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DarkEcho Horror Covenant by Rick Berry
FEATURE
KARL EDWARD WAGNER

By Paula Guran

A version of this article appeared in DarkEcho 06.10.03

In 1994 horror lost two profoundly significant figures: Robert Bloch and Karl Edward Wagner.

Robert Bloch had a career that spanned nearly seven decades. He was a direct connection between H.P. Lovecraft and the current generation; between absolutely supernatural horror and absolutely psychological horror. (For those who continued to insist that horror could not be horror unless it contained supernatural elements, merely asking, "Do you consider 'Psycho' to be horror?" often convinced them otherwise.) His fiction directly influenced the development of modern horror; his warmth, wisdom, and wit nurtured many who came to write it. Without Robert Bloch, it's unlikely that horror would ever have "boomed." Bloch's death marked the end of an era.

When I first wrote this about a year ago, I could say that Bloch was well-represented on the Web with an extensive fan site, The Bat is My Brother. Sometimes lately, it hasn't been there, sometimes it has. I hope the site finds permanent status in cyberspace. It's full of great Blochiana. Bloch is also found in several other cyberspots, many books [including his 1994 autobiography AROUND THE BLOCH (Tor)], and encyclopedias. All that is far from enough, but it's more than you'll find about Karl Edward Wagner, who died shortly after Bloch.

Wagner, except for his prolific bibliographic listings is barely represented on the Web. There's Jessica Amanda Salmonson's memoir Moping About Karl Edward Wagner: A Remembrance and the accompanying "Karl Edward Wagner's Favorite Horror Novels." There's a site dedicated to his creation, Kane, but that's about it. [Note: I've now been made aware of an excellent memoir on Wagner by John Mayer on the Web now, too.] You'll find Wagner in genre encyclopedias, but no general ones. His final collection EXORCISMS AND ECSTASIES (Fedogan and Bremer, 1997) that, in the hands of editor Stephen Jones also became a memoriam, is virtually impossible to find except for a few of the "collectible" editions at $200 and up.

Yet Karl Edward Wagner's death in 1994 marked the end of an era as well. During the years of horror's growth-as-market-niche, leveling off, and the start of the decline -- the eighties and into the nineties - Wagner played many important roles: writer, editor, publisher, friend, mentor, expert, arbiter, and icon.

Karl Edward Wagner I never knew Wagner. To me he is something of a legend, but then he was something of a legend when he was alive. Both an ex-hippie and an M.D. who briefly practiced as a psychiatrist, he looked like the barrel-chested bouncer of a disreputable biker bar. Known to overindulge in both drink and drugs, he thrived in the frenzied atmosphere of conventions. Near mythic, are the Tales of Wagner, quaffing pints in pubs or swigging Jack Daniels straight from the bottle while ensconced in some generic hotel room, holding court. Times have changed, and with them the preponderance of pharmaceuticals and the bowls of cocaine formerly present in convention hospitality suites have dwindled to the status of urban legend. A lot of the dope was comped by a certain top literary agent with an even more notorious party reputation than Wagner -- an agent who, incidentally, gathered most of horror's then-superstars and notables into his flock.

Karl Wagner was a flawed human being, certainly, but one of those rare ones whose creative warp stood as outstanding -- if infuriating -- compensation. Like many other creatives, Wagner was bereft of business sense and suffered catastrophic finances. Dissatisfied by coping with the mundane and incapable of finding happiness in dull routine, he could find no rational way to deal with the irrationality of one's emotions, or creativity. As a man, he was a fount of common sense ... rarely applied to himself.

Kane Wagner's first real mark in the business was made with his creation of a blood and thunder immortal named Kane, an anti-hero in a field that came to be known as "dark fantasy" (there's a excellent possibility that Wagner himself coined this term). Wagner's immortal character may have swung a wicked blade, but he was pure Gothic and echoed C.R. Maturin's doomed Melmoth the Wanderer more than any muscle-brained sword-and-sorcery schwarzenegger.

His short fiction exemplifies the height of the art. Tightly written, multi-layered, professionally deft and always original. Wagner's stories were occasionally inspired by past masters, but never derivative.

In partnership with David Drake and Jim Groce, Wagner founded the Carcosa imprint, in the days when "small presses" were not even a blip on the map. Drawing from his gigantic, near-complete collection of old pulp magazines, Wagner edited and published, via Carcosa, volumes of fiction by E. Hoffman Price (FAR LANDS, OTHER DAYS [1975]), Hugh B. Cave (MURGUNSTRUMM & OTHERS [1977]) and Wagner's close friend and mentor, Manly Wade Wellman (WORSE THINGS WAITING [1973] and LONELY VIGILS [1981]). Wagner saw Carcosa as a way to rescue these and other worthy writers from possible literary oblivion.

