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 Bêlit
The story begins in Argos, with Conan fleeing for the docks, and the law in hot pursuit. He leaps aboard a merchant vessel, making good his escape, where he is welcomed by the captain, Tito. An infamous Pirate Girl named Bêlit has been terrorizing the coastline, and strong warriors like Conan are in particular demand for protection from the pirates.
Naturally, before long said pirates attack the ship, and Conan slays numerous crew before Bêlit herself intervenes - not by fighting Conan, but by seducing him. The two fall in love almost immediately, finding in each other a kindred spirit in a world where they are outsiders. They ravage the coastline together, their combined martial prowess so great that they become nearly legendary icons of piracy.
Then, Bêlit suggests an adventure up a deadly and forbidden jungle river, to a mythical city of ruins where great treasure is said to wait for anyone brave (or stupid) enough to enter, setting up a confrontation with worse horrors than even they had imagined.
Renowned not only as one of Howard's best stories, but as one of the greatest examples of pulp fiction and heroic fantasy ever written. Not only is the narrative smooth flowing and well polished, but Howard's penchant for poetry reaches its zenith. Bêlit herself is among Howard's best known characters despite only appearing in this one story - she's been named among the best female pirates in fiction, and was a major inspiration for the character of Valeria in the 1982 Conan film.
It's also the point at which Howard started including more blatant Fanservice into the Conan stories, between Bêlit's Diamonds in the Buff and numerous assorted naked women (and men, to be fair). Showing that a Conan story being chock-full of nudity and being good aren't mutually exclusive.
The story has entered the public domain and may be read here: Queen of the Black Coast.
- All Amazons Want Hercules: Bêlit wants Conan.
- Armor Is Useless: Averted. Conan is wearing a mix of scale and ring mail, which makes him all but invulnerable to the pirates' weapons. The sailors with their quilted jerkins are not so lucky, and Bêlit's pirates, which are naked and thus fall easily to Conan's sword.
- Backup from Otherworld: Bêlit's ghost helps Conan.
- Badass Creed:
Conan: I have known many gods. He who denies them is as blind as he who trusts them too deeply. I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom's realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer's Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. 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 exultation of battle when the blue blades flame crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and priests and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is an illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.
- Conan describes himself perfectly in probably Book!Conan's most-quoted speechnote :
Bêlit: There is life beyond death, I know, and I know this, too, Conan of Cimmeria — my love is stronger than any death! I have lain in your arms, panting with the violence of our love; you have held and crushed and conquered me, drawing my soul to your lips with the fierceness of your bruising kisses. My heart is welded to your heart, my soul is part of your soul! Were I still in death and you fighting for your 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!
- And Bêlit answers with one of her own:
- Bad Boss: Bêlit. We'll give her a pass on reacting to the slaughter of half her crew by declaring her undying love for the slaughterer; arguably, that act saved the other half of her crew. But taking herself and Conan unobtrusively out of the way of a death trap, while doing nothing to warn four of her men and leaving them to get crushed so she can grab the treasure afterward... whoa. Harsh.
- Bittersweet Ending: Conan has slain the winged ape and its werehyenas, freeing them from the evil spell the ape had cast upon them. He lives to fight and adventure again, but the pirate crew is all dead, as is possibly his greatest love, Bêlit. She gave the ocean its sense of mystery and allure and adventure, and without her Conan has every reason to remain landlocked for the rest of his life.
- Black Comedy: Conan's barbarian code of honor vs. the laws of civilized men. He regards it as perfectly natural that a captain of the guard should be run through with a sword for assaulting a woman, yet these people expect him to reveal the killer's location and, when he naturally refuses to betray his friend, think he'll meekly submit to being thrown into prison for contempt of court!"So then, seeing they were all mad, I drew my sword and cleft the judge's skull..."
- Brains and Brawn: Bêlit and Conan. Or so we're told.
- Burial at Sea: Bêlit's Viking Funeral.
- The Corruption: The winged ape can drive you mad.
- Dead Guy on Display: The winged ape hangs Bêlit from the yard-arm of her own ship by the necklace she looted from his city, apparently to mess with Conan.
- Do Not Go Gentle: Tito intends this if his ship is overtaken by pirates, passing out meager weapons and armor to his crew.Tito: Little use to resist if we're run down, but it rasps to soul to give up life without a struggle.
