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"Red Nails" is the last of the stories featuring 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 pseudo-historical Hyborian Age and concerns Conan encountering a lost city in which the degenerate inhabitants are proactively resigned to their own destruction. Due to its dark themes of decay and death, the story is considered a classic of Conan lore while also cited by Howard scholars as one of his best tales.[1]

"Red Nails"
Weird Tales 1936-07 - Red Nails.jpg
Cover by Margaret Brundage of Weird Tales issue July 1936 featuring Valeria and Tascela
AuthorRobert E. Howard
SeriesConan the Cimmerian
Published inWeird Tales
Publication typePulp magazine
Publication date1936

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 in 1975[2] 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 summaryEdit

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...

— Robert E. Howard, "Red Nails"

"Red Nails" begins in the jungles far to the south of any known civilized or barbarian kingdoms. Valeria of the Red Brotherhood is fleeing persecution after she murdered a would-be rapist. She is followed into the wilderness by Conan, a fellow adventurer who wishes for an alliance with Valeria as her lover. Suddenly, Conan's stand-off with Valeria is interrupted by a dragon (actually a dinosaur, although described with the characteristics of a Stegosaurus and Allosaurus) which mauls their horses. Both Conan and Valeria escape the dragon by climbing across an eroded hillside. However, the hillside has no food or water. Soon, Conan recognizes some poisonous fruit growing nearby. Acting quickly, he coats the tip of a spear in poison and pierces the dragon's lower jaw with a well-aimed throw. Although blinded, the enraged beast pursues the two fugitives by their scent. Fortunately, Conan lures the injured beast towards a ravine.

The couple emerge from their shelter and journey towards a mysterious walled city, which Conan sighted from the hill. With a lack of grazing livestock or cultivated fields, the city appears deserted. Afterwards, Conan forces open the main gate, long since rusted shut. The couple slowly enter a bizarre twilight world. The city, which is known as Xuchotl, is a massive structure completely enclosed and roofed off by an emerald dome. A single great hallway runs across the entire city. However, no streets or open courtyards are present. The structure consists entirely of four tiers of rooms, chambers, and passageways. Xuchotl, itself, is carved from jade with traces of other exotic materials.

The two separate and search the city's empty corridors. Valeria encounters a man named Techotl, who she joins in his feud between two factions which dwell in the once populous city. Soon, Techotl invites Conan and Valeria into the stronghold of his tribe, the Tecuhltli. Eventually, the couple are welcomed by the rulers of Xuchotl, Olmec and Tascela. After a ritual, Olmec reveals the history of his civilization.

The city of Xuchotil was built centuries before its current inhabitants arrived. One day, a slave — Tolkemec — betrayed his master and guided the newly arrived invaders into the city while slaying the original inhabitants. The conquerors were led by two brothers, Tecuhltli and Xotalanc, who ruled peacefully over their city. However, a feud developed when Tecuhltli stole Xotalanc's bride during one of their arguments. Meanwhile, Tolkemec betrayed both sides for his own reasons and was exiled to the catacombs. Nails driven into a pillar inside of Olmec's stronghold keeps count the number of slain rivals, and provides the title for this story.

After Olmec tells his story, Tascela develops an interest with Valeria. Soon, she has a slave attempt to drug Valeria with a narcotic plant. Valeria manages to capture the slave and interrogates her into revealing who is responsible for such treachery. However, she avoids submission and escapes the city.

Valeria's pursuit of the slave is interrupted when Xotalanc's army breaches the stronghold. Eventually, all of Xotalanc's troops are exterminated while Conan, Valeria, Olmec, Tascela, and fifteen Tecuhltli warriors remain alive. When Conan begins an expedition towards Xotalanc's stronghold, Valeria is left behind while her wounds are treated.

While Conan is away, Olmec tries to rape Valeria. However, his efforts are thwarted by Tascela. She reveals herself as a sorceress and the stolen bride who originally started the feud. Tascela plans on using Valeria's vitality in restoring her own youth. Meanwhile, Olmec secretly orders for his guards to execute Conan. Conan kills the two warriors and hurries back for Valeria. Returning to Tecuhltli, Conan finds a bruised Olmec inside Tascela's dungeon. After rescuing him, Olmec attempts to betray Conan and is killed.

Conan faces off against Tascela who has Valeria chained to an altar. Caught in a steel trap, Conan watches helplessly as Tascela proceeds with her sacrifice of Valeria. Suddenly, Tascela's ceremony is interrupted by Tolkemec who has returned from his exile, wielding an ancient sceptre with destructive magic. Desperate for assistance against her nemesis, Tascela releases Conan. Conan defeats Tolkemec by stealing his sceptre. After freeing herself, Valeria kills Tascela by plunging a dagger into her heart.

