The Dark Muse of Karl Edward Wagner: Part 1

John Mayer, close friend of the late, great horror writer, recounts his life and career

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 last writer sits alone in his study.

His eyes glow bright, and his gnarled fingers labour tirelessly to transform

the pictures of his imagination into the symbolism of the page. His muscles

feel cold, his bones are ice, and sometimes he thinks he can see through his

hands to the page beneath.

There will be a knock at his door.

Maybe it will be death.

Or a raven knelling "Nevermore."

Maybe it will be the last reader.

—Karl Edward Wagner, "The Last Wolf"

* * *

"Well, Wagner, I hear your undeveloped twin is taking form on your back."

Having had my long-distance service restored, my first call that summer evening in ‘94 was to Karl Wagner, my friend since our days as seemingly the only science fiction and fantasy fans at Old Central High. His ex-wife had told me of the ugly black mass growing on his left shoulder blade. He had stubbornly refused her entreaties to see a doctor, and I shared her concern.

"Yeah, Mayer, it's good to have a little company." Though he was dating a bit, he remained disconsolate about the breakup of his marriage. Barbara had left him when, she told me, she had given up any hope of his overcoming an affliction common to writers: too much drink. Indeed, Wagner's friends often marveled at his capacity for alcohol; he seemed to regard drinking almost as an athletic event and was able to finish off a fifth without any apparent intoxication.

"Seriously, Karl, you need to see a doctor. I understand melanoma can be a real bitch once it gets going."

"Mayer, I am a doctor. That's why I'm not bothering. If it's melanoma it's too far gone to do anything about. I'd just as soon not know till I have to."

Wagner was, in fact a medical doctor, though he hadn't practiced in years having devoted himself to his writing. He was the only person in my circle of friends who had medicine to fall back on as a second career.

"But you don't understand, Wagner! If you let this thing go, I'll get it, too!" This was sort of a running gag between us. Whether it was because we'd hung out together so much since freshman high school, or due to our common German heritage, or because our childhood heroes were the baritone, manly stars of children's radio dramas such as The Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston, Wagner and I had almost identical speech patterns. This caused consternation among our friends who saw us together for the first time and would often remark to the effect that we were just alike. We'd respond along the lines of, "She says we're just alike! Ridiculous, Tweedledum!" "Preposterous, Tweedledee!"

But now my jest concealed real worry. Wagner chuckled at the familiar gag. "I hope not, Mayer, but if you should get some sort of growth on your back, I'd appreciate it if you'd go ahead and get it removed. I ‘xpect my neoplasm will fall off shortly thereafter." We shared a chuckle and I said good-bye quickly in an effort to keep my next long-distance bill manageable. Imagine my astonishment when, a couple of weeks later, my visiting nephew remarked, as I worked shirtless in my garden, "Hey, John, what's that thing growing on your back?"

The possibility that Karl Wagner of Knoxville, Tennessee would one day be a world-famous writer of science fiction, horror, and heroic fantasy, translated into six languages, winner of numerous awards for fiction, and frequent guest of honor at fan conventions all over the U.S., Canada, and London, seemed remote when I first met him in Mrs. Pace More Johnson's Latin class. (We later styled her Post-Mortem Johnson and speculated that Latin was her native language.) I first realized we had interests in common one Hallowe'en.

Mrs. Johnson had softened her usually austere approach to pedantry to allow the talented among us to observe the day with musical performances and story telling. The program had been at complete variance with my concept of how a black mass should be celebrated, and I was diverting myself with a book of ghost stories. Suddenly, I realized that the story being delivered to the class by that great red-haired lout was drawn from the very library book I was reading. I had dismissed the fellow as a football player or some such ruffian on the basis of his hulking build and rather brutal features. Imagine my surprise to discover that behind those beetling brows was a brain as tasteful and perceptive as my own. Wagner was an intellectual… and big enough to get away with it.

We began to compare notes on our favorite brand of literature and our acquaintance grew into a fast friendship. This required a certain amount of courage on Karl's part, for I had already acquired an unsavory reputation that would have made Huckleberry Finn–or Jack the Ripper–reluctant to be seen chatting with me. Having come from the cloistered environment of a parochial school, free to members of First Lutheran Church where my deadpan sense of humor was well known, I was not prepared for the literal interpretation the Central lads placed on my witticisms. It wasn't long before I was labeled insane by students and faculty alike, a judgment I eventually began to accept myself, innocent though I was of the more eccentric behavior attributed to me. I did not, for example, sleep in a coffin no matter how many of my classmates claimed to have peeked in at my window and seen it. The situation had at first seemed quite funny, but it got old fast. I developed a chip on my shoulder that led to fights with my classmates and detentions and suspensions from Principal Boring. (He once remarked, referring to his extreme tolerance toward me, "John, if the school board ever saw your record they'd kick us both out on our ears!")

