A Restless Vision: The Karl Edward Wagner Fall Fear and Fantasy Festival


About a year ago the small city of Clinton, population about 10,000, celebrated a part of its history and culture by erecting, at the Green MacAdoo Cultural Center, a sculpture incorporating twelve figures. The sculpture commemorates that town’s historic role in the struggle for integration and racial equality. A bit further north and east Abingdon, Virginia, a town of about 8000, is completing an elaborate and massive sculptural fountain representing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Abingdon’s long association with the performing arts.

Here in Knoxville, a city of about 185,000, musician and actor R.B. Morris has been struggling for years to persuade Knoxville city bureaucrats to add some sculptural pieces to honor the man who is probably Knoxville’s greatest writer, James Agee. I have some talent at portrait sculpture and offered to do at least one of the sculptures for free or, at worst, at cost. Noted sculptress of life-sized equestrian bronzes, Linda White Rankin, has offered to contribute her expertise. So far R.B.’s project has, to my knowledge received almost no encouragement from the city of Agee’s birth.

James Agee was not the only great writer with a Knoxville connection, of course. As Hallowe’en approaches we are reminded that one of the great horror writers of the 20th century was born and raised in Knoxville: Karl Edward Wagner. Wagner was not only the author of many volumes of horror and dark fantasy tales, he was also an important editor, editing, among other volumes, the annual Year’s Best Horror Stories for DAW Books for many years, and, under his own Carcosa colophon, a series of very high quality, autographed volumes of stories by some of the last surviving authors of the legendary Weird Tales pulp magazine. His work has been published in many languages. Not only has he written numerous books, quite a few books have been written about him. The British Fantasy Society has created the Karl Edward Wagner Award in his honor; a second award in honor of his contributions to editing and reclaiming lost works, the Karl Edward Wagner Rediscovery Award, has been proposed. In the library in the town where he was born and went to grammar and high school, and where his powers of imagination were kindled, there is a single volume of one of the many books he wrote.

Karl Wagner died young, still in his forties; most sources state he died in October on Friday the 13th. About a year ago an Australian editor with whom I’ve had some correspondence, Benjamin Szumskyj, wrote me with an offer. He had published a book of essays on Wagner and now was moved to do something further to honor the man. He volunteered to start a subscription to fund a monument to the renowned fantasist here in his home town. I thought that a great idea and, in fact, long overdue. Once again I was willing to do a portrait sculpture without payment, should a representational approach ultimately be settled upon. I called the mayor’s office to learn how to proceed and was eventually directed to the office of a certain Mickey Mallonee. I tried to tell her a little of the man we sought to honor and our goal of creating some sort of public monument to do so. Ms. Mallonee could scarcely contain her indifference.

She was kind enough to advise that I should proceed by creating some visual materials to present to the city, perhaps some drawings and a maquette or two, and some detailed financials as to how we planned to fund the project, perhaps some site studies. She probably asked for environmental impact studies of prospective sites, too; I don’t recall the specifics. Once we’d done all that we would be welcome to present our sketches, models and studies, and those in charge of Public Art would take up our request at their regular meeting and get back to us as to whether or not there was any interest in acknowledging any more local authors. We do, after all, already have a perfectly good Alex Haley statue. At that point I decided it best not even to bring up the fact that a Wagner monument would help to link Knoxville and horror in the minds of tourists and retirees.

Even though I and, no doubt, other artists, would be willing to donate our time, talent and toil to help create a tribute to a writer we admire, there is likely to be far less enthusiasm for doing so on the off-chance that something may come of it.

Every spring Knoxville celebrates the annual Rossini festival. The first one was attended by 7000 opera lovers. More recent ones have brought over 65,000 visitors downtown. There is only one other Rossini festival in the world, in Pesaro, Italy. As much fun as the Knoxville festival is, the one in Pesaro is a bit more logical as that was Rosinni’s birthplace. Wouldn’t it, likewise, be logical to create a festival celebrating Knoxville’s native son, Karl Edward Wagner, focusing on his particular field of horror and dark fantasy with Mr. Szumskyj’s monument as its symbol? It would seem fitting that it be held in Wagner’s favorite month and the month of his death, October. Since Hallowe’en is always crowded with parties and events the Wagner festival should be a few days before, the excitement of the approaching celebration of fright already building. Perhaps October 13 would be appropriate, the purported day of Wagner’s death, a number with mystic import of its own, and, as the reverse of 31, according to Crowley's doctrine of reversals, having the same numerological significance. This would be a commemoration of Wagner’s death and a celebration of his life and of his ghostly tales.

In addition to celebrating Wagner’s own works there might be a terror film festival, similar to the one in Philadelphia, featuring both classic horror films and new professional and amateur productions - we have three theaters on Gay Street once again - and, perhaps, a live production at Theater Central, Goth bands, a walking tour of Knoxville’s haunted places (we had our own Dr. Frankenstein in Knoxville, you know, attempting to reanimate corpses), costume contests, costume designers offering unique concepts for upcoming Hallowe’en festivities (and perhaps costume exchanges, where one could trade last year’s costume for a different one), guest writers, horse drawn hearse rides - you get the idea. Plainly there are still a lot of opera fans in the country, but the number of horror fans - fans of horror books, movies and DVD’s - must outnumber opera fans by, say, a factor of 13.

Knoxville city leaders have always had a certain disdain for the intellectual and artistic accomplishments of their own citizens. Even James Agee seems to get little respect. He, at least, and at long last, has a city street named after him. But at Cumberland James Agee becomes Phillip Fulmer, a telling indicator of what is important to those who run this city. There’s no doubt that Knoxville readers come in a distant second in numbers to Knoxville football fans. But surely there is some room to acknowledge the literary triumphs of Knoxvillians as well as the athletic triumphs of our more transient residents. Those renegade East Tennesseeans who furtively, or even openly, frequent book stores and libraries instead of sports bars must step forward, dare to pronounce without fear or shame that they are readers, and take up the cudgel for some form of recognition for our mountain scribes.

One last point: though I have said I am willing to donate my labors toward both the Wagner and the Agee monument, it might be better if a local artist in need of work (most of them, I imagine) be given the assignment and paid a fair wage. Above all, I hope that, for once, public art downtown would be executed by a Knoxville artist and not outsourced somewhere, anywhere as long as it’s not Knoxville, commissioned to some large commercial foundry with a catalog of generic sculptures, at a price far higher than any Knoxville artist would charge, under arrangements in themselves occult. There are plenty of talented artists and scuptors right here in Knoxville. The city tends to ignore them, too.



John Mayer
October 2009