Conan: Queen of the Black Coast

Believe green buds awaken in the spring,
That autumn paints the leaves with somber fire; 
Believe I held my heart inviolate
To lavish on one man my hot desire.
The Song of Belît

Queen of the Black Coast was  published in the May, 1934, issue of Weird Tales, one month after the previous story, Iron Shadows in the Moon. It is the tenth published story in the Conan canon.

The tale cannot be discussed without spoilers, so be warned.

This should be the introductory tale to any curious but uninitiated reader: it is the best to date.

The passions are deeper and richer than a mere adventure story, the prose both in dry humor and dark pathos is some of Howard’s best, the supernatural horror strikes grimly close to Conan’s heart, and the whole as a legendary feel to it, from the madcap flight on horseback in the opening scene, to the viking funeral at the close.

Here, for the first time, Conan meets a woman as fierce, wild, bold and free as himself. She is his equal and more.

I suspect that this is a favorite story in many eyes, not just mine, considering the ease with which I found illustrations for the tale from many and skilled hands after the briefest of searches. (I do regret bowdlerizing some of the art, but this is a PG-13 rating blog.)  There as even a GURPS edition by Steve Jackson based just on this title:

In the internal chronology of the stories, this is when Conan was a buccaneer and pillager ravaging the Kushite lands south of Shem and Stygia. This apparently was when Conan earned the name of Amra, the Lion, among the  ebony-skinned warriors when he was chief of the black corsairs: alert reader might recall an episode in The Scarlet Citadel where the jailer calls him this name and curses him for his crimes. He speaks in a sea-dialect, which Conan learned “while a corsair on the coasts of Kush.” We will meet the name again, and Kushite fighting-men who know and fear it, in Hour of the Dragon.

The lovely and dangerous Pirate Queen for whom the story is named herself is memorable and popular enough to have enjoyed her own title from Marvel, in which they misspell her name. (The circumflex misplaced). The mistake is understandable: Bêlit means lady or mistress in Akkadian, and is no doubt Howard’s inspiration for Belît.

The tale begins midmost in a thrilling chase: Conan, in his scarlet cloak, scale jerkin and Norse helm is galloping on a stolen steed madly down the city streets to the wharf, with the city guards in hot pursuit. (This Viking look is perhaps his second most famous, a fur loincloth being his first.) He sees a trading vessel at that moment casting off from the dock: with a prodigious leap, he boards the vessel, landing amidships, sword out, commanding the captain to get under way.

The following exchange settles the matter:

“Can you pay for your passage?” demanded the shipmaster.

“I pay my way with steel!” roared the man in armor, brandishing the great sword that glittered bluely in the sun. “By Crom, man, if you don’t get under way, I’ll drench this galley in the blood of its crew!”

The shipmaster was a good judge of men. One glance at the dark, scarred face of the swordsman, hardened with passion, and he shouted a quick order, thrusting strongly against the piles.

In a trice, over a tankard, Conan is hired as a fighting-man for the trading vessel, which fears piracy that plagues the southern seacoast. He explains his backstory briefly but vividly.

“I’ve nothing to conceal,” replied the Cimmerian. “By Crom, though I’ve spent considerable time among you civilized peoples, your ways are still beyond my comprehension.

“Well, last night in a tavern, a captain in the king’s guard offered violence to the sweetheart of a young soldier, who naturally ran him through. But it seems there is some cursed law against killing guardsmen, and the boy and his girl fled away. It was bruited about that I was seen with them, and so today I was haled into court, and a judge asked me where the lad had gone. I replied that since he was a friend of mine, I could not betray him. Then the court waxed wroth, and the judge talked a great deal about my duty to the state, and society, and other things I did not understand, and bade me tell where my friend had flown. By this time I was becoming wrathful myself, for I had explained my position.”

Here are the stark essentials that make Conan an archetype: first, he is largehearted and  loyal to his friends, even those casually met; second, he is refreshingly fearless, as any of us ever hauled before any arbitrary, civilized authority, lawcourt or county cop or an unfair foreman, no doubt wished we could be; third, he is baffled and innocent in the ways of civilization, which, in this case, only is shown in its worst aspect.

