Conan: City of the Dead, John C. Hocking’s Living Plague is Alive Inside

Conan: City of the Dead, John C. Hocking’s Living Plague is Alive Inside

Conan: City of the Dead, by John C. Hocking (2024, Titan Books. 507p)

It’s June of 2024, and Titan Books has just delivered John C. Hocking’s City of the Dead which contains both Conan and the Emerald Lotus (1995, TOR) and its follow-up Conan and the Living Plague a book lost in the limbo of publishing craziness for ~two decades! Hocking also wrote a bridging novella set in between these two novels called “Black Starlight” (serialized across Conan comics in 2019, and provided assembled as an eBook in 2023 as Conan: Black Starlight: The Heroic Legends Series).

Since Titan Books & Heroic Signatures had the rights to publish and print “Black Starlight” separately, it seems like a lost opportunity to have it absent from  City of the Dead, but fans are just glad to finally see the Living Plague in print, it is tough to whine about that.

Conan fans will be purchasing City of the Dead in a frenzy since they are familiar with Hocking’s style and its heroic journey

Want to know what the fuss is all about? This post is all about John C. Hocking’s Conan pastiche. It consolidates my reviews from Emerald Lotus and Black Starlight and highlights from my interview-with-Hocking and pre-review of Living Plague (that post contained informational, but distanced, comments about the book since the manuscript was still not available to all… at the time, I was blessed with one of the sacred Perilous World copies by Hocking to preread). Read this and you’ll have all the excerpts and context needed to lure you into the City of the Dead.

Setting the Stage with the Emerald Lotus Cover Blurb

(BTW, an astute Goodreads S&S Group member pointed out that there are actually 3 wizards, and this official blurb blends the identity of “Shakar the Keshanian” and “Ethram-Fal”).

One wizard is bad. Two are a disaster… And a deadly disaster, too. For Conan, after refusing to help the evil wizard Ethram-Fal, has been cursed with a spell that is slowly, inexorably squeezing the life from his mighty frame. The only person who can banish the spell–besides Ethram-Fal, of course — is the sorceress Zelandra: a raven-haired beauty who practices only white magic… or so she says.

Zelandra has offered to lift the spell from the Cimmerian, if only he will do her one small service: steal the deadly Emerald Lotus from the clutches of Ethram-Fal in his impregnable desert fortress. No good can come of this, Conan thinks to himself. Once sorcery gets mixed up in it, the whole job goes to hell Unfortunately, he’s right.

The Prologue

The prologue catalyzes the adventure, defines the conflict, and sets the expectation for substantial horror elements (which the reader gets!). In fact, the titular lotus is both (a) a resource for casting sorcery and (b) a living inhuman-floral creature. Drugs and sorcery are equated, and they are also connected to a vegetable-entity-demon, so the conflict(s) feel very rich, fun, & unique. Sorcerers are addicts!

A moist crackling filled the still air. The corpse jerked and trembled as though endowed with tormented life. Ethram-Fal caught his breath as fist-sized swellings erupted all but instantaneously from the dead flesh of his ap-prentice. The body was grotesquely distorted in a score of places, with such swift violence that the limbs convulsed and the yellow robes ripped open.

Green blossoms the size of a man’s open hand burst from the corpse, leaping forth in such profusion that the body was almost hidden from view. Iridescent and six-petaled, the blooms pushed free of enclosing flesh, bobbing and shaking as if in a strong wind. In a moment they were still, and a sharp, musky odor, redolent of both nectar and corruption, rose slowly to fill the chamber.

The Style & Scope

Hocking certainly captured the spirit of Robert E. Howard’s fast-paced adventure, and presented the Hyperborean canon/landscape well. Conan’s remarkable travel and experiences set him apart from other mercenaries. As he gets embroiled in an adventure, he’ll travel across Shem, the river Styx, and into Stygia. There are some greater conflicts teased with Shamtare and King Sumuabi that are introduced but not fleshed out (more on that later).

REH’s Conan was essentially all short stories, but novels require longer relationships and here Conan finds himself allied with a team. Conan and the mute Khitan Heng Shih are the two men, and each is loosely paired with a strong-willed woman. The lady on the Ken Kelly cover seems a hybrid of Zelandra (the sorceress with raven hair) with her dagger-wielding attendant Neesa. Conan’s warrior skills and knowledge of Stygia are needed to guide them to the ruins of Cetriss. Conan’s scouting powers are great with preternatural, and predatorial, eyesight, sense of smell, and instincts.

