Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 21: The Memory of That Look

When I wrote about Karl Edward Wagner back in 2008, I basically just used him as a stick with which to beat Mick Garris, and while I view this as an entirely valid use of anyone's time, it can't be said that I've given Wagner, one of the major figures in late 20th century horror fiction, his due. This makes a certain amount of since when you consider that, at the time, the story I read for that 2008 post, "More Sinned Against", was the first piece of Wagner's fiction I'd ever read. For someone who claims to be interested in this stuff, that seemed a little off to me.
Well, I've corrected my ways, and earlier this year I read the rest of Why Not You and I?, Wagner's story collection that contains "More Sinned Against". As a brief recap to the brief biography I provided in the linked post, Wagner died at the age in 1994 at the age of 48, and Why Not You and I? was the second and last collection of his horror fiction that he lived to see published (though he's primarily remembered for his contributions to horror, he actually produced a lot more fantasy fiction, both in short story and novel form). A psychiatrist by training, but disillusioned of that practice, Wagner's fiction is as often about the self-destructing minds of his protagonists as it is about any supernatural threat, and can sometimes be about the former while having an element of the latter shoehorned in, arbitrarily, or so it sometimes seems. Why Not You and I? begins with an interesting story called "Into Whose Hands" that delves into Wagner's medical training, as it's set in a mental institution, but what struck me as I was reading it was how many stories deal directly with the world of art, either popular or otherwise, or the clash between those two, as in "Neither Brute Nor Human", about the careers of two rival science fiction authors (and yes, that one's also a horror story). "More Sinned Against" interested me initially because it was tangentially a horror story about the world of film, and I like that sort of thing, but I was slightly taken aback to find out how much of Wagner's fiction follows a smiliar line. Apart from the stories already mentioned, there's also "Old Loves", where the central premise is a transparent take on the obsession so many fans developed towards Diana Rigg in The Avengers, or "The Last Wolf" which is about the last writer in the world, and so on.
It's been noted by friends and fans of Wagner, such as Ramsey Campbell (he does come up a lot, doesn't he?) that his later horror stories were particularly grim and personal, even insular, as the title of one such story, "Silted In", might indicate. My own experience with Wagner thus far seems to have leaned heavily on that period of his writing, and I have to wonder, reading stuff like "Silted In" and "The Last Wolf", if the focus on the worlds of art and entertainment in his fiction is maybe a part of that -- "Neither Brute Nor Human" is an especially bitter look at the world of genre popularity and fandom, for instance -- and maybe Wagner's growing distaste had as much to do with his chosen profession as it did with anything else. As an editor, which he frequently was, Wagner had a reputation for holding rigorously high standards, and not suffering slapdash work. Perhaps he was living to see too much of that, and wanted to blast the world of genre art in his own fiction. I honestly have no idea if that's true, but I'm beginning to wonder.
For today, I ended up straddling the two main sections of Wagner's horror fiction career, choosing as my main focus what is possibly his most enduring story, "Sticks", taken from his first collection In a Lonely Place. Reading "Sticks", I was struck by another feature of Wagner's writing, which is that he openly worked in styles of, or worlds and ideas created by, other writers. In the case of "Sticks", we have a clear Lovecraft homage, complete with the discovery of an otherworldly language that's all Ys and Gs. When discussing Michael Chabon's own trip down this road yesterday, I was generally accepting, and why shouldn't I be the same here, but I must say it's slightly frustrating to find so many talented horror writers falling back on Lovecraft, not just for inspiration, but for the basic core and even structure of their fiction. "Sticks" is really a very good story of this type -- and it's also set in the world of creative types, as Colin Leverett, our hero, is an artist who lives through World War II to become an illustrator for the pulps, modeled after Lee Brown Coye -- with terrific atmosphere and building dread. The title comes from bundles of sticks, woven into lattice, Leverett finds all over the woods in his rural Pennsylvania homeland before going to war, and the horrible world of cosmic evil they're linked to, and I quite liked that set up and how it wove through the narrative of Leverett's life as an illustrator. It's just that when reading one of the premiere stories by one of the giants of modern horror fiction, I was hoping for something more than just a more tightly structured Lovecraft. Which is nothing to sneeze at, but too often I think the horror genre is content to fold in on itself, and I would love for that pattern to be broken.
