“He’s evil incarnate! Stay away from him!”
– from Darkness Weaves
Long before the coiners of the term grimdark were born, Karl Edward Wagner was creating some of the most aggressively unheroic fantasy. There had always been a dark current to swords & sorcery from the genre’s beginnings in the 1930s with Robert E. Howard. But not even Michael Moorcock’s 1960s antiheroes prepared S&S fans for Wagner’s 1971 novel Darkness Weaves and its amoral mystic swordsman, Kane.
Six feet tall and “three hundred pounds of bone, sinew, and muscle,” Kane is cursed to live forever for rebelling against the god who created him. Peering out from his fiery red hair and beard, his blues eyes blaze with a killer’s fury — a warning to all who cross his path. Though a violent death can free him from his accursed immortality, he is determined to survive.
Over the course of three novels and seventeen stories, Kane plots and murders his way across continents and centuries. He is by turns a mighty sorcerer, a bandit lord and a lone wanderer. While it’s explicitly stated in one story that Kane is “seldom needlessly cruel,” he’s seldom sympathetic.
It’s in the two collections of short stories, Death Angel’s Shadow (which I reviewed last year at my site) and Night Winds, that Wagner crafted his greatest swords & sorcery. His novels, Bloodstone, Dark Crusade, and Darkness Weaves, all have their moments, but they don’t have the short, sharp, shock of the stories. While the books are memorably epic, the stories are fast-paced nightmares.
Night Winds was released by Warner Books in 1978 and it contains six stories first published between 1974 and 1977: “Undertow”, “Two Suns Setting,” “The Dark Muse,” “Raven’s Eyrie,” “Lynortis Reprise,” and “Sing a Last Song of Valdese” in which Kane is successively a possessive lover, a necromancer banished, a crime lord, a bandit-rapist, and a betrayer of armies. Only in the last story is he not actively antagonistic. Kane is not an example of gray morality, he’s a brutal villain.
So why should anyone want to spend time with this character?
Karl Edward Wagner was an astoundingly talented horror writer as well as one of the 1980s’ most important editors of short horror fiction. His most well known horror story, “Sticks,” has been reprinted over twenty times. Wagner’s overt horror collections, In A Lonely Place and Why Not You and I?, harbor moments that still give me the heebie jeebies despite numerous readings. While the Kane series was written as S&S, it’s been many years now that I’ve also considered it horror fiction, and it turns out I’m not the first person to recognize this. In my research for this post, I learned that Gerald Page included “Undertow” in The Years’ Best Horror Stories: VI and “Sing a Last Song of Valdese” in Vol. V.
According to the Horror Writers Association’s site, horror fiction is that which “elicits an emotional reaction that includes some aspect of fear or dread.” For all the blood and thunder action in the Kane series, Wagner uses hideous monsters, gruesome violence, and unease that rises to a crescendo of terror to, indeed, invoke “fear and dread” in his reader. Decay, loss, and betrayal build the stage on which all of Kane’s exploits unfold. There are no happy endings and few happy moments anywhere in the Kane stories.
With all that, the reason to spend time with Kane is because the stories will kick you between the eyes. As straight S&S, it’s some of the most exciting and brutal. The final sword fight in “Lynortis Reprise” needs to be filmed. As horror, it is genuinely frightening. The ends of “Undertow” and “The Dark Muse” are chilling, and the big reveal in “Sing a Last Song of Valdese” harrowing.
I always liked the Kane stories, but it took me a while to understand why. When a friend suggested they were really horror stories, it made sense. Karl Edward Wagner, a master of two genres I love, took them and blended them with perfection. If you like swords & sorcery and haven’t read Kane yet, you need to.
“Undertow” is the story of Kane’s mistress Dessylyn’s struggles to free herself from his control. Two attempts, one with a ship’s captain and the other with a brash young swordsman, are intertwined and eventually knit together, coming to equally bleak ends.
“Undertow” provides the most insight into how Kane sees himself. Trapped in immortality, he suffers from loneliness and knows he is feared and hated. “Only the emptiness of eternity will remain with him, a laughing skeleton cloaked in memories to haunt his days and nights,” he tells Dessylyn.
A few centuries later, “Two Suns Setting” finds Kane driven from his citadel by sorcerers jealous and frightened of his experiments. On a whim, he chooses to cross a wasteland reputed to be home to remnants of the races that preceded mankind. There he meets a giant named Dwassllir, who hopes to revive his fading race by recovering a crown from the tomb of an ancient hero king.
The story has a fascinating conversation between Kane and Dwassllir. I’d never read it quite this way before, but I’d swear it’s a rejoinder to Robert E. Howard and anyone else who’s looked askance at civilization. Dwassllir proudly informs Kane:
My race learned to live in the real world, to merge with our environment. We need no civilization. Man is a cripple who flaunts his infirmity, boasts of his crutches. You retreat into the walls of your civilization because you are too weak to stand before nature as part of the natural environment.
Calmly, Kane replies,
Perhaps you have found fulfillment in your rather primitive life style. However, the measure of a race’s attainments must finally be its ability to flourish within its chosen role. If your race has done this so well, why then do your numbers diminish, while mankind spreads over the Earth?
“The Dark Muse” features Opyros, a poet bent on recreating his deepest dreams in verse. A habitué of unsavory places, he’s become friends with Kane, now a crime boss. Impressed with the young poet’s talent, Kane provides him with inspiration and rhyme schemes (Conan never does that!) Opyros comes into possession of a figurine of Klinure, the dark muse, and under Kane’s tutelage he learns a spell to allow himself to enter the muse’s realm and truly experience his dreams.
On the night of the Demonlord’s Moon, when Lord Tlouvin and his black hound are said to hunt for souls to drag to hell, a badly wounded Kane and the surviving members of his bandit army seek refuge at an inn named “Raven’s Eyrie.” Eight years earlier, at the rise of another Demonlord’s Moon, the inn was attacked and most of its staff murdered by Kane and his gang. Now, in order to wreak a terrible revenge, a survivor of that evil night has engineered Kane’s return.
In “Lynortis Reprise,” the wasteland created thirty years earlier by a tremendous siege is the setting for a search for lost treasure. The field is littered with unexploded poison gas shells and haunted by maimed and crippled veterans. Into this nightmarish landscape comes Kane, and with him a true end to that old battle.
Night Winds‘ finale is “Sing a Last Song of Valdese.” One dark night, several men from all walks of life find themselves at Vald’s Cove Inn, staffed by only a thin-faced innkeeper and a dwarf. Upstairs a woman screams in labor. Though strange and disturbing, the inn is the only refuge from the night–and the setting for vengeance for bloodcurdling crimes.
I suspect the dark hue of Karl Edward Wagner’s writing played a role in his lack of mainstream success. Even by today’s less conservative standards, these stories remain pretty raw. If you want your bad guy to reveal he abides by some personal code of honor or has a noble aspect, Kane’s not your man. If you want swords & sorcery that’s got equal shares of action and horror, he’s the right choice.
Coming by these stories is a little pricey these days. Used copies of Night Winds start at $20. Night Shade’s Midnight Sun: The Complete Stories of Kane starts at $95 used. I was glad to hear that Centipede Press has acquired the rights to Kane and is planning to bring all the stories and novels back into print. With luck, e-books will follow.