Conan sailing the seas was something hinted at in “The City of Skulls”, “The Pool of the Black One”, then again at the end of “Shadows in the Moonlight”. Obviously, the hero conquered the high seas as a pirate, and nothing illustrates that part of Conan's life better than “Queen of the Black Coast”.
The story begins with Conan fleeing the law in Argos. Conan explains later that his friend killed someone defending a girl, and after going on the run, the magistrate demands that Conan provide his friend's location. Instead of providing information about his friend, Conan kills the magistrate. In an effort to avoid his pursuers, Conan demands passage on the Argus, a trading barge. When the Argus crew refuses to allow Conan to board, he threatens to kill the captain and his crew. Conan then befriends the ship's captain, a guy named Tito.
The story's title comes to fruition when Belit arrives, a gorgeous female pirate commanding the Tigress. Her clashing with Conan's crew in Kush is a violent, epic struggle as the Argos crew is annihilated by Belit's black pirates. However, she finds Conan's fighting skills to be superb, peaking her interest in the adventurer. Belit is sexually attracted to Conan and soon the two become lovers as they ravage Stygian coastlines as pirates of the Tigress. Conan is deemed “Amra”, meaning “Lion.”
On the river Zarkheba, Conan and Belit discover an ancient tower in the jungle. After rotating the tower, they find a wealth of treasures, including a cursed necklace for Belit. Soon, subhuman creatures (hyena men?) and a winged demon appear to slaughter the Tigress's crew. The necklace creates madness for Belit and after Conan's lone departure to kill a monster, he returns to find her corpse hanging from the ship.
There is a lot happening within this short story, mostly death, destruction, and total carnage. The swordplay becomes nearly grotesque as brains are cracked and bodies are cleaved in half. But, Howard's violent storytelling is a necessity to convey the jungle horrors that befall Belit and Conan. It is gruesome, but still remains unique in its avoidance of any typical Conan tropes.
“Queen of the Black Coast” presents something unusual for Conan – a true love. This love interest is more powerful than that of Valeria (“Red Nails”, Blood of the Serpent) and Olivia (“Shadows in the Moonlight”). While readers don't partake in the relationship itself, they are there for the beginning. Belit's attraction to Conan is nearly hypnotic, submitting to the hero despite the number of crewmen she commands and the overall superiority of her ship. Conan instantly feels the attraction and is magnetized by this “She-Devil”.
Howard's story is among the upper echelon of Conan tales and certainly deserves the accolades heaped upon it. This is an adventure story for the ages, but also a horror tale. The combination of genres is exciting, riveting, and completely awe-inspiring. This is the Conan story you need to read. Highest of recommendations.