Saturday, October 6, 2012

"Death Angel's Shadow" - Enter Karl Edward Wagner in Red and White



   The last few posts I've written have been meta-musings on swords & sorcery.   "Griots" was largely about the developing field of African American oriented sword & soul.  "Amazons!" and "Sword and Sorceress" were as much about the wider topic of woman-oriented heroic fiction as specific anthologies. Important stuff to the growth and sustenance of what's been viewed as a somewhat restricted genre at times.  Still, I decided it's time to get to some of the stuff that got me hooked and inspired me to start this blog in the first place.
   I've written before that I'm a big fan of Karl Edward Wagner.  His stories and novels about Kane, mystic swordsman, cursed wanderer and utterly blackhearted rogue, were my gateway drug into swords & sorcery.  With a productive writing career hampered by personal problems and then ended by an early death, he only wrote three Kane novels, two collections of short stories and a few other less than essential short stories and bits of ephemera.  All are worth reading but it's in the short stories that Wagner really shined.
   More than any other practitioner of the genre, Wagner crafted stories that work as horror stories as well as S&S.  While there is a brooding, haunted tone to much of Robert E. Howard's stories, in Wagner's it is dominant and ever present.  Howard's S&S  sometimes lurched into horror but with Wagner it was a sustained effort.  Beside the ancient gods, alien races and evil sorceresses that fill the stories, there are werewolves, ghouls, vampires and all sorts of pulpy horror creatures as well.
   Wagner's primary literary love appears to have been horror.  Some of his best and most anthologized writing were his horror stories. His Lovecraftian tale "Sticks" has been reprinted in over a dozen collections since it first appeared in "Whispers" in 1974.  The two collections of his stories, "In a Lonely Place" and "Why Not You And I?" are both important and terrific books.  I've read "Where the Summer Ends" numerous times and it still creeps up and throttles me at the end.
   Beginning in 1980 he took over the reins of editing DAW's "Year's Best Horror".  From then till his death in 1994 he oversaw the creation of fifteen volumes.  He also edited a collection of medical theme horror stories called "Intensive Scares".  Then there's his list of 39 best horror novels.  I've never even heard of some of the authors let alone the books.  His knowledge of the genre was both deep and broad.  In the field of scaring readers the reader the man was all aces.
   Wagner was also a scholar and connoisseur of pulp and heroic fiction.  He brought this knowledge to bear in the creation of the three volumes of "Echoes of Valor".  In them he presented REH and others, often forgotten  or neglected at the time, like Henry Kuttner and Manly Wade Wellman.  Reading his forewords in those books it's clear he had a tremendous knowledge of the old pulp magazines.  He brought that same knowledge and love to trying to get pure, unadulterated Robert E. Howard into print.  In that he  had initial success but was ultimately thwarted by the hand of Sprague de Camp.
   Kane is a cynic's version of the Biblical Cain.  Not a brother jealous of God's love for his younger brother, he is instead the first rebel, a Luciferian liberator set on freeing man from divine dictatorship.  Made, then placed in a domed paradise by an overbearing creator, Kane rose up defiantly.  In the war against his god he murdered that god's favorite creation, Kane's brother.
   In retribution he was cursed with immortality.  Since that time he has roamed the world, sowing chaos where he treads and only able to die by violent means.  Kane is powerfully built man with red hair and beard but his most striking features are his piercing blue eyes, the Mark of Kane, the killer's eyes.  In "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul"  when someone sees Kane: "It was his eyes that bothered Troylin. He had noticed them from the first. It was to be expected, for Kane’s eyes were the eyes of Death! They were blue eyes, but eyes that glowed with their own light. In those cold blue gems blazed the fires of blood madness, of the lust to kill and destroy. They poured forth infinite hatred of life and promised violent ruin to those who sought to meet them. Troylin caught an image of that powerful body striding over a battlefield, killer’s eyes blazing and red sword dealing carnage to all before it."  This is the stuff of which killer dark fantasy is made.