In 1980, Wagner assumed editorship of DAW Books' YEAR'S BEST HORROR anthology series, beginning with Series (Volume) VIII. During the 1970s, when Wagner first "burst upon the (fantasy/horror) scene," according to Mike Ashley, horror had been given slow, steady, low-profile life support by the likes of small press periodicals like WHISPERS, WEIRDBOOK, and GRUE. Wagner was a diligent reader of these and many more obscure amateur publications, and brought his considerable knowledge, wit and experience to the task of culling stories for a "year's best" annual. He selected what he thought to be the best -- regardless of source, irrespective of "brand names," hewing solely to his standard: "No taboos. No holds barred. No free rides. Excellence required. Whiners piss off."

Having saddled himself to the task, Wagner plowed through hundreds of what he frankly described as "hopelessly awful" attempts by "people writing the same bad stories over and over..." noting that, depressingly, "each new writer steams into this slough of clichés with the buoyant enthusiasm of one who believes no one has ever written such a terrifying concept before."

Wagner likened this process to garage bands -- "derivative, strident noise -- sounding much like all the other garage bands around town - and the fact that their models are mostly derivative and strident clones of their favorite music groups doesn't help matters. Well, it's all good clean fun and there's no harm done...It's a similar situation in horror fiction. New writers read a few books by favorite authors, watch a lot of bad films, and sit down to write something just like it...The result is a lot of derivative, strident noise."

He saw such "garage band fiction" as positive, even essential. It meant that horror was "both flourishing and changing" and he knew that "new blood is essential." And, as Wagner put it, "Most of us started out as garage band writers." Just as in music, some stuck with it and became competent purveyors or even accomplished masters (if not richly-paid). Some -- just as in music -- became stars.

As a writer himself, he was innovative and daring, yet solidly grounded in his craft. As editor, he encouraged a similar standard in others, and did what he could, when he could, to give a leg up to those he considered worthwhile. Via phone calls, voluminous correspondence, and convention barnstorming, he networked and influenced the burgeoning "horror community" as effectively as anyone could during the days when the Internet was just a glimmer in the eye of a GEnie.

That "horror community" had not been in existence for very long. Previous to the emergence of horror-as-a-market-niche there was no creature known as a "horror writer" (as opposed to a writer who happens to write horror sometimes). Boys and girls can now grow up wanting to be horror writers or fire fighters or ballet dancers or whatever. Did anyone previous to 1975 enunciate this desire? One might wish to be a professional writer, maybe even a science fiction writer or a mystery writer, but until you could complete the sentence, "I want to be a horror writer like..." with "Stephen King" no one ever thought of it as a professional goal.

Not that most professionals wrote *only* horror, but -- probably for the first time -- making living solely from writing horror was at least possible if not probable. A community of people interested in horror writing grew around this possibility. Originally based in the fantasy community with considerable overlap into the science fiction community, this horror community was (as far as I can tell) never a particularly benign support group. (Perhaps, since writing is an essentially solitary art, writers tend to be extremely opinionated when grouped together. They also have a proclivity for developing opinions within minutes of first hearing about a subject.) Like science fiction before it, horror became a field where heated arguments often flared and personal theories were advanced as gospel. Within this environment, Wagner was a supremely opinionated son of a bitch whose opinions, more often than not, were right on the money.

For a lot of the up-and-comers in that community, Karl Edward Wagner was the first true arbiter of its standards they encountered, often in the form of his mass market YEAR'S BEST anthologies. He became -- in *their* minds -- *the* arbiter. His anthology, whether rightly or wrongly, was seen as the best shot, the fairest chance, an attainable possibility. If you didn't make it this year, there was always the next.

Whether he truly fulfilled this iconic role is open to debate. Symbols, however, do not need to reflect perfect reality and Wagner became a symbol. He was hope personified. A bona fide outlaw whose rebellion was rooted in a deep understanding (and love) of what had come before; a genuine talent, beholden to none, who provided a beacon to the newcomer in the land of horror lit.

As David J. Schow, a writer who first turned up in YEAR'S BEST while still in his twenties and who made frequent appearances thereafter, wrote of Wagner shortly after his death: "He made it known what he thought counted, and put his money where his mind was -- in short, the kind of proponent that fiction, both horrific and otherwise, can't afford to lose..."

