Karl Edward Wagner: An Interview for Dark Troubadour

With Centipede Press about to publish a new collection of Karl Edward Wagner’s short fiction it seemed appropriate for the BFS to publish the following interview with him. This interview was conducted by Chuck Owston for Dark Troubadour #1, Autumn 1994, shortly before Wagner’s untimely death. Chuck has kindly given us permission to reproduce the interview here, complete with his original introduction …

Karl Edward Wagner is a horror/fantasy writer who lives in Chapel Hill, NC. He is the author of several collections of finely wrought short stories in the horror genre. His epics about Kane, a sorcerer/adventurer/warrior, are unique in the field, transcending the predictable plots and cardboard characters of most “sword and sorcery” (a term Wagner deplores). Six unique books contain the Kane saga to date: DEATH ANGEL’S SHADOW, DARK CRUSADE, BLOODSTONE, DARKNESS WEAVES, NIGHT WINDS, and THE BOOK OF KANE. Any fan of dark fantasy will find them a pleasure to read. Several times.

Two novels, THE ROAD OF KINGS and LEGION OF THE SHADOWS, continue the stories of characters created by Robert E. Howard. There are two collections of Karl’s short stories, WHY NOT YOU AND I? and IN A LONELY PLACE. He collaborated on a novel with David Drake. It was set in ancient Rome and called KILLER.

Karl won the British Fantasy Award for STICKS, TWO SUNS SETTING, NEITHER BRUTE NOR HUMAN, and also a life achievement award. He won World Fantasy Awards for his publishing house, Carcosa, and for BEYOND ANY MEASURE.

He is also an editor. In the late 70’s, he edited a new edition of the Conan of Cimmeria stories of Robert E. Howard in their original form. This was a great service to those of us who wanted to read what Howard actually wrote, rather than the “edited” versions served up by well-meaning, but misguided souls.

With Centipede Press about to publish a new collection of Karl Edward Wagner’s short fiction it seemed appropriate for the BFS to publish the following interview with him. This interview was conducted by Chuck Owston for Dark Troubadour #1, Autumn 1994, shortly before Wagner’s untimely death. Chuck has kindly given us permission to reproduce the interview here, complete with his original introduction …

Karl Edward Wagner is a horror/fantasy writer who lives in Chapel Hill, NC. He is the author of several collections of finely wrought short stories in the horror genre. His epics about Kane, a sorcerer/adventurer/warrior, are unique in the field, transcending the predictable plots and cardboard characters of most “sword and sorcery” (a term Wagner deplores). Six unique books contain the Kane saga to date: DEATH ANGEL’S SHADOW, DARK CRUSADE, BLOODSTONE, DARKNESS WEAVES, NIGHT WINDS, and THE BOOK OF KANE. Any fan of dark fantasy will find them a pleasure to read. Several times.

Two novels, THE ROAD OF KINGS and LEGION OF THE SHADOWS, continue the stories of characters created by Robert E. Howard. There are two collections of Karl’s short stories, WHY NOT YOU AND I? and IN A LONELY PLACE. He collaborated on a novel with David Drake. It was set in ancient Rome and called KILLER.

Karl won the British Fantasy Award for STICKS, TWO SUNS SETTING, NEITHER BRUTE NOR HUMAN, and also a life achievement award. He won World Fantasy Awards for his publishing house, Carcosa, and for BEYOND ANY MEASURE.

He is also an editor. In the late 70’s, he edited a new edition of the Conan of Cimmeria stories of Robert E. Howard in their original form. This was a great service to those of us who wanted to read what Howard actually wrote, rather than the “edited” versions served up by well-meaning, but misguided souls.

Karl also edited a series called ECHOES OF VALOR for Tor Books. It contains fantasy stories long out of print. Karl has rescued great tales like SHADOW OF THE VULTURE (probably the best thing Howard ever wrote) from the dustbin of obscurity.

Karl also edits THE YEAR’S BEST HORROR STORIES for DAW Books. These collections give us the best (not necessarily the best known) stories in the genre. Quality always supersedes Big Names.

