For most people Robert E Howard means Conan so if we are to have a Conan story we may as well have the best. Queen Of The Black Coast was first in Weird Tales in May 1934, earning Howard $115 and was accompanied with a suitably spicy cover illustration by Margaret Brundage. This is an epic story, unrivalled in the Conan series, setting our hero in the context of lover and warrior and containing some of Howard’s best writing.
The plot of the story recalls Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness”, published in 1902, with it’s journey up the black jungle river and the threatening unknown that lies all around. In Queen Of The Black Coast Howard succeeds in drawing a female character worthy of her consort, a beuatiful and wilful pirate queen who’s name is feared along the coast. Conan and Belit talk as lovers, the describe their desire and fears as the ship sails into the horror of the ancient jungle.
Howard takes time time to explore the relationship between Conan and Belit, something that few of his other stories attempt but readers of Sword & Sorcery demand an equal helping of both and in this Howard does not disappoint, turning his pen to some of the bloodiest and most violent prose. There is a dark, sinister heart to this story – ancient blasphemous magicks, greed and avarice, sadomaschoistic love and raw, lustful desire. For a small town boy who seems to have been awkward around women Bob seems to have got to grips with the darker side of love in a very deep way.
Queen Of The Black Coast also contains one of my favourite Howard passages, in it’s description of the horror that has made the jungle it’s home -
They who had been winged gods became pinioned demons, with all that remained of their ancestors' vast knowledge distorted and perverted and twisted into ghastly paths. As they had risen higher than mankind might dream, so they sank lower than man's maddest nightmares reach. They died fast, by cannibalism, and horrible feuds fought out in the murk of the midnight jungle. And at last among the lichen-grown ruins of their city only a single shape lurked, a stunted abhorrent perversion of nature.
This is the apogee of Howard’s art.