Conan, in his late 30s, finds female pirate Valeria of the Red Brotherhood in a rural stretch of forest. She had killed a Stygian officer and then fled the city. Conan attempts to join her, urging that they should head to the coast. During the verbal debate on which direction to explore, the duo fight a large reptile monster that resembles a dragon. In the distance, they see a large walled city and head there.
Reaching the city, called Xuchotl, the two agree that this walled place seems desolate, a cavernous void of abandonment and neglect. Inside, the enormous building resembles a large apartment building with hallways and corridors leading in different directions. The entire city exists as a combination of shopping mall and housing, completely enclosed in this gloomy remote structure.
Eventually, the duo discover a tribe living in the complex called the Tecuhltli, complete with a king and queen that explains the city's unique history. Xuchotl was ruled by two brothers, but one stole the other's wife and then the population split based on loyalties to each brother. The Tecuhltli tribe live in one part of the building, the army and people of Xotalanc exist in another part. Needless to say, the two have been feuding for ages and nails are driven into a pillar to represent the number of slain Xotalanc people, thus the story's title “Red Nails”.
At novella length, Howard leaves himself plenty of wiggle room to incorporate numerous fights, betrayals, deaths, and action. As Conan and Valeria quickly learn, no one in this mysterious city is particularly noble. I think the narrative's switch from Conan and Olmec's alliance to inevitable confrontation (he wants Valeria) was a smooth transition that allowed some character development, albeit brief. The plot is a little crowded considering nearly the entire story takes place in one structure between warring factions, but the atmosphere and descriptive attention to surroundings enhances the story's depth. Overall, this is an entertaining blood-soaked adventure tale that sits in the higher echelon of Howard's Conan stories.
Note – S.M. Stirling's Blood of the Serpent (Titan, 2022) full-length novel is a prequel to “Red Nails” and features an original story that details Conan and Valeria's first meeting and the events that Howard described in the opening paragraphs of this story (the death of the Stygian officer). “Red Nails” is also included in that book's ending to preserve a sense of continuity.