- Dreaming of Times Gone By: Conan has a true dream about the history of the jungle city while sedated by the black lotus.
- Dumb Muscle: Conan averts it, as the story shows he is very capable of giving articulate existentialist lectures, but he amusingly invokes it at the Kangaroo Court when he decides listening all their talk about civic values doesn't beat beheading the judge and running away.
- Fanservice Extra: The naked Stygian women on the boat encountered by Conan's merchant ship, and references to "blood-stained altars where naked women screamed"note in Stygia.
- Full-Frontal Assault: Bêlit's Kushan pirates are described to fight naked, and so does she in part, being permanently bare-breasted.
- Greed: Bêlit goes a little nuts at the prospect of the treasure. This is described as a "bright drunkenness" characteristic of Shemites who cherish beautiful things, riches and material splendor. (Shemites, according to Howard, are the ancestors of Jewish people, but the description sounds almost spiritual, not like a Greedy Jew but more like what you might expect from Dwarves.)
- Heartbroken Badass: At the end of the story, Conan's lover Bêlit is dead. He gives her a funeral and then wanders off into the jungle.
- Heroic BSoD: After finding Bêlit's corpse, Conan dives into melancholy and becomes unable to think of anything except revenge.
- Informed Ability: We see very little of Bêlit's purported intelligence and plan making.
- Instant Sedation: Conan getting sedated by black lotus.
- It Can Think: Conan realizes this of the winged ape, based on the strategy involved in its massacre of the pirates. Conan doesn't care, he's still going to kill it or die trying.
- Kangaroo Court: Conan fled one in the opening (after killing the judge).
- Love at First Sight: Between Bêlit and Conan. To the point that Conan, first glimpsing her as a differently-colored figure on the deck of the pursuing ship, is compelled by "some whim or qualm" to put an arrow in the man next to her, not the Pirate Queen herself.
- Mating Dance: Bêlit dances like this for Conan.
- Mighty Whitey: The all-black crew follow the pale-skinned Shemite Bêlit (and Conan, after he joins the ship as her co-captain and lover) unquestioningly, and treat her as more of a goddess than a human.
- No Body Left Behind: After returning to human form, the bodies of the werehyenas crumble to dust.
- No Ontological Inertia: Once the winged ape dies, whatever sorcery it used to create the werehyenas dies with it, returning them to human form before they crumble into dust.
- Not Distracted by the Sexy: The master of the merchant ship Conan sails on gives the port in Stygia wide berth, even when a snake-themed ship approaches filled with naked women, who call to the sailors and "posed and postured brazenly." Given that the previous paragraph had gone into grim detail about the horrors that await in Stygia, this is a wise move on the captain's part, and the ship of naked women can be surmised to be a lure for the less wary.
- Our Angels Are Different: The winged humanoids who once inhabited the lost city. Mortal but exceptionally long-lived, building their city before humanity had first crawled from the muck, and devolved by environmental catastrophes into demonic winged apes.
- Our Werebeasts Are Different: Werehyenas created by the winged ape from a group of lost soldiers.
- Pantsless Males, Fully-Dressed Females: Downplayed in both cases. Bêlit is the only in her crew to wear clothing, even if she still wears less than expected.
- Pirate: Bêlit and her crew. Conan takes to the life readily when Bêlit offers it to him.
- Pirate Girl: Bêlit, the Queen of the Black Coast.
- The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: Downplayed. The narration glosses over the actual piracy in a single paragraph, but makes it clear Conan and Bêlit became quite infamous, and that Conan's time as a pirate would come back to haunt him (as seen in The Scarlet Citadel).
- Red Eyes, Take Warning: Conan sees red eyes gleaming in his lotus-induced dream; always they portend horror, madness, and death to those who intrude in the lost city. They're the eyes of the malevolently intelligent winged ape.
- This Was His True Form: The werehyenas briefly resume human form after the winged ape is killed by Conan.
- Treasure Room: They find a room with treasure... when disaster strikes.
- Vertebrate with Extra Limbs: The winged ape.
- Viking Funeral: Bêlit's. Flaming ship and all.
- Winged Humanoid: The winged ape. And what it and its people used to be.