The late Karl Edward Wagner is the greatest Knoxville author that Knoxville forgot.
Elsewhere in the world, he is the subject of a cult following that reveres his writing and editing of horror and dark fantasy fiction. Here, there are but a few keepers of the flame. But let us reacquaint you with him.
For his fans, Karl Wagner was a larger-than-life figure. With his barrel chest and often scraggly beard, he looked more like a rogue biker than an award-winning author with a medical degree—and he lived like one, too, inspiring mythic tales of overindulgence at fan conventions. While he first gained fame for creating Kane (a more intellectual version of the Conan-style anti-hero), he also went on to make The Year’s Best Horror Stories an anthology series to be reckoned with, and established his own publishing house, Carcosa, to return his pulp-writer heroes to print. But, after decades of great writing and hard drinking, he finally died at age 49 in 1994. There were no obits in the local media about Knoxville’s famed author.
A condensed version of this memoir, written by Wagner's childhood friend and partner in crime John Mayer, was originally published in Metro Pulse in December, 1995.
The is the continuation of The Dark Muse of Karl Edward Wagner, Part 1
* * *
Wagner graduated summa cum laude (in the top 10) from Kenyon and was recruited by the University of North Carolina. They were looking for Renaissance men for their medical program and Wagner’s history major was just the ticket. Wagner, for his part, chose UNC largely because Chapel Hill was the home of one of our favorite writers, Manly Wade Wellman, author of more than 70 books and countless short stories. In fantasy circles he was best known for his tales of John the Balladeer, a folk historian who wanders the Appalachians recording mountain songs and encountering the ha’nts and ghoulies of the backwoods.
Manly was in his seventies but still a big, robust man and a two-fisted drinker like Karl. They became fast friends, and over their glasses Manly regaled Karl with many tales of the early days of the pulps. Manly had also been a bouncer at a roadhouse during Prohibition and a reporter in New York, where he often took to task smug Yankees who used the term “hillbilly” too carelessly. He claimed he had once challenged John Dillinger to step outside and fight.
Manly had also worked as a comic-book writer in the early days of that medium. One of his publishers had made the mistake of killing off, irrevocably, their most popular villain, The Green Claw–a sort of Martian Fu Manchu. They had blown him to bits, his death had been absolutely established, and thousands of kids were threatening to spend their dimes elsewhere. The staff was agonizing over ways to bring the Green Claw back, without success, when Manly came upon the scene and offered to save the day. In the splash panel of the next episode, the myrmidons of The Green Claw were gathered about his bier lamenting his passing. Suddenly, in the next panel, The Green Claw sits up, casts off his shroud and cries, “Silence, fools! The Green Claw lives!” Manly saw no point in slowing the narrative drive with explanations.
Among the pulp writers Manly had known was L. Ron Hubbard, author of such classics as Fear and Death Takes a Holiday. One day he ran into him and remarked that he hadn’t seen anything by him lately. “I don’t have time for that stuff anymore,” Hubbard told him brusquely. “I’m working on something that’s going to make me a millionaire.” That something was, of course, Scientology.
Of Manly’s many anecdotes, the favorite among fantasy fans and bibliophiles alike, was one concerning the strange little shop Wellman came upon in New York surrounded by Confederate flags. It was a bookstore operated by an aged crone. “I was intrigued by the flags outside,” Manly greeted her.
“It is the flag of my country,” she answered.
“It is the flag of my country, too,” Manly responded, acknowledging his great love for his native Southland. He looked over her books and was surprised to find many valuable occult volumes. Scarcely daring to hope he asked her, “Do you have Malleus Mallifacarum?”
“Yessss,” she replied. Her bony finger traveled down a row of books and came to rest on an ancient leather volume. It was, indeed, that extremely rare book on witchcraft. It remained the prize of his collection until his death.
On a prankish impulse he asked, “Do you, perhaps, have a copy of the Necronomicon?” This was the apocryphal book H. P. Lovecraft referred to in his tales of Cthulhu and the Elder Gods. Many pulp fans refused to believe there had never been any such book.
“Yessss.” Her finger again quested down a row of books and halted at an empty space. “Oh… I must have sold it.”
College entrance exams revealed Karl to have the highest I.Q. ever recorded at UNC. Yet, despite his recent honors, Wagner felt himself a failure. He had sold only one short story since Darkness Weaves, a ghost story set near Gatlinburg called “In the Pines,” to Fantasy and Science Fiction. He resigned himself to making the best of a medical career. But the rebellious streak he had held in check so much more successfully than I at Central now began to get the better of him. In fairness, though, he now had more important things to rebel against. He had always regarded himself as a flint-hearted pragmatist with no time for sentiment, but medical school revealed a social conscience.
He told of a class where a helpless-looking, half-naked patient in a wheel chair was displayed before them like a lab specimen. “Class, we’re very fortunate to have with us today–” (the doctor turned the patient so they could observe the pattern of inflamed nerves on his back) “–a case of North American Blastomycosis. The inflammation you see here makes the patient very sensitive to touch.” A finger darted down and the patient, responding to this stimulus, said, “Aaaaiieeee!”
And then there was the similarly afflicted patient on a gurney who could not bear even the weight of the sheet. Inch by painful inch she would work it off her, only to have the next passing intern pull it back up for the sake of propriety. Wagner said you could determine by ear when you were in the indigent ward: That’s where the screams were loudest. Painkillers were expensive.