   "Death Angel's Shadow" is a collection of three stories.  In each one Kane is fleeing some catastrophe and seeking sanctuary.  In the first, "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul", it's the destruction of the armies led by the dark priest Orted Ak-Ceddi as chronicled in "Dark Crusade".  The episodes putting Kane to flight in "Cold Light" and "Mirage" are described in just enough detail that you realize there's enough material for the focus of an entire novel.  In "Cold Light" Kane's band of bandits has been destroyed and in "Mirage" he was on the losing side of a royal coup.  One part of Kane's curse seems to be to never find a lasting place of rest and calm but to always be confronted by dark horrors both supernatural and natural.  Sometimes they spring from the many evil deeds of his own past.
   "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul" is a S&S take on the old country house mystery.  The setting is an isolated manor house snowed in and surrounded by dark forests filled with howling wolves.  The story opens with the discovery of a horribly mauled member of Baron Troylin of Carrashal's household.  Before he dies he cries out "Death comes! A man! not a man! Death for all!"  The nobleman decided to winter in his country estate.  Later we discover his reasons for relocating his household for the season are less sanguine than a simple desire to get away from the pressures of court life.
   Red-bearded Kane is first seen fleeing from servants of Ak-Ceddi under the cover of a sudden blizzard.  Kane manages to elude his hunters but is nearly killed by the extreme weather.  Kane realizes the blizzard is unnatural, "a witch storm perhaps, for its abrupt ferocity" hints at sorcery.  Within the storm, something more dangerous than Ak-Ceddi's men is stalking him.  Because smells the "sour smell of damp wolf fur" Kane suspects it is a pack of wolves but the weather's severity makes that unlikely.  Only by chance does he arrive at Baron Troylin's castle and finds its gate unlocked.  By the time Kane's discovered he's nearly frozen to death.
   Soon, like any good mystery we meet the diverse cast, some of whom have hidden motives and secret intentions and all are potential suspects when the deaths start happening.  In addition to Baron Troylin, there is his beautiful daughter, Breenanin.  His son, Henderin, about whom bloody rumors are told, is clearly suffering from some madness.  He demands his meat at dinner be served raw and dripping with blood.  Then there's Lystric, the baron's physician and astrologer, who mistrusts Kane from their first meeting, claiming he should have been killed on sight rather than rescued.  The last player is Troylin's minstrel, Evingolis an albino with an unknown past.
  There are more deaths, ferocious, over-sized wolves, suspicions and accusations.  One of the players lets Kane know he knows much of his long, dark history.  Soon Kane finds himself one of the main suspects.  Before the story's done there is great violence and many bodies littering the castle and its surroundings.
   The next story, "Cold Light", is about inflexible black and white righteousness going up against blackest evil.  After centuries of carrying out his various evil plans Kane finds he's been hunted down by Gaethaa the Avenger.  Gaethaa is a man self forged into a steel hard weapon bent on destroying evil wherever found.  Heir to great wealth he came to despise the "pampered luxury and wasteful existence of his class".  After training he launches and unending war on evil, slaying robbers, wizards, tyrants and monsters.  Gaethaa sees the logical culmination of his quest to destroy evil in killing Kane.  However, there is an element of pride in seeking Kane as well, as he realizes "it will be a magnificent challenge".
   At the opening of "Cold Light" Gaethaa and his men have just finished off the Red Three, ogre brothers who have robbed and eaten the lands around their magically protected keep for years.  Gaethaa orders all survivors whom served the Red Three or faced the cooking pot executed for valuing their own lives above the enslavement and murder of their fellow prisoners.  Gaethaa tells his adjutant, Alidore, "mercy is commendable to be sure, but when you seek to destroy an absolute evil, you must destroy it absolutely."  Driven by such a severe view he seeks to bring justice to Kane for all the evil he's done.
   Several of the men who choose to follow Gaethaa have their reasons to help kill Kane.  One saw his family butchered by a pirates captained by Kane.  His right hand was lopped off by Kane himself.  Another had two of his sisters sacrificed by Kane in a failed sorcerous ritual.  No bones about it, Kane is one dark and twisted soul.
   Kane is met seeking refuge from his latest failed endeavor.  The band of robbers he took command of and led was recently destroyed.  Fleeing, Kane reaches the city of Sebbei.  Once the capital of Demornte, an oasis in the middle of the West Latroxian desert.  Two decades prior to the events of "Cold Light" it was struck by a dire plague that killed most of its citizens.  Now bleached bones litter the countryside.  The few plague survivors have settled in Sebbei where they spend their days with glazed over souls, mired in ennui.
