Karl Edward Wagner was a man fascinated with monsters and, by most accounts, tormented by an overwhelming host of personal demons. A bearded and brawny hard-drinking Southerner who typed with two fingers like his childhood idol Robert E. Howard, he is perhaps best known for his iconic sword-and-sorcery character, Kane: a red-haired, black-hearted warrior whose love of battle and lust for knowledge combine into one all-consuming will to power. Wagner himself was an unlikely combination of savage and savant, his rough outlaw biker exterior sheltering a deep love for tales of imagination and wonder. At one time a practicing psychiatrist pursuing a doctorate in microbiology, he left that field for a writer’s life. He went on to edit numerous anthologies (including DAW’s The Year’s Best Horror from 1980 to 1994), co-found his own short-lived press, and pen several novels and collections. Most of Wagner’s original work is currently out-of-print. Centipede Press is releasing two hardcover collections of his short horror fiction this year. Hopefully, this will re-kindle interest in the man’s work, making it more available (and more affordable) for those who wish to read it.
I was first introduced to Karl Edward Wagner’s work through his R.E. Howard pastiche, Conan: The Road of Kings, a ripping good tale any fan of the barbarian hero should read. From this I moved onto the Kane material, tracked down in musty used bookstores or acquired through well-placed eBay sniping. Over the holidays I managed to find one of his horror collections stuffed into a shop’s bottom shelf. It is Wagner’s first horror collection, In a Lonely Place, and through it I discovered yet another impressive facet of the late author.
In a Lonely Place offers cosmic weirdness, prowling monsters, strange sex, and abundant death. Like many genre collections, especially early-career ones, it is wildly uneven: one story may have you rolling your eyes but the next will drop your jaw. At his best, Wagner expertly limns a realistic setting with authentic characters before shaking it up like a snow globe to awaken a terrifying storm. The author’s affection for the pulpy fictions of his upbringing bursts from the pages. Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a Necronomicon-like tome called the Book of the Elders by Alorri-Zrokros (also seen in the Kane novels), Lugosi’s Island of Lost Souls, “The Shadow” radio programs, Hammer Horror films, Weird Tales, and other genre icons all make appearances. Thankfully, there is no wink-and-nudge intertexuality here; Wagner loves his influences enough to grant them a sincere approach.
The first story in the collection, “In the Pines,” is also the earliest, and it positively aches with the weight of its unfulfilled potential. A domestic couple trying to overcome a recent tragedy relocates to an out-of-the-way cabin, where both a malevolent ghost and their own personal torments haunt them. The influence of each steadily increases until an inevitable climax arrives. It’s a by-the-numbers contemporary ghost story, but its conventionality is not what undermines it. The setting, a near-abandoned resort of cabins in the Smoky Mountains, is an eerie and well-drawn one. Wagner’s gift for creating atmosphere through place is perhaps his greatest talent but the story quickly finds itself on rails like a funhouse ride, leading to a conclusion that feels a bit forced and very expected. It’s a strange choice to place as the opening of the collection, a bit of grime covering the true gems. Not all the book’s tales are noteworthy, but the successful ones are a rattling joy.
In a Lonely Place has four fine stories, two of which are exceptional. On the secondary rung are “.220 Swift” and “Where the Summer Ends,” both modern creature-horror tales featuring legions of small humanoids with an abiding hatred of humankind. “Where the Summer Ends” takes place Knoxville, Tennessee, a run-down and relentlessly sunny locale whose creeping, omnipresent kudzu vines contain a gathering threat. “.220 Swift” follows archeologists poking about Appalachian mountains in search of lost Spanish mines, leading to a claustrophobic subterranean journey that brings an ancient horror to the surface. Despite the literal monsters lurking in these tales, their unease comes largely from the sense of dread conveyed though scenes of regular people surrounded by awful forces neither they nor the reader will witness until doom is inescapable. (Okay, it’s perhaps a stretch to call the albino folklorist-hitman of “.220 Swift” a “regular person,” but he’s an oddity for a reason.) Both tales give a straight-faced telling of the absurd, and the final moments of both are surreal and creepily delightful.
The real accomplishments of In a Lonely Place are “Sticks” and “The River of Night’s Dreaming.” The first tells of a hiking artist who encounters strange, nonsensical stick-totems deep in the woods that lead him to an undead horror he narrowly escapes. Haunted by the memory, as well by his service in World War II, he later becomes a disturbed pulp illustrator whose work is too unsettling for his own clients. When he gets an offer to illustrate a collection of a mostly-forgotten cult horror writer, the stick-totems creep into the pictures, and stories themselves begin to take on a new and terrifying life. “The River of Night’s Dreaming” defies easy summation. Reincarnation, psychic vampirism, sexual domination, and the interplay between places real and imagined weave together to create a shocking portrait of a woman powerless to direct or escape her dreams, trapped in prisons within prisons. These two stories are deeply effective and merit repeat readings.
In a Lonely Place stands as a fine testament to a writer once considered a titan of his genre, now overlooked by current audiences. Fans of grim, bloody fantasy should still revel in Kane’s adventures, and any weird horror aficionado’s education is incomplete without the dark dreams of Karl Edward Wagner. Here’s to hoping that though the author has passed on his work will not be forgotten.