expressing these views. Howard's Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane explored the lost African city of Negari in "The Moon of Skulls", published in Weird Tales in 1930. In this tale we can discern the influence of She by H. Rider Haggard and the lost city of Opar that appears in the Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs Howard's Negari is ruled by the seductive queen Nakari, recalling Haggard's Ayesha and Burroughs' La of Opar.

When Howard moved on to the Conan series, he began to place his own distinctive stamp on the lost city tale. In "Xuthal of the Dusk" (published in the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales as "The Slithering Shadow"), Conan and a female companion discover an inhabited lost city and encounter its resident femme fatale. Though not without merit, "Xuthal of the Dusk" is generally regarded as a second-rate Conan story. However its theme of the decadence of a stagnant, dying culture is clearly evident. "Xuthal" is commonly viewed as the direct precursor to "Red Nails."

The theme of cultural decadence maintained its grip on Howard's imagination. In early 1935 he remarked to Novalyne Price:

"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 laws, their religion – every aspect of their lives.


The idea that would become "Red Nails" continued to germinate in Howard's mind, and later that year he began the actual writing of the tale. It would be the last major fantasy Howard would complete.

In 1935 Howard found himself burdened with medical expenses for the treatment of his ailing mother. Payment from Weird Tales was becoming increasingly unreliable. In early May, Howard wrote to editor Farnsworth Wright pleading for money owed him. At that time Weird Tales owed Howard over eight hundred dollars for stories already published, and payable upon publication. Wright had been paying Howard in a series of monthly installments, but these checks ceased just when Howard needed them most. Howard explained the circumstances surrounding his need and made it clear that he understood that Weird Tales was undergoing its own share of financial difficulties due to the Depression. However, he felt moved to state in no uncertain terms, "A monthly check from Weird Tales may well mean for me the difference between a life that is at least endurable --and God alone knows what."

Howard received no immediate reply from Wright. A week later he wrote to his agent, Otis Adelbert Kline, inquiring if Kline had any inside knowledge concerning the situation at the Weird Tales editorial offices. Howard was ultimately moved to concentrate on better-paying markets, primarily those for Western fiction. In a letter to H. P. Lovecraft he confided, "As for my own fantasy writing, whether or not I do any future work in that field depends a good deal on the editors themselves. I would hate to abandon weird writing entirely, but my financial needs are urgent, immediate and imperious. Slowness of payment in the fantastic field forces me into other lines against my will."

On July 22, 1935, Howard mailed the typescript of "Red Nails" to Weird Tales. At the time he shared his thoughts with Clark Ashton Smith, another colleague: "Sent a three-part serial to Wright yesterday: 'Red Nails,' which I devoutly hope he'll like. A Conan yarn, and the grimmest, bloodiest and most merciless story of the series so far. Too much raw meat, maybe, but I merely portrayed what I honestly believe would be the reactions of certain types of people in the situations on which the plot of the story hung..."

Later in the year, Howard told Lovecraft, "The last yarn I sold to Weird Tales --and it well may be the last fantasy I'll ever write-- was a three-part Conan serial which was the bloodiest and most sexy weird story I ever wrote. I have been dissatisfied with my handling of decaying races in stories, for the reason that degeneracy is so prevalent in such races that it can not be ignored as a motive and as a fact if the fiction is to have any claim to realism. I have ignored it in all other stories, as one of the taboos, but I did not ignore it in this story..."


The story was later adapted by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith for issues #2-3 of the Marvel Comics magazine series Savage Tales. The Thomas/Smith tale was later reprinted in color at tabloid size in Marvel Treasury Edition #4 (1975). It was also reprinted in the 1987 black-and-white magazine Conan Saga. It has also been reprinted many times since then, both in black-and-white and in full color, by Marvel and more recently by Dark Horse.


Red Nails Wikipedia

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