With the last inhabitants of Xuchotl killed, Conan and Valeria depart from the now-dead city.

Primary CharactersEdit


Valeria is an Aquilonian pirate who served as a mercenary prior to the story's events. Like Conan, she is a famous adventurer. Most of "Red Nails" is told from Valeria's point of view.

"She was tall, full-bosomed and large-limbed, with compact shoulders. Her whole figure reflected an unusual strength, without detracting from the femininity of her appearance. She was all woman, in spite of her bearing and her garments. The latter were incongruous, in view of her present environs. Instead of a skirt she wore short, wide-legged silk breeches, which ceased a hand's breath short of her knees, and were upheld by a wide silken sash worn as a girdle. Flaring-topped boots of soft leather came almost to her knees, and a low-necked, wide-collared, wide-sleeved silk shirt completed her costume. On one shapely hip she wore a straight double-edged sword, and on the other a long dirk. Her unruly golden hair, cut square at her shoulders, was confined by a band of crimson satin.

"Against the background of somber, primitive forest she posed with unconscious picturesqueness, bizarre and out of place. She should have been posed against a background of sea-clouds, painted masts and wheeling gulls. There was the color of the sea in her wide eyes. And that was how it should have been, because this was Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, whose deeds are celebrated in song and ballad wherever seafarers gather."[3]


"[Valeria's] thoughts were scattered by the rustling of the leaves below her. She wheeled cat-like, snatched at her sword; and then she froze motionless, staring wide-eyed at the man before her."

"He was almost a giant in stature, muscles rippling smoothly under his skin which the sun had burned brown. His garb was similar to hers, except that he wore a broad leather belt instead of a girdle. Broadsword and poniard hung from this belt."

At this point in the saga, Conan is a seasoned warrior with years of experience acquired in many lands:

"'I was a kozak before I was a pirate... They live in the saddle. I snatch naps like a panther watching beside the trail for a deer to come by. My ears keep watch while my eyes sleep.'

"And indeed the giant barbarian seemed as much refreshed as if he had slept the whole night on a golden bed. Having removed the thorns, and peeled off the tough skin, he handed the girl a thick, juicy cactus leaf.

"'Skin your teeth in that pear. It's food and drink to a desert man. I was chief of the Zuagirs once, desert men who live by plundering the caravans.'

"'Is there anything you haven't been?' inquired the girl, half in derision and half in fascination."[4]


Techotl is typical of the warriors of Xuchotl. Howard relates Valeria's impressions in her first encounter with one such warrior:

"...He was slightly above middle height, very dark, though not negroid. He was naked but for a scanty silk clout that only partly covered his muscular hips, and a leather girdle, a hand's breadth broad, about his lean waist. His long black hair hung in lank strands about his shoulders, giving him a wild appearance. He was gaunt, but knots and cords of muscles stood out on his arms and legs, without that fleshy padding that presents a pleasing symmetry of contour. He was built with an economy that was almost repellent."[5]

Techotl soon befriends both Conan and Valeria. We are told, "In the cold, heartless, and altogether hideous life of the Techultli, his admiration and affection for the invaders from the outer world formed a warm, human oasis, constituted a tie that connected him with a more natural humanity that was totally lacking in his fellows, whose only emotions were hate, lust and the urge of sadistic cruelty."[6]

Olmec and TascelaEdit

"On a wide ivory seat on a jade dais sat a man and a woman who differed subtly from the others. He was a giant, with an enormous sweep of breast and the shoulders of a bull. Unlike the others, he was bearded, with a thick, blue-black beard which fell almost to his broad girdle. He wore a robe of purple silk which reflected changing sheens of color with his every movement, and one wide sleeve, drawn back to his elbow, revealed a forearm massive with corded muscles. The band which confined his blue-black locks was set with glittering jewels.

"The woman beside him sprang to her feet with a startled exclamation as the strangers entered, and her eyes, passing over Conan, fixed themselves with burning intensity on Valeria. She was tall and lithe, by far the most beautiful woman in the room. She was clad more scantily even than the others; for instead of a skirt she wore merely a broad strip of gilt-worked purple cloth fastened to the middle of her girdle which fell below her knees. Another strip at the back of her girdle completed that part of her costume, which she wore with a cynical indifference. Her breast-plates and the circlet about her temples were adorned with gems. In her eyes alone of all the dark-skinned people there lurked no brooding gleam of madness..."[7]


"Framed in the door to the left of the dais stood a nightmare figure. It was a man, with a tangle of white hair and a matted white beard that fell over his breast. Rags only partly covered his gaunt frame, revealing half-naked limbs strangely unnatural in appearance. The skin was not that of a normal human. There was a suggestion of scaliness about it, as if the owner had dwelt long under conditions almost antithetical to those conditions under which human life ordinarily thrives. And there was nothing at all human about the eyes that blazed from the tangle of white hair. They were great gleaming discs that stared unwinkingly; luminous, whitish, and without a hint of normal emotion or sanity. The mouth gaped, but no coherent words issued --only a high-pitched tittering.

