The Dark Muse of Karl Edward Wagner

I’ve written about my old friend Karl Edward Wagner before. Back in the day, I caroused through various conventions with the brilliant red-bearded wildman, having a hell of a great time.


In my youthful naiveté, I didn’t realize the booze that was fueling his fun was symptomatic of a deep self-destructive streak which would lead to his death at the age of 49. From Wikipedia:

Karl Edward Wagner(4 December 1945 – 13 October 1994) was an American writer, editor and publisher of horror, science fiction, and heroic fantasy, who was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and originally trained as a psychiatrist. His disillusionment with the medical profession can be seen in the stories “The Fourth Seal” and “Into Whose Hands”. He described his world view as nihilistic, anarchistic and absurdist, and claimed, not entirely seriously, to be related to “an opera composer named Richard”…

Wagner also created his own mystical and pre-historical hero, Kane, whose name and background are based on traditional conceptions of the biblical Cain. A powerful, left-handed man with red hair and eyes which people find it difficult to meet (the Mark of Kane), the character was described by Wagner as one “who could master any situation intellectually, or rip heads off if push came to shove”….

Besides the Kane books, Wagner wrote contemporary horror stories (some of which, like “At First Just Ghostly”, also feature Kane). These were collected in the books In a Lonely Place (1983), Why Not You and I? (1987) and the posthumous Exorcisms and Ecstasies(1997). They range from the highly literate and allusive (such as “The River of Night’s Dreaming”, which refers to Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show and the myth of Carcosa used in the work of Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers), to the pulpy and parodic (such as “Plan Ten from Inner Space”, a crazed homage to Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s magnum opus Plan 9 from Outer Space). Many of his later stories, such as “But You’ll Never Follow Me” and “Silted In”, are tormented and deeply personal; some deal explicitly with drug addiction (e.g. “More Sinned Against”) and sexual subjects, including repression (e.g. “Brushed Away”) and transsexualism (e.g. “Lacunae”).

Last October, someone pointed me toward a lengthy biographical piece by someone who knew him a lot better than me, his buddy, John Mayer, and I learned many things about Karl I never knew. It’s a really good read, even if you didn’t know Karl or his work, a look at a brilliant, troubled man with a big heart and a vast talent:

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.”

I miss Karl, and I hope some publisher will soon see fit to bring his work back into print.  Maybe Del Rey can do it in a set like their current (awesome)  Robert E. Howard books, or their Elric books by Moorcock. But somebody needs to.


Karl Edward Wagner's Kane

2 comments on “The Dark Muse of Karl Edward Wagner

  1. Saw your post via Facebook. I didn’t know Karl, but I’ve been trying to get his books for ages. If you know of a source, I’d love to have it.


    Shane Hensley

    • Tim Byrd says:

      Hi, Shane.

      Unfortunately, the only way I know to get his books is to buy way overpriced copies from dealers online. I myself only have copies of his Kane books and would love to get the rest of his work.

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