Various Encounters with Karl

Remembering Karl Edward Wagner

Karl Edward Wagner (1945−1994) was an award-winning American writer, poet, editor, and publisher. Possessing a voluminous knowledge of horror fiction and literature, he edited The Year’s Best Horror Stories from 1980 until his death in 1994, along with several collections of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and many other anthologies; he also helped establish the Carcosa publishing house, devoted to releasing collections of pulp horror stories. Besides his numerous contemporary horror and dark fantasy stories — many of which are considered classics of their genres — Wagner is also famous for creating Kane, the Mystic Swordsman, widely regarded as one of the most notable anti-heroes in heroic fantasy. When he passed away in 1994 from heart and liver failure, caused by long-term alcoholism, he left behind an immense and powerful body of work.

Last year, Centipede Press published a volume of their Masters of the Weird Tale series devoted to Wagner’s horror fiction. Earlier this year they published two trade volumes of his short stories, Where the Summer Ends (Vol. 1) and Walk on the Wild Side (Vol. 2). We’re proud to reprint the following essay, “Various Encounters with Karl,” written by Peter Straub and included in Masters of the Weird Tale and Walk on the Wild Side. In this essay, Straub pays tribute to Wagner, offering readers a deeply personal, fond, and ultimately heartbreaking portrait of a pioneer of horror. - The Editors


I remember the place where it happened and my impressions of the person better than the circumstances which brought about my first meeting with that good soul, Karl Edward Wagner. Even the year is unhappily vague, but it must have been 1975 or 1976, because the education in horror literature I had begun in 1974 under the instruction of Thomas Tessier, my tour guide, reference librarian and seminar leader, had progressed at least far enough beyond its initial stages so that I was already trying to write it.

Thomas Tessier and I had been friends since meeting one another at a 1970 poetry reading in the cellar of a Dublin pub called Sinnot’s, and our literary conversations had taken an unusual course. In 1970 and ’71, we talked about Geoffrey Hill (a modernist English poet), Derek Mahon (a not very modernist but anyhow wonderful Irish poet who was a friend of Thom’s), Wallace Stevens, John Berryman, John Ashbery and Yeats. In 1972, we were on to Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Mark Strand, Bill Knott (who called himself St. Geraud, “virgin and suicide,” and wrote brief poems seemingly from the point of view of someone recently deceased), Greg Kuzma (another now-forgotten oddity whose poems we found hilariously inept), Thomas Mann, Henry James, Federico García Lorca, Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch, along with all of our earlier enthusiasms.

By 1974, we were still gabbing about these same people some of the time, but more often, before and after the endless hours frittered away in front of low-rent horror movies at the equally low-rent Kilburn Odeon, we obsessed about H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Arthur Machen, Robert Bloch, Ira Levin and James Hadley Chase. I’m almost certain that I had already written my first excursion into horror, a novel called Julia. If I had not, Tessier would have had little reason to invite me along to his own first meeting with an American fantasy and horror writer of about our age named Karl Edward Wagner, who had just arrived in London.

Thom was at this time the Managing Director of Millington Books, a delightful publishing house located on the western fringes of Bloomsbury and not far from the British Museum in a structure with a curved, glass-brick exterior which bore an odd resemblance to a public convenience. Across Southampton Row from Millington’s offices were the Russell Hotel, always filled with Americans in new Burberrys, and, a little way south, another, humbler hotel memorable only because directly inside its entrance a wide, comfortable staircase led down to the congenial Peter’s Bar. After I joined Thom at Millington, we walked across the street, entered the hotel and went down the stairs to meet Karl in the chiaroscuro of the pub, as I did twice later, once when he was in the company of his dear friends, Mr. and Mrs. Manly Wade Wellman, and once with Ramsey Campbell.

On all of these occasions, Karl was accompanied by his wife, Barbara Wagner. Barbara and Karl were nothing if not a striking couple. In an ironic moment, a celestial dating bureau had arranged the conjunction of an unusually thoughtful Hell’s Angel and a Playmate of the Month with big granny glasses and a wide-open smile. He looked like someone you would mess with, were you stupid enough to think about messing with him, at some risk to your health. She looked like someone you had conjured up in a fantasy during your sophomore year in high school, except for being even nicer and more sociable. The combination of two such particular and disparate types was immediately appealing. I am representing, I rush to add here, a point of view shaped by what was already a lengthy time spent in England, and the Wagners might have, very likely would have, seemed less anomalous to anyone who had lived through the first half of the 1970s in the United States. Yet even then Barbara and Karl must have seemed to many who knew them well a couple whose great appeal had at least something to do with the utterly amiable anomaly they presented.

