Friday, February 4, 2022

Tour Guide of John C. Hocking's Archivist Series

Originally posted on the Tales of the Magician's Skull Blog: Archiving the King’s Blade Champion: An interview with John C. Hocking

Saved here for redundant archiving!

John C. Hocking is a nigh-obsessed reader and writer of lurid pulp fiction, the author of Conan and the Emerald Lotus, “Black Starlight” serial, and their time-lost companion, Conan and the Living Plague, as well as an obedient thrall of Tales From the Magician’s Skull. Recently Black Gate reviewed John C. Hocking’s Conan Pastiche; then they cornered him to learn more about his pastiche and weird fiction muses in an interview. That post is a companion with this interview and we hope you’ll brave the Black Gate and check it out.

Here we focus on Hocking’s original Archivist and King’s Blade series — now to the interview!

You’ve had six [now seven! — ed.] Benhus tales (The King’s Blade series) that appeared in each of the Tales From the Magician Skull magazines. The first one appeared in 2019, and is called “The Crystal Sickle’s Harvest: From the World of the Archivist.”. Tell us more about the Archivist series and how it informs the King’s Blade.

John C. Hocking: The Archivist stories take place in the same world, the same city, as those about Benhus. They just occur 12 or 15 years later. The Archivist sprang from my desire to keep writing sword and sorcery but step away from using a mythic warrior character like Conan.

Hocking’s King’s Blade Series in Tales From the Magician’s Skull by issue number:

  • I. “The Crystal Sickle’s Harvest”
  • II. “Trial by Scarab”
  • III. Tyrant’s Bane”
  • IV. “Guardian of the Broken Gem”
  • V. “In the Corridors of the Crow” *read the preview*
  • VI. “Calicask’s Woman”
  • VII. “The Gift of a Poison Necklace” *read the preview*

The Archivist series seem difficult to track down. Any comment about readers with OCD/completionism that desire to read these?

JCH: Right now, there are 8 stories about the Archivist and his friend Lucella:

  1. ‘A Night in the Archives’ appeared in the Flashing Swords ezine Vol1-#2. available online
  2. ‘Web of Pale Venom’ appeared in Flashing Swords #3 and was recently reprinted in Goodman Games ‘Cubicles of the Skull’. available online
  3. ‘The Lost Path Between the Worlds’ appeared in the Flashing Swords ezine #4 . available online
  4. ‘A River Through Darkness & Light’ appeared in Black Gate #15 (last print issue of BG).
  5. ‘Vestments of Pestilence’ was featured, and available for reading on Black Gate.
  6. ‘Pawns in a House of Ghosts’ appeared in Skelos #3.
  7. ‘With a Poet’s Eyes’ appeared in Weirdbook #38.
  8. “From a Prison of Blackened Bone’ is awaiting publication by Weirdbook.

I imagine I’ll eventually try to assemble a collection of all the Archivist yarns. I’d like to add a few more entries before then, though. I outlined a novel about the character but can’t say if I’ll ever write it.

Can you compare/contrast the Archivist with Lucella & Benhus?

JCH: The Archivist is an unlikely hero, a more cerebral and self-absorbed character than most you’d see in Sword & Sorcery. His ability to fill a heroic role in the dangerous environment of a S&S tale is boosted by his connection to the lady soldier, Lucella. Although the Archivist is unselfconsciously brave when the occasion calls for it and can throw a mean dagger, Lucella is the real fighter of the two. Odd as it may sound, Lucella’s attitude toward violence, and how fighting affects her, are as realistic as anything in my work, as I patterned it after the only people I’ve known who really, truly loved a serious fight. The Archivist is wry and often pre-occupied, but a thoroughly decent fellow with a strong sense of justice. Lucella is more pragmatic but tends to follow his lead. I find the relationship between the Archivist and Lucella more satisfying than much of my work. The two basically combine to form one functional hero.

The Benhus character is an attempt to create a Sword & Sorcery character in the mold of hardboiled crime fiction. He lacks the experience, knowledge, skill set and sense of justice that the Archivist and Lucella bring to the table. Benhus is very young, but tough, determined and possessed of few scruples, especially when it comes to self-preservation. His occasionally callous behavior can be alienating to readers not expecting it. The fact that the guy is in so far over his head, is so isolated from any substantial assistance or understanding, that he is surrounded by people vastly more powerful and better informed than he is, that he must watch his every step to avoid losing his position or his life—I hope all this leads readers to identify with the guy, even if they might find him a less than delightful dinner companion.

