Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fiction Review: Robert E. Howard, "Queen of the Black Coast"

“Queen of the Black Coast,” first published in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales (cover image above), isn’t the most accomplished of Robert E. Howard’s stories featuring Conan the Barbarian, but it may be the definitive one. At the very least, it probably best captures the indomitable, fast-living man-of-action quality Howard sought to give the Conan figure in the stories of him as a younger man. Conan’s motto in the story is, “Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exaltation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content.” Howard’s sense of both characterization and narrative irony is only on display in the story’s first half. As it begins, Conan is fleeing the authorities. He refused to give up a friend who murdered a guardsman, and he killed a judge while making his escape from the court. He takes refuge on a merchant ship, only to see its entire crew killed when it encounters pirates. It seems honor is only important to Conan as long as there isn’t anything to be otherwise gained. He loses all interest in avenging the crew when he encounters the pirates’ leader, a beautiful woman named Bêlit. The two are immediately smitten with each other, and he joins her and her men in their privateering. The story after that is just solidly executed fantasy-adventure action narrative in which Conan demonstrates his fighting prowess. In the face of the deadliest challenges, he will inevitably prove the last man standing. The most striking aspect of the story is Howard’s fairly brazen handling of sex: he has Bêlit seduce Conan on the deck of her ship in full view of her men. One also notes that Howard’s prose in this outing is especially purple. The use of adjectives is extravagant, and the metaphors and similes are often gratuitous. The tropes are also frequently heavy-handed, such as the description of a ruby necklace as “a line of crimson clots that shone like blood in the gray light.” In addition to being perhaps the definitive Conan story, the tale may exemplify pulp prose style as well.

The story is currently in print in the Howard collection The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.

Reviews of other stories by Robert E. Howard:

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