S&S Style, Action Excerpt

Where the stream of bubbles had emerged from the pool’s floor, a thick shaft of shining green, like the trunk of a tree, now thrust itself into view. It shook, jerked, and stretched itself taller than a man, lashing the water to froth. A cluster of pale, bloated, petal-like growths covered the thing’s crown. Its body was a densely wrinkled green cylinder, crisscrossed with pulsing veins. A pair of ridged tentacles burst from each side of its midsection, lashing the air. A thick mass of roiling roots formed its base, heaving at the pool’s floor, lifting the grotesque thing up out of the water, moving it toward the shore and the stunned human intruders.

A whiplike tentacle whistled toward Conan, snapping itself around his right calf. It pulled forward with incredible strength, jerking his leg up, upending the barbarian’s body, so that for a moment he was suspended head down. The Cimmerian’s sword leapt into his hands, making a flashing arc that slashed through the hard, ridged arm and dropped him to the sand.

Heng Shih’s hands caught Zelandra’s waist and tossed her forcefully back. She stumbled out of range even as a tentacle curled around her bodyguard’s torso. The emerald arm constricted, sinking sharply into Heng Shih’s abdomen, drawing him in toward the hideous thing.

Conan sprang cat-like up off the ground, ducking beneath one flailing tentacle as another struck him across neck and chest like a slavemaster’s whip. He twisted away, stumbling in the sand, a line of dripping crimson bright on his bronzed throat.

The unnatural plant proceeded to pull itself out of the pool on its tangled carpet of roots while bone-white thorns began sprouting from the net of wrinkles on its swaying trunk. Wicked, needle-sharp spikes pushed into view, jutting the length of a man’s hand. The unladen tentacles lengthened, whipping wildly about- as the one gripping Heng Shih pulled steadily, tirelessly at him.

The Cimmerian lunged to his friend’s aid. A questing tentacle writhed about the barbarian’s left arm, biting into muscle and spoiling a stroke meant to free Heng Shih. The tentacle he had severed snaked clumsily between Conan’s legs, seeking an ankle.

The Khitan’s boots plowed twin furrows in the sandy soil as he was drawn irresistibly toward the thing….

Some of the initial settings begged to be addressed again (i.e., the fate of Conan’s mercenary buddy Shamtare and King Sumuabi’s need for raising armies), but these are minor threads and happen to be seeds developed in The Living Plague. Although the climax was consistent and action-packed, Conan could have played an even larger role in the resolution.

“Black Starlight” is the serialized extension of Emerald Lotus

*** This novella is not included in City of the Dead, but is available separately as Conan: Black Starlight: The Heroic Legends Series (link).

The 12-part episodes published across the 2019 Conan the Barbarian comics picks up directly after the conflict; to clarify, the comics are separate, disconnected story penned by Jason Aaron. With precious little lotus surviving, Stygian liches are desperately trying to steal what little Zelandra has procured. As the party makes its way back to Shem, a fight over it leads the party to an abandoned manor, and a demonic battle. Expect more Hocking pastiche, which always involves a bit of weird-horror:

“No matter.” Nubar shrugged the white robes off his shoulders. The barbarian almost lunged, but the hooked blade was back at Zelandra’s throat in an instant, and the thing that wore the form of Lord Nubar favored him with a slow and mocking smile. He let the robe fall to his belted waist. His upper body was pale, and the hair on his breast was shot with gray, but he stood straight and there was strength in his shoulders.

With a faint sigh he lifted his arms for a moment, giving Conan a glimpse of long, crimson openings high along his ribs on either side, as open as wounds but not bleeding. Conan saw two horizontal slashes like wide, red-lipped mouths, and each was full of fitfully moving slugs, tiny facsimiles of the winged leeches he and his comrades had faced again and again this hellish night.

