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Night Winds by Karl Edward Wagner

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013 | Posted by Fletcher Vredenburgh

Night Winds-small

“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.

Death Angel's Shadow-smallAccording 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.

Midnight Sun The Complete Stories of Kane-smallOn 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.

18 Comments »

  1. I had heard about Wagner and Kane, but I think my first actual introduction was in the Donald M. Grant Book of Kane, which includes one of my favorite stories — Misericorde. I’m also really looking forward to the Centipede editions and (I hope) eBooks.

    Comment by Joe H. - September 17, 2013 8:40 am

  2. I’ve read all the novels with the Frazetta covers, unfortunately there’s only 4. I really loved Kane. To me. its the ultimate revenge story. Kane’s spends his immortal life trying to become powerful enough to strike down his God and creator. I had read that Wagner had planned a trilogy called Dark Eden which was the story of Kane’s origin. I so would have loved to read that.

    Comment by kid_greg - September 17, 2013 9:13 am

  3. I absolutely agree that the Kane stories are just about as much horror as fantasy tales. When I hear the term dark-fantasy the first thing that comes to my mind are these yarns. Wagner doesn’t get nearly enough attention in my humble opinion, and I am so excited to hear that his work will finely get back into print.

    Comment by J.A. Woods - September 17, 2013 10:34 am

  4. I would argue that horror is actually an essential component of sword and sorcery fiction, if you think of S&S as being a combination of swashbuckling adventure and horror (or weird fiction of the pulp era). You have bloody sword fights but also revolting monsters and black magic and devil worship. I think Wagner recognized this and stressed the horror aspect more than most.

    I like the short stories a lot, but also have a lot of love for the novels, especially Bloodstone and Darkness Weaves.

    Comment by andy - September 17, 2013 2:22 pm

  5. I agree with Andy in that I think horror is essential to what makes sword and sorcery distinctive from other forms of fantasy adventure. The best S&S stories Robert E. Howard wrote are infused with a sense of dread or horror. Think “Tower of the Elephant” or “Worms of the Earth”, to name just two examples. Without the horror element, a lot of what is marketed as S&S is really just fantasy adventure with S&S trappings. Of course, YMMV.

    Comment by westkeith - September 17, 2013 4:41 pm

  6. I couldn’t agree more that horror is often an important part of s&s, but most s&s tales are, as you say, adventure stories with an element of horror – among other things – for me almost all the Kane stories flip that equation on its head. Horror stories heavy on action and transported to a fantasy setting.
    “Worms of the Earth”, which is to my mind one of the greatest short stories ever written, is another that I read as a horror story with fantasy elements. Compare that Bran story to “Kings of the Night”, in which there’s no horror at all.

    Comment by J.A. Woods - September 17, 2013 6:58 pm

  7. @Joe H: Jeff Jones’ cover for the Book of Kane is probably the best depiction of Kane. The quote about Kane’s cruelty is from “Misericorde”

    @kid_greg: I love the Frazetta covers as pictures but dislike them as representations of Kane. Several of the modern era Kane stories (which I don’t really like) refer to Kane’s revenge scheme

    @J.A. Woods, andy, and westkeith: Glad to hear my sentiments echoed. “Worms of the Earth” and most of the Jirel stories are pretty much horror stories. Wagner, however, took things to a whole new level.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - September 17, 2013 9:34 pm

  8. The only Wagner story I’m familiar with is his eerie, Lovecraftian tale “Sticks.” I had seen The Blair Witch Project first and couldn’t help but think of the stick sculptures in that movie when I eventually read “Sticks.”

    I did not know that Wagner wrote S&S (another author to add to my list). But I can testify that his horror skills are superb if “Sticks” is any indication.

    Comment by James McGlothlin - September 18, 2013 6:14 am

  9. @ James: That’s why I’m writing this stuff and spreading the old school word. 😉
    In a Lonely Place is the best of KEW’s horror collections. Along with “Sticks”, it contains the rest of his best horror tales.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - September 18, 2013 11:12 am

  10. About time Wagner got re realised. Kane has been restricted to consiseurs (sorry can’t spell that word to save my life) for too long!

    Comment by Connor Gormley - September 18, 2013 3:11 pm

  11. Love the works of KEW, particularly the Kane tales. If you are looking for more, give his Bran Mak Morn pastiche, Legion from the Shadows a go. It is as good as his Kane stuff, and can actually be read following REH’s Worms of the Earth, and not be out of place. That’s damn good writing.

    Comment by thedarkman - September 18, 2013 10:47 pm

  12. I read Wagner for the first time when I reached “Undertow” in The Sword and Sorcery Anthology. What blew my mind about that story was its structure. It’s clear early on that the story’s episode’s are presented out of chronological order, and that makes perfect sense, considering how Dessylyn’s mind turns out to work, and why. But until very nearly the end, it’s not clear what the sequence of episodes actually was. Then, with a brilliant and subtle reveal (and oh, Kane and Dessylyn deserve each other, after all), the whole story’s sequence snaps into inevitable clarity, just in time for a devastating final scene.

    It’s not hard to find writers with a gift for grit, or character, or chills, but a writer with that kind of gift for structure has my attention. I’ll be reading more of Wagner.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - September 18, 2013 10:48 pm

  13. @Sarah A: It’s hard to undo foreknowledge of a story read several times, but part of me is still a little surprised at each reread of “Undertow”. Wagner’s skills were tremendous. I love your assessment that Kane and Dessylyn deserve each other. I always sort of forget her machinations.

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - September 18, 2013 10:58 pm

  14. I confess I never got around to reading the Kane books, just by reading so much else.

    Now, IMO, from reading this and wikipedia stuff on him I do want to read him. BUT – I also fear one of my characters will be constantly compared to him. No, he’s not “The biblical Cain” or someone meant to be basically him, but a character who’s a villain in most of his story… Oh, well.

    ..”Were you inspired by Wagner’s Kane?”
    …”Uh, no I’d already finished the plot outline and … and … by the time I picked up the first book. I mean, yeah Nightwinds was the eye catcher that got me into Frazetta before even the Conan the Usurper/Is that a snake in your loincloth picture.” But all I’d heard was that he was a ‘thinking man’s Conan’…”

    I’ll certainly pick them up, and maybe I bought a paperback in the past and its in my bookshelf. The used books of that character are a bit expensive to collector’s on Amazon. It’d be nice if they publish the official collector’s omnibus for Kindle/Google books. I would buy that for my tablet, don’t want to bring something with like the cover for Nightwinds to a workplace or in public, but if its in a tablet its cool!

    Comment by GreenGestalt - September 20, 2013 6:59 pm

  15. […] Kane recently here in the Black Gate blog — including Fletcher Vredenburgh’s splendid review of Night Winds on September 17. Glancing over Fletcher’s article with Wagner’s […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » “How Many Psychiatrists Does it Take to Change a Genre?” Karl Edward Wagner in Fantasy 55 - October 7, 2013 10:04 am

  16. […] and if you fancy learning more about Kane I highly recommend Fletcher Vredenburgh’s recent post on Night Winds. It’s right on the […]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Seductive Sorceress Queens, Decadent Civilizations, and Moon-lit Brawls: A Review of Bloodstone by Karl Edward Wagner - December 12, 2013 1:20 am

  17. Just reposting for FYI…

    The Kane novels are on Google Books and Kindle for like $3 each. I got them all, even though I found a few of these on Amazon and had one;-)

    Comment by GreenGestalt - July 8, 2014 4:49 pm

  18. About time. Thanks!

    Comment by Fletcher Vredenburgh - July 8, 2014 6:24 pm


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