I was awed when I saw Karl's library–a tiny fraction of the one he eventually acquired, but impressive even then. Karl ate, slept, and breathed pulps, almost literally, for his monolithic bookshelves stood by his bedside and the odor of moldering pulp paper filled the air like incense. And his lunch money went to purchase more.

We traded paperbacks and went on treasure hunts downtown. Knoxville actually had a downtown in the ‘50s, with 10-cent stores Woolworth's and Kress's and Grant's, not one but two Miller's department stores, and four movie houses, including the Roxy where Bridgette Bardot movies were sometimes shown. We scrounged through (and under, and behind) the dusty shelves of Doc Black's New and Used Books and Costume Shop, or in the curio and junk shops in the area now called The Old City but then called Urban Blight, seeking the imaginative pulps and pre-code horror comics that had vanished in the drab and colorless ‘50s. (Wagner would later sneer at ‘50s nostalgia: "It was like 10 years in detention hall.")

Hard as it is to imagine now, science fiction was rare in the ‘50s and early ‘60s; pulps had ceased to exist and editors of paperbacks were convinced there was no market for sci-fi and less for fantasy. There was an upside to this situation: The few science-fiction volumes that did see print were those the editors found so compelling they were willing to set aside their commercial prejudices. (It was a far cry from the ‘90s where any sort of dreck labeled science fiction or fantasy seemed to get published, and most of it in the form of trilogies).

In the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, comics had experienced the birth of a true creative artistry, particularly in the horror, action, and Mad comics of E.C. Comics. But this creativity had been smothered in its crib by the Comics Code Authority administered by John Goldwater of Archie infamy. The Code was the result of a national panic created when psychologist Frederick Wertham revealed that comic books were the cause of "juvenile delinquency." As revealed in his book Seduction of the Innocent, he discovered in the shadows and details of the art subliminal obscenities not apparent to the layman (or layboy, either). It was the old joke: "So… all the inkblots look to you like genitalia. You certainly have a sexual obsession." "Me?! You're the one showing me all the dirty pictures!"

Unfortunately, Tennessee's own Senator Estes Kefauver took the joke seriously and launched a congressional investigation resulting in the Comics Code Authority. The Authority boasted that it had "at its inception adopted as the cornerstone of its program the most stringent [censorship] code in existence for any communications media." In this sterile, conformist environment, Karl and I hungered for the lurid prose and illustrations, the flights of fantasy, the rebellion we discovered in those forgotten and tattered publications. We had soon sniffed out every pulp and pre-code comic in Knoxville's shops, but Wagner had discovered mail-order purveyors of these arcane opuscules. Regrettably, unlike the local shopkeepers, these merchants recognized something of the worth of their wares. I feared Wagner had gone off the deep end when he began paying as much as $6 for copies of Weird Tales. At a time when you could live comfortably on a sawbuck a week, paying those sums for old magazines that had only cost two bits when they were in mint condition seemed extravagant folly. But Wagner had the collector's fever and was determined to own every issue.

If science fiction was unpopular with publishers, it was abhorred by educators. More than once both Wagner and I had books confiscated in study hall for no reason other than that they were science fiction and, ipso facto, trash. Of course, our teachers really didn't even know what science fiction was. I once attempted to present a book report on a work by Poul Anderson based on Nordic myths. Mrs. Pierce, an especially malignant grimalkin, read the dust jacket, noted the references to Odin, trolls, elves and frost giants and said, gleefully, "I'm sorry, John, but I don't approve of science fiction. I'll have to give you an F."

Mrs. Pierce seemed to take a special delight in tormenting both Wagner and me. It was she who caught us violating the Walk-Home, a special day when all public school students who customarily rode the school bus were to walk home and time their walk so that authorities could project how many of us would be incinerated in case of nuclear attack. Karl and I attempted to hitchhike and, naturally, the first car we thumbed was driven by Mrs. Pierce. We were two of only three people in Knox County required to seek absolution from the local head of Civil Defense. When I ventured that I welcomed nuclear war as a way of ending a repressive society and bringing about anarchy, the Civil Defense guy scoffed at my political naiveté. "There could be no anarchy," he explained to me, "unless the key figures were already organized and prepared to set it up."

