Today's post will review Robert E. Howard's Conan short story Queen of the Black Coast. Those who are not familiar with the original short stories and wish to remain spoiler free should not read on.
Queen of the Black Coast introduces the first in a long line of love interests, the pirate queen Belit. It was at about this time that Howard discovered his editors wanted stories with a bit of sex-interest (as much as they could get past the censors) and so Conan, like James Bond, suddenly became irresistible to women (who suddenly started showing up as characters). In the case of Black Colossus, Xuthal of the Dusk, The Pool of the Black One, and Iron Shadows in the Moon, this had a cheapening effect on Howard's art. Queen of the Black Coast is a different from these second string works, however, and I'd like to spend some time examining why.
The first reason that Queen of the Black Coast stands out from its immediate successors may be that Howard was writing a story he wanted to write. When Howard introduces Belit as Conan's love interest, it seems to be because that's what the story demanded, not merely to pay the bills. It answers questions like "why doesn't king Conan take a queen?". Well, if the one woman that was his equal is dead, then that would explain a few things. This is the angle the movies featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger took, replacing Belit the Pirate Queen with Valeria Queen of Thieves (and thus artfully fusing, I think, elements from The Tower of the Elephant, Queen of the Black Coast, and Red Nails). Whatever Howard's ultimate intentions were, the effect on Belit as a character is that she stands out with a force and personality that the mere "Conan girls" lack. That is to say that Belit is a fully realized character, not an extraneous bit of "love interest" meant to spice up the story.
Following the first observation, I think Belit also occupies her special place since she was probably drawn from reference material, particularly H. Rider Haggard's She. With her Semitic origins, host of African servants, and femme-fatale personailty, Belit seems to be a direct literary descendant of Ayesha, She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Indeed, both characters use their magnetic personalities to entrap the man they believe destined to be their lover Leo/Conan(interesting when we remember that Conan was also called Amra/The Lion in his pirate days) and come to their end via their own hubris. If this is true, then Belit draws from a rich literary heritage in the adventure genre that Conan's later mistresses lack.
Finally, as with Ayesha, Belit draws much of her interest from being an ambiguous character. Conan seems to become as much her servant as her consort. Indeed, once the Cimmerian gets the hint that this might be the case his first thought is to violently assert his authority. We are also lead to wonder if Belit prefers gems to Conan or if the treasure of the lost city, and particularly the necklace, are cursed and robbing Belit of her sanity. There dialog on religion, in which Conan present the hedonistic philosophy of his middle period, can be interpreted two ways as well. It may show the two connecting on a deeper level and the intimacy that has grown between them over time. On the other hand, it may show us that Belit is more concerned with her own thoughts than in listening to anything Conan has to say. As each of Belit's actions admit of multiple readings, the character has a "reality" that commands the reader's interest. Even without Conan, one gets the sense that the Queen of the Black Coast could stand as a character on her own.
So there you have it: Queen of the Black Coast. Our next post will feature the short story Rogues in the House, with perhaps a few summary remarks about the pay-the-bills stories that preceded it.