Wagner was also disgusted by most animal experiments, which he regarded as sadism in the guise of science. Most experiments were only the clumsy repetition by students of experiments described in textbooks. Wagner was perfectly willing to accept the word of the authors as to the predicted outcome rather than subject inoffensive beasts to the tortures of the damned. At the start of vacations, most experimental animals were summarily killed. It was cheaper to replace them to feed and care for them over the break.
When local pets began to disappear, Wagner suspected UNC of dealing with Burke and Hare style animal-nappers. I happened to be visiting him in Chapel Hill one weekend when his huge cat Lucifer Sam went missing.
Karl and I broke into the animal labs and conducted a cage-to-cage search. I discovered science with an inhuman face. Some animals were bandaged, others had open wounds stitched with inept, Frankenstein stitches. Cats clawed at me as I came near, vowing not to be taken alive. I didn’t enter the room with the “Danger–Radiation” sign, but peering through the window in the door I could see what had once been an Irish Setter feebly scratching at his scaly hide with a rubbery paw.
We didn’t find Lucifer Sam, but when we returned to Wagner’s home and told of our outing, his housemate asked cryptically, “Oh, Wags! Did you set your people free again?” I was never able to elicit details from either of them about Karl’s earlier excursion.
Wagner presented a dilemma to UNC. On the one hand, his grasp of medical principals was phenomenal. More than once he was asked to take over the classes he was enrolled in while the instructor attended to other matters. His grades were excellent. On the other hand, he openly espoused socialized medicine. He lacked humility. One time, he felt one of his instructors had insulted him and he barred him from leaving the room until the doctor had apologized. And he rode a motorcycle and dressed like an outlaw biker with long red hair, full beard, and denim “colors.” (He referred to his home as The Valley Park Clinic and Cycle Shop.)
Surgeons, in particular, hated Karl. He refused to accept the traditional hazing of students. If surgeons demanded, as they did, that med students walk up to the eighth floor while they rode the elevator, Wagner would simply shove in beside them. “They don’t just want you to eat shit,” Wagner told his wife, “they want you to say, ‘My! This is really good shit! Might I have some more?’”
The last straw, for both Wagner and UNC, happened one day when he was on rotation with an instructor and another student. They were examining an elderly black man dying of tuberculosis and too far gone to be helped. But this was, after all, a teaching hospital. The other student was ordered to give some sort of injection. For several minutes he probed futilely with the needle in search of the patient’s shriveled veins. The old black man endured the ordeal without complaint, saying only, and repeatedly, “Listen, I ‘preciate what you boys are tryin’ to do for me, but ain’t no use. I jes’ wanna go home and die amongst m’ people.” The instructor ignored him. Sweat began to bead on the old man’s brow, and he began to hiss through clinched teeth in an effort to keep from crying out as the puncturing continued. At last it was obvious that no simple injection was going to be possible. A new learning experience was in order.
“Mr. Wagner, cut this man down and expose a vein, please.”
“There’s no point in subjecting him to more pain,” Wagner whispered. “Nothing we do is going to change his prognosis.”
“Mr. Wagner, I am the doctor here!” the instructor sputtered. “You are the student! Never! Never! contradict me in front of a patient. Cut down that man’s arm!”
“I’m not going to be a party to this.”
“Very well! Steve, please cut Mr. Anderson and give him his injection. Mr. Wagner, observe this procedure carefully. You will be here at 2 a.m. to give Mr. Anderson his next injection.”
“No, I won’t.”
At about 2:30 the next morning, Karl’s phone began to ring. He placed his pillow over his head. After a long time, the phone quit ringing.
Wagner, of course, was called on the carpet. The deans confessed he presented a problem they had never before had to face. He had the highest rotation grades in the school. His other grades were likewise excellent. But his attitude… deplorable! How could such a dilemma be resolved? Not so difficult, it turned out. He would have to repeat third year.
Wagner was outraged. How could they flunk someone with an A average? He dropped out of medical school and contemplated a lawsuit against UNC. But, for now, he had plenty of time to devote to his writing. And it paid off. At last he sold a book, Death Angel’s Shadow, to a real publishing house, Warner Paperback. Once again he persuaded his editor to let me do the interior illustrations. I was to share art credits on this book with Frank Frazetta, the best-known artist in the field then. It looked as if, at last, we were both headed for the big time. “Getting kicked out of med school is the best thing that ever happened to me,” Wagner reflected.
Karl Wagner’s worst year was my best. I had met Barbara Mott in a campus coffee house run by her sister Marjorie Mott formerly of the Knoxville Junior Academy of Science. I had never met anyone so vivacious as Barbara, so full of enthusiasm. She seemed the very soul of youth while I had been born old. She sang along joyously with all the folk songs that I, until that very evening, had thought were tripe. She grabbed my hand and forced me to join in little impromptu dances. As Oscar Wilde observed, “A bad man admires innocence.” And Jean Baudrillard said, “There is no aphrodisiac like innocence.” She came with me that first night back to Toad Hall. She inspired in me an emotion I had never known: happiness. She had a special talent for making people feel good about themselves. She told her folks she was going to start staying with friends on campus and, essentially moved in with me. For one who had in high school literally provoked squeals of terror from the opposite sex, this was a season of epiphany.
