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City of the Dead – John C. Hocking Isn’t Playing Around 

by Lo Terry on June 14, 2024
  • Renowned fantasy author John C. Hocking, celebrated for his acclaimed novel Conan and the Emerald Lotus, has returned to the Hyborian Age with a vengeance. 

    His latest, Conan and the Living Plague, a brand new yarn of the Cimmerian — one full of the bloody battle, creeping dread, and eldritch magic that’s made Conan an icon for generations.

    Join us as we deliver a sneak preview to a longer interview we held with Hocking where we plumb the depths of Hocking’s dark vision and examine how he’s taken Howard’s sword-and-sorcery template – and infused it with fresh terrors. To watch the full interview, make sure to go to the Conan the Barbarian YouTube channel!

    Everything That’s Old is New Again

    For John C. Hocking, returning to the savage world of Conan was practically a compulsion. Having already left a mark on the Cimmerian’s saga with his acclaimed 1995 novel The Emerald Lotus, Hocking knew he would be back to capturing the blood-soaked battlefields and eldritch horrors of the Hyborian Age.

    Conan The Barbarian City of the Dead - John C. Hocking Isn’t Playing Around 

    “For one, I [did] have more stories about Conan to tell,” Hocking says, his voice brimming with reverence. “Writing the Cimmerian was a privilege, an honor, and a delight. I had a lot of fun doing it and wanted to do it more.”

    But he didn’t want to continue plodding on well-worn tropes. No – for Hocking, the challenge and the thrill of writing another Conan story play in pushing the barbarian into a nightmarish maelstrom of ever-escalating threats. 

    “I wanted to put the Barbarian into a desperate situation that got worse,” Hocking explains. “I wanted to take a cue from the horror yarns that appeared in Weird Tales magazine back in the day and thrust Conan into a Lovecraftian nightmare and show how he prevails because that’s what Conan does.”

    It’s an interesting promise, one that hints at the depths of imagination and the heights of terror that Hocking pursued. With delight, and thanks to its pulp pedigree, The Living Plague successfully alchemizes the familiar stripes of sword and sorcery into something fresh.

    Bigger, Badder, Smarter, Scarier

    At the heart of Hocking’s new story, The Living Plague, beats a classically chilling premise: a wizard, drunk on forbidden knowledge, unleashes a monstrous creature upon the world.

    But in Hocking’s hands, this familiar trope takes on an even more sinister streak. The horror he conjures is surpasses a cliche, lumbering monstrosity to be dispatched with a well-placed sword thrust. Instead, Hocking’s plague a sentient force that grows and evolves with each passing page.

    “Having the plague become more sentient and begin to ponder its role in the world – you know, what it is, where it is, what it’s supposed to do, and what its destiny is – that was a little different,” Hocking muses. “That felt fresh to me.”

    It’s a twist that elevates The Living Plague to a dark parable. As the plague spreads and devastates its surroundings, Hocking invites us to cower before these metaphysical horrors – the same ones that Conan must confront. The Cimmerian, for all his barbaric might, finds himself pitted against foes that defy mere brawn and steel. The supernatural entities he faces are otherworldly abominations that threaten to shatter the very foundations of reality.

    Man Enough, or Is He?

    In the face of such cosmic horrors, even the indomitable Cimmerian finds himself pushed to the brink. Conan, the very embodiment of raw, primal power, suddenly seems all too mortal.

    And yet, it is in this crucible of terror that Hocking sees an opportunity to delve deeper into the character of Conan himself. Stripped of his physical advantages, the barbarian must fall back on the one thing that truly sets him apart: the sheer, unbreakable force of his will.

    “I wanted to take the ball as best I could and run with it,” Hocking explains, “putting Conan into a situation where he is vastly outclassed physically by otherworldly horrors and showing us how he could still triumph. That’s what Conan does.”

    Conan The Barbarian City of the Dead - John C. Hocking Isn’t Playing Around 

    It’s a theme that cuts to the very heart of the Conan mythos. For all his barbarian might, it is ultimately Conan’s indomitable spirit, his refusal to bend or break in the face of even the most overwhelming odds, that defines him.

