Monday, September 7, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Red Nails

Although the entirety of Robert E. Howard's Conan series is a seminal inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons, the 1936 story "Red Nails" is almost certainly one of its most direct inspirations. The story tells of Conan's discovery of an ancient walled city called Xuchotl, where he and his companion, Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, encounter the remnants of the decadent culture that once lived within its now-crumbling halls. Divided into two warring factions based on long-held grievances, Xuchotl proves to be a dangerous place for the pair, particularly Valeria, who arouses the nefarious interest of a woman named Tascela, whose role in the feud that wracks the city is central. Together, Conan and Valeria must get to the bottom of the mystery of Xuchotl and escape its many dangers.

"Red Nails" is the last Conan story Howard ever wrote. It was published posthumously and is widely regarded as one of the best of the series, if not the best. Howard himself was very fond of it himself, telling Clark Ashton Smith that it was "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 …" Besides its obvious pulp appeal, the story possesses some excellent meditations upon death, decay, and the decadence of civilization -- all classic Howardian themes, of course, but "Red Nails" takes them to a whole new level, in my opinion.

"Red Nails" has been very influential, serving up a terrific setting that's been imitated widely. D&D's own The Lost City clearly owes a great deal to this short story and David Cook acknowledged that it was also a prime inspiration for his own Dwellers of the Forbidden City, which is probably my favorite AD&D module of all. If you've never read it, I highly recommend it and not just for its historical value. "Red Nails" is a genuinely good tale in its own right and a fine introduction to Conan the Cimmerian.

12 comments:

  1. "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 …"

    Sounds like something a good DM would say : )

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  2. I consider "Red Nails" and "Beyond the Black River" to be the two best Conan tales. They would appeal to any reader (even those who generally do not read fantasy).

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  3. Howard is one of the great writers of our time and I am so gratified to see he is finally getting treated not just as a great writer, but merely as a writer.

    When I was growing up, his stories were mixed with pastiches of much lesser authors, published out of order in De Camp's "chronological" order and other signs of disrespect.

    That we are now getting the Howard stories published in the order he wrote them, as well as more of his non-Conan stories, really makes me happy.

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  4. Red Nails was the first REH yarn I had ever read. It was years ago, but the story is still fresh in my mind! After reading a lot of generic fantasy throughout the 90s (most of them feeding off the success of D&D), Red Nails was a breath of fresh air! Howard's writing style is better then any that came after him!

    Howard's Conan as a whole, is great! Its not a saga, so you dont need to keep up with the backstory. He is not defined by a weapon, or some strange power! Its not about the fight of good vs evil. No morality plays or overt religious virtues - well, not the modern sort ;). There are no epic destiny that outlines him as the "once and future king" or "the savior of humanity". Its just about a larger-then-life man who took life by the balls, and lived life to the fullest.

    What more can I say about "the damnest bastard that ever was"?

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  5. I made a reading list of all the sword and sorcery classics mentioned on this site. It's huge! I shall eventually read all of it!

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  6. I made a reading list of all the sword and sorcery classics mentioned on this site. It's huge! I shall eventually read all of it!

    Even if you never follow up on the rest, be sure to dig into the Conan tales.

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  7. Great post. The Lost City was always one of my favorite modules and I ran several campaigns based solely upon it. Glad someone else remembers it as fondly as I do.

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  8. Red Nails is one of my favorite Conan stories; sounds like a good time to reread them all, and the Solomon Kane stories, too. Love that cover, btw. I can just seen some teenager in the 30s hiding that from his Mom. :)

    By coincidence, I've just reread B4 - first time in years. That really was a great module, with so much room for expansion.

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  9. And it was a great comic book, by Thomas and Smith.

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  10. I'm glad they have reprinted alot of teh Howard works in bigger volumes. I love this story when I came across it...

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  11. In Spain they published a graphic novel with the comic adaptation and Howard's tale.

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  12. I've been been revisiting Conan, the most recent compilation of which is now available on audio. Not only is my daily commute riveting, but I learned that the C in "Cimmerian" is pronounced as an "S." Funny how for years you can mispronounce fantasy names and words only to find out you got it wrong all along.

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