She had not met Karl. During his undergraduate days he had managed to visit Toad Hall every couple of weeks, but medical school demanded more of him and he had barely found time even to visit his parents. We communicated mostly by post. But Barbara became fascinated with the illustrations I was working on for his book. I had done a small pen and ink portrait of him, and she said she’d like to meet the man who had such dreamy eyes. If only I had read, “Face on the Barroom Floor.”
After she and Karl were married, he and I had a falling out that lasted quite a while, though I’m not sure he ever had much choice about the whole thing.
* * *
Gradually, I got over my grudge. Karl had, after all, given his freedom to save mine. Still, we were no longer so close. For one thing, we no longer shared the same concerns. He was a married man with a mortgage, car payments, insurance. He and Barbara seemed an unlikely pair to their Knoxville friends. He was the Appolonian, she the Dionysian. She was the pretty, bubbly, fresh-scrubbed Teen Board debutante, he the brooding Byronic figure. With his long red-blond hair and beard, he had a definite leonine aspect. He very much resembled, in fact, Cocteau’s Beast. Barbara and Karl, Beauty and the Beast.
Then, too, Wagner had less time for socializing. Death Angel’s Shadow had, at last, established Wagner as an important writer of horror and epic fantasy. (He hated the phrase “swords and sorcery.”) It was nominated for the August Derleth Award in England for the Year’s Best Fantasy Novel in spite of the fact that it was not a novel. And he had steeled himself and returned to medical school where he did, indeed, repeat third year and graduated with honors.
Once out of school, Wagner began to visit Knoxville more frequently. After calling on his parents, he and Barbara would come around Toad Hall to drink and enjoy a toke or two. Once our appetites had been stimulated we’d head down to Brother Jack’s for the food of the gods.
Brother Jack’s was a barbecue joint operated, with his wife Thelma, by Tip Jackson, the son of the original Brother Jack. It was located in a black neighborhood and a rough one, though the only trouble we ever had there was with slumming rednecks. There was a great deal of drug use and violence in the neighborhood, a fact that added a special zest to the barbecued ribs when we made it back home alive with them. One night, a young black man was at Brother Jack’s showing around his X-ray as though it were a snapshot of his child. He had been shot in a drive-by (though that word was not yet hyphenated) while standing in front of the ice plant a few feet from Brother Jack’s screen door. Wagner examined the X-ray and told him he was lucky to be alive. Wagner occasionally referred to Brother Jack’s in his stories.
We often armed ourselves before venturing to Brother Jack’s. Once we encountered two young white men who seemed to be toying with the idea of robbing the seemingly vulnerable little shop. “What would you do if somebody tried to rob you and your customers?” one of them asked Tip casually. Tip pulled out a .38 revolver.
“I’d shoot ‘em with this gun,” he responded blandly.
“Nice gun. How’s about lemme take a look at it?”
Tip slid it across the huge old stump that served as chopping block. One of the white men picked it up and pointed it at him. The other seemed to be groping in his pocket.
“And what would you if somebody robbed you with your own gun,” he asked, grinning. There was a chorus of clicks and snicks and the two were ringed by a circle of pistols and knives in the hands of Tip’s regulars. Tip himself produced a Magnum. “I’d shoot him with this other gun.”
Another night at Brother Jack’s, four or five of us encountered a band of armed and obnoxious rednecks. Most of us weren’t heeled. Hotter heads prevailed, and we went back to the Toad Hall armory for more weapons. As we left the van headed for the showdown, Big Joe (whom we all regarded as slow-witted, though he later became a TVA engineer) elected to wait in the van with the shotgun. “You get ‘em on the run’ and I’ll shoot the first one out the door,” he called after us. When we entered, the rednecks had gone. It was then that Joe’s parting comment registered on us.
“Did he say he was going to shoot the first one out the door?” Wagner asked.
“We better tell him everything’s cool!”
“Right. Who’s going to go tell him?”
Dr. Wagner began his psychiatric residency (he managed to skip internship) at a mental hospital near Chapel Hill, where he once again found himself at odds with the medical establishment. After a period of bad press, shock treatments were enjoying renewed currency and were a good revenue enhancer for hospitals. Wagner refused to prescribe a one, despite pressure from the board of directors. He said there was no more empirical evidence for electroconvulsive therapy’s salubrious effects on brain structures than there was of chiropracty’s nerve-impinging subluxations. ECT was the result, he told me, of a psychiatrist exercising his God-like powers over one of his patients, pretty much on a whim. “Let’s just plug ‘er into the wall and see what happens!” Prevailing theories as to how ECT might work were of two camps. One maintained that shock treatments burned away the parts of the brain where all the bad memories were stored that had caused the mental problems in the first place. The other hypothesis was that shock treatments were so unpleasant that the patient felt that he had atoned for any wrong he might have done and was thus purged of the guilt that had tormented him.
Fortunately for Karl he was assigned to the men’s ward. Shock treatments are used primarily to treat depression, and where women become depressed men become psychotic. But at the end of the first year he was reassigned to the women’s ward. He saw the writing on the wall and resigned, never to practice medicine again.
