Horror writer, heroic fantasy writer, columnist, genre scholar, editor, anthologist, publisher, small-press champion, and one of the founders of the World Fantasy Convention, Karl Edward Wagner (1945-1994) was a significant force in the fantasy community, loved by those who knew him and admired by most of those who only knew of him until his untimely death. A sizeable portion of Wagner's posthumous collection Exorcisms and Ecstasies published by Fedogan & Bremer in 1997 was devoted to tributes to the author from his friends and colleagues, and an assortment of interviews, analyses, reminiscences, and appreciations has appeared from a number of venues during the author's lifetime and since his death. This chapbook published by Gary William Crawford's Gothic Press, however, is the first attempt to present a wide overview of Wagner's life, fiction, and editorial activities.
The book consists of a biographical/autobiographical foreword by Wagner's long-time friend John F. Mayer, a brief introduction by editor Benjamin Szumskyi, two different studies of Wagner's early horror fiction by John Howard and Darrell Schweitzer, an overview of Wagner's small output of western horror fiction by James Reasoner, an article tracing the evolution of Wagner's Kane from the realms of heroic fantasy to noirish pulp detective territory by Gary Hoppenstand, a discussion by N. G. Christakos of the three lists of recommended horror classics Wagner submitted to T. E. D. Klein's Twilight Zone Magazine in 1983, and Wagner's own essay about his goals and modus operandi after taking over the editorship of D.A.W.'s anthology series The Year's Best Horror Stories.
Mayer's dark, powerful, and deeply moving foreword has much to say about Wagner as man, friend, and artist, and he has also contributed the fine cover illustration of Wagner in the guise of his antihero Kane, a depiction that must have appealed to the author as much as Lovecraft appreciated Virgil Finlay for portraying him as an 18th century British man of letters. Mayer leaves the editor little more to do in his introduction than present a few essential facts he had omitted about Wagner's life and introduce the other contributors.
N. G. Christakos's discussion of Wagner's lists for Twilight Zone Magazine is illuminating in what it has to say about how Wagner's wide reading and tastes in fiction helped shape his own work, but it would have been better had Mr. Christakos been fortunate enough to be able to discuss these works from the vantage point of having read them all. Since Wagner's lists contain several rarities, which even the best read and wealthiest collectors have yet to locate, most discussions of these lists are rendered more than a little paradoxical.
Each of the essays offers some insight into Wagner's fictional world, and it is particularly interesting to see two different writers covering essentially the same stories, because these different perspectives offer a glimpse of the depths to which Wagner was capable in his best work. Nonetheless, Wagner wrote enough short stories to fill two further collections after In Lonely Lands appeared, and his heroic (or more accurately anti-heroic) adventures of Kane receive only a few scattered comments instead of the full, detailed article accorded the horror fiction he wrote with a 19th or 20th century setting. The dozen or so stories and three novels featuring Kane in a fantasy milieu inspired by the work of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Leiber constitute the largest portion of Wagner's fiction, much of it written at the same time as the contents of In Lonely Lands, and sharing with the best of his fiction a peculiar resonance and emotional impact that makes even the most outré events ring true. It is to be hoped that this volume is only the first, and that future volumes will correct this omission.
By that time also, perhaps enough time will have elapsed for critics to be able to adopt a more constructive approach to Wagner's late fiction, the graphic sexuality and aberrant psychology in much of which has proven less acceptable than the more restrained usage of some of these same themes in his earlier work. One line from Darrell Schweitzer's essay on Wagner's early fiction proves rather haunting in this regard, "He is explicit enough where he needs to be, but also (as many modern horror writers do not) understood restraint and the uses of controlled ambiguity." This is not, alas, true of much of his late work, though among these later stories there remain a number of very finely wrought, subtly suggestive, and powerful stories even among those focusing on sexuality.
Citing Schweitzer's essay brings up another point about the booklet, which is far from ideal: the lack of documentation concerning the date and place of publication for essays reprinted from earlier publications. This would have been particularly helpful for Wagner's piece, and makes some of the, now dated, statements in Schweitzer's essay a trifle puzzling for those reading it as if it had been newly penned.
Unfortunately, the text is not immaculate, with the appearance of occasional typographical errors and odd phrases reflecting incomplete alterations to the text, such as "Obviously, tastes very" and "I hope that I have been avoided giving away any particularly important or surprising plot twists". None of these are unduly distracting, but one cannot help wishing the editor had seen and corrected them.
Not a perfect book, then, but a valuable and informative one put together by people who understand and value the man's work and his memory. It is a very good introduction to a fine writer of horror and fantasy.