Documentary explores the decline of a cult horror and fantasy writer
The makers of the new Vimeo documentary, The Last Wolf: Karl Edward Wagner, have trained their lens on an elusive horror and fantasy writer with a cult following. Besides the stories of supernatural and psychological terror collected in In a Lonely Place (1983) and Why Not You and I? (1987), Wagner spun tales about Kane, a hero sometimes compared to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian, who wanders and fights his way through a fantasy realm peopled with brigands, thieves, sorcerers, monks, and shapeshifters. This body of work exceeds the better-known Conan mythos in its sexuality and violence, tropes that Wagner used with uneven results.
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Wagner was also a longtime editor of the Year’s Best Horror Stories series, showcasing the work of Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, Brian Lumley, Elizabeth Hand, David J. Schow, T.E.D. Klein, Charles L. Grant, Dennis Etchison, and dozens of others in the field. A few of these scribes appear in The Last Wolf, with especially vivid remembrances coming from Campbell and Etchison. Peter Straub, who wrote a foreword to In a Lonely Place, also has a lot to say.
Art imitates life
In “The Fourth Seal,” one of the stories in In a Lonely Place, Geoff Metzger, a bright young man full of idealism, joins the ranks of a prominent medical center. Metzger’s colleagues at his new place of work seem oddly guarded around the eager newcomer, who happens to notice weird insignia on rings they wear and binders they drop on his desk. As his work progresses, Metzger comes to believe that the dream of millions of people around the world, a cure for cancer, may at last be within reach. The research of the veteran staff around him seems aligned with his own.
But just as Metzger is on the cusp of a breakthrough, his peers begin to close ranks, as if he has grasped at knowledge to which he has no claim. It turns out they are part of an esoteric order resembling secret and semi-secret societies throughout history like the Illuminati, the mafia, the Order of Druids, or Hapsburg restorationists. You see, the doctors could roll out a cure for cancer anytime they like. But for them, it makes little sense to wipe out a disease when so many millions of dollars go to research facilities, hospitals, universities, and into doctors’ pockets every year. Metzger has strayed too far. In this tale, curiosity literally kills the cat.
Bizarre as it may sound, the story appears to be, on one level, autobiographical. After graduating from Kenyon College in 1967, Wagner continued his studies at the University of North Carolina and pursued a Ph.D. in neurobiology. Later, Wagner grew disaffected with the medical profession or maybe just decided he found writing more rewarding. “The Fourth Seal” is a thought-provoking story, but we may never know just how closely its protagonist’s thought processes mirror those of its author. The truth is that even today not much biographical or critical work exists on Wagner, who died at age forty-eight in 1994 from severe alcoholism with his best writing potentially still ahead of him. We are left to wonder what he may have found out about the medical profession that the rest of us don’t know.
A tragic arc
Wagner’s prospects in life seemed good. His parents met at the University of Wisconsin and then moved to Tennessee, where his father went to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority, moved up the ladder, and gained, by grace of a phone call directly from President John F. Kennedy, a seat on the board of directors.
By all accounts, Wagner junior was a bookish sharp-witted kid who awed teachers and peers at Central High in Knoxville. He had a strong run on the school’s roving debate team and his class voted him and a classmate “most intellectual.” A spat with an English teacher over the meaning of a Roald Dahl story led Wagner to write to the master himself and present his interpretation. Wonder of wonders, Dahl wrote back. It’s a shame the documentary doesn’t name the story in question or share the upshot of this dispute, but there can be no doubt about the impression left on the boy.
The sources interviewed in The Last Wolf render a portrait of an ambitious youth who collected paperbacks, became well known to the staff of a used bookshop in Knoxville through constant visits, and liked to freak out his nephews with spooky tales as they lay in their beds by an open window. While still in high school, Wagner meets a charming young woman, Barbara Mott, on a double date. He later marries her. His career enters high gear in the 1970s as he churns out stories, but not novels, and he stays busy writing and editing through the 1980s and 1990s, almost right up to his death.
“The Fourth Seal” is about a scientist looking to cure cancer. Wagner became the victim of something comparable its destructiveness. The Last Wolf doesn’t skirt around the plunge into alcoholism that drew growing concern on the part of Wagner’s peers in the weird field and led to the end of his marriage. Some of the recollections are hard to take. Barbara candidly describes her husband as an out-of-control drunk whose habit went from consuming a fifth of whiskey to availing himself of half-gallon jugs kept in the trunk of his car. According to Barbara, what sent her over was an episode where Karl stood behind her while she was showing him how to carry out a task on a computer and, jokingly or not, mimed the act of strangling her. Barbara knew it was over, and the separation was devastating.
“I think that was the toughest pill of all for Karl to swallow,” says Dennis Etchison, whose career as a prolific short story writer mirrors Wagner’s.
As the drinking got worse, authors at the conferences Wagner frequented noticed his sickly look. Peter Straub relates a confluence of events that brought Barbara, the new man in her life, and Karl to a fantasy conference in Seattle one year. Things didn’t look good for Karl. “He was a walking wound. He was visibly hurting,” Straub says.