Living Plague Perspective: A Portion of our 2022 interview with Hocking (link)

[SEL] Having read the Perilous Worlds Conan and the Living Plague manuscript, I learned it was designed as an indirect sequel to Conan and the Emerald Lotus. As per the title and blurb (below), there is a new creature/villain to battle, but Conan’s compatriot Shamtare and the location of Akkharia are explored in very satisfying ways.

The long-awaited follow-up to Conan And The Emerald Lotus, Hocking once again proves to be amongst the best of the Conan pastiche writers.

Sent to recover treasure from a plague-wracked city, not only must Conan avoid its deranged survivors, but battle a deadly disease given humanoid shape. To save himself – and perhaps the world – he allies with a scheming sorcerer to traverse a demon-haunted abyss in a desperate bid to destroy the Living Plague.

[SEL] In the recent Black Gate review of Emerald Lotus & “Black Starlight” I highlighted one of my favorite battle scenes: Conan and crew vs. the demonic, mega-flora oasis creature. If you were to highlight a scene, which one would it be?

[JCH] There are several sequences in Emerald Lotus in which I tried to conjure up some of that old-school Weird Tales atmosphere — the scene in which the sorcerer Ethram-Fal finds that one of his men has been surreptitiously sacrificed to Nyarlathotep, for instance. But the scene I put the most effort into is Conan and Heng Shih’s battle with Ethram-Fal’s mercenaries over the lotus pit.  I was all but obsessed with trying to write the kind of battle that Stopped The Show. A full-on, balls-out, hack-n-slay display of exhausting combat against the odds that could stand in the shadow of the best Sword & Sorcery battle scenes I’d read.

I rewrote that scene entirely 14 times simply trying to hold a candle to the hellfire to be found in Solomon Kane’s clash with the Akaana in “Wings in the Night,” with Kull’s battle on the stairs in “Swords of the Purple Kingdom” or Conan’s donnybrook with Thog in “Xuthal of the Dusk.”  While I still find my scene to be pretty good, nobody has said a word about it to date.  If you read the book, please take note of the scene and see if I get points for trying.

You’ve endured and enjoyed publishing experiences with the Conan IP. You broke into writing Lotus in 1995, and even though “Black Starlight” made it to print in 2019, the pseudo-follow-up novel to Emerald Lotus called Living Plague was pulled at the last minute. Not to pick scabs, but readers may be hopeful for any update or perspective. Can you comment on any part of your journey? Any pastiche for the future?

While I’m pleased to have made some contribution to the Cimmerian’s saga, writing pastiche has been a rocky road. Lotus has been out of print for more than twenty years, and Living Plague came within inches of being published twice and died on the doorstep each time. Lately, I’ve heard some appreciative things aboutLotus, which is heartening even all these years later, but the book got its share of negative feedback. A pastiche that appeared before REH’s restored works were available, it won me some choice bits of hate mail when it first appeared.

When it seemed that Conan and the Living Plague was finally going to be published, I got pretty fired up, and outlined a new Conan story set in Asgard and Vanaheim. And I was approached with the suggestion that I go back to work on the Conan pastiche I’d begun way back when Living Plague was completed.  I found notes and a partial manuscript for Conan in the City of Pain but put them aside when plans to print Lotus and Living Plague fell through. While I’d be game to write more about the Cimmerian I can’t afford to give it much thought until my second pastiche finally sees publication.

I appreciate you sharing the manuscript of the almost-published Living Plague. It reads like a S&S-bank-heist novel. Conan and a gang break into a quarantined, plague city to recover treasure; catacombs, ghouls, and zombies, and tons of necromancy. Some of the initial settings from Emerald Lotus begged to be addressed again (i.e., the fate of Conan’s mercenary buddy Shamtare and King Sumuabi’s need for raising armies) and you developed them further in Plague. Let’s discuss some teasers without spoiling anything.

Both Emerald Lotus and the Living Plague-manuscript have prologues that focus on an apprentice/sorcerer relation that is dysfunctional. Brilliant way to set up the conflict. Can you comment on plot design and organizing novels, and perhaps your perspective on sorcerers?

Howard’sThe Hour of the Dragon begins with a chapter showing the resurrection of the story’s villain, Xaltotun. I like the idea of teasing readers with a look at the potential challenges and adversaries the Cimmerian will be forced to overcome. And starting my books in emulation of the only canonical Conan novel just felt right.