"'Tolkemec!' whispered Tascela, livid, while the others crouched in speechless horror. 'No myth, then, no ghost! Set! You have dwelt for twelve years in darkness! Twelve years among the bones of the dead! What grisly food did you find? What mad travesty of life did you live, in the stark blackness of that eternal night?..."[8]


E. F. Bleiler placed "Red Nails" among "among the better Conan stories," citing its "Extravagant adventure embodying a considerable amount of antiquarian lore and imagination."[9]


Robert E. Howard's stories often express the author's belief on how 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 Howard's novella, one can discern the influence of She by H. Rider Haggard[10] and the lost city of Opar which appears in the Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs[11] Howard's Negari is ruled by the seductive queen Nakari, recalling Haggard's Ayesha and Burroughs' La of Opar.

When Howard moved onto 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 themes such as the decadence of a stagnant and 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.


"Girl, I'm working on a yarn like that now — a Conan yarn. Lauren 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.'

— Novalyne Price Ellis, One Who Walked Alone[12]

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 story 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 his editor Farnsworth Wright, pleading for the 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." [13]

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.[14] 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."[15]

On July 22, 1935, Howard mailed his manuscript for "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. After 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..."[16]

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..."[17]

On the verge of abandoning fantasy for more commercial concerns, Howard devoted considerable thought and effort to his final allegorical statement.


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 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.

An animated feature based on this story, Conan: Red Nails, is currently in production. Actor Ron Perlman will provide the voice of Conan. Tolkemec is voiced by Mark Hamill in this version. However, there have been no updates to the film's website [18] since December 2007. IMDB currently lists the film for release in 2010.


  1. ^ Patrice Louinet. Hyborian Genesis: Part 3, pages 383, 384 and 385, The Conquering Sword of Conan; 2005, Del Rey.
  2. ^ Chalker, Jack L.; Mark Owings (1998). The Science-Fantasy Publishers: A Bibliographic History, 1923-1998. Westminster, MD and Baltimore: Mirage Press, Ltd. p. 323.
  3. ^ Howard, The Conquering Sword of Conan, pp. 211-212.
  4. ^ Howard, The Conquering Sword of Conan, p. 227
  5. ^ Howard, The Conquering Sword of Conan, p. 232
  6. ^ Howard, The Conquering Sword of Conan, p. 263
  7. ^ Howard, The Conquering Sword of Conan
  8. ^ Howard, The Conquering Sword of Conan, p. 277
  9. ^ Bleiler, E. F. (1983). The Guide to Supernatural Fiction. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP. pp. 259-60.
  10. ^ Burke, REH Bookshelf, Haggard
  11. ^ Burke, REH Bookshelf, Burroughs
  12. ^ Ellis, pp. 139-141
  13. ^ Howard to Wright, May 6, 1935
  14. ^ Howard's letter to Kline, May 13, 1935
  15. ^ Howard to Lovecraft, February 11, 1936
  16. ^ Howard to Smith, July 23, 1935
  17. ^ Howard to Lovecraft, December 5, 1935
  18. ^ (


  • Burke, Rusty. The Robert E. Howard Bookshelf. REHUPA.
  • Cerasini, Marc A and Charles Hoffman. (1987) Robert E. Howard. Mercer Island, WA; Starmont House.
  • Ellis, Novalyne Price. (1986) One Who Walked Alone: Robert E. Howard: The Final Years. West Kingston, RI; Donald M. Grant, Publisher, Inc.
  • Robert E. Howard Letter to Otis Adelbert Kline, May 6, 1935.
  • Robert E. Howard Letter to H. P. Lovecraft, February 11, 1936.
  • Robert E. Howard Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, July 23, 1935.
  • Robert E. Howard Letter to Farnsworth Wright, May 6, 1935.
  • (2005) "Red Nails", The Conquering Sword of Conan. New York: Del Rey. pp. 211–281.
  • Louinet, Patrice. (2005) "Hyborian Genesis Part III", The Conquering Sword of Conan. New York: Del Rey. pp. 369–386.

External linksEdit

Preceded by
The Hour of the Dragon
Original Howard Canon
(publication order)
Succeeded by
"The Hyborian Age"
Preceded by
"The Black Stranger"
Original Howard Canon
(Dale Rippke chronology)
Succeeded by
"Jewels of Gwahlur"
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The Tower of the Elephant
Grant Conan series
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The Devil in Iron
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Conan the Buccaneer
Complete Conan Saga
(William Galen Gray chronology)
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Conan and the Gods of the Mountain