Karl’s work regularly appears in anthologies of macabre tales. A true renaissance man, he is also a small press publisher. He has brought out several notable collections of tales under his own Carcosa imprint. Thanks to Karl, we have the works of Manly Wade Wellman and others in deluxe hardcover editions.

Karl looks like a character out of one of his own books. Imagine him in iron helmet and breastplate, a long sword strapped across his back, with a mead cup in his hand. He stands at the rail of a dragon ship, his long red hair and beard blowing in the salt spray, his eyes searching for new lands to plunder.

Q: Who were your earliest influences in the horror/fantasy field?

KEW: My earliest influences were the pre-Code horror comics of the early 1950’s, from which I learned to read. In first grade I was drawing and writing some of my own. About this time, I began to read books of mythology and the Grimm Brothers fairy tales.

Q: How and when did you come up with the character Kane? How much is he based on the Biblical Cain?

KEW: I first began to write about Kane in 1960 as a freshman in high school, starting with BLOODSTONE, which I finished ten years later. At age 16, I completed a Kane novella THE TREASURE OF LYNORTIS, later rewritten as LYNORTIS REPRISE. The original version has been published in Italian and German small press magazines. I hope no one over here reads it — but not bad for a 16 year old punk.

Kane derived from my identification with the villain in books and films. I decided Cain deserved to have his story told, treating the Bible as bronze age myths from earlier ages. I changed the spelling to “Kane” to avoid images of Biblical shepherds wandering about spouting King James English.

Major influences upon Kane’s character include: Captain Nemo, Caine Miro (from Roger Corman’s film GUNSLINGER), Dr. Frankenstein, and Melmoth the Wanderer from Maturin’s novel of the same title.

Q: What was your source for “The Mark of Kane”, that being his “killer’s blue eyes”?

KEW: According to the legends, Cain had blue eyes, red hair, and was left handed. All of this would have branded him an outsider in Semitic myth. Check out the Who’s song “Behind Blue Eyes” on their WHO’S NEXT album.

Q: How did the idea for Carcosa come about, and how did you choose “Carcosa” for your imprint?

KEW: After I dropped out of medical school for a few years, I wanted to start my own small press. Robert W. Chambers has probably been the most profound influence upon my work, and I liked the idea of using his mythical city of Carcosa as my colophon. I obtained permission to revive the colophon from the four partners in the original LA- based Carcosa Press. August Derleth had just died and it appeared that Arkham House was dead as well, so I arranged to publish an orphaned book by my friend, Manly Wade Wellman, entitled WORSE THINGS WAITING, which Arkham had been holding on the back burner for twenty years after Wellman and Derleth quarreled. My partners in Carcosa were fellow writer David Drake and med school classmate Jim Groce. We produced a much larger and far more elaborate version of the book than the one Arkham had buried.

Q: Several of the Carcosa books command collector’s prices. Are there any still in print?

KEW: All Carcosa books are out of print. Carcosa published only four books, the last a dozen years ago. I may revive Carcosa some day, but the work involved cut years from my writing career.

Q: Several years back, you did a Conan book for Bantam. How did this come about?

KEW: I was asked by the Good Guys to write three Conan novels to save the series from the crap being written by the Bad Guys. The problem was that Bantam wanted the first novel delivered in one month. I took one year. Meanwhile, Conan Properties had taken control of Conan the Property: I lost artistic control, and I had made certain enemies on the board. After one novel, I bailed out.

Q: In THE RIVER OF NIGHT’S DREAMING you make references to THE KING IN YELLOW. How much did this classic influence you?

KEW: Much of my work has resonances of Robert W. Chambers. While almost all of his books were hack-work romances, the best of his supernatural horror can stand with the very best. The primary lesson I’ve learned from reading Chambers was to create a deliberate barrier against final comprehension — thus creating the lost uncertainty of an extended nightmare.

Q: Your story STICKS won a British fantasy award. Would you class it as a Cthulhu Mythos story and how did this story come about?

