Red Nails: Classic Sword & Sorcery From Robert E. Howard

Aug 6, 2020
By Margaret Brundage -, Public Domain,

When it comes to Robert E. Howard you can’t really pick ‘a book’ because Howard wrote almost exclusively in the short story form, supplying ‘adventure yarns’ to the pulp magazines of the day. Any ‘book’ of Howard’s writing is therefore going to be an arbitrary selection of his prose, containing a range of fiction. I’ve settled instead on a single story that has been treated in the past with enough reverence to be marketed as a standalone (though slim) volume of either prose or comic book adaptation. 

Red Nails is not only a Conan story, but arguably one of the most accomplished Conan stories - though there are enough other tales that warrant that same description. My own ‘best of’ selection would include The People Of The Black Circle, The Tower Of The Elephant and Queen Of The Black Coast but it wouldn’t be hard to fish around for even more.

Howard’s writing may have its roots in a disposable era of ‘fantastic fiction’ but it stands the test of time with prose and sensibilities that transcend its original period of composition. Considering Howard was a Texan who wrote between the wars, he shows a far more progressive approach to his writing than his contemporaries did. His stories may have their fair share of silk clad princesses and barbaric ‘other’ races, but there are many kick-ass women in them too: Red Sonya, Bêlit, Dark Agnes and Valeria spring to mind: they would have seemed unusual in books of the fifties, let along the thirties. Red Nails was his last Conan story, and was published on or just after his death, in Weird Tales magazine. To my mind, it has something of a spaghetti western feel to it, along the lines of A Fistful Of Dollars, with a loner protagonist wandering into a decades-old feud and being asked to choose a side in exchange for gold.

My interest in Howard’s stories actually predates my interest in SF/Fantasy as a genre, thanks to my discovery of Conan in the early Marvel Comics adaptations by Roy Thomas and Barry Smith, and later, Roy Thomas and John Buscema (the best of which were inked by Alfredo Alcala). The first time I read Conan in comic book form was a B&W reprint in the 1972 Marvel annual (published, curiously enough, not by Marvel UK, but by IPC). That dates me as being eight years old when I first discovered Conan. By the time I was ten years old and living near Ellesmere Port, I was buying all the black cover Sphere paperbacks with the amazing Frazetta covers. 

Splash page of the astonishing Barry Smith adaptation for Marvel

Red Nails was given a tour de force adaptation by Barry Smith with pages that evoke a pre-Raphaelite beauty in places. This is where I discovered the story for the first time, long before coming across the prose version. To this day I can’t read Red Nails without visualising the majestic Barry Smith art. For the sake of a before and after, I’ve posted the original cover art to the Weird Tales first publication and the front page of the Barry Smith version. Such is the contrast between fantasy art in the thirties and the seventies!

The story of Red Nails is set late in Conan’s career when he is now an experienced adventurer with many stories under his belt and hanging around the Hyborian Age equivalent of North Africa. He’s been pursuing a pirate swordswoman called Valeria whom he took a liking to at some point after she killed a man who bothered her with his wandering hands. Conan has it in his mind to play hide the sausage with her, but she’s having none of that and offers instead to hide her sword somewhere soft in his stomach if he doesn’t keep his barbarian hands to himself; Conan treats that as amusing foreplay until, just as he’s at the point of her sword, they are set upon by some dragon-like beast that kills their horses before they have a chance to kill it back. Now stranded in some dust bowl plain, with sex temporarily off the agenda, they spy a classic lost city of antiquity in the distance. 

The city is unusual in that it has a roof over it, enclosing all the streets and inner chambers. Seeking shelter and food they venture inside and this is where the spaghetti western tropes warm up. Within this decadent chamber of passages and balustrades are the remains of two warring tribes who occupy opposite ends of the city. They have been fighting a blood feud that has lasted decades, the cause of which is mostly mythical now but still vicious enough. The tribes are now reduced to small enclaves of maybe a hundred people each, and during the day they send out roving war bands to locate and kill one another. Each time a kill is made they hammer a red nail into a stone pillar of death to commemorate it, howling their victory cries. As strangers to the baroque city, Conan and Valeria are drawn to one faction who see them as useful mercenaries to set against their enemies but of course they have no interest in the decades-old quarrel except to fill their coin bags. But there are also legends of a dweller in the darkness deep beneath the catacombs of this ancient roofed city, and worse yet to come.

The setting is exotic, claustrophobic and, with its premise of an ancient and near extinct race of inbred people, suitably decadent, it crams a lot of atmosphere, perfectly paced narrative and savagery into its brief set of pages.

As my favourite comedian, Stewart Lee, once wrote in praise of Robert E. Howard, and the story
Red Nails, which I think may have been Howard’s final Conan tale, shows two warring and dwindling tribes hiding at opposite ends of a sunless and sealed necropolis, hell bent on each other’s destruction. As a metaphor for the modern human condition it’s up there with William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies and unlike Golding’s celebrated 1954 effort, is also enlivened by a gratuitously Sapphic girl-on-girl whipping scene.

I hadn’t actually noticed the semi-lesbian girl-on-girl whipping scene until Lee mentioned it, of course.

Not everyone shared Stewart Lee’s admiration for Howard though. For every Michael Moorcock praising Howard, there is a Stephen King taking the opposite view and muttering that much of Howard’s work was often ‘puerile’ (possibly because it wasn’t set in Maine).

I’ll leave this entry then with one final quote from Stewart Lee’s excellent piece on Howard, which pretty much sums up my attitude too.
And though I like reading Howard in a posh modern edition with a respectable cover, I love those dubious seventies paperbacks, from which I once sifted the wheat from the chaff. My wife just came in and saw a pile of them on the floor all around my desk. “Look at those beautiful old books,” she said.

And indeed.


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