In an era when winning popularity was the principal reason for a teenager's existence, Karl was willing to burden himself with friends who could only be social liabilities. At the same time, he was not above subjecting his friends to the occasional cruel practical joke. One of our friends I'll call Max. He was from a broken home and was the subject of much persecution for the sin of a harelip. Our willingness to brave public opinion on such matters won us his devotion. He was especially interested in Karl's ambition to be a psychiatrist. He continually pestered Karl in study hall and the library to psychoanalyze him. At last Karl acquiesced. Over a period of days he subjected Max to a battery of tests that he made up as he went along.

At last, one day in library, he revealed that Max's analysis was complete. "Well, let me see it!" Max demanded eagerly.

"No, I'm sorry Max. The results of your tests have been… most unexpected. If the authorities were to become aware of this information–or even if you should see it–the results could be tragic! I urge you to avoid any sort of psychological testing in future. I've decided…" and he paused dramatically to look at the paper in his hand, "…no eyes but my own must ever see these notes." And he stuck the paper in his notebook and got up to peruse the shelves.

Disregarding Karl's warning, Max sneaked a look at his psychological profile. It read something like this:

Max W. I have administered to this subject the Wechsler Personality Inventory, the Kent-Allard Survey of Abnormal and Sociopathic Indicators, the Bruce-Partingham Behavioral Profile and the Arkham-Miskatonic Instinctual/Adaptive Scale as well as standard verbal and performance tests. My interpretation of the results have led me to an astonishing conclusion: Max W. suffers from a condition described in some of the earliest psychological literature but not seen in a clinical setting since the days of Jung.

Max is a victim of lycanthropy, a condition believed to have been common in our ancestors but to have essentially vanished with homo habilis. This was a psychosomatic adaptation of early man to the savage world in which he lived. In order to compete with and to defend himself against fierce predators, and in response to signals from the limbic brain, early man may have been able, judging from certain anthropological evidence, to alter the actual shape and metabolism of his body (hypnotic experiments on present day subjects suggest we still possess this ability in vestigial form). In his altered state lycanthropic man had the strength, speed and agility of the wolf (whose hunting strategies so closely resembled his own). Furthermore, there are indications that his regenerative functions may have been accelerated in such a way that wounds healed almost instantly (due to its well-known caustic effects at the cellular level, silver would nullify this trait). These characteristics might seem to be advantageous, but with them comes the total suppression of any of the inhibitions associated with civilized man; society could not permit a lycanthrope to remain alive and free. I have decided that this knowledge must be withheld from the subject; it is conceivable that being made aware of his unusual attributes might trigger a full-blown manifestation of his lycanthropic condition. Further, as an amateur in studies of the mind, I am under no obligation to call this remarkable case to the attention of psychological professionals; I fear that Max would become the victim of eager and callous researchers. Therefore, I have determined that all records relating to Max W. must be destroyed.

Max, as a recent convert to horror fiction, knew full well what lycanthropy was and was delighted to learn of his atavistic endowments. We directed his attention to Mrs. Pierce. Soon he was growling at her from deep in his throat when he passed her in the halls.

Wagner and I began considering the best way to transfer a pentagram to Mrs. Pierce's palm. We knew that Max had seen enough Lon Chaney, Jr. werewolf movies to know that he would see a pentagram on the palm of his next victim. Various methods were considered: a seemingly innocent handshake, some sort of stamp pad inlaid into the desk upon which she often leaned, and so on.

One day, David, a fellow in one of my classes, expressed his concern about Max's sanity. "I was showin' him my knife collection and he dared me to hit him with my machete. Said I couldn't hurt him ‘cause he was a… a… a lycanther, or somethin'." The reality of our little experiment dawned on us and Karl was obliged to make it known to Max that modern manifestations of lycanthropy were usually very short-lived.

* * *

Karl was, in a more cerebral way, as unconventional as myself. One year, Wagner got me out of the detention hall he had helped get me into by telling Assistant Principal Nicely that my help was needed in preparing the Science Club skit for the annual talent night. So I joined the Science Club. The skit they were burdened with was embarrassingly corny, so, at Wagner's urging, the club agreed to scrap it. Karl proposed that since we had no chance of winning anyway we could at least do something memorable. He told us of an art movement called Da-Da, something no other Central student, I'm sure, and probably few of the faculty, had ever heard of.

