Unlike Karl Edward Wagner’s earlier work, Why Not You and I does not depend so heavily upon abominations lurking in warped dimensions or monsters gathering in subterranean underworlds. In a Lonely Place, his first collection, deals primarily with threats from beyond and from beneath: dark forces seeking entry into our world through the strange totems in “Sticks,” inhuman armies mustering beneath the Southern kudzu in “Where the Summer Ends,” and cave-dwelling legions emerging in “.220 Swift.”
His second collection sees a shift in focus from the otherworldly to more terrestrial terrors. Why Not You and I deals primarily with characters seeking respite from life’s miseries through art, fandom, and fame; but finding only the more toxic avenues of excess, madness, and death. It tells of monstrosity everywhere, within and without us.
You and I live in an insane world; you and I are at its mercy. “Into to Whose Hands,” the collection’s first story, makes this clear. One could debate whether it’s truly a “horror story” in the traditional sense. Set in an English military base turned psychiatric hospital, we follow a doctor through the paces of his shifts. He is the keeper of something worse than hell — the perdition of humans broken, imprisoned, and punished by arbitrary cruelties of fate and failures of the mind. The existence of God and Satan is irrelevant here, as are the ideas of good and evil. Both doctor and patient alike are damned to live in an inescapable madhouse of corridors without end. In Why Not You and I, this world is our own.
You and I want to be famous; you and I are loyal fans. Fame and fandom are phenomena equally poisonous in the stories “Old Loves” and “More Sinned Against.” “Old Loves” portrays a man’s decades-old obsession with the mod heroine of the mid-sixties series The Agency (a thinly disguised stand-in for The Avengers) as a type of haunting/possession undermining the lives of both the admirer and the actress who portrayed her. A torrent of Hollywood degradation befalls a woman supporting an exploitive, aspiring actor in “More Sinned Against.” The incongruent magical ending seems less jarring due to the almost surreal abuses endured throughout—black sorcery is less shocking than the demands of the showbiz underworld, and seems a viable presence after such a dark journey.
You and I are writers; you and I attempt to escape into story. Five of the collection’s nine stories involve writers or self-consciously address fiction, a device that makes some readers shudder — and not in a good way. Some of these are the volume’s strongest, though “The Last Wolf” is not one of them: The Last Writer is faced with the “limbo of unrealized creation” in the “plastic, faceless world he had grown old in.” (Damn that new-fangled cable TV and those glossy magazines! It seems KEW despises advancing technology and hates our foreseeable future with a rage usually only displayed by elderly science-fiction writers.)
However, the next of the “writer” stories, “Neither Brute Nor Human,” is a bleak and effective tale of two genre authors’ careers. The binary options of such a life are portrayed as either the emasculation and terror of failure, or the endless pandering and spiritual death of success. Even those not of the setting’s era will doubtlessly experience a shock of recognition as they read it, if they are fans of the genre — and will wonder who are the real-life analogs to these troubled authors. (Also, apparently 1970s sci-fi conventions were akin to being parked outside a Deep Purple concert in a giant van packed full of literate nerds with drugs, further evidence some of us were just born too late.)
“Blue Lady Come Back” is an excellent story of underhanded dealings and murder surrounding pulp writer-gone-to-seed Curtiss Stryker — and quite a nifty ghost story as well. The pulp era itself gets a full-fledged pastiche in the entertaining novelette “Sign of the Salamander,” presented as a lost story written by Curtiss Stryker himself, complete with a scholarly introduction by “Kent Allard” — a name The Shadow’s secret identity shares. The last story in the collection, “Silted In,” is a more personal and less allegorical version of “The Last Wolf,” but this time the author is simply a man-out-of-time, haunted by lost love and pop culture ghosts while hiding a chilling secret. It is a well placed closer.
Whether these stories reflect a shift in the author’s worldview or merely in his approach, we cannot know. Karl Edward Wagner is a complex and contradictory figure who died much too young, unquestionably beleaguered by demons that bore more than a passing resemblance to those who wander the pages of Why Not You and I. While In a Lonely Place might offer more accessible stories, Why Not You and I feels closer, more personal, and often much more unsettling. The title itself may in fact refer to this shift in proximity. This is not horror about “them.” It is horror about “us.”
[Part I of The Weird Horror of Karl Edward Wagner can be found here.]