Medicine had always been for him a fail-safe anyway, in case he didn’t make it as a writer. But now he was making it. He sold several novels, most concerning his hero-villain Kane. Kane was essentially the Biblical Cain, but the tales told the other side of the story. Kane was the first rebel, cursed by an egomaniacal and repressive God to die by the violence Kane had introduced to the world. But, since Kane has been doing violence longer than anybody else, he was better at it than anybody else. So he lived on… and on.
Karl enjoyed demolishing “sword and sorcery” clichés: female warriors wear full armor instead of chain-mail bikinis, prophecies don’t come true, characters’ speech is translated into modern slang equivalents instead of the Elizabethan “thees” and “thous” of fantasy hacks, well-intentioned crusaders bring more grief than do amoral fortune hunters, and stories often don’t have happy endings.
Kane himself is the most conspicuous departure from standard heroic fantasy. For one thing, he is not heroic. He is a hero-villain like Melmoth. Kane is insane, of course. The weight of aeons has done that to him–aeons of contending with the gods, ducking and weaving, thrusting and parrying, sidestepping through the centuries. Imagine knowing for a fact that God is out to get you.
This insanity, surfacing sporadically, prevents his always acting in his own best interests. Often his cold-blooded schemes are swept aside by berserker rage and he wades into battle, slaughtering the normal humans he hates and envies, and shortening their brief lives by a few inconsequential years. In so doing, he risks the violent death he has been promised by an angry god, a death he fears and, perhaps, longs for. Fortunately for him he recognizes, along with his more esoteric studies, the survival value of keeping fit and battle-ready.
His build is not that of the lithe, wasp-waisted swashbuckler; he is a power-lifter rather than a bodybuilder, more Sandow than Stallone. Some critics have protested that with 300 pounds of muscle on a six-foot frame, Kane would be so muscle-bound he would scarce be able to move. This is a groundless myth propagated by flabby, pasty-faced city dwellers with sinews like rotted cloth to excuse their own lethargy. Studies have shown weightlifters to have quicker than average reflexes. Paul Anderson, once touted as World’s Strongest Man (not to be confused with Poul Anderson, the writer) once sprinted against the world champion in the 220-yard dash and gave a good account of himself.
A friend, Bob Simpson originally of Knoxville, settled the matter as far as Karl and I were concerned. A power-lifter at 5’ 7” and 235 pounds, his proportions were similar to Kane’s. In his prime he could lift well over 500 pounds overhead. He held black belts in both Isshynryu karate and Bando (a Burmese style). Karl and I once watched him perform weapons forms. His movements were a blur.
But, again, Kane differs from the typical barbarian hero in that he does not rely solely upon his strength. And he is no barbarian. One story, “The Dark Muse,” begins with his discussing the nature of poetry with the poet Opyros (whose work is often quoted in stories set in later ages). Kane has a powerful and cunning mind, and uses it to plot his grandiose schemes and to extricate himself from trouble. Other fantasy heroes muscle their way out of one sorcererous predicament after another. Kane knows a good thing when he sees it and studies sorcery himself. He has as much in common with Fu Manchu as with Conan, but he lacks Fu Manchu’s noble motives. Yet there is something noble in Kane, in his refusal to surrender to cosmic forces beyond human comprehension.
Fans, naturally, came to identify Wagner strongly with Kane. One night he had a strange dream. He was back in the big, old house on Cedar Lane where he’d grown up. Upstairs in his boyhood bedroom he found a tall, raw-boned man staring out one of the dormer windows. “What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded. The figure turned to face him. He had coarse features and red hair. “I’m sure I never met you,” Wagner said, “yet somehow you look very familiar.”
“I should think you would know me,” the red-haired stranger replied. “I’m Able.”
* * *
After the first Conan movies, Wagner’s agent Kirby McCauley got a few nibbles from producers who were considering doing a Kane movie, but nothing came of it. Wagner was commissioned, however, to write the script for the third Conan movie for Dino De Laurentiis. Kirby said his friend Oliver Stone was very impressed with it, but it was never produced. Wagner also wrote one of the scripts for Delta Force and, his only movie to make the screen, a script for the Japanese animated film Monkey, an oriental myth. Even the unproduced scripts brought Wagner handsome sums.
He no longer sent out unsolicited manuscripts; editors were actually soliciting his work. But with success came a new problem: deadlines. And he no longer had the luxury of crafting a single story at a time. He had to accept offers as they came in and juggle them as best he could. He began to relive the all-nighters of his college days. When he finally managed to grab some shut-eye, Jack Daniels helped him wind down.
With his stories more widely published, Wagner became more famous. He was an honored guest at sci-fi/fantasy conventions all over the country. I and a few of his Knoxville friends attended some of the cons, basking in his reflected glory. He was the cynosure of our circle, the one who’d made good, and his friendship validated our own intellects. One of my fondest memories is of the first World Fantasy Convention, sitting with Manly Wellman on one side of me and Robert Bloch (author of Psycho as the blurbs on his 99 other books always read) talking past me about old times. Because I was a friend of Karl’s I was accepted by the authors whose tales had frightened me as a child, people I’d thought of as Demiurges handing down stories from some dark Olympus.
Wagner would entertain fans–who often knew his work better than he did–all night long with discourse and drink. He was a splendid raconteur, but he could make everyone else in the room feel a bit superfluous. In the morning he would come around to my room and press still more alcohol upon me.