KEW: STICKS was also a runner up for the World Fantasy award. It has been classed as a Cthluhu Mythos story by numerous editors and fans, and I suppose it is. The story was written for a special issue of WHISPERS published as a tribute to artist Lee Brown Coye. I was using Coye as an artist for Carcosa and had asked him about the sticks he insisted on inserting all about his drawings. Coye gave me the story virtually true; up to the point that the desiccated corpse grabs his hand in the abandoned house, whereupon I took over. Coye had written of his experience in his column for the local newspaper. August Derleth, using Coye at Arkham House, had earlier asked Lee about the sticks. Lee told him the same story; Derleth meant to write it into a Lovecraft pastiche, but died before he could do so. I wrote STICKS as a friendly tribute to Lee, never expecting it to be read beyond a few hundred WHISPERS subscribers. It’s far and away the most published and popular story I’ve ever written.

Q: AT FIRST JUST GHOSTLY is one of my favorite stories, placing Kane in post-punk London. Do you plan to expand it into a novel, and if so, when?

KEW: AT FIRST JUST GHOSTLY is the opening segment of a novel by that title. Other segments are: LACUNAE and LATE AT NIGHT IN THE DEPTHS OF THE ACME WAREHOUSE, although these may be used elsewhere as entries in a short story collection. I hope to complete the novel while in London this autumn.

Q: The mysterious Lady in Black from AT FIRST JUST GHOSTLY seems to have been seen in your company at recent conventions. Any words to share with our readers on her identity?

KEW: The original Lady in Black crept into my hotel suite at the Metropole in Brighton at the World SF Con in 1987. The door to my saloon wouldn’t catch; a fact well known to hotel thieves and to the hotel management, who were taking a cut. She was the second hotel thief to barge in: the other dressed as a toff with briefcase barged in while friends and I were quietly drinking. This one pushed in as I was on the phone, only a minute or so from taking a shower. I was still dressed, having not slept; she was dressed all in black from cap to shoes. I used her for AT FIRST JUST GHOSTLY as described. She wandered about my bar. I hung up and asked if I might help her. She kept wandering, casing the suite. I don’t look much like a person who rents suites at the Metropole, and I think she thought I was just another hotel thief. After a short discussion, I told her I’d strangle her if she didn’t push off. She did. Hotel security calmly said that she was a well known looney. After some phone calls, they secured my door. They did not charge me for my bar bill, which was a fair bribe.

The newly discovered Lady in Black is Lynn Gauger from Chicago (she likes to be called “Salamander”), whom I met at the Minneapolis World Fantasy Convention. She is a petite punker model and into gothic rock, THE KING IN YELLOW, and my writing. She also draws, and writes poetry. She is also not from this planet. We get along quite well, once medications are adjusted and the chains are secure.

Q: The character (a Dark Troubadour if there ever was one) in DID THEY GET YOU TO TRADE? seems based on Mick Fleetwood’s description of Peter Green, the founder of Fleetwood Mac. Would you care to elaborate?

KEW: I do not know, nor have I ever met anyone named Peter Green, nor have I ever heard of a band called Fleetwood Mac. DID THEY GET YOU TO TRADE? is simply a story about an alienated rock star. Also, it’s set in post-punk London. Could have happened in any pub.

Q: For our Stateside readers, what actually is a “blowlamp”?

KEW: “Blowlamp” is cockney rhyming slang for tramp. Another example is bin-lid for quid (an English pound monetary unit). Dunno where “quid” came from. Wine is too expensive for blowlamps, so they take strong cider, strong lager (Tennent’s Super — can kill at fifty feet), or hit methylated spirit at the end. Thus, lager lads instead of winos.

Q: What is the source of your fascination with the Church of St. George the Martyr?