   Rehhaile, a beautiful blind girl with mysterious psychic powers is the only citizen not sunk in to despondency.  Kane's vitality attracts her and she joins him when he sets himself in an abandoned lakeside villa.  As much as he tries to dissuade her she is drawn to "awful need for rest...the unanswerable longing for peace" that exists in him.  Later this allows Gaethaa to use her in his war against Kane.
   Gaethaa's journey to Sebbei is struck by one catastrophe after another.  When his expedition finally arrives only nine men remain.  Nonetheless, Gaethaa's confidence in his success remains unbowed and he boldly announces his intentions to the town's pitiful citizens.  Without hesitation or care, they tell Gaethaa where to find Kane.  The stage for confrontation is set.  In the end it comes down to Gaethaa and a wounded Kane facing each other across sword points: "(t)he men struggled on in silence then, voiceless save for panting breath and animal grunts. Gaethaa was a deadly opponent—a shrewd and skillful swordsman with wiry strength driving his long frame. In addition he was relatively fresh, while Kane was fatigued and bleeding from wounds suffered in recent combat. Still his endurance did not falter before the Avenger’s fanatical attack, nor did the lethal beauty of his swordplay grow strained. Relentlessly the two men slashed and thrust, parried and feinted—each confident that his attack would exhaust the other and soon bring an end to the stalemate".
   The rundown emptied out town, Gaethaa's vicious henchmen and the amoral antagonist at the story's heart all lend a sort of spaghetti western feel to "Cold Light".  It's a tribute to Wagner's talent that Kane possesses a brutal majesty that leaves the reader in his corner in the face of Gaethaa's icy resolve to destroy him.  
   The finale of "Death Angel's Shadow", "Mirage" is a Gothic tale complete with haunted forest, ruined castle and a dark and alluring woman of mystery.  Escaping a failed coup, Kane is severely wounded in an ambush before wandering into the haunted forest surrounding the long abandoned Altbur Keep and its surrounding village.
   As he stumbles through the empty village Kane is attacked by ghouls.  Backed against a wall he makes a final, hopeless stand.  Suddenly a women possessing "strange beauty" appears and drives them away.  Before he collapses into oblivion he hears her cry, "This one shall be mine!"
   Days later, Kane wakes in a bed being ministered to by the steward of a remarkably restored Altbur.  When questioned he tells Kane there were no ghouls only bandits.  
   Asked about the woman he saw the servant tells Kane it was his mistress and the lady of the keep, Naichoryss.  When she is ready she will send for Kane.  When she does we learn a web has already been spun for Kane.  Intrigued by her beauty he steps into it almost willingly even though it surely leads to annihilation.  Even as Kane sinks deeper into Naichoryss' clutches "(h)e even lacked the strength or curiosity to determine whether the door was locked; the possibility of escape simply did not occur to him".
   I wish Wagner didn't have the struggles he did and had been able to write more than he did.  I wish he was still writing new stories as he neared seventy.  Between his own work, his anthologies and promulgation of unedited Robert E. Howard, I believe Wagner was the most important person working in S&S during its renaissance in the sixties and seventies. 
   As much as I love Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock,  their characters often feel like actors playing at S&S.  They got caught up in deconstructing the genre a little too much at times.  Lin Carter was an important editor but at best a poor S&S writer.  
   Those things never happened with Wagner.  Neither are his stories simpleminded and  bad copies of REH.  While he worked in a straight line from Howard, Wagner forged his own bloody literary trail.  The Kane stories are masterpieces of the genre.  Compared to too many much of today's writing these tales are models of economy and pacing.  Gaethaa's journey to the city of Sebbei is a perfect example of this talent.  In only a few paragraphs, Wagner limns an adventure on which many present day writers waste hundreds of narrative choking pages.  Some of his stories are raging beasts capable of sharp, visceral blows and others slither up from behind and smother in darkness.  Ranging from horror to action to dark mysteries they provide some of the best examples of the potential of S&S. 
   The only recent editions of Wagner's Kane stories are the omnibus collections from Night Shade Books.  Used they range from around to way over one hundred bucks.  Fortunately, the old paperbacks from Warner Books are available for under six bucks.  Someone needs to get this stuff back out in reasonably priced mass market editions now.
   