“There’s two ways to deal with a hangover, Mayer. You can treat it with aspirin, anti-nausea drugs and other nostrums… or you can postpone it indefinitely.” And he’d pour himself another tumbler-full. Straight. One time, while on a panel answering questions from the audience, he passed out clutching the microphone. The other panel members shuffled their chairs uncertainly for a while. Finally, Michael Moorcock pried the mic from his fingers and they went on with the program.
At one convention, we encountered Frank Belknap Long, the last surviving member of the original circle of Cthulhu mythos authors and a personal friend of H. P. Lovecraft. He was in his eighties but still fairly spry. He was trying to locate a publishers’ party in the hotel, and was quite angry with Kirby McCauley for not having seen that he got there. “Kirby’s supposed to be my agent,” he sputtered. “This party could be very important to my career!” The creative life is a hard life.
Once there was a wreck in front of the hotel where the convention was being held and Wagner, dressed in his usual regalia, hurried out to examine the victim and to keep the cops from moving him or elevating his feet. “He’s suffered some head trauma,” he told the EMT’s when they arrived, “but he seems to be stabilized. I checked his vitals and for dilation and cyanosis; there doesn’t seem to be any internal bleeding. Wouldn’t hurt to use an oropharyngeal tube. If he comes to he’ll be thirsty, but don’t give him anything. You’ll want to use oxygen, of course, but you won’t need to hyperventilate.”
As he returned to the hotel, an onlooker was heard to remark, “I never saw a biker doctor before.”
The second World Fantasy Convention in New York was far less pleasant than the first. The wallpaper in the Hilton was peeling, the staff was unfriendly, and the food would have shamed the cooks at Old Central’s cafeteria. And then, there was the city of New York. One night a few of us left the hotel and went a few blocks to a Chinese carry out. Sci-fi fans often dress in colorful costumes at conventions and one of the young ladies with was attired as, near as I could figure, a prostitute elf. Wagner was in his usual biker garb. I was probably wearing my Edwardian sharkskin suit (I chose it out of a catalog at John H. Daniels, probably not realizing it was out of style), with ascot and a bit of lace at collar and cuff. A couple of NYPD cops were scrutinizing us for offenses that might be illegal even in New York.
Now, as sophisticated as New Yorkers profess to be, you’d think they wouldn’t give a prostitute elf a second glance. That’s where you’d be wrong. I was the last to get my food and, as I headed back, I saw the young lady being detained by a big, young street tough. Ken Amos, the bookish and slightly built publisher of the magazine Nightshade had come to her defense, but the fellow outweighed the two of them together. As I caught up I stepped between them, punched the man in the belly, and the three of us continued across the street toward the Hilton. The native began to shout threats at me, and, stupidly, I turned to bandy words with him. As he started across the street toward me I realized, for the first time, that he was not alone. Other young men began to converge on us–I think some concert had just ended at Madison Square Garden–and I began to realize that these were not just onlookers. And their numbers kept growing. I thought of New York’s Irish Ducky Boys gangs in the book The Wanderers. The cops seemed to have disappeared.
Though they were far ahead and could have abandoned me to my fate, pretending not to have noticed the hubbub, Wagner, Barbara and Ken returned to stand beside me and face down this throng. This confused our adversaries for a moment, but they resumed the offensive edging toward us, circling around, while we prepared to defend ourselves. Barbara, standing to one side, opened her purse and pulled a mother-huge pistol about halfway out and asked the punks nearest her, in the same voice with which she might invite them up for milk and cookies, “Do you want to eat some lead?” The ones who’d seen the piece began to drag their puzzled comrades away.
Finally, after all those years, the very first novel Wagner had written, Bloodstone, was published in 1975. He brought me a copy and I began to read it. It was, of course, vastly changed from the version he’d scribbled on five-hole Blue Horse-brand notebook paper when he was 14. I had flipped past the title pages, so it was some time before I realized the book was dedicated to me: For John F. Mayer–Colleague and friend, Brother in infamy… a reference to one of my high school novel attempts, Five for Infamy in which Karl, Max and I starred with two other Centralites as a band of hired assassins. In the German edition, the translator, unclear on English nuances, made it Bruder in Schande, Brother in shame. Still, I was touched.
As many of the old pulp writers had done, Wagner often worked in hidden references to friends. In Bloodstone, Kane remarks that he’d rather be lounging around Toad Hall partaking of yellow sunshine. Yellow sunshine was a 300-microgram variety of LSD. He also inserted little tributes to his favorite rock bands. On the first page of that same book is a reference to “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Grooving in a Cave with a Pict,” a cut on Pink Floyd’s Umma Gumma album. “Several species of small furry animals picked their way through caves and grooves in the moss-hung debris…”
Among the friends Karl made through his writing was Glenn Lord, the executor of the estate of Robert E. Howard. Lord was disgusted with the liberties editors (and posthumous collaborators) Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp had taken with Howard’s work. Back when Howard’s work was little known, L. Sprague de Camp had made arrangements to edit the Lancer Conan series. The series was so successful that de Camp, in order to keep up with demand, was obliged to print stories Howard himself had discarded or rewritten, to assemble and rewrite abandoned story fragments and stories Howard had written in other genres (a detective story, for example), old grocery lists, and finally, it seemed, to solicit passersby for new Conan stories. “Excuse me, sir, how’d you like to be the author of Conan?”