Juxtaposing the Archivist and Lucella with Benhus was great fun. For anyone who might care to know, the Archivist encounters an older and more seasoned Benhus in ‘Pawns in a House of Ghosts’.

Let’s focus on Benhus now. In the TFTMS 2021 Kickstarter updates & interviews, you revealed that his name was a tribute to Ben Haas. He was a writer who wrote westerns under several pseudonyms [(1926 – 1977) aka John Benteen, Thorne Douglas, Richard Meade)]. Please expand on Ben Haas, and how Benhus may embody some aspect of his writing/characters?

JCH: I admire the work of Benjamin Leopold Haas as one of the most polished and seemingly effortless pulp writers of the 1970’s. He spun formula men’s adventure fiction into gold over and over and over again. If I’ve tried to adopt anything from his writing style it would be a ceaseless forward movement and a steady, zero-padding approach to storytelling. But one of the things I admire most about his work is the one I will never even be able to approach—his remarkable coupling of prolificity and solid, satisfying storytelling.

Each of the TFTMS issues come with illustrations. Can you comment on these depictions?

  • I. Jennel Jaquays: I wrote a whole essay for the first Tales from the Magician’s Skull Kickstarter about how happy I was to have Jaquays illustrate one of my stories. That is one elegant image.
  • II. Russ Nicholson: This one explodes off the page. One of the most spectacular single page monster images I’ve seen, and I was delighted to have it attached to my story.
  • III. Matthew Ray: I loved the tight depiction of the three main characters (four if you include their undead foe). That’s a particularly good King Numar Flavius right there.
  • IV. Samuel Dillon: Lushly detailed, almost pointillist, illustration captures a good likeness of Benhus.
  • V. Doug Kovacs: This one startled me because it’s such a serious attempt to illustrate a specific scene from the story and do so with as much accurate detail as possible. The artist even gets Zehra’s tattered hand restraints.
  • VI. Jennel Jaquays: Lucky me—a second Jaquays illustration. I worked hard to make the creatures in the Wall of Demons as nasty as I could. The artist made them nastier than I imagined. That white eel/serpent horror is ingeniously disgusting.

And each story, true to TFTMS form, comes with DCC stats (thanks to Terry Olson). What are your thoughts on gamifying your world? Have you had the pleasure of reenacting a story?

  • I. Crystal Sickle Wraith (creature) & Nobleman’s Comfort (wand)
  • II. Great mud scarab…knockout powder, message vial= (magic item)
  • III. Blind sight (spell), nobleman’s comfort (more wand abilities), Silver risen (a spell?), Tyrantsbane dagger (weapon)
  • IV. Nobleman’s Comfort (wand, even more abilities) and Scimitar Nemesis (creature weapon)
  • V. Carapaced Mauler (creature)
  • VI. Gray Umbra Guardian (creature)

JCH: I haven’t been in a real RPG in 20 years, so I’m not really qualified to comment intelligently on the stats. But I’m delighted with the idea that fragments of the stories appearing in The Skull might find their way into gamers’ adventures. I wish the Skull had a space where anyone who saw any of our statted creations showing up in a game could tell us how it went.

Generally, S&S spawned in the short story form, and characters did not necessarily develop (i.e., as much as they may in a novel). The Benhus short stories are stand-alone episodes, but there is definite progression of character (especially with the titular “king” of the King’s Blade branding, issues #3 and #5 ramped up the relationship). Do you have a long-term vision for a collection/novel?

JCH: Yes and no. I want to keep telling an unspooling, chronological series of stories about Benhus. I have plenty of ideas for what happens to the character and how it affects him and those around him. In his near future I’ve plotted a story that could probably be presented as a novel but will more likely be broken into shorter narratives that I’ll submit piecemeal to Tales From the Magician’s Skull. Writing a novel is such a difficult, sustained and uncertain effort that I’m more comfortable wrestling with short fiction these days.

Be sure to check out the companion interview on Black Gate to learn more about Hocking’s Conan pastiche and weird fiction influences. And for the the latest story in the King’s Blade series, be sure to pre-order a copy of (the soon to be released) Tales From the Magician’s Skull Issue 7!