    Through Hocking’s prose, we feel the thunder of Conan’s pulse as he stares down the squamous horrors before him. We taste the copper tang of blood and the acrid bite of fear, the twin fires of rage and determination that drive the Cimmerian ever onward. Even in his darkest moments, facing enemies beyond human comprehension, there is a fierce, almost feral vitality to Conan. He is a man truly alive, in a way that lesser mortals can scarcely imagine.

    But Conan does not face these horrors alone. The Cimmerian finds himself in the company of a motley band of mercenaries, each with their own agendas, their own secrets and desires. It’s a dynamic that crackles with tension, the clash of strong personalities navigating a labyrinth of Lovecraftian terror.

    F is For Friends Who Kill Stuff Together

    Among these companions, young Pezur stands out, a naive archer whose wide-eyed admiration for Conan borders on hero worship. “Pezur  thinks Conan’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Hocking chuckles. “You know, he looks up to him. It’s kind of some hero worship.”

    But not all of Conan’s comrades share Pezur’s rosy view of the Cimmerian. Take Adrastus, the wizard who accompanies the band on their fateful mission. Beneath his smooth veneer lurks a soul steeped in duplicity, a man whose loyalties are as shifting as the sands of Stygia. And then there’s Balthano, Adrastus’ servant, a man whose resentment of Conan simmers just beneath the surface, threatening to boil over at any moment.

    It’s a volatile mix, to be sure, and one that Hocking gleefully exploits. “I created as much tension as I could between the characters,” he confides. In the pressure cooker of Dulcine’s plague-ridden streets, these tensions threaten to tear the group apart, adding yet another layer of danger to an already perilous quest.

    But such interpersonal dramas, juicy as they may be, are but one facet of the multifarious tale Hocking weaves. For at its core, The Living Plague is a story of visceral action and creeping dread, of cosmic horror and sword-swinging adventure. 

    “Someone said Rafael Sabatini mixed with H.P. Lovecraft,” Hocking muses, referencing the legendary adventure novelist and the master of cosmic horror. “So it’s like the guy that wrote Sea Wolf and Captain Blood, those old Errol Flynn-style swashbucklers mixed with Lovecraft straight-up cosmic horror. It’s a blend that seems unlikely if you stop and think about it, but it can work well.”

    And work well it does. The Living Plague is a breathless rush of a tale, punctuated by moments of slick action and wince-inducing horror. One moment, Conan is locked in desperate battle with the plague-maddened denizens of Dulcine, his blade flashing in a whirlwind of steel and blood. The next, he’s plunged into a nightmare realm of eldritch abominations, his sanity stretched to the breaking point by sights no mortal man was meant to witness.Through Conan’s eyes, we also witness the slow unraveling of his companions as the unrelenting terror of their situation strips away the veneer of civility to reveal the raw, desperate creatures beneath.

    As we turn the final page of The Living Plague, we’re left with a renewed appreciation for the enduring power of Howard’s creation. Through Conan’s trials, John C. Hocking grapples with some of the same weighty themes that animated those original Conan tales – the tension between civilization and barbarism, and man’s struggle to carve out meaning in an indifferent universe.

    With The Living Plague slated for release on June 18, fans of sword-and-sorcery – and thrilling storytelling in general – would do well to secure their copy post-haste. Get ready to plunge once more unto the breach with the Cimmerian, facing down foes both human and horribly inhuman. And as you do, keep these chilling words close, a promise of terrors to come:

    “Conan lifted his blade to lunge forward with a decapitating strike, and in the fractured moment that his Herculean frame tensed for that action, the demon-thing turned back to face him.

    And it smiled, drew thin golden lips back from rows of teeth like slivers of midnight onyx. It grinned at the Cimmerian like a black-fanged death’s head, and lifted eager amber hands to clutch at him.”

    Conan The Barbarian City of the Dead - John C. Hocking Isn’t Playing Around 
  • Lo Terry

    In his effort to help Heroic Signatures tell legendary stories, Lo Terry does a lot. Sometimes, that means spearheading an innovative, AI-driven tavern adventure. In others it means writing words in the voice of a mischievous merchant for people to chuckle at. It's a fun time.

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