I outline extensively and did my best to keep a driving pace with chapters ending on a sharp note or revelation. In this sense, my Conan books owe something to the Gold Medal Original novels of the 1950’s. I admire their fierce pace and narrative drive — something that’s become uncommon in modern fiction and quite rare in fantasy.

I wanted my sorcerer villains to be the sort of people who were tempted to latch onto personal power, power they convinced themselves they deserved, and to do so despite its obvious dark, undependable and dehumanizing nature. These guys are evil through self-indulgence, self-deception and moral weakness. Also, having seen perhaps a few too many fictional wizards who could perform spectacular miracles with the wave of a hand, I opted to make my sorcerers more limited and uncertain in their skills.

The living-plague is airborne; COVID-conscious readers would latch onto the protective masks now.

Yeesh. I can now see that aspect of the book as being called out as trendy or, worse, politically relevant. Ugh. Please keep in mind I wrote Living Plague in 1996.

S&S tends to have one hero (maybe a duo). In your Conan pastiche, almost everyone has a partner or bodyguard (friend or foil). When designing heroic fiction, what do you consider for heroes (solo or teamed)?

This is different for hero and villain. The villain needs bodyguards/followers to do his will and to provide additional colorful and dangerous threats for the hero to overcome. I found that, at times, putting Conan, an iconic character of mythic stature, into the company of comrades to be a way of letting the reader see how the Cimmerian appears to others (that is to say, epic) without leaning too hard on the third-person narration to simply tell the reader about him.

The Living Plague reads like a S&S-bank-heist novel. Conan and a gang break into a quarantined, plague city to recover treasure; catacombs, ghouls, and zombies, and tons of necromancy. Some of the initial settings from Emerald Lotus begged to be addressed again (i.e., the fate of Conan’s mercenary buddy Shamtare and King Sumuabi’s need for raising armies) and you developed them further in Plague.

S.E. Lindberg is a Managing Editor at Black Gate, regularly reviewing books and interviewing authors on the topic of “Beauty & Art in Weird-Fantasy Fiction.” He is also the lead moderator of the Goodreads Sword & Sorcery Group and an intern for Tales from the Magician’s Skull magazine. As for crafting stories, he has contributed eight entries across Perseid Press’s Heroes in Hell and Heroika series, and has an entry in Weirdbook Annual #3: Zombies He independently publishes novels under the banner Dyscrasia Fiction; short stories of Dyscrasia Fiction have appeared in WhetstoneSwords & Sorcery online magazine, Rogues In the House Podcast’s A Book of Blades Vol I and Vol II, DMR’s Terra Incognita, and the 9th issue of Tales From the Magician’s Skull.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

as i had missed out on the first book by Mr. Hocking, i was sp happy Titan put it in with the new publishing. i picked up the audiobook which has a great narrator for both (at least based on the emerald lotus). i have only made it through The Emerald Lotus so far, but because of Mr. Hocking’s stories included in tales from the magicians skull, i knew i had to move this release to the top of my TBR pile and i am glad i did. i have been happy with how Titan has been handling a lot of the publishing, the comics have been great and the once a month heroic legends release have been great too.

Scott R.

Thank you for your article. Mr. Hocking participated in some panels at Howard Days in Texas a couple weeks ago, where I had the privilege of meeting him. I told him that, as a Howard purist, I generally don’t care for Conan pastiches. However, after reading his chapter in Robert E. Howard Changed My Life in which he talked about writing Conan and the Emerald Lotus, I tracked it down and found it enjoyable. It seems to me to be Howardian in many respects. I also read Black Sunlight and it was just as fine. Conan and The Living Plague is definitely on my near-term reading list.

John Hocking

Hey thanks, Scott. It’s rewarding to reach an audience initially skeptical of pastiche.
For what it’s worth I think Living Plague is a bit better than Emerald Lotus, although this seems to be the minority opinion.

John Hocking

Thanks for the sweeping thumbs-up, Seth. I’m still kind of stunned by the fact that the book is actually in stores. My reaction to seeing it on the shelf of my local Barnes & Noble actually made an onlooking clerk laugh out loud. Like I care.

[…] (Black Gate): It’s June of 2024, and Titan Books has just delivered John C. Hocking’s City of the Dead […]

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x