“But I choked my ire and held my peace, and the judge squalled that I had shown contempt for the court, and that I should be hurled into a dungeon to rot until I betrayed my friend. So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge’s skull; then I cut my way out of the court, and seeing the high constable’s stallion tied near by, I rode for the wharfs, where I thought to find a ship bound for foreign parts.”

Note that the fantasy barbarian is so free of fear and the cobwebs of civilized rules that he regards it as simply insane that a lawcourt would ask a man to betray a friend: that this friend is a murderer and outlaw is not mentioned.

It would not serve the writer’s purpose to show the grieving widow of the dead captain of the guard. That fact that such a captain offered violence to a woman should be enough excuse for the reader inclined toward chivalrous sentiment (including this one) to wish him dead.

The shipmaster is also sympathetic. In a Conan story, no honest character, however minor, has anything good to say about law and order.

“Well,” said Tito hardily, “the courts have fleeced me too often in suits with rich merchants for me to owe them any love…

Do not grow too fond of Tito the shipmaster, dear reader. He does not make it to the end of chapter intact.

Conan is a commonplace schoolboy’s daydream: he has strength and courage enough and more not to need protection from the rigors of society, and so may cast them aside when they irk him.

In real life, of course, barbarians are famed for their cowardice, their brutality toward the weak. Honor is a refined notion, rarely found amid the squalor of savages. But history and anthropology play no part of the author’s purpose. Even a hint of realism here would be a jarring and cynical note, and break the author’s potent magic spell.

A time comes when the trading ship is beset by the black corsairs of the feared pirate raider Tigress. Conan, with longbow and then longsword, puts up a desperate struggle after all the other crew are killed, but the mighty ebon-skinned warriors are too much for him. He puts his back to the mast, and surrenders to the red rage, determined to send as many as may be to hell ere he follows them.

But, fortunately, the pirate captain is a white skinned princess from Shem, who is desperately rapt with ardor at sight of the mighty barbarian’s brutal heroism and handsome looks.

Belît sprang before the blacks, beating down their spears. She turned toward Conan, her bosom heaving, her eyes flashing. Fierce fingers of wonder caught at his heart.

She was slender, yet formed like a goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous. Her only garment was a broad silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian’s pulse, even in the panting fury of battle.

Her rich black hair, black as a Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back. Her dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian.

She was untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a she-panther.

I have little doubt that had I first read of this sultry she-devil, portrayed in terms of such raw animal sensuality in my youth, it would have been the catalyst for the onset of puberty.

These days we live in a culture drenched in sexual imagery: back in the 30’s it was not so. This is heady stuff, even by the lax standards of today. Then? Electrifying.

I dare say none of the bloodless and rare female characters appearing in the science fiction stories in the 40’s and 50’s could stir the emotion of even the loneliest reader. By those days, after John W Campbell’s preferred type of had SF had driven weird tales, pulp, and sword-and-sorcery from the field, there were no women like these seen again.

You may note a parallel to the way the snappy, fast-talking dolls in the talkies were portrayed in the 30s, as opposed to their rather more subdued and domestic sisters who greeted the survivors returned from the war with a gentler version of feminine grace.

Compare Jean Harlow (above) with Donna Reed (below). I have no doubt these are among the two fairest of the fair sex ever to grace the silver screen, but there is something more passionate, more sharp-edged, more sultry, and in a word, more Belît in the way the image makers of the day choice to portray Jean Harlow.

Those of you with the misfortune of having read, to use the most glaring example, Robert Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, which allegedly is filled with beautiful women allegedly attractive to the opposite sex, will recall not one shows the least particle of passion, nor is given any physical description aside from one being blonde, one redhead, one brunette. No woman expresses anything other than mild fondness and detached playfulness when discussing love — but never showing any. The contrast is shocking, as great as that of a lusty man with a dry eunuch. And this is the Dean of Science Fiction allegedly at his taboo-breaking and raciest best! The contrast with any story by Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke is even worse.

Belît is alive, dangerously so, and burns bright as a flame in the reader’s imagination.

Why is she so smitten? We touch upon the recurring theme of all Conan stories: the superiority of the barbarian.

