Saturday, March 14, 2015

Review of Red Nails by Robert E. Howard

Red Nails is a tale of Conan the Barbarian that was first published in Weird Tales in 1936.  This version of the story is in the public domain, and is available from Project Gutenberg.  

Weird Tales July 1936.jpg
Cover to Weird Tales July 1936
Art by Margaret Brundage

I have read some Conan stories many years ago in my youth, and my memories of them were quite fond.  I recently downloaded a bunch of Robert E. Howard stories that are in the public domain and I decided to read a Conan story for old times sake.  Red Nails follows Conan and his companion Valeria as they stumble upon a mysterious city in the desert.  Conan and Valeria become involved in a feud between the crazed inhabitants of the city.  There is action, magic, lust, and enough bloodshed to satisfy the pulp fan.

The Conan of Howard’s tales is a more likable fellow that the taciturn and gloomy caricature made famous in the Schwarzenegger films.  In Red Nails he gloats so much about his deeds that Valeria quips, “"Is there anything you haven't been?"  Howard writes him as a larger than life superhero, leaping off the page at the reader in a burst of adventure.

My favorite character in this story was Valeria, Conan’s pirate companion.  While Conan can work his way through problems with his brawn and cunning, Valeria actually has to overcome trouble throughout the tale.  She is quite competent, a great fighter and dastardly rogue who serves as Conan’s equal as well as object of rescue.  This is what I liked about her.  While Conan can defeat anything in his way, Valeria occasionally has bad luck and must persevere or get help.  If only there was a tale of Valeria’s exploits to read!

Red Nails has many of the Swords and Sorcery tropes that fans will be looking for.  Sinister magic, monsters, and tribes of degenerate men with bloodlust in their eyes.  The modern reader will need to bear with Howard’s archaic attitudes towards race and gender.   To his credit Valeria is written as a strong woman, but she eventually ends up trembling in Conan’s arms nonetheless.  As long as you can remember that this is pulp adventure and not deep social commentary then the story can be enjoyed at face value.

I would recommend this to fans of fantasy and pulp action who want some escapism for a Saturday afternoon.  If you want to read a book where limbs are cut off and you don’t have to take anything too seriously, then read this story.  It is not perfect, but it is a nice capsule of the pulp genre.

Red Nails as Gaming Material

The plot of Red Nails is perfect for being adapted for an rpg adventure.  The basic story involves the player characters stumbling into an ancient city in a desolate region.  The city has traps, treasure, secret doors, crazy warring inhabitants, and its own internal lighting system.  This is a dungeon crawl written before dungeon crawls.  I highly suggest that any GM who needs inspiration for an adventure should read this story.

The cool part is that the idea can translate well to other genres.  If you are running a sci-fi game, then turn the city into a lost generation ship or abandoned colony.  If it is a cyberpunk game, then make the city some forgotten corporate mini-state.  If you you are running urban fantasy or horror, then this is the monster city that exists in the catacombs of New York.  The story is only 67 pages and has plenty of action to move it along.  I recommend it to GMs, particularly those who are interested in the literary influences on the original D&D authors.