The Tragedy of Karl Edward Wagner

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.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

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.

Karl Edward Wagner

The stories

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.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

9 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Karl Edward Wagner

  • January 28, 2021 at 9:44 pm
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    Thanks, Michael, for calling attention to this great new documentary as well as to the work of Karl Wagner himself. You have made some excellent points. I’d like to elaborate just a bit, if I may. First, the name of the Dahl story was “Poison.” It is about some Brits working in some capacity in India. It’s been many years since I read it––probably not since taking that same English class a year later than Karl––but I recall the gist of it. A couple of them begin to wonder why their colleague has not yet joined them for breakfast and, when they look in on him, they find him pale with fear, unmoving beneath his blanket, urging them to quiet with his agonized expressions; in whispers he finally explains that a deadly krait snake has gotten under his cover, seeking the warmth of his body, and he is afraid to so much as twitch. After considering various remedies they bring a doctor who millimeter by millimeter inserts a small hose under the cover and releases there a quantity of ether. At last, abandoning all caution, they rip away the blanket. There is no snake there.

    The teacher––Mrs. Wiles––assigned the students to write a paper explaining the story. There were, of course, many theories, none of which met with Mrs. Wiles’ approval. “No, no, class. I’m afraid you completely missed the point. You remember when it mentioned the corners of the mouth of the man in the bed were twitching? He was trying to keep from laughing; it was all a joke.” Karl found that explanation ridiculous, and, after finding Mrs. Wiles intransigent on her theory, wrote to Dahl himself. Perhaps Dahl was more forthcoming to a lad from Knoxville since, at the time, the British Dahl was married to a former Knoxvillian, Patricia Neal. At any rate, he did respond, acknowledging he didn’t know himself what the explanation was, but under no circumstances had the victim suffered all that discomfort for the sake of a joke.

    Karl presented Dahl’s letter to Mrs. Wiles and she conceded to the class that she had been in error. However, the next year I had that same class wherein we read that same story and were presented with Mrs. Wiles’ same theory, completely disregarding Dahl’s statement, perhaps not aware that Karl and I were good friends. So I brought the letter back once again.

    As to Joshi’s scorn for “swords-and-sorcery,” Karl despised that term and never acknowledged writing it. I don’t find Joshi’s opinion at all “more nuanced” than Straub’s, just different. And contrary to his claim, Kane was not at all “modeled” after Conan, though he was a fan of Lieber’s characters. Karl had possibly never heard of Conan when he developed his main series character Kane. In fact, I believe I was the one who introduced Karl to Conan when I gave him a copy of _Fantasy Magazine_ which I’d found behind some shelves at Doc Black’s bookstore; it contained a Howard story “The Black Stranger,” its first appearance, though already diluted a bit with de Camp’s alterations. Karl’s later writings might well have born the influence of Howard in tone; hard to say.

    Karl did not meet Barbara Mott while in high school. Karl’s main squeeze at Central was Bobbie … I think her last name was Wheeler, then. She’s Barbara Ross, now. Karl met Barbara, in fact, at my house, the notorious Toad Hall (the inspiration for the Toad Hall mentioned in _Bloodstone_ rather than that having been the Wind in the Willows one). I had been dating her for about a year, but she found Karl more to her liking. Karl and I were both in college by then, Karl already in medical school.

    Finally, not a correction but an elaboration: I had the rare experience of being with Karl at the very moment the inspiration for “Where the Summer Ends” struck him. I’ve written of that elsewhere, but will go into further detail upon request. Suffice it to say, everyone named in that story is based on a real person, with the possible exception of Ron who owned the pickup truck. Jon Mercer is based upon me.

    Again, thank you for this review and commentary. I hope that documentary is instrumental in once again getting Karl’s work published in popular editions. It is rumored a movie is in the works.

    Reply
    • February 4, 2021 at 3:40 am
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      Thanks for sharing. Mrs. Wiles sounds like a horror story herself.

      I agree that new editions would be great. I tried to get my hands on his short story collections a while ago, but could find only out of print used copies, out of my price range.

      Reply
  • January 28, 2021 at 10:24 pm
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    One more significant point: To the best of my knowledge, Karl never pursued a Ph.D. in anything; he pursued, and won, an M.D. in psychiatry. There is not much mystery as to why he abandoned that field, as he was quite open about his reasons: he quit in disgust because of psychiatry’s abuses, not the least of which was electroconvulsive “therapy.” Karl said there was no valid theory as to the supposedly salubrious effects of it. He mentioned two hypotheses which I’ll try to sum up in a succinctly. One was that much mental illness is the product of traumatic experiences and shock treatments are able to wipe those awful memories away (the loss of fond memories along with them being accepted as an unfortunate side effect). The second is that psychosis is often the result of feelings of guilt, and shock treatments are so unpleasant the patient feels that he or she has adequately atoned for any sins. Karl had refused to prescribe or administer ANY shock treatments, much to the annoyance of his directors who found ECT quite profitable. And he was on the verge of being transferred from a men’s ward to a women’s. Karl said, as I recall, that where men become psychotic women become depressed. ECT is thought to be much more effective against depression than against psychosis, so he would be expected to start ordering shock treatments and plenty of them. So he quit the job and the profession.

    Of course, the fact that he had sold his first novel while on leave from UNC, after they held him back despite his excellent grades because of his “attitude,” made that decision a bit less risky.

    Reply
  • January 29, 2021 at 12:21 pm
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    Excellent article. A penetrating look at an obscure writer whose tragic demise opens up fresh questions about what fired his imagination. Thank you!

    Reply
  • February 2, 2021 at 5:55 pm
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    A wonderful article about a wonderful writer. I first read Wagner’s work as a horror-obsessed teenager in 90s Ireland, and it really resonated with me. I will certainly seek out “The Last Wolf”.

    Since the BWP was mentioned as having a possible Karl Edward Wagner influence, I think the
    John Carpenter film “In the Mouth of Madness” also shares some plot elements with “Sticks” as well.

    What a shame Carpenter never adapted any of Wagner’s work- they both liked horror, blue-collar tough guys, beer and rock n’ roll. I think they would have worked well together.

    Reply
  • March 13, 2021 at 4:49 pm
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    Perhaps I am unfair presenting by remembrance of reading Karl Edward Wagner as a young man so many years ago but I was so impressed by the Kane series and horror stories I read in the wonderful small press magazine Whispers (which contained the work of many mentioned in the article whom I also admired), but I was truly swept away by all of it at the time and feel compelled to somehow pay at least a modest tribute to a wonderful writer I still grieve for and whose work I hope to find and read once more.

    Reply
  • March 13, 2021 at 4:53 pm
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    Uh, sorry but your article reminded me I must check Amazon for these great and entertaining stories and so much is there. Time to order! Thanks!

    Reply
    • March 14, 2021 at 8:58 am
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      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Wagner’s work is definitely worth seeking out even if the OP collections are steeply priced. A handful of his best stories hold up to rereading and some of us consider them classics of the genre.

      Reply
  • June 29, 2021 at 1:24 pm
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    Super interesting story, Michael (even for someone with no prior interest in horror; now I’m compelled to check out some of these stories).

    And John Mayer for the win – for your added contributions from personal knowledge! Great anecdote re: Dahl – an analog version of Woody Allen pulling Marshall McLuhan into the frame to prove wrong an obnoxious jerk-off, which Mrs. Wiles clearly was. Interesting to hear those theories about shock therapy – and Wagner’s view of it – as well.

    Reply

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