The result was a Conan who would have been at home in Saturday morning cartoons. Those of us who knew Howard’s work from the pulps were incensed at the indignities his literary corpus was suffering; we were prone to quote Baudelaire: “Is there, then, in America, no law to prevent dogs from entering cemeteries?” Lord knew that Wagner shared his sentiments and asked him to edit new collections of the original Conan tales as Howard had penned them. It seems there had been a clause in the Lancer series contract that reverted all rights to the estate in the event that the stories were out of print for such and such a period. Karl accepted with glee; not only was this a chance to pay homage to one of his formative influences, but, also, to right a wrong. The first volumes of the Berkley Conan series were printed, edited by Karl Wagner but without editorial “emendations.” Alas, if only good Aquilonian steel could deal with lawyers as handily as with other monsters. There was a loophole. De Camp et al. brought legal action and Conan disappeared from newsstands for a time. Sadly, committees of evildoers worked a terrible transformation. Conan the Conqueror became Conan the Corporation.
* * *
Wagner began to move away from heroic fantasy in favor of modern horror tales. Many of these were set in Knoxville and environs. One day when he was in town, I took him to meet my friend Mr. Brock who lived in a quaint little cottage he’d built himself from packing crates and scrap lumber. He ran a little flea market in his front yard and Wagner collected old bottles. Mr. Brock also managed to grow a sizeable vegetable garden in the coal dust along the train tracks behind his house, though he waged a constant struggle against the kudzu that encroached upon it daily. He canned those vegetables and they helped see him through the winter. His struggle seemed to me to have a Hemingway quality.
“Someday,” I remarked to Wagner as we headed beneath the Asylum Avenue viaduct back to my place, “I’m going to write a story about Mr. Brock titled “The Old Man and the Kudzu.”
“You know, Mayer, if you’re joking, I believe I can do something with that.” I was joking–I hadn’t done any writing since high school–and I gave him my blessings. The story became “Where the Summer Ends,” a horror tale quite unlike the one I’d proposed. It concerned the creatures that lived in symbiosis with kudzu, and took place in Fort Sanders (an old Knoxville neighborhood). I learned later from Barbara that Wagner had determined that the protagonist would survive or perish based on whether or not I got back together with Julie, my love at that time. Next to “Sticks,” “Where the Summer Ends” is Wagner’s most frequently reprinted story.
Another local story is “Cedar Lane,” set in his boyhood home on that street in North Knoxville, back when there were still cedars on Cedar Lane, before they were cut down to make drive-throughs for Burger Doodles. It concerns the Walk-Home and paths his life might have taken. Sign of the Salamander is a serial written in pulp style about the adventures of John Chance, an occult investigator. It takes place in Vestal, Sequoyah Hills, and the Smokies. “Spare Parts” was based on one of the Knoxville junkyards Wagner used to patronize, probably Red’s or Bigfoot’s.
Some of his stories were based on his medical experiences. One was rejected for its lack of realism. “You should spend some time around doctors, listen to how they talk,” the editor advised him. His story “The Fourth Seal,” about the way in which doctors insure their job security, was optioned for a movie.
* * *
With his writing finally paying off and Barbara doing office work, Karl was able to pay off the mortgage on the Valley Park Clinic and Cycle Shop and indulge some of his hobbies. He finally sold the faithful Falcon wagon and bought a new Thunderbird and a bootlegger’s souped-up Cyclone Spoiler complete with welded-shut trunk. He and Barbara began taking trips to London just for pleasure; Karl had become fascinated with the city while there as convention guest. And, at long last, he was able to complete his collection of Weird Tales. He wouldn’t divulge what he had paid for the earliest issues except to acknowledge that it was a pretty penny. Since the pulps had been generally considered as disposable as the daily paper, few people had saved them and most of those had fallen prey to tidy mothers and wives, silverfish, and wartime paper drives. The very earliest copies were so rare it seemed the only people who had kept them were those who actually had stories in them. Wagner’s Weird Tales volume one, number two, had belonged to H. P. Lovecraft. And it was missing the front cover.
His thousands of pulps were no longer just esoteric curiosities. They were now a working resource. At last he had the capitol to realize a childhood dream: to save some of the great pulp fiction tales–and their authors–from oblivion. With fellow Chapel Hill residents Jim Gross and writer David Drake Wagner formed the publishing company Carcosa. Their first production, in 1973, naturally enough was a compilation of the previously uncollected work of Manly Wade Wellman. Worse Things Waiting was about 400 pages long and bound in real cloth hardcovers with special endpapers, on acid-free paper and set with old-fashioned moveable type. It was a handsome volume. For the numerous illustrations, Wagner recruited Lee Brown Coye, one of the last surviving Weird Tales artists, and possibly the artist who had produced that magazine’s strangest and most disturbing images. His work had a primitive, almost tribal look, but the tribe would have been one whose ancestry was tainted by unholy liaisons with beings not entirely human. Coye’s signature had once been a crescent moon subtly worked into his drawings, but in recent years the moon had been replaced by bizarre assemblages of sticks. Coye’s explanation became the basis of Karl’s most popular story, “Sticks.”
When Wellman saw the finished book he told Karl, “I thought I was doing you a favor. Now I see that you were doing me one.”
