Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cimmerian sighting: Karl Edward Wagner's contributions to the horror genre

Horror fiction has held a universal appeal throughout the ages. Every culture has had its myths of demons and ghosts and were-beasts. If Stephen King is read by millions today, so did Victorian readers line up in the streets to buy the latest chapters of the penny-dreadfuls, and eighteenth century readers shivered beside their candles over the pages of the newest Gothic novel. People like to be frightened, whether by a movie or a book or just a good spooky story told by firelight.

—Karl Edward Wagner, Introduction to
The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series X

There are many reasons to admire the horror anthology, among them the strong argument that horror fiction works best in the short form. There’s something to be said for the slowly simmering terror of novels like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, but the nasty, bloodletting jabs and hard, short, terrifying hooks of Stephen King’s “The Boogeyman” and Ray Bradbury’s “The Crowd” are just plain icy fun.

In addition, I’ve always admired the utility of the anthology, which serves to gather the best material from a daunting range of publications and publish it in one place, saving readers an enormous amount of time and effort (and money) from having to track it all down.

Though my collection of The Year’s Best Horror Stories is incomplete, I have enough volumes on my bookshelf to state that the late Karl Edward Wagner did some fine work during his time at the helm. KEW took over editorship of The Year’s Best Horror Stories in 1979, starting with series VIII. He remained as its editor for 15 issues until his death in 1994, when the anthology ceased its run with series XXII. Though he loved swords and sorcery, KEW had an obvious passion and erudite eye for horror as well.

KEW’s great enthusiasm for the genre was apparent from his introductions to The Year’s Best Horror Stories. In a pre-internet age, KEW provided a comprehensive overview of the year in horror publishing, from large magazines like Amazing and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, to small but evocatively-named small press outfits like Nyctalops, Cryptoc, Skullduggery, and Ogre. Horror was exploding in the late 70’s and early 80’s and KEW served as a shrewd and tireless surveyor of a broad, diverse field of anthologies, large circulation magazines, semi-pro publications, and the amateur press. Like the late Steve Tompkins, KEW was exceedingly well-read, almost disturbingly so.

KEW was quite outspoken and wasn’t afraid to ruffle some feathers—or even extend a few middle fingers—in his introductions to The Year’s Best Horror Stories. In the introduction to 1993’s Series XXI—KEW’s and the series’ second-to-last entry—he fired a wicked shot across the bow of splatterpunk, a movement in the horror field that began in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Splatterpunk works were noted for their graphic violence and sex, which was initially shocking but soon grew repetitive, tiring, and empty. Said KEW:

Sexual themes are now being used intelligently and are crucial to the story, as opposed to the teenage wish-fulfillment jerk-off exercises too often seen before. I have often wondered how many of the exuberant sex-and-gore writers are actually virgins and are incapable of cutting up a chicken or cleaning a fish. Or peeling a potato.

Ouch, that drew a little blood.

Like all anthologies, The Year’s Best Horror Stories was not perfect. More than once after finishing a story my reaction was, “Surely there must have been something more worthy of inclusion from 1982 than that.” But it’s a matter of taste, I suppose, and I’ve yet to read an anthology of short stories in which I enjoyed every entry. And the majority of entries in The Year’s Best Horror Stories were good.

In addition to his work as editor, KEW could pen a fine horror tale of his own. Although fellow blogger Al Harron very eloquently stole my thunder, I too would like to take a moment to recognize his fine tale “Sticks,” as well as mention a few of his other tales.

“Sticks” won an August Derleth Award from The British Fantasy Society as the best short fiction of 1974. It’s a deeply disquieting story, rendered even more so as it is based on a true account.

KEW obviously drew inspiration for “Sticks” from Lovecraft, whose works he deeply admired. “Sticks” contains an old but still active cult, cyclopean structures from an ancient age, and an evocation to awake the “Great Old Ones” from the earth. It even takes place in the heart of Lovecraft’s Arkham country, with references throughout to upstate New York, New Hampshire, and western Massachusetts. This is my neck of the woods and I always experience a thrill knowing that I’ve wandered some of the same streets and hills from Lovecraft’s and KEW’s tales. While this area is certainly far more developed than it was in the 1920s and 30’s (or the 1940s-1970s period described in “Sticks”), there’s enough wooded and desolate patches around to get you thinking that, yes, perhaps, something old and unspeakably evil may still lurk in these ‘here woods.

“Sticks” was inexplicably passed over for inclusion in The Year’s Best Horror Stories (it would have qualified for Series III, back when Richard Davis was editing the anthology), but has been widely published elsewhere. It first saw publication in the March 1974 issue of Whispers magazine. Since then it’s made appearances in the revised edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and The Mammoth Book of Zombies (its inclusion in the latter is a bit of a head-scratcher—a lich, though undead, ain’t a zombie), as well as the first Whispers anthology, which I own.