It's funny, though -- or maybe it isn't -- the way these things evolve. I'm reading a major (by which I partly mean "long") story by one of the genre's grand statesmen, Hugh B. Cave, for a post set for this weekend, and when I started reading it the first thing I thought of was Karl Edward Wagner. In Why Not You and I?, he has a novella called "Sign of the Salamandar, by Curtis Stryker, with an Introduction by Kent Allard". This story is pure pulp adventure -- though somewhat post-modern in the idea that Wagner didn't write either the story or the introduction, even though he did -- very much like the Cave story I'm reading, and since Wagner was a huge admirer of Cave, and editor of the Cave collection from which I'm reading, not a whole lot of dots need to be connected. However, Kent Allard, under whose name Wagner wrote the introduction to the novella he wrote, is also the horror writer who is central to the plot of "Sticks" -- it's his books that Leverett comes to illustrate later in his life, and, in a sense, through whom he finds out the truth of the sticks and his early experiences in Pennsylvania, before the war. So there's that, and then right after that in Why Not You and I? is another long story called "Blue Lady, Come Back", which takes the fun pulp trappings of "Sign of the Salamandar..." and spits right in their face. "Blue Lady..." is the sequel to "Salamandar..." in the same way that smoke, ashes, and ruin are the sequel to a house that has a comfortable fire going in the fireplace.
And while Wagner perhaps built his own autobiography into some of his fiction by simply setting it in the business he worked in (for lack of a more concise phrase), he also did it, at least later in his life, by plonking himself down in the stories, too. I read two very short pieces by him for today, one called "Lacunae" and the other called "But You'll Never Follow Me". In "Lacunae", a very graphic but also fairly rote story of violently spit identity (sexual, in this case), there's a side character named Blacklight who is described as being a large man, a Vietnam burnout, with a shaggy beard and biker clothes. If you look at the picture of Wagner I've provided here, and search for other images on-line, you'll maybe see where he got that look. Similarly, in "But You'll Never Follow Me", Michael Marsden, the main character, is a jobless drunk with a "spreading beer gut", a beard, "limp brown hair", and denim clothes.
That's him, right there, and in "But You'll Never Follow Me", the writing of which he told editor Thomas E. Monteleone was like "throwing [himself] on a live grenade" you see a writer who has spent a great deal of time beating himself up for the choices he's made. Deservedly or not, I don't know -- more likely the same choices most people are forced to make whether they like it or not. It's just that most people don't spill the acid such choices fill them with all over the page for others to read. "But You'll Never Follow Me" is one of those late life, deeply angry and personal stories Wagner was known for, and it's also one of the best from him I've read. It's about six pages long, and it will make you quite depressed. It pays homage to no other writer but Wagner.


Will Errickson said...

This is a good but long article on Karl written by a childhood friend. Great behind-the-scenes stuff on the world of pulpdom.

bill r. said...

I wish that had one of those "see all" buttons, but otherwise, cool! I'll be reading this shortly. Thanks, Will!

Anonymous said...

I'm really only familiar with Wagner as a near-ubiquitous editor from the period when I started reading horror. Looks like I'll have to track down his actual work.

Very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts on Cave. I've only tried one or two pieces by him. I believe both were from very late in his career and I didn't finish either. Both put me in mind of a line from a Douglas Adams introduction to Wodehouse's final (unfinished) Blandings novel. Words to the effect that the reader needed to realize that Wodehouse composed the novel while "suffering from a condition we'll politely call 'being 90'". I'd love to know if Cave in his prime is worth tracking down.

Finally, great work this month. Each of these entries has provided a fun and interesting read.