And, indeed, Carcosa was a labor of love. Though the first edition numbered only 2000 copies and sold for under $10, it took years to sell out. But profit was never the point. Even while Karl was working around cartons of unsold volumes of Worse Things Waiting, he began assembling Carcosa’s second collection, Far Lands Other Days, stories by E. Hoffman Price, a prolific pulp writer who had once, in the ‘30s, stopped to scan a newsstand and seen 10 different titles for which he’d written the cover story. He was a world traveler who had lived the fantasies he wrote about. A cavalryman, he could saber dummies from horseback, jump hurdles, and fire pistols accurately with either hand. He was also capable with the epee and had won at least one national trophy. He had been in the Philippines during the Moro campaign and had pursued Pancho Villa in Mexico. He, too, was a serious drinker and a connoisseur of exotic liquors. “I found demerara and half a dozen other kinds of rum, kao liang, Calvados, marc de Bourgogne, Armagnac, raki, slivovitz and many another.” The illustrator for Far Lands Other Days was George Evans, who had drawn for E.C. and Classics comics and, appropriately, for Terry and the Pirates.
Far Lands sold even more slowly than Worse Things Waiting but Karl just stacked the cartons of the new book beside the older ones and began assembling Murgunstrumm and Others. This was an anthology of stories by another contributor to Weird Tales as well as Strange Tales and other shudder pulps, Hugh B. Cave. He had written nearly 800 short stories, but he’d lost every one of them in a fire. Happily, Wagner had his library. Coye was again called upon to illustrate. Wagner proudly presented me a copy of the new book. Across the top of the spine in large letters was the name Cave. “Cave,” I muttered, pronouncing it CAH-vay.
“Ah, Mayer! Pace More Johnson would be proud of you.”
Murgunstrumm, too, sold slowly, but Karl and Carcosa pressed ahead. Last came Lonely Vigils, a second volume of Wellman tales illustrated this time by Evans.
Wagner was becoming popular enough that he attracted the attention of copycats. The first installment of a serial starring a scheming and immortal mercenary named Cain appeared in a popular science-fiction magazine. It bore striking parallels to the long out-of-print Darkness Weaves, though it was set in the future instead of the past and science replaced magic (the fair young maiden’s actual brain was switched with that of the evil old hag instead of just her persona). Copyrights are tricky things, but after Wagner and others complained, the rest of the installments were dropped from publication. And one of Marvel’s King Kull comics seemed to follow the story line of Wagner’s short story “Reflections on the Winter of My Soul” more faithfully than was customary with Howard’s actual Kull stories. In fact, the Kane-like villain in that story, Thulsa Doom, became a popular and recurring villain in both the Kull and Conan comics, a pretty piece of irony.
But success was beginning to take its toll on Karl. After all the lean years he could not bring himself to decline a commission, no matter how overworked he was. He would go days with little sleep trying to meet deadlines. And he continued to rely upon booze to ease the stress. Barbara, who had once enjoyed matching him drink for drink at con parties, became increasingly concerned. He refused to seek counseling with her. As a psychiatrist, he regarded psychologists as witch doctors. At last they separated.
I mentioned that Barbara had a special talent for making a man feel good about himself. I well knew how painful it could be to have that intoxicating reinforcement withdrawn cold turkey. I don’t think Wagner had ever before been troubled by self-doubt. He was still harboring hopes of winning back her affection when she remarried.
Wagner’s mother had a series of strokes that left her unable to care for herself. Then his father Aubrey “Red” Wagner, a former TVA board chairman whom Karl idolized, began to succumb to Parkinson’s disease. At last Karl’s siblings called on him to be the one, the “hired gun” as he said, to deliver his mother to Shannondale nursing home. As they wheeled her down the hall she had a moment of lucidity. She looked back at him and sobbed, “You’re abandoning me here, aren’t you?”
Soon, his father joined her there and, within a year, died. Barbara, whom Karl hadn’t known was in Knoxville, showed up. He requested that I ask her to leave. Some old Key Clubbers from Central came to pay their respects. “You know,” he told them, “I never liked you.” Once they realized he wasn’t joking they, too, left. Karl packed up his library of Weird Tales and other pulps and rare books, which had always been shelved at his parents’ house, first on Cedar Lane, then in Suburban Hills, and carted them back to Chapel Hill.
He visited Knoxville only once or twice a year after that, to visit his mother, his old friend Tip Jackson and, sometimes, me. On nights when Brother Jack’s was closed, we’d sometimes congregate at Tip’s house on Boyd Street, drinking at a table in his front yard in warm weather. Tip held court for the neighborhood; a dozen people might stop by in the course of an evening to pay respects or to try to cadge a drink. One night one of the visitors, an attractive young black woman, was carrying a shotgun. Her brother had been kidnapped and was being held as a part of some dispute; she was on her way to free him. She had a drink, then continued on her mission. There seemed to be no thought in this neighborhood of applying to the police for protection
One night when Wagner left Brother Jack’s, alone but for his German Shepherd Crystal, with a sizable package under his arm, the place was, evidently, under surveillance. It must have seemed suspicious to see a white boy with a package leaving a rough, black joint in a drug-infested neighborhood. Apparently, an officer in an unmarked car followed him. The suspicious behavior of the pursuing car alarmed Karl and, finally, convinced he was about to be robbed and/or murdered, he ran the officer off the road and into a concrete abutment. Backup was called, but since these officers, too, were in unmarked cars, Karl led them a merry chase through the streets of West Knoxville. At last he was run to ground and pulled from his car with guns aimed at his head. His dog, naturally, growled at the men who were abusing her master. This seemed like a good reason to shoot her, but an older officer persuaded the younger ones to hold their fire till Crystal could be placated. Wagner called me that night, but I’d been getting crank calls so I had my ringers off and the volume all the way down on my answering machine. I still have the recording: “Mayer… I really need your help, Old Buddy. I’m in a world of shit.”
