Twenty-Five Years Gone

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Fantasist and author extraordinaire Karl Edward Wagner died twenty-five years ago, today. 1994 was well before this era of instantaneous news; thus, I did not find out about his death until early ’95. I recall I was in a local bookshop, perusing a copy of Locus Magazine, when I came across the notice of his death. It was a gut-punch, to be sure. There’s this odd sense of loss when a literary hero passes away — an acknowledgement that there will be no more new worlds, no more fresh stories; what’s more, when you’re a struggling writer seeking the brass ring of publication and your hero is an editor in your field, there’s always a hope you will write something profound enough to catch his eye. The somewhat corny hope of Wagner ever reading something of mine and declaring, “You’re all right, kid” also died that day.

road of kingsUnlike most of KEW’s fans, I did not come to his work via horror or via his dark fantasy creation, Kane. No, I first encountered Karl Wagner’s genius in the pages of his Conan pastiche, The Road of Kings. Indeed, few books have had such a lasting impact on me. It wasn’t that it was some brilliant bit of fantasy. It was decent, a very good recreation of Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age and a solid story. Apologies to other pasticheurs, but The Road of Kings remains my favorite non-REH Conan. But, what elevated it, what hooked me and reeled me in was in its opening pages. It started with a fight. Savage and brutal, Conan — a mercenary in Zingaran service — goes toe to toe with a regular army officer who insulted him . . . and absolutely guts the preening bastard. This leads to the gallows, escapes, chases, an underground thieves’ quarter, riots, swordplay, buckled swashes, vile sorcery, and a journey into the lands of the Picts. The only false note is at the end, when Conan has the opportunity to take the crown. He doesn’t, mainly because REH already has him as king of Aquilonia some years later. IMO, there’s no story-logic why he wouldn’t take that crown with both hands.

The power of Wagner’s prose sent me into the stacks at Waldenbooks, where I found copies of his Kane novels and anthologies of short fiction. I read his horror, his essays, his fantasy. And I slowly absorbed his style, welded it to REH’s and Tolkien’s to make the Frankenstein’s monster of a style that is my own. How deeply did his work affect me? Read the opening of The Lion of Cairo (Thomas Dunne Books, 2010) and you’ll see. It starts with a fight . . .

Karl_Edward_WagnerTwenty-five years gone. Hard to believe.  Would that you’d been able to stick around longer, good sir. I think some of the fantasy produced today would have been to your liking. And a lot of it would have been eviscerated by your critic’s eye, sharp wit, and powerful eloquence. You would have written more stories, I think. Edited more volumes. And a kid from neighboring Alabama perhaps would have earned a nod from you with his own pastiche and original fiction. But, wherever you are, those who remain behind lift your name in praise.  We will raise our mead horns high and drink a toast to your shade.

2 thoughts on “Twenty-Five Years Gone

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  1. I came to his fiction much later, after his death, via Kane. I had heard of him and that he was a good writer but just how good took me by surprise. Though it’s been several years the story “Cold Light” had such a strong impact on me and I can still vividly recall the mental images and the emotional response it provoked.

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