24 comments:

  1. I have the Warner paperbacks, but when the opportunity came years ago to snag those Nightshade editions I jumped on it-some of the most valued/reread books in my library.

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  2. I think I bought them like the first week they went on sale. I can't believe what they're worth now. Those plus "Exorcisms and Ecstasies" are definitely my most prized KEW books.

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  3. Great overview. Wagner is one of my favorites. Did you pick on the Masters of the Weird Tale slipcase from Centipede?

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  4. Thanks.

    No, I have to make due with my beat up paperbacks (and I've gone through 3 copies of "In a Lonely Place"). I can't justify that sort of spending to myself anymore. I see them for insane prices on Amazon. At least the Night Shade books were only $35.

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  5. Fantastic overview of Wagner, his editing and writing, and of his Kane character. I was fortunate and grabbed the Nightshade editions a few years back; their pricing tells me that Wagner has a following, and newer editions would likely be most welcomed by old fans and those yet to discover him.

    And yes, his death was a great tragedy for S&S and fantasy in general, even for the horror genre. I imagine him writing today, and I can't help but think of the great Kane stories we missed. I do think Wagner was somewhat of a tortured soul, which I believe led to his early demise, or at least played a role. What a pity.

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  6. Thank you. These stories and the Zagorski cover (and that it was my dad's book) are really dear to me. I feel selfish thinking about the books I didn't get to read but I guess that's often the typical interaction between reader and writer.

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  7. I alas must break with the crowd and state that I didn't much care for KEW's work..

    Though the writing itself, the settings, motifs, and tone of the stories I enjoyed.. I found the character of Kane to be way to similar in temperament and appearance to KEW.. this left me with the under-riding feeling that it was a bit of a self insertion fanfic more than anything.. Though beyond that I simply found the character of Kane morally repugnant.. even more so than the characters created for the Dying Earth by Jack Vance..

    In a way I almost view him as an American Michael Moorcock.. and the reason KEW isn't more well known is that MM came up with a better character when he created Elric.. precisely because Elric wasn't quite the blackheart that Kane was.. even if Stormbringer was..

    All of this is of course only my own opinion.. but I felt really upset after I had pieced together a paper back set of the Kane novels, at fairly high prices, only to find that I really didn't like the books..

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    1. Hey, Lagomorph, if you are looking to give away your copies of Kane ...

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    2. Can't fault a guy for trying right?

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    3. Yeah, well, I would never turn down free Wagner ya know. Just saying ...

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  8. I have all the Warner paperbacks of Kane, In a lonely Place, Killer(with David Drake), Road of Kings and Legion from the Shadows. I cherish every one of them, and most came to me for cheap, as I will not pay mega-bucks for the Nightshade editions. I want to read Wagner, not invest in potential profit like so many e-bay wannabe's. I hope the estate of KEW re-releases his work in new, affordable paperbacks for all of us to enjoy, along with a new generation of fans who would love to read his works.

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  9. There's surely a wish fulfillment aspect to Kane regarding KEW. The character's also bereft of the heroism Elric. For all Elric's moody posturing he is utterly heroic. Kane is rarely anything but completely villainous.
    I also, though, don't think there's ever any effort made to make him sympathetic. I don't always want to read about the exploits of such a protagonist but when I do I want them as well done as these.

    In some of the short stories there's room to hope for Kane's success because of the dark nature of his opponents. In the novels there's none. There he's the big villain looking to work some greater scheme that no reader wants to see succeed.

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    1. I think that you've really hit the nail here.. I just hate reading about villains, especially when their plans work out.. I really didn't like the Dying Earth books for that very same reason.. and it's probably the reason I didn't like Joe Abercrombie. If I want to see the bad guy winning all I have to do is turn on the TV or read the paper.. I read Fantasy novels specifically to delude myself that it is possible for good to triumph over evil occasionally in more than tiny superficial ways..

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    2. Totally get it and probably the reason I've avoided the Abercrombie and GRRM books. I do want heroes most of the time (Hawkmoon, Conan, etc.). I think I like Kane as much as I do because they work so well as horror often even more than as S&S.

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  10. I agree, Kane is a villain, not just an anti-hero, and yet the writing itself pulls me in, grips me and has a spirit (dark though it may be) that even though I am personally diametrically opposed to both Kane's worldview and KEW's ultimate stated goal with the series, I love these books.

    I wouldn't want to hang out with Kane (unlike Conan and a dozen others) but I wish I had more stories about him.

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    1. I agree. I wouldn't want to hang out with Kane either. I first read one of the Kane stories in junior high and was turned off to the character until I was in my 30s. I bought the Nightshade editions when they were first published. I've not read all of the stories yet, but I'm hoping to over the next year.

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    2. Same thing here. I also think part of what works is they never display any of the grotesque sadism on display in so much of the "grimdark" stuff. Compared to lots of what's out there now there's a restraint to them.

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  11. Never read Warner. I think I should.

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  12. From articles about him and essays by him he comes across as an interesting character. He was close friends with Manly Wade Wellman (one of my absolute favorites) and David Drake.
    I really recommend him. Kane really stands alone as the ultimate villain protagonist in S&S. Some of it's hard stuff but the short stories are amazing. The novels less so but even they have their splendidly crazy moments.

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  13. Not published in Spain, I have read Death angel's shadow in English and it is absolutely great, I enjoy specially Cold light, I read it and thought about how great could be a spin-off with Gaethaa and his mercenaries

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    1. That's a bummer it's not in Spanish. "Cold Light" and "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul" remain among my favorite KEW stories.88

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  14. I've got a couple Kane books somewhere. I think they're the first two novels. I need to find those and read them.

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    1. Absolutely, check 'em out. The stories are better, but the novels tower over most long form S&S.

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