KEW: The church is adjacent to my usual hotel in London– the old Grand Hotel, now upscaled as the Bloomsbury Park Hotel– on Southampton Row. The church was a Queen Anne construction of about 1703 (date depends on inception and completion of construction), shown in early prints of Queen Square (Square named for Queen Charlotte, George III’s consort). Neat. Brick with a small steeple like Shaker Heights Colonial. The third incumbent was The Rev. William Stukeley, M.D. (1747-1765), best remembered as the man who reintroduced a form of Druidism to England. Starting about 1867, the notorious S.S. Teulon remodeled the church to some sort of Byzantine structure, placing stucco over the original brick, replacing the bell-turret with a grotesque metallic spirelet, and reorienting the altar from facing east (into the Square) to facing south (into a wall opposite). Windows were replaced, but blown out during the Blitz. Parts were salvaged and used for the upstairs Peter’s Bar (now a conference room; windows not to be found) at the Bloomsbury Park Hotel. Years ago I noticed that these windows had numerous cabalistic and black magic symbols. This started my interest and subsequent research. Queen Square has tunnels beneath it, one leading from a pub, The Queen’s Larder. The old gent who was going to show the entrance to me had vanished shortly after telling me this. Across the Square is Lamb Conduit Street, once known as Devil’s Conduit, dating to a conduit built in the reign of Richard II. My current best guess is that the area was a temple for The Order of the Golden Dawn, although I have a feel that Satanism (not witchcraft) may be the force involved.

Q: You mentioned a “horned god” stained glass window in London. Where was this?

KEW: When the Grand Hotel was being upscaled, they moved the front desk toward the back of the foyer. In renovating to Alt Deco style, they removed plaster from a covered pair of stained glass windows above the stairway leading to the downstairs bar. One window is of the great seal of England, the other is a demonic parody, with two demons and a horned god and the motto, “Que Sara Sara”. The address of the manufacturer is only a few doors away, but no longer present. I learned that addresses were changed after WW II and that the glass had likely been created on these premises, since the hotel only opened after WW II, before which it had been a manufacturing area. The Bloomsbury Park Hotel (as it is now named) is adjacent to the Church of St. George the Martyr. Didn’t know he was a martyr.

Q: How long have you been editing THE YEAR’S BEST HORROR?

KEW: Fifteen years now.

Q: Whatever happened to CONAN III, the movie? I understand that you were writing the screenplay. And what were your impressions of the other two Conan movies?

KEW: I wrote three different screenplays for CONAN III for Dino, which is all the Writer’s Guild requires on a contract– screenplay and two revisions, then more money. Original version was to be shot in China on a twenty million buck budget. Then DUNE came out and flopped. Second version was to be shot in Tunis for about half the first budget. Then DUNE really flopped. Third version was to be shot in North Carolina on a very small budget. Then DUNE awesomely flopped. Dino decided he’d better cut his losses.

The other two Conan movies sucked.

Q: What’s the status of the ECHOES OF VALOR series? The last one I have is number three, published in 1991.

KEW: ECHOES OF VALOR is dead as a series due to no promotion and poor sales. No one cared about reading old stories.

Q: In how many countries have your books been published?

KEW: I’m not sure. About a dozen that I know of.

Q: Would you care to talk a little about the DC Comics fiasco?

KEW: I’d rather have an asbestos enema than work with DC again. I was paid fifteen thou to write TELL ME, DARK for DC, with Kent Williams to paint (not draw) the eighty page hard cover. Script was given the okay, checks all cleared the bank. Meanwhile, the Big Editor, Karen Berger, was away on extended maternity leave. Kent ignored my script– like leaving out three of the eight chapters– and never got into the feel of what I wanted done. He wanted creative input, and he wouldn’t change a brushstroke of the crap he added. Karen came back to work after the book had been done. I worked a wasted year, trying to revise the script for an editor who is brain- dead and an artist who reads with his lips moving. Karen hated everything I did: Kent wouldn’t budge. I wanted to take the book elsewhere. I got fired via a FedEx Saturday morning delivery letter, just to make my day. I offered to help with the rewrite. They hired my best friend, John Rieber, to do the rewrite. For three thou he sold me out. Graciously, they gave me minor partial credit for two wasted years’ work. I refuse to look at the plagiarism. We don’t party much together anymore.

Q: Have you ever regretted leaving the world of psychiatry for the world of literary fame?

KEW: Hell, no.

Q: What do you see on the agenda for the next few years from the Wagner pen?

KEW: Projects in the works include a third collection of contemporary horror stories, EXORCISMS AND ECSTACIES; a medical thriller, THE FOURTH SEAL; a Kane novel, AT FIRST JUST GHOSTLY; a deranged Western novel, SATAN’S GUN; and the novel version of TELL ME, DARK. After that, I plan to do more Kane novels, move into the mainstream, and buy a decent Fender Stratocaster.

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