Thursday, April 25, 2013

Short Take: "Queen of the Black Coast," Robert E. Howard

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

“Queen of the Black Coast,” first published in the May 1934 issue of Weird Tales (cover image at right), isn’t the most accomplished of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories. 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 Conan in his stories of the character as a young 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.” Characterization and irony are present only 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 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 her ship's deck in full view of her men. One 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 well exemplify the style of pulp prose.

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