Then, at the time I first met him, Karl required only a couple of minutes to dispel the associations brought to mind by his cascading red-blond hair, his impressive beard, his equally impressive bulk. His sly, subtle, witty mind, the unexpectedness of his thoughts, almost instantly took care of that. I guess he did have a motorcycle, I’m not sure, but it was just a possession, not a definition. What did define him was an instinctive generosity, a native compassion, his sense of humor, his capacity for observation, his alertness and the way it lay in wait, also the way these capacities very quickly declared themselves above the conventional forms of judgement. The other essentially defining matter, one which nearly always permeated and aerated Karl’s conversation, was the astonishing, dazzling, unprecedented, quantity of what he knew.

Karl was an enormously informed human being, and the range of his knowledge had several sources. During our first encounter in Peter’s Bar, I learned that he had finished medical school and qualified as a psychiatrist, which already meant that he was smarter than most people, as well as being more dedicated to those tasks he had decided were worthwhile. To pause for a moment in which to state what should be obvious, it is not possible to advance through college, medical school, the demanding requirements of internship, residency and psychiatric training without a degree of application, intelligence, determination and sheer savvy not only beyond the comprehension of most people but actually unimaginable to them. Karl was entirely uninterested in claiming the recognition ordinarily due these achievements, and as far as I knew, never alluded to their intellectual or emotional cost. He simply wanted you to know what he had done on his journey toward becoming a writer because he knew that it informed his work.

Another aspect of his knowledge was made up of what he had read. Somehow, and here we must invoke those same capacities for intelligent, determined, savvy application which had seen him through his medical training, Karl had managed to read almost everything related to fantasy and horror literature published in the past three centuries. His erudition was extraordinarily profound and precise. A few years later, Karl did everyone the favor of sharing in his Fantasy Newsletter column some of what he knew about the European variants of horror’s tropes, forgotten writers, overlooked early stories, the publishing history and bibliographic information pertinent to these writers and their stories, and a lot more of the same. One knew there was a lot more where that came from, that Karl was drawing upon a deep well of such information.

It is almost impossible to suggest how impressive all of this was to anyone who had the good luck to come across Karl’s columns or provoke him into conversation about arcane horror literature. Anything but a show-off and a great deal more interested in talking about matters closer to hand, such as the merits of the beer in our pint glasses, the labyrinthine thought processes excited in him by whatever he had happened to have been doing that day, his entertaining fantasies about the strangers visible from his chair, the current state of Carcosa and its manifold sagas, the ever-fascinating subject of food, anecdotes about friends and recent visitors, animadversions about North Carolina and his curiosity as to these new people he was meeting, he had to be prodded into talking about the subject he undoubtedly knew in greater detail and breadth than anyone I’ve ever known.

But the most crucial, most central part of his knowledge had nothing to do with what he had learned during medical school, his psychiatric training or his unprecedented command of the history of supernatural and fantasy literature. To an extent well beyond the usual human capacity, even as represented by most fiction-writers, and it now seems to me to an extent so drastically uncomfortable as to be painful, Karl was able to see what was actually before him. This ability is nothing if not rare. Most people move through a fog of preconceptions, unconscious fantasies, Oedipal plots and ideational patterns that distorts the tiny portion of available reality they allow themselves to see into a form they already know. Karl wasn’t like that. In the days before he succeeded in numbing himself into something like a perpetual state of grumpy, amused, self-medicated ease, he was one of those people who take in the undercurrents and meanings of what is going on around them. He didn’t miss anything. You could see it in his eyes, in the movements of the face hidden beneath the heroic beard, and you could hear it in every word he said. Truly observant and insightful human beings often strike everyone else as approaching daily life from an eccentric angle, and Karl must have accustomed himself early on to this sort of witless marginalization. I am tempted to ascribe the flowing hair and beard, the entire physical solidity of the self he presented in adulthood, to his reaction against such reflexively thoughtless opposition, but Karl was more complicated than that. In any case, the stories collected in In a Lonely Place demonstrate in paragraph after paragraph how closely he attended to the nuances of ordinary, daily behaviors, how much he observed and took into himself.

