Friday, June 21, 2024

Conan: City of the Dead - John C. Hocking

CONAN: CITY OF THE DEAD is a new collection available in both hardback and e-book editions that reprints John C. Hocking's original Conan novel, CONAN AND THE EMERALD LOTUS, and is the first publication of his sequel CONAN AND THE LIVING PLAGUE. More than ten years ago, I read and reviewed the first of those novels, and then a while after that, I was fortunate enough to read an advance copy of the second. I thought I would revisit slightly updated versions of both of these reviews today.

From August 30, 2013: As a long-time reader and fan of Robert E. Howard's work, a former member of REHupa, and somebody who has written introductions for several volumes of Howard stories, you might expect me to be a strict purist, somebody who doesn't like pastiches featuring Howard's characters and doesn't think such things should be written. Ah, but that would be rather hypocritical of me, considering how the majority of my career has been spent writing about other people's characters, including my own Howard pastiche (the El Borak story "Wolves of the Mountain" in CROSS PLAINS UNIVERSE).

So, as with most things, I come down pretty much in the middle on this issue. I have no philosophical objections to pastiches, it's just that most of the ones I've read based on Howard's work aren't very good.

For years, though, I've been meaning to read John C. Hocking's novel CONAN AND THE EMERALD LOTUS, which has a pretty favorable reputation even among Howard's most devoted fans. I believe it was Morgan Holmes who first told me that Hocking's book is the best of the Conan pastiches published by Tor. I should have gotten around to it long before now, especially since the author comments from time to time on this very blog. All I can say is that I'm sorry for my procrastination on several levels, the most important of which is that it kept me from reading an excellent novel until now.

CONAN AND THE EMERALD LOTUS is a rare thing, a fantasy novel with a strongly realistic tone to it. Sure, there's plenty of swordplay and sorcery, but the tale revolves around a powerful, highly addictive drug, the sort of plot element you might find in a hardboiled crime novel. It's been said that Howard merged a hardboiled voice with horror fiction to create sword-and-sorcery, and Hocking understands that even though he doesn't try to imitate Howard's style. He spins this yarn in brisk, action-packed prose with occasional touches of creepiness and dark humor. Conan, aligned with one of the sorcerers warring over the potent powder known as the Emerald Lotus, is the most admirable character in the novel, and we know what a bad-ass he is.

At the same time, Hocking gives us the sort of spectacle you expect to find in epic heroic fantasy, especially in scenes like the description of sorcerer Ethram-Fal's stronghold in the badlands of ancient Stygia. And speaking of badlands, there are hints of the Western here, too, in the battles between Conan and his enemies in rugged terrain that might well be Monument Valley, Utah. All of it leads up to an apocalyptic and very satisfying climax.

As it turns out, CONAN AND THE EMERALD LOTUS is one of the most purely entertaining books I've read all year. Hocking knows his stuff and knows how to tell a fine story.

From August 5, 2019: John C. Hocking is the author of CONAN AND THE EMERALD LOTUS, a novel which is widely regarded as the best of the Conan pastiches published by Tor in the Eighties and Nineties. I finally got around to reading it several years ago and agree that it’s easily the best of those pastiches. 

In CONAN AND THE LIVING PLAGUE, Conan is recruited to be part of a small mercenary force headed to the isolated mountain city of Dulcine, which is rumored to have been wiped out by a mysterious plague. But rumors also say that there’s a fortune waiting to be had in Dulcine’s treasure vaults, and an ambitious prince has his eye on that loot. In order to get his hands on it, he hires not only Conan and several other hard-nosed soldiers but also a sorcerer who had something to do with the plague that wiped out the city. Conan hates and distrusts sorcery, of course, but the magic conjured up by this mage Adrastus is the only thing that can get the treasure seekers safely in and out of their destination.

Well, of course, lots of stuff goes wrong. The plague hasn’t wiped out everybody in Dulcine, but the people who are left have been transformed into crazed, bloodthirsty semblances of their former selves. Even worse, a creepy figure who’s actually the living personification of the plague is wandering around the castle where the treasure is supposed to be. Conan and his companions are in constant danger not only from this living plague but also from treachery within their own ranks. Not all of them will make it out alive . . .

Hocking doesn’t try to slavishly imitate Robert E. Howard’s style, although there are Howardian touches to the prose here and there. Instead, he tells the story in his own voice, with well-drawn characters, a head-long pace, and plenty of epic action scenes. I think this is the best approach to pastiche, producing a novel that’s recognizably a Conan tale, steeped in the background and setting Howard created, but in the author’s own distinctive style. Hocking has given us another fine novel, and I certainly hope it won’t be the last. I really enjoyed CONAN AND THE LIVING PLAGUE and give it a very high recommendation.


Jerry House said...

Thanks. Just ordered it, though if I were not familiar with the character, and judging from the shadow figure on the cover, I would have thought it was a werewolf novel.

Charles Gramlich said...

definitely sold me a copy. I'll order it today

Anonymous said...

Thanks, James.
I can hardly tell you how surreal and grand it is to see this volume finally become available. Especially Living Plague, which I honestly abandoned hope would ever find its way into print.

John Hocking