Benjamin Szumskyj is a writer and editor accomplished beyond his years, and moderator of the Karl Edward Wagner discussion group , from the mystic land of Australia. He has just agreed to edit a book of essays on Karl Edward Wagner for Gothic Press. We present here the interview he conducted with Wagner friend (and webkeeper of this site) John Mayer for the Apazine SSWFT
Interview with John F. Mayer
1. Your friendship with Karl Edward Wagner is well documented. Of the fiction by Wagner you have read, what are among some of your favourites?
I'm afraid I must cop out on that question; with few exceptions, I thought each of them the best as I was reading it and, I regret to say, there are still some I have not read (I'm hoping to rectify that soon). And some I have not read in so long I'd be uncertain where to rank them until I'd reread them. But one of my favourites is “Cold Light.” Not only is the story a great yarn of vengeance, but it also tellingly illustrates how zealous extremism can do more harm than even the amorality of the father of murder. Considering the rising tide of religious violence, this is a good fable for our time. I also enjoyed one of Karl's most neglected stories: Sign of the Salamander. This homage to Karl's beloved pulps is also a great tale, with the feel of pulps but, somehow, with a modern sensibility.
Part of my problem with choosing a single one of Karl's stories as his best is that, in the early years, I was able to read them as he wrote them, often seeing a rewrite or two before he submitted them, so that his stories became vignettes within the larger story of his own life, a life that I think would, in its own right, make a pretty good story.
2. What would you consider the greatest myth about Karl Edward Wagner?
3. Are there any other stories about you and Karl that never made the memoir?
We spent four years in high school together, struggling against the repression and conformity that characterized those years, including a decided prejudice, particularly among educators, against fantasy and science fiction. So, yes, many. But they're half-remembered tales that I've never bothered to commit to paper. Let's see…
There's the time we were in a van driven by the charming Alice F____, fleeing from a car of rednecks that we were pretty sure had guns, while we had only my derringer. Alice led them a merry chase, to the block of Forest Avenue where Toad Hall stood and, while my friend Parker and I confronted the goons with only the derringer Wagner and Alice raced into the building and Wagner emerged with my roomies Ken James and Crazy Al, armed to the teeth. Put some fear in those good ol' boys, I can tell you. And there's the time Karl treed a large-mouth bass at Watts Bar Lake, a fish so big it made the papers, half a page with a large photo of Karl holding out his catch. Or the time he and his father Aubrey “Red” Wagner were flagged down by a fellow on the gravel back roads near their cabin; the rustic had just shot-gunned his neighbour, whom Karl found nearby bubbling his last, a bush axe positioned a little too neatly under his right hand. Or the time Karl was mistaken for an IRA terrorist on a flight back from London. Or how we used to listen, up on Watts Bar, for duck hunters illegally using shotguns holding more than three shells and how we'd seek out the blinds of the offenders and destroy them. Or how Wagner was rebuffed at an early Knoxville Sci-Fi con because no one there had ever heard of his then only published work Darkness Weaves. Or how my father, who could be a bit eccentric, called a rather confused Karl at his parents' home to attempt to get him to confess to having freed the mosquitoes from my father's mosquito hatchery into my parents' house, when actually the deed had been done by Three Toes...
Ah, perhaps the story of Three Toes, a wolf dog that both Karl and I owned at different times would be a good one. Though that story is more about the dog than either of us. Still, it’s a part of our lives that Karl and I referred to often over the years:
An acquaintance of mine, John Michelson, had lost his dog in the vicinity of the nearby town of Oak Ridge, the city of atomic bomb fame. While seeking him at the Oak Ridge pound he'd discovered they were holding a canine that was half red wolf. It seems the animal had leapt from the car of a family coming up from Louisiana, or maybe it was Texas, while they were stopped at a gas station off the highway, and had attacked a deputy sheriff who'd been fortifying himself with an RC Cola™ and a Moon Pie™. Reportedly the injuries had been serious: it was said that “half his calf had been torn off.” The family was remorseful. They said they didn't really understand why the animal hated uniforms as it did. Its origins were unclear, but it was the spawn of a pet German shepherd and a wild red wolf, already all but extinct in the wild. Perhaps fearing prosecution or a lawsuit the family had abandoned the animal to its fate and gone on their way.
Naturally, when I heard of the vicious beast I was eager to have it for my own. I had to work each day hauling plumbing supplies, but I begged John to return and see if he could adopt the wolf-dog. My housemate Terry agreed to go with him. I gave them the adoption fee and crossed my fingers. They told me later that their offer to adopt the cop-mangling dog had been met with extreme skepticism. No one at the pound had felt they had the authority to release such a dangerous animal, so they'd phoned some higher functionary, who only agreed, after a lengthy negotiation, to authorize the adoption when John and Terry assured him they were taking it to Knoxville, far away from his jurisdiction. The beast was saved.
When I returned home he was waiting for me just inside the front gate in a puddle of blood. His own, as it turned out. His introduction to Toad Hall had resulted in a bloody battle for Toad Hall alpha status with the resident male dog, Cerberus, a half-boxer, half-shepherd (Cerberus, spelled Serberys, appeared in one of Wagner's short stories as did my female English bulldog Precious). The wolf-dog had come out second best, the last fight with Cerberus he was to lose for the rest of his stay at Toad Hall. But though the wolf had been bested, prior to my arrival, and had lost so much blood he could scarcely stand, he was still attempting to track his adversary, who'd had enough, around the house and renew the conflict when I first saw him.
How disappointed I was! I'd envisioned a huge, thickly muscled timber wolf, the fierce menace of the forest. The staggering, blood-matted red cur before me was lean and on the small side as forest menaces go, seventy or eighty pounds.
The endangered red wolf has as much in common with the coyote as the timber wolf, relying more on speed and agility than on brute strength