Late in his life, Wagner was a frequent guest at U.K. horror and fantasy conventions. Etchison relates that, at the end of one conference in Southampton, in an alley outside Peter’s Bar, he said, “Well, Karl, see you in a few months at the next convention. Take care of yourself.” Wagner replied that it might be the last time they saw each other. Campbell relates an equally chilling anecdote. “The last few times we attended the British Fantasy Convention, it was very obvious that he was not well.… We happened to see him outside the railway station in Birmingham, and said, bye, Karl, see you next year. And ‘see you next year’ didn’t get a response,” Campbell recalls. The reason isn’t far to seek.
The fine work that Wagner did compounds the tragedy. One wonders what he might have gone on to do. Sword-and-sorcery isn’t for all, but the Kane mythos need not distract readers from Wagner’s tales of terror and psychological horror, a few of which are quite well done.
“The Fourth Seal,” described above, is the ultimate whistleblower story. “Where the Summer Ends” is a Southern gothic tale in which Mercer, a broke art student, comes face to face with a ghastly presence that has been lurking within the kudzu that threatens to overwhelm whole blocks of Knoxville. If any other American writer has evoked this locale with the same vividness and verisimilitude in a story or novel, it would be good to know which one.
“In the Pines” is a ghost story that stands out not for its originality so much as its evocation of that primeval setting, the haunted wood. “More Sinned Against” is the tale of a young woman from a southern textile town who moves to L.A. with dreams of stardom. She meets another aspiring star, Richards Justin, but he’s a jerk who viciously mistreats her, forcing her to star in pornos of increasing depravity and to sell her body on the street, until a visit to an occult bookshop affords a means to even the cosmic scales.
“Children have the purest belief in magic,” Wagner writes near the end of “More Sinned Against,” in what feels like a cry from hell, a defiant assertion of Puritan morality in the face of the ghastly world of porn and prostitution that has so degraded the heroine. The message comports oddly with other aspects of Wagner’s oeuvre, but “More Sinned Against” wins this critic’s vote for the most resonant Wagner story. Others may nominate “Sticks,” the tale of an artist wandering in upstate New York whose discovery of weird wooden configurations adumbrates the reentry into the world of a terrifying evil.
Critics are divided on the merits of Wagner. Straub in his foreword to In a Lonely Place offers high praise, and in the documentary calls Wagner brilliant. A more nuanced assessment comes from S.T. Joshi in Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (2012): “Wagner was a well-respected and well-liked figure in the field whose early death inspired widespread lamentation, but his actual literary work is more than a little uneven. Much of it falls outside the strict domain of the supernatural, as in his numerous sword-and-sorcery tales and novels, modelled upon the work of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber.”
Joshi is no less ambivalent about the explicitly horror-themed work. “His own weird short fiction . . . is a decidedly mixed bag. Although Wagner is deft at evoking the topography, human and natural, of those regions of the South (chiefly Tennessee and North Carolina) in which he spent much of his life, the stories themselves are often weak in motivation and disappointing in their dénouements,” Joshi writes. In Joshi’s view, the otherwise compelling “More Sinned Against” would have been stronger if Wagner had found a way to tie it up without using a supernatural element at the end and making the tale a bit of a farrago. But Joshi does offer high praise for “Sticks.”
The Blair Witch Question
“The lashed-together framework of sticks jutted from a small cairn alongside the stream. Colin Leverett studied it in perplexity—half a dozen odd lengths of branch, wired together at cross angles for no fathomable purpose. It reminded him unpleasantly of some bizarre crucifix….”
If those opening lines from “Sticks” give you déjà vu, it’s probably because the objects they describe are highly similar to items found in the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project, a shoestring indie effort that raked in $248.6 million worldwide. The likeness is enough to have fueled speculation about the filmmakers’ possible debt to Wagner, and also to artist Lee Brown Coye (1907-1981), whose work Wagner acknowledged as an influence. But to this critic’s knowledge, no one has come out and accused the moviemakers of plagiarism.
In one of the most interesting parts of The Last Wolf, Etchison says, “Wagner was ripped off,” noting that the movie even ends in a similar way to the short story. But Etchison is careful to qualify this judgment. “That is only my opinion, so the makers of Blair Witch should not sue me,” Etchison says. “I cannot attest to the fact that they may have ripped of Karl Edward Wagner’s short story. I can only say that my personal opinion, as an expert witness, is that that is probably what happened, but I cannot assert it as fact.”
The real “Esoteric Order”
The viewer comes away from The Last Wolf wanting more of Wagner in the man’s own words. For reasons known only to himself, he did not continue in the medical profession, but that’s not the only mystery. His personal life was tragic—though Barbara acknowledges near the end of the film that she still loves him and thinks of him often—and we can only wonder how much satisfaction he ultimately found as a writer in the horror and fantasy fields, which can be no less confounding in their way than the medical establishment depicted in “The Fourth Seal.”
If only Wagner had found more readers when he was alive to enjoy the recognition. It’s a shame that solecism-prone writers like Clive Barker rise to the top. Meanwhile, Wagner ,who wrote with care and craft and produced resonant descriptions of places as diverse as the wilds of upstate New York and the smog-covered cityscape of Knoxville, exists in the popular mind as a cult obscurity if, indeed, he exists there at all. The analogy is more than a bit inexact, because writers in these fields are autonomous figures, unlike the centrally-controlled doctors of “The Fourth Seal.” But here, as there, insider deals and commercial calculations all too often eclipse what may be right and good for the public.