“You are no soft Hyborian!” she exclaimed. “You are fierce and hard as a gray wolf. Those eyes were never dimmed by city lights; those thews were never softened by life amid marble walls.”

But I venture to say that this story is elevated beyond its theme, because something more important than mere commentary is at hand: a love story, a tragedy, a legend.

Yet in his heart he did not fear; he had held too many women, civilized or barbaric, in his iron-thewed arms, not to recognize the light that burned in the eyes of this one.

She decides the matter in the instant. Coy delay and soft amorous whispering is for less ferocious femmes fatale:

“Look at me, Conan!” She threw wide her arms. “I am Belît, queen of the black coast. Oh, tiger of the North, you are cold as the snowy mountains which bred you. Take me and crush me with your fierce love! Go with me to the ends of the earth and the ends of the sea! I am a queen by fire and steel and slaughter–be thou my king!”

And prophetic words slip into her speech unheeded, foreshadowing of tragic fate.

“My heart is welded to your heart, my soul is part of your soul! Were I still in death and you fighting for life, I would come back from the abyss to aid you–aye, whether my spirit floated with the purple sails on the crystal sea of paradise, or writhed in the molten flames of hell! I am yours, and all the gods and all their eternities shall not sever us!”

The mystery of the Christian religion, that love is stronger than death, is here voiced as an erotic passion. Such words ring as if filled with the sounding brass and thundering drums of melancholy pagan defiance against the cruel whimsies of the gods.

Then, as the white stars glimmered through the blue velvet dusk, making her whirling body a blur of ivory fire, with a wild cry she threw herself at Conan’s feet, and the blind flood of the Cimmerian’s desire swept all else away as he crushed her panting form against the black plates of his corseleted breast.*

And that is only the end of chapter one! Dang!


In that dead citadel of crumbling stone.
Her eyes were snared by that unholy sheen,
And curious madness took me by the throat,
As of a rival lover thrust between.
The Song of Belît

The next chapter opens with a brief summary of months of adventure, plunder, and raw bloodshed summed up, and, again, a somber note enters the tale:

The Tigress ranged the sea, and the black villages shuddered. Tomtoms beat in the night, with a tale that the she-devil of the sea had found a mate, an iron man whose wrath was as that of a wounded lion. And survivors of butchered Stygian ships named Belît with curses, and a white warrior with fierce blue eyes; so the Stygian princes remembered this man long and long, and their memory was a bitter tree which bore crimson fruit in the years to come.

I have no idea to what event in Conan’s later life this refers. Perhaps a future tale will reveal it.


Recall that I said Belît was more than Conan’s equal?

He generally agreed to her plans. Hers was the mind that directed their raids, his the arm that carried out her ideas. It mattered little to him where they sailed or whom they fought, so long as they sailed and fought. He found the life good.

Her lover he might be, and king of the pirates, but this is the first time we’ve seen Conan as a woman’s henchman.

The canny reader can tell this is a sign of a good couple: the man fights, the woman decides. Ignore what modern folk say about sexual roles in society: they are survivors of abortion holocausts and children of broken homes who no longer are even allowed to see feminine women and masculine men even in adventure films. Bronze age barbarians know better.

To the core of the story: Belît conceives the scheme to sail up a poisonous and dinosaur infested river deep into forsaken jungles where sinners are reincarnated as monster beasts, to find a haunted ruins built by an accursed prehuman race.

(I confess it was a simple joy to type that last sentence. This is what makes tales like this great: Let Tom Sawyer raft down rivers whose waters are not poisonous. Let Tarzan rule a jungle where beasts found in nature, unwarped by darkest magic, are his friends. Let Indiana Jones visit ruins built by antique but uncursed creatures who in life were fully human. Conan dwells in a more vivid  world.)

The passage through the sweltering jungle waters is like a descent to the land of the dead, described in terms of mystery, terror, and menace … and yet also an eerie beauty.

Rising above the black denseness of the trees and above the waving fronds, the moon silvered the river, and their wake became a rippling scintillation of phosphorescent bubbles that widened like a shining road of bursting jewels. The oars dipped into the shining water and came up sheathed in frosty silver. The plumes on the warrior’s head-piece nodded in the wind, and the gems on sword-hilts and harness sparkled frostily.