I mention the collection called In a Lonely Place because of all his books it was the only one I was able to read. By the time I met Karl, nearly all of contemporary fantasy literature, except for its capacious subgenre known as horror and the work of extraordinary wild cards like Angela Carter and a very few others, had come to seem so unrelated to my own concerns as to belong to another world, like that of science fiction, another field I had long ago found unreadable. That I saw Tolkien as a miraculous storyteller of enduring importance did not make the work of his imitators compelling, and heroic fantasy written under the influence of Robert E. Howard was so distant from what interested me as to be unapproachable. I didn’t get it, and I still don’t. The adventures of muscular heroes in ahistorical but presumably ancient times equipped with invented cultures and landscapes struck me as belonging to a variety of literature best suited to adolescents. I realize that this is a limitation, a kind of flaw, but it is not one I can correct. Like jazz musicians, painters, dancers, composers, poets and every other sort of artist, writers are subject to those specific blind spots inevitably caused by their continuous investigations of the seams they find richest. What Karl found most suited to his particular talent never spoke to me, which does not mean that I dismissed it — the work of many wonderful writers forbids me entry, and I don’t dismiss them either, I just can’t read them. This is not a matter of choice. Karl must have known that I was not likely to be attuned to his Kane fictions, and one demonstration of his great awareness was that he never pressed the issue. However, when his collection of contemporary horror stories was accepted by Warner Books, he asked me if I would write an introduction, and I was delighted to do so.

The overture first came through Kirby McCauley, who was our mutual agent and friend through the end of the 1970s and all of the 1980s and a great supporter of Karl’s work. By then, my respect for Karl was such that I would have agreed to do an introduction for a sword-and-sorcery collection from the point of view of a one-eyed cat and written in rhymed couplets if the stories had his name on them (come to think of it, as long as he could keep himself sufficiently entertained, Karl could probably have pulled it off!), but of course In a Lonely Place was nothing like that. Neither was it very much like anything else, either — I mean, the stories resembled no one else’s. Their radical originality was largely a matter of structure, the way the narratives kept breaking out of themselves, shifting ground and relocating themselves in entirely unforeseen territory. At some point after Kirby had sent along the manuscript, Karl telephoned to thank me for taking on the job, and he listened to my effusions with his usual good-humored grace. The same quality came into play after the book was published, when it became obvious that my admiration had not rescued me from overlooking a crucial, explanatory detail in one of the stories.

I was blissfully unaware of my mistake until the Wagners and I met at a vast, hectic party in a suite the size of a bowling alley that Kirby had rented during a World Fantasy Convention not long after the book came out. Barbara eventually drifted off deeper into the throng, and Karl thanked me for what I had written about him. Then he mentioned one of the stories I had liked most and asked if I had noticed  the moment in its beginning paragraphs when the protagonist catches sight of his reflection in a window. Yes, I said, I did remember that section…and suddenly understood what it meant. Oh, I said, Yes. I see. He nodded, and, satisfied that I had seen the point at last, went on to talk about something else. If that was a rebuke, it was certainly the most diplomatic I’ve ever been given.

For a long time, I saw Karl and Barbara once or twice a year in the heightened, swirling atmosphere of the party suites and bars in the hotels where World Fantasy and World Horror Conventions were held. The Wagners, especially Karl, were one of the reasons I went to conventions — like Bob Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Charles Grant, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Jim French, Steve Jones, Dennis Etchison and a number of others, the Wagners were people of whom I was extremely fond and thought of as friends but saw only at these massive gatherings. I met them, I think, in all of these cities: Providence (twice), Nashville, Knoxville, Baltimore, Chicago, New York (twice), New Haven, Berkeley, Ottawa and Seattle. I often fantasized about visiting Karl in Chapel Hill, but we never managed to arrange it. What we managed to arrange instead was some time for private conversation at each of the conventions we both attended, itself no easy feat. Almost all of these deeply enjoyable conversations took place in bars.

We almost always had drinks in our hands, and another one was almost always in the offing. I know something like sixty or seventy writers of one kind or another, and only three of them do not drink alcohol. Some of them drink too much for their own good, but very few of them seem at all impaired. In the mid-1980s, many of the people I knew took drugs of one kind or another, and only a few of them experienced serious difficulties. By 1990, nearly everyone had stopped using drugs, and almost everyone had cut back on their drinking, Karl invariably seemed in command of himself, at least to me, his colleague at the bar. He did not slur his words, forget what he was talking about in mid-sentence, tell stupid jokes, get glassy-eyed, become incoherent, fall off the stool or lurch when he walked. I assumed that he had once used some kind of drug or drugs, or maybe still did now and again, because he occasionally talked about them and, anyhow, they were hardly uncommon in our shared world. (Two people came up to me separately at the same horror-related party in 1988 to ask if I had any coke. When I said no, they both glared at me in disbelief because they thought I was holding out on them. I suppose that after me they tried the bathrooms, where from behind the locked doors of the stalls you could hear what sounded like the snorting of horses.) In any case, a lot of Karl’s drug conversation had to do with what he and his fellow MDs had obtained from medical laboratories, and therefore had a retrospective cast. He struck me as far too purposeful and aware to get into trouble with substance abuse.

