Thursday, December 23, 2021

HOCKING's CONAN PASTICHE: Emerald Lotus AND "Black Starlight"; Review by SE

Simulcast on Black Gate


Ken Kelly cover art for Conan and the Emerald Lotus

John C. Hocking's Conan PasticheConan and the Emerald Lotus by John C. Hocking emerged from Tor in 1995 (Ciruelo Cabral cover artist) and reprinted in 1999 (Ken Kelly cover); paperbacks are insanely expensive now (i.e. >$500 on Amazon). Fast forward to 2019, and Hocking released a 12-part serialized novella "Black Starlight" that spanned the recent Conan the Barbarian comic (Jason Aaron)--a direct sequel to "Emerald Lotus" that tracks Conan's adventures as he returns from Stygia.


An indirect sequel novel by Hocking called Conan and the Living Plague was pulled from a 2019 publication at the last minute. Its future is unknown (by certain graces, the author did provide me a copy of the manuscript...and we plan to discuss/share some in an interview planned for 2022).

Setting the Stage with the 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: This 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 REH'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 in Style:
….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 setting 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.

2019 Conan the Barbarian Comics



"Black Starlight" is the serialized extension of Emerald Lotus. 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: Expect coverage on this in an upcoming interview. In short, having read the manuscript, it was designed as an indirect sequel to Emerald. As per the title and blurb, 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.

More Hocking
 BTW, Hocking has been cranking out "King's Blade" stories featuring his hero Benhus; these appear in Tales from the Magician's Skull. Highly recommended.

He also had a series of short stories on Brand the Viking. The first “Vali’s Wound” in Daniel Blackston’s anthology Lords of Swords (Pitch-Black, 2004), the second “The Face in the Sea” appeared in Black Gate (2009), and the third “The Bonestealer’s Mirror” in Black Gate (2010).

He also has a few essays out, including "Conan: REH, Conan and Me" in Jason M. Waltz's (Rogue Blade Foundation champion) Robert E. Howard Changed My Life. Here's an excerpt of his 2019 essay that reflects on pastiche:

...I wrote Conan and the Emerald Lotus (1995) for a number of reasons, but foremost among them was a desire to produce my own tribute to Robert E. Howard, Conan, and the Cimmerian’s saga, canonical and otherwise. Na├»vely, it never occurred to me the book might be seen as anything but a tribute. It was an attempt, for better or worse, to reflect and celebrate the aspects of the original tales I had most enjoyed and, more often than not, found absent or muted in much modern fantasy adventure.

The book received a mixed response, of course. It appears impossible to find a Conan pastiche that is uniformly appreciated or uniformly scorned. Looking back on Conan and the Emerald Lotus now, 25 years after it was written, I can neither be satisfied with nor dismissive of the book. It is, naturally, down to the individual reader to determine any degree of success the book might have as a novel, a pastiche or just the provider of a few hours of entertainment. However, I do like to think its status as a tribute, as a sincere effort to frame and broadcast my admiration of Robert E. Howard and his immortal Cimmerian, would be apparent to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the prose originals. The book is so saturated with references, connections, tributes and call-outs to REH, the Conan pastiche I most admired, and Howard’s fellow Weird Tales authors that were they to be stripped out of the novel the book would be half its size and nearly incomprehensible. In this way the book is not simply a reaction to Howard and Conan but an expression, decades in the making, of the reaction I initially felt upon encountering “The People of the Black Circle” and the world of reading it threw open for my exploration...