The landmark horror collection Dark Forces, edited by Kirby McCauley, contains another fine KEW horror story, “Where The Summer Ends.” It bears some resemblance to “Sticks,” but instead of arcane bundles of tree branches, the disquieting motif is a heavy growth of kudzu, a climbing, coiling, pestilential vine that’s become a nuisance in the southern United States. Wagner set this story in a run-down section of his native Knoxville, Tennessee, where in between shabby, run-down Victorian houses and an abandoned ghetto a lurking fear threatens to overwhelm the cracked and broken sidewalks, “a green pall over the dismal ruin, the relentless tide of kudzu.” Beneath the vines, something even more evil waits, watching.

I own two additional books containing works by KEW, including Whispers III, edited by Stuart David Schiff, which includes “The River of Night’s Dreaming.” In this tale of madness and dark eroticism, KEW draws inspiration from Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow, a book which also impressed Lovecraft. It’s a beautifully written and powerfully evocative story of dreamlike, hallucinating horror.

Night Visions: Dead Image, edited by Charles L. Grant, features works by David Morrell, Joseph Payne Brennan, and KEW. It contains three tales by Wagner: “Shrapnel,” “Old Loves,” and “Blue Lady, Come Back.” Dead Image also includes a wonderful introduction by Grant which casts a good deal of illumination on KEW the writer and The Man:

By now, it’s a tired comparison—“he looks like a Viking having a holiday in Carolina.” Maybe he does. But he’s not as big as he looks—he gives the illusion of size, carried the illusion of intimidation, but to hear him speak is to hear a quiet man who tends to consider his words before they’re out, who knows the field, and who cares about it and the writers who are trying to make their marks before they’re smothered by the competition.

He is the creator of Kane, my favorite barbarian because he is a barbarian and not a Lancelot (or worse, Gawain) in furs; and he is the author of not enough short fiction for any of his fans’ tastes. He does not write fast. He does not, on the other hand, write slowly either. He writes deliberately. There are few who care about the language as much as Wagner does, fewer still who care, or even realize, that dark fantasy must deal first with people, and only then with whatever fantastic element is to be included in the piece … there is thunder, to be sure, and there is also a delicacy of touch and genuine emotion that is particularly, and specially, his.

Like Al, I highly recommend that readers of The Cimmerian and The Silver Key track down a copy of “Sticks,” “The River of Night’s Dreaming,” and KEWs other work in the horror field. And while you’re at it, hunt up some back issues of The Year’s Best Horror Stories, too. Hours of chilling reading await, courtesy of the late, great KEW.

May he rest in peace in a quiet grave.


David J. West said...

I'm kicking myself for not picking up a stack of the Best Horrors at a local library sale years ago. I knew KEW had written the Kane stories but I was kind "ehhh" about stuff he had just edited.

Brian Murphy said...

Same with me, David. I was buying them 1-2 at a time at a local bookstore I used to frequent, and when I showed up one day the rest of the run was gone. Should have bought 'em all when I had the chance. I think they're pretty easy to find, though, since they were a mass-market paperback.

Pericles said...

The Kane stories are wonderful, but I've never tried Wagner's horror. Nice to see all the attention he's gotten this week, even if it was for a sad anniversary.

Nice piece, Brian. And what a fine, creepy Whelan cover!

Taranaich said...

Dreadfully sorry about the thunder-swiping, Brian: my criminal lack of direct experience with Wagner's work left me with small pools of reference from which to draw.

In retrospect, it is rather odd seeing "Sticks" in a book ostensibly about zombies, but Jones is rather lax in his definitions, since all manner of undead creatures are included. Given the stories that are included, it bothers me that one of REH's zuvembie stories doesn't make it.

Karl Edward Wagner piece was a success, and I'm thrilled to have participated.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Al, no problem at all. I found your piece on "Sticks" very well done and insightful.

I'm in the same boat as you: I know Wagner almost exclusively through his horror stories and his work as editor of the DAW series. I've been priced out of his Kane books. Let's hope they get reprinted some day, and in an affordable format.

I agree about our posts on KEW over at The Cimmerian--we deserve a pat on the back.

Trey said...

I'm a give KEW fan, though mostly of his Knae stories.

Still, having worked in a state psychiatric hospital (as had KEW, in NC), I can identify with the harried "protagonist" of "Into Whose Hands." Also, "River of Nights Dreaming" is one of the few King in Yellow homage stories that I think really works.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comments, Trey. I agree about it being a successful homage to the King in Yellow. It was very unsettling and effective.