The name Karl Edward Wagner is instantly recognizable to horror enthusiasts around the world, but it has been all but forgotten here in Knoxville, Wagner's hometown. A local artist is hoping to change that—and bring some tourist dollars to the city in the process.
A physician turned prolific writer, editor, and publisher, Wagner was a literary alchemist whose work combined elements of psychological horror, heroic fantasy, and mythic fiction. He first achieved notoriety with the creation of a fearsome pulp anti-hero named Kane, and went on to publish dozens of stories and essays. As editor of The Year's Best Horror Stories for 15 years, Wagner was tasked with culling the very best dark fiction from around the world; he proved to be one of the most adept anthologists the genre has ever seen. Stephen King is said to have declared Wagner a better horror writer than he himself could ever hope to be. Many consider Wagner's "Sticks" to be one of the finest horror stories ever written, and "Where the Summer Ends" (set in Knoxville) was included in the landmark horror collection Dark Forces. At least one of Wagner's stories is currently being developed for the screen.
Not bad for a native son most Knoxvillians have never heard of.
October marks the 15th anniversary of Wagner's death at the age of 49, so it's as good a time as any to resurrect his memory here in Knoxville. Artist John Mayer, a close friend of Wagner's who illustrated some of his tales, has an idea about that. The 2009 Rossini Festival brought more than 50,000 people to downtown Knoxville in April; why not organize a Karl Edward Wagner Fall Fear and Fantasy Festival?
"A Wagner festival could celebrate not only the man himself but the weird fiction he loved, which, as it happens, has a lot of fans, maybe even more than opera," Mayer says. It's a sound theory; after all, horror-themed festivals across the country attract many thousands of visitors every year. Last weekend's first annual Knoxville Horror Film Fest was an auspicious beginning for what its organizers hope will be a yearly event. The venue (Pilot Light) may have been small, but it was packed with an enthusiastic wall-to-wall crowd and drew submissions from as far away as Italy.
Surely an endeavor to honor such a distinguished writer would be welcome, right? Not exactly, according to Mayer. Though he's received support from Wagner fans all over the country and even the other side of the world, he describes local official response as "a cavernous yawn."
Mayer recently hosted a pre-shindig shindig at Patrick Sullivan's to discuss the feasibility of such a venture. Some of Wagner's dearest friends and most avid fans were there, some having driven for hours just to spend an evening talking about Wagner. The writer's ex-wife attended, as did one of his nephews. Mayer held court over an evening of jovial remembrances of times spent with a man sorely missed by those who were close to him. Wagner, it seems, was a paradox of rather epic proportions: He was once described as looking "like the barrel-chested bouncer of a disreputable biker bar," but his intimidating appearance belied an incredibly agile mind and an equally generous heart.
"Even for our little planning dinner people came from as far away as D.C. and Abingdon and other distant lands," Mayer says. "I've had contacts from fans in France, Denmark, England—where there is an annual award named after Karl—and other places across the seven seas. The only real disappointment I've had has been the response of his hometown.
"I was just thinking we could acknowledge a local boy who made good and whose work is know around the world and for all time, and also have a great excuse for a party, an early start on Halloween. We tell our kids that reading is important. If it is, then writing is important, too. Many great writers have lived in Knoxville, and I'll bet less than half of our citizens can name even one of them. Karl has the advantage of not only being a great writer—really, in both senses of the word; some of his stories have already become classics—but also an accessible great writer."
Besides celebrating Wagner's contributions to the genre, Mayer imagines a festival that would honor all things horror. He'd like to include a film festival (there's talk of teaming up with the organizers of Knoxville Horror Film Fest), live music, a walking tour of Knoxville's haunted places ("We had our own Dr. Frankenstein in Knoxville, you know, attempting to reanimate corpses."), costume contests, guest writers, horse-drawn hearse rides, and more.
It would be a grand thing for local horror fans, and an event that would stand to attract visitors to Knoxville. Whether it ever happens, though, will depend on the local support Mayer and company are able to generate.
"One of the great horror writers of the 20th century was born and raised in Knoxville," he says. "Surely there is some room to acknowledge the literary triumphs of Knoxvillians as well as the athletic triumphs of our more transient residents. Those renegade East Tennesseans who frequent book stores and libraries instead of sports bars must step forward, dare to pronounce without fear or shame that they are readers, and take up the cudgel for some form of recognition for our mountain scribes."