The curtain would open on a person reading aloud the want ads from a German newspaper. Another cast member would beat rhythmically on a 55-gallon steel drum. Another would simply sit in a folding chair, his back to the audience. A fourth person would ride a tricycle around the stage (mind you, this was years before Laugh-In). This was to continue for our entire allotted 10 minutes. Sadly, Mrs. Pierce was one of the Talent Night advisors and got word of our avant-garde concept. She vetoed it. When pressed for a reason she remarked that the fact that I was involved was reason enough.

In for a penny, in for a pound. Now that I was a Science Club member, in spite of my abysmal GPA, I joined the Knoxville Junior Academy of Science along with Karl. He became vice-president and I a member of the executive council. We published the Academy newsletter, The Cauldron, Wagner's first publishing venture. During the Cuban blockade we published a special Doomsday Issue. For our April Fool's Day Issue we enclosed with each copy a demand for payment for the member's Cauldron subscription. This little gag prompted many angry complaints from members' parents. For the Hallowe'en issue, Wagner wrote a detailed planning guide for throwing a black mass. This prompted cries of outrage from members' parents and a special meeting with Ben Sparks, the Science Club Advisor.

It was in The Knoxville Junior Academy of Science that we met Marjorie Mott, a meeting that was to prove fateful.

In spite of his freethinking, unconventional nature in a repressive milieu, and despite hanging out with losers like Max and me, Karl was affable enough to get along with most of the duck-tailed toughs of Old Central and big enough to intimidate the others. Even though he didn't actually involve himself in sports–he dropped off the wrestling team after a couple of weeks when he discovered, he said, that he wouldn't be allowed to wear a mask and a cape and rub soap in his opponents' eyes–he was one of the first Centralites to study a mysterious oriental art called ka-ra-te. When one especially aggressive tusk-hog challenged him in the locker room one day after gym, Karl agreed to fight him at Central's traditional dueling grounds, Fountain City Park behind the public library.

"I feel it's only fair to show you what I'll be forced to do to you, however," Karl warned him. He placed a two-by-four across two equipment trunks, had someone walk across it, and then split it with one blow of his hand. The hoodlum allowed as how maybe he'd been out of line. I often asked Karl how he'd done that stunt. "Just practice on a four-by-four till you can break it," he told me. "A two-by-four will be twice as easy."

Later he emphasized the point to a small crowd by striking the iron banister on the school's side steps. The dent, he told me privately, had undoubtedly already been there. But, even though Karl was never forced into physical combat, the sense of being at odds with his fellows showed up in his later work.

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction was so unpopular that Wagner and I were compelled to try our hands at writing it. I liked the surprise endings of the vignettes and short-short stories of Frederick Brown and John Collier. Wagner was influenced by the weighty Gothic novels of the early 19th century such as Melmoth the Wanderer, The Castle of Otranto, and The Worm Ourobouros. These were long, brooding, philosophical fantasies that bore no resemblance to the modern formula romances of the Dark Shadows stripe. He also was a great admirer of the cynical yet whimsical allegories of James Branch Cabell, popular in the 1920s. His first novel, Bloodstone, featuring Kane, the character for whom he was to become best known, had much of the tone of Cabell's mordant myths.

Then, in one of the South Central junk shops, I found an old pulp–Unknown Worlds, I think–that contained a story titled "The Black Stranger" by Robert E. Howard. The story was about a powerful barbarian pursued by adversaries, who–armed initially with only a knife and sheer will and stamina–ultimately triumphs against both human and supernatural foes. The character Conan was unknown to us, not having been seen on newsstands since Howard blew his brains out in 1936 at the age of 30. Wagner liked Howard's bleak, two-fisted style–Howard was a better storyteller than might be apparent to readers who know his characters through the pastiches of lesser writers–and Bloodstone began to take on a less humorous, grimmer, and more action-oriented tone. After several revisions, Bloodstone was finally set aside for newer works.