They arrive at the dead city, and behold a winged and apelike shape atop a high pillar. It is thought to be a statue until it soars away.

Belît finds the lost treasures of the unholy priest kings who once ruled here, and is entranced by the sight. She luxuriates in the sight of the loot like Scrooge McDuck bathing in gold coins, but sexier.

Her greed is a tragic flaw. The text opines “The Shemite soul finds a bright drunkenness in riches and material splendor.” (Recall that in the days before political correctness, it was lawful and regular to regard racial groups to posses family resemblances and common characteristics.)

Howard displays to good advantage his lyrical powers of descriptions:

She had looped the necklace about her neck, and on her naked white bosom the red clots glimmered darkly.

A huge naked black stood crotch-deep in the jewel-brimming crypt, scooping up great handfuls of splendor to pass them to eager hands above. Strings of frozen iridescence hung between his dusky fingers; drops of red fire dripped from his hands, piled high with starlight and rainbow.

It was as if a black titan stood straddle-legged in the bright pits of hell, his lifted hands full of stars.

Men die, slain by a booby-trap, when Belît despoils the tomb: and the winged shape is seen lurking about the ship, where no watch was set, and it stove in the water casks, leaving only the poisonous river water to drink. They failed to hear because all were mesmerized by the heaped jewels and coins.

Belît, still dazed by the glittering loot, orders her men to beginning hauling the obscene amounts of treasure to the ship while Conan takes a squad to search for fresh water.

In the jungle, Conan send his the black warriors on ahead, that he might stay behind and ambush whoever or whatever stealthy pursuit his sharp barbarian senses detects following them. But, alas, he is overcome by the hypnotic fume of the black lotus blossom, and falls senseless and numb to the jungle floor, while the screams of his men in the distance ring out.

Was it a dream the nighted lotus brought?
Then curst the dream that bought my sluggish life;
And curst each laggard hour that does not see
Hot blood drip blackly from the crimsoned knife.
The Song of Belît

In chapter three, Conan sees in a dream the dark origins and downfall of the winged race of immortal godlike men who once ruled this land, but devolved, decayed, and died. Only their most wretched scion remains, a creature more ape than man, but still possessing the dark and hellish powers of his forebears.

He wakes to find tragic horror: his men slain, except one survivor, who is slavering insane and attacks him. His true love is dead. In an act of inhuman sadism, the winged ape dangles Belît’s fair form from the yardarm of her own ship, hanged by the neck with the string of blood red rubies she so coveted from the stolen horde.

The shadows were black around him,
The dripping jaws gaped wide,
Thicker than rain the red drops fell;
But my love was fiercer than Death’s black spell,
Nor all the iron walls of hell
Could keep me from his side.
The Song of Belît

Conan meets the last of the immortals in mortal combat on the slope of a stepped pyramid. The winged ape-man sends first a cackle of hyenas, who attack with ferocity and cunning beyond what mere beasts know. Eventually Conan, out of arrows, wounded and weak, and the winged ape grapple. Conan is overpowered and inches from death, when …

… I am sure you have guessed, so I need not say. It is a moment so awesome, so chilling, and so perfectly epic that it was shoehorned into the John Millius CONAN THE BARBARIAN film from 1982. This is just shy of half a century after the scene was penned by Howard. It is almost as if the spirit of Belît cannot die, not while her love for Conan burns brighter than the flames of hell.

The hyena corpses revert to their true forms, only in death released from the ape-thing’s curse.

After the battle, Conan wraps the girls corpse in his own red cloak, and places it atop the heaped wealth. He keeps not a coin for himself.

Alone, unmanned, the ship is floated out of the river mouth and into the infinite ocean with none but Belît aboard, with fires her lover set spreading across the deck to consume all: a pagan funeral to awe the gods.

Now we are done with roaming, evermore;
No more the oars, the windy harp’s refrain;
Nor crimson pennon frights the dusky shore;
Blue girdle of the world, receive again
Her whom thou gavest me.
The Song of Belît

There is more to say on this tale, but those words must wait until another day. (The second half of my review is here.)

In silence, then, let us with Conan gaze out upon the floating pyre of his mate and helpmeet, the Queen of the Black Coast.