The picture darkened in 1989, when within fifteen minutes of my arrival at a convention in Seattle someone told me that the Wagners had separated and Karl was taking it badly. Only a few minutes after that, Barbara appeared before me, in radiant bloom as ever, and with her new lover in tow. I don’t remember anything about the man except that he was well-dressed (Karl made the idea of being well-dressed seem like a joke, no matter what he was wearing), dark-haired and slender (no comment is necessary), and rather good-looking (as impressive as his appearance was, Karl rendered the concept of “good looks” as irrelevant as he did “well-dressed”). They lived on the beach in Venice, California, which seemed entirely appropriate to Barbara, and she was in fine good humor, as happy as I’d ever seen her. Karl, she said, was fine — I’d run into him sooner or later, I’d see.

Not fine, Karl loomed into view moments after Barbara left me. He seemed thoroughly depressed. He looked wounded. His eyes sagged, and his face was puffier than I remembered it. He immediately began talking about Barbara. Although he was angry, there was little rancor in what he said. He was still reeling from his loss. He loved her, and he wished that she would come back to him. It must have been extraordinarily painful for him to see her there, and I still wonder why he put himself in such an agonizing trap. He must have wanted to demonstrate that he was still a functioning presence, and he probably also wanted to see his friends. The second goal was successful, but the first one completely failed. Karl met a great many friends who one and all thought he was falling apart. Nearly all of his conversation focused on Barbara, and his inability to talk about anything else wore you out. During that convention, drink eventually did erode his speech, to the point where it became difficult to understand. After enough alcohol, he developed a gnomic twinkle which indicated that the vanity of human folly could still amuse him, but it was a sad echo of his former wit. He wandered through the convention like an unhappy ghost, visibly encased in his sorrow and isolated by it. Everyone who cared for him hoped he would soon come to terms with the end of his marriage and return to his best self.

Instead, at least from what I saw, he increasingly succumbed to his sense of loss. The Karl I met two years later at another convention in another city, this one forgotten, moved in a shuffle like an upright bear, was almost completely incomprehensible and existed within a profound, self-imposed isolation. His voice emerged in a dark brown, tarry rumble which obliterated individual words. Whatever he was taking kept him on his feet and ignited the gnomic twinkle, but the object of his amusement was incommunicable. He was glad to see me, and I to see him, and we embraced in our usual fashion. After that came only dismay. He was like a walking ruin.

Others closer to him, those who saw Karl on a daily basis or at least more frequently than I did, must have witnessed happier and more intact versions of the man. He continued to write and to edit, he travelled, he got out and did things. I wish I could have been with him at those times when he gathered himself together and again became something like that amazing person, the Karl Wagner I had the privilege of knowing for so many years. That person was splendidly one of a kind, and I miss him enormously. Karl’s degree of perception and the whole arduous, dedicated, observant balancing act it demanded of him during the course of his life could not but exact a cruel payment, whatever the conditions and terms by which it was rendered.

5 replies to “Various Encounters with Karl

  1. Wow. Thanks so much for this essay. I admired Wagner’s work immensely. I met him a number of times and he was always drunk. Always. I don’t think I ever encountered him sober save for one time around 10 am just before a panel discussion at a convention in North Carolina. And as that panel discussion began a hotel employee arrived with beers for Wagner. As he reached for the frosty bottles he exclaimed, “Ah! Breakfast!”.

  2. A well observed reminiscence of Karl and Babs that brought back memories of their many visits to the UK and more particularly of Peters Bar. Over the years many a night was spent there, half a dozen or more of us chatting, drinking, smoking (Babs showed me how burn hash under an upturned beer glass so the smell wouldn’t permeate the room), snorting coke, and then, when the bar was closing, heading up to Karl’s room to split a bottle of Jack Daniels or two. Those were the good days.

    Then Babs left him, moroseness set in, and his moods got blacker. The last time I saw him was in early October, 1994; I was down in London for my father’s funeral and had a couple of hours spare in which to see him before I headed north. When I entered the bar he was sitting in a shadowy corner with a stunning Skin Two model by his side, a mirror image of Babs as in a glass darkly. It was only later when we went outside that I really saw how jaundiced he was, but I had a train to catch and was too rushed to realise the import. I said my goodbyes, “See you next time”, to which he smiled wryly. A few days later he was dead .… . .

  3. Can anyone explain to me what the mistake was that Straub is referring to when he writes, “…me from overlooking a crucial, explanatory detail in one of the stories.” in his Intro to “In A Lonely Place”? The only male protagonist of the 3 stories he really liked is in “.220 Swift” & I don’t recall Brandon seeing his reflection in a window, certainly not in the opening paragraphs. “Sticks” is also mentioned, but again I can’t find such a scene. I must be missing something & would appreciate any help.