When horror's boom began to go bust, Wagner (and many others) believed the "death of horror" would be its salvation. Wagner foresaw what he termed a survival of the fittest. He said in 1994, "Maybe 90% of horror novels of the past decade are pointless, derivative crap, churned out by hacks who will now go back to writing romances, or by amateurs who have seen a dozen splatter films, read a Stephen King novel, and now want to write the same. It was a feeding frenzy if schlock publishers going for the current fad with no concern for quality nor any knowledge of the genre. Tough luck now for the twit who hopes to sell his novel about vampire cockroaches. Tougher luck for writers who do have something new to say, but have been lumped together with the garbage and discarded as no longer commercially viable. The good writers will hang in there and survive."

But Wagner proved to be a poor prognosticator. His prediction did not come to pass. One of the reasons, ironically, may have been that there was no Karl Wagner, nor anyone like him, to encourage the good. Without the conspicuous, demanding presence of a figure like Wagner and his "Year's Best" anthology -- cheap, available even in places where horror was hard to find -- it became even harder to know what to aim for or to feel as if you should persevere.

After Wagner's death there were, of course, still arbiters who recognized and encouraged new talent. Get this straight: No disparagement is meant to the editors of the other two annual compilations of "bests," Stephen Jones and Ellen Datlow. Both are outstanding editors who have always encouraged new talent and continue to do so. But they were not fiction writers, Wagner was. His approval came as writer-to-writer as well as editor-to-writer. The long-running DAW series (it began in 1971) was mass market paperback and could be found in racks in towns that didn't even have a bookstore. It was often the first anthology a horror-struck kid stumbled into during the 1980s. Wagner started editing the DAW series in 1980. Datlow's annual Year's Best Horror and Fantasy (with Terri Windling handling the fantasy) began in 1988 as THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY. Jones's BEST NEW HORROR (co-editing with Ramsey Campbell for volumes 1-5) was first published in 1990. With volume seven (1996) it became THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR. Datlow and Jones did not serve as "beacons of hope" during the early and mid-eighties as Wagner did.

But something indefinable changed when Wagner was gone. It's nothing I can completely describe, but there are dozens, perhaps scores, of writers reading this who will agree the change came.

In his final introduction to the last volume of YEAR'S BEST, after 15 years at its helm, Wagner wrote of sensing a change in the winds of horror: "The enormous proliferation of small press publications has fostered a whole new generation of horror writers. Those writers who were good, got better with experience; some of them now rank among the best in the horror genre. The axis of horror is shifting with that maturity comes a new concept of horror fiction. True. There are still tons of stories to be read each year about the never-learning massacred teenagers, the ever-flowing body fluids, the ever-hungry vampire/ zombie/ monsters, the ever-slashing serial killer. Some of these stories will be damned good and you'll find them here. However, the same-old-same-old, if not in retreat, seems increasingly to be passed over by many writers in favor of new and forbidding themes."

Except the proliferation of well-edited small press publications became a scarcity. There was one less "here" in which to find a damned good story and a lot less "hope" for the up-and-comer. Even if there had been an heir-apparent to Wagner, s/he would not have been permitted such a far-reaching forum -- an annual mass-market anthology -- to act as both crucible and reward. Rumor is that only Wagner's will was keeping YEAR'S BEST alive, that DAW was relieved to let it die with its editor. Horror wasn't selling, anthologies are notorious low-sellers even in good times, and an anthologist like Wagner who tended to disregard "names" defies the laws of profitability. There's a good chance that, had he lived, the series would have ended anyway.

Like many other pros from 1994 on, Wagner would probably have had to keep his nose to the grindstone in his own behalf just to survive.

As before, 90% of "horror novels" published are still crap. Not all the best writers survived. Those writers who were good had fewer chances and little guidance to get better. The axis did not continue to shift toward maturity. Some folks who currently see a lot of both published and unpublished short fiction feel the largest single problem in run-of-the-mill horror these days is a general lack of story. Whether intended as new interpretations of the "same-old same-old" or exploration of the forbidden zones, there will be intensity or extremity and some overall effect, but there's a lack of story. There's sound and fury, but little or no significance. That's immaturity, not maturity.

I said something indefinable changed. But maybe it's that nothing has changed and everything has changed in the almost nine years since Karl Edward Wagner died. Maybe Wagner had already lost his edge and was headed for a slow decline. Maybe his day as "beacon of hope" and valuator of writers was already over. But, no matter what, Karl was someone who had earned his chops and knew his shit. He was generous to other writers, but insisted loudly on excellence. I like to think he would have remained that way, that he would still get pissed and kick some ass when needed. We'd all be better for it.


Special thanks to DJS (he knows why and I swear, the photocopying will not have been in vain!) and Bradley Sinor for an interview with KEW that appeared in "Horror" magazine in 1995. fantasy, horror, mystery and detective fiction, and the pulps.


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Copyright © 2003 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.