At first Karl had trouble getting his car back: something about holding it for the DEA. When he did, his upholstery had been cut and the barbecue was missing. The officer who had been run off the road sued. “When he heard I was a famous, rich author he probably went right out and picked him out a brand new bass boat,” Karl suggested. The officer arrived in court wearing a neck brace, but when Karl’s lawyer pointed out that all the damage to Karl’s car was in the rear while all the damage to the police car was in the front, the case was dismissed.
Karl pronounced Knoxville the Bad Vibes Capitol of the World and vowed never to return. He began, instead, to make increasingly frequent trips to London where he had made a number of friends. The Brits liked Karl, liked his writing, and told him he was the only Yankee they’d ever met who could out-drink them. “I’m no Yankee,” he told them.
Needless to say, these trips were not inexpensive and writing assignments were beginning to slow up for Karl. He was editing some anthologies (he almost got to edit the revived Weird Tales) and getting some calls for fiction from small specialty houses, but the big money guys were beginning to complain that he missed too many deadlines, that the quality of his work was declining. Maybe Karl could no longer shrug off the effects of a fifth of Jack Daniels a day, plus beer and wine. Or maybe a string of sorrows beginning with his divorce had taken the heart out of him. Big, powerful Manly Wellman broke his hip, went to the hospital and lost both legs to bedsores. He had always prided himself on his physical prowess; now, demoralized, he faded away. He died in Karl’s arms.
Back in Knoxville, Tip suffered several diabetic strokes, lost one leg, and then the other. Barbara helped his brother Jeep care for him during the last two years of his life. When he finally died, she called Wagner but before she could give him the bad news he interrupted her: “Tip’s dead.” He’d dreamed it the night before.
I, too, called, not knowing if he’d heard. I mentioned the growth on my shoulder blade. Didn’t he think this was carrying a gag too far? Wagner seemed much more concerned about my neoplasm than his own. “You gotta get that looked at, Mayer. This is nothing to fool around with.”
“That sounds familiar, Wagner. Isn’t that what I’ve been trying to tell you?”
“A little late for me. But you’re provided for in my will.”
“Karl, I don’t give a rat’s ass about your will,” I protested in a rare moment of seriousness.
“Well, then, I guess you’re not interested in the collection of Weird Tales I was leaving you.”
“Now, let’s not be hasty!” I was kidding.
“By the way, Mayer, remember that story we wrote back at Central about the gun-toting vampire. I’ve rewritten it and it sold. I gave you credit on it.”
“Hey, it pays to recycle.”
“I’ll send you a copy.”
A week or so later it arrived. It was set in modern London and bore no resemblance to the original. With it was a note telling me where the story would appear and that he was off for London “one last time. Going with Lynn, my crazed punker. May not survive.” The stamp showed a black locomotive. Underneath it he’d written “The Little Black Train,” a reference to a Wellman story about the train that comes for the dying.
* * *
One morning I was preparing my coffee and playing back the messages on my answering machine that had been left while I slept. “John, this is Mike Elam.” It was Karl’s nephew. “I’ve got some bad news; Karl Wagner’s dead.” I’ve heard of being staggered by bad news; I actually missed a step and had to catch onto my sink, spilling the coffee grounds.
He had been found by a friend in Chapel Hill who became concerned when he didn’t answer his phone. He was lying on his bathroom floor. It wasn’t cancer that killed him; his liver had practically exploded.
He’d died on the 13th of October, 1994. You hear of statistical proof that people can postpone death till after special days; I’m surprised Karl didn’t wait till Hallowe’en. It was his favorite holiday since childhood; mine too: there’s a hint of adventure, a sense of potency for a kid at Hallowe’en that even Christmas lacks.
In settling his affairs it was discovered that most of his rare books, his autographed manuscripts, even his collection of Weird Tales had been sold to pay bills. His body was cremated and his remains were placed in a little cedar box. His mother was in her wheelchair at the graveside services. “I can’t believe that’s all that’s left of Karl,” she said.
I kept expecting to see something in the news, or Knoxville’s daily paper, some sort of tribute to one of Knoxville’s most successful writers, a native son who had produced enduring works of horror. But the man himself seemed to have vanished as though he’d never been, leaving only his stories, as though they had been handed down, without human intervention, from some Dark Olympus. Horror indeed.
* * *
I mentioned the running joke about Karl and I being the same person. I know the fact that we both had some sort of growth on our backs at the same time in about the same place was nothing more than an eerie coincidence. And, of course, it was just our long immersion in horror literature that prompted us to refer, facetiously, to our corresponding lumps as unborn twin brothers.
I did see a doctor about the place on my back. "It should come off," he told me. "If it's not cancer, it will be. It's as easy to take it off as to biopsy it." But I feel so creative. This is the first real writing I've done in years. I think I'll wait awhile on the surgery.
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