We had been submitting our stories to the only two outlets for fantasy, Fantastic and Fantasy and Science Fiction. Our efforts had garnered nothing more encouraging than a couple of complimentary, handwritten rejections. I began to lose enthusiasm for writing and Wagner offered to polish up my stories and submit them on my behalf. One of my last vignettes concerned a group of vampire hunters. Having found the monster's daylight resting place, the old priest briefs his assistants once more on thwarting the vampire's evil powers: his superhuman strength, his ability to change form, his hypnotic eyes. Thus prepared, they fling open the coffin and the vampire lifts his pistol and shoots them. After two rejections, Wagner began to cast about for other outlets; Warren Publications was publishing Famous Monsters, which occasionally printed a short story. We got no response, nor was the manuscript returned. We forgot all about it until five years later when the manuscript appeared in Wagner's mailbox without explanation. Almost at that same time, a story appeared in Warren's new publication Creepy that seemed like a paraphrase of the tale. The vampire was now a werewolf and the pistol was now a bulletproof vest.

Long before then I had given up on writing and turned my efforts toward art. Wagner promised that he would call upon me to illustrate his first sale.

In ‘63, Wagner graduated without having broken into print and, with the aid of a National Merit award and a humble but reliable Falcon station wagon from his folks, Wagner headed off to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. His pre-med major was history, a subject he felt would be helpful in his real career: writing.

I was left behind, a five-year man. Suddenly realizing that most of my few friends had gone on without me, I took my classes a little more seriously and actually made the honor roll a couple of times. (Mrs. Pierce was very proud.) Even so, I graduated 334th in a class of 380.

Wagner sailed through undergraduate school but his writing efforts were less successful. Tales of Conan, though badly bowdlerized, were rediscovered by the public and J.R.R. Tolkien's Ring trilogy was published in the U.S. The phrase "swords and sorcery" was coined to describe the work of hacks like Lin Carter and John Jakes. Still, Wagner remained unpublished. Gradually, however, the rejection slips were replaced by encouraging personal notes. It was at this time that Wagner discovered, to his great disillusionment, that the quality of a story had little to do with its chances of being published, and that the function of an editor was not to separate the good from the bad but the marketable from the unmarketable. He received letters from several editors to this effect:

Dear Mr. Wagner:

We found your story to be exceptionally well written; your characters were vividly drawn and the fast-paced action and unexpected plot twists kept us up reading straight through the night. Unfortunately, our accountant informs us that the bottom has fallen out of the short-lived sword-and-sorcery market, the success of the Conan and Lord of the Rings series having been, sadly, a fluke. Our Blech the Barbarian series isn't moving at all. We are sure if you will turn your obvious talents to a more popular genre, your efforts will be rewarded.

Yours, etc., etc.

But then, one evening, Wagner called me from Ohio. I was managing to go to the University of Tennessee with the help of a stipend from the Vocational Rehabilitation department based on my aptitude tests and my record of mental illness. I was living in a house that was becoming as notorious, under the name Toad Hall, as I myself had been at Central. "Mayer," he said, "are you able to accept a commission?" Powell Publications, a small outfit in California, had decided to diversify their catalogue from the porn that was their mainstay and was taking a chance on Wagner's latest novel, Darkness Weaves. Wagner had remembered his long-ago promise to let me illustrate his first published work. Neither of us realized how little say the writer actually had in these matters, but Wagner did, in fact, persuade his editor to let me do the interiors. In retrospect I realize that my work was crude, even amateurish, but Karl was especially fond of my frontispiece of Kane leering vindictively from beneath his brow; he was later convinced that it had been swiped by a much better-known artist. In an interview in Nightshade years later, he said that my depiction of Kane, among all the artists who had drawn him, was closest to his conception of him. And why not? I had been drawing Kane even as Wagner was developing him.

Darkness Weaves was a bit too long for Powell's purposes, however, so they decided to abridge it by the simple expedient of yanking out blocks of pages at random, making for a rather disjointed read. Wagner was not consulted. Then the editor realized that the figure on the cover, painted by their staff artist, bore no resemblance to the red-bearded Kane. Wagner said it looked like an African-American with a cantaloupe stuck in his loincloth. The obvious solution: Change Wagner's descriptions of his character to match the painting. So the editor dyed Kane's red hair black and stripped him of his beard, except in a few places that she overlooked. Thus, Kane's appearance alters throughout the book without explanation. The overall effect was rather surreal. Finally, the book was released through Powell's usual adult-bookstore outlets. Still, Darkness Weaves appears to be the only Powell book to have sold out before the company folded.

"It was an ill-favored, misshapen thing, sir," Wagner said, "but it was my firstborn and I loved it."

Read Part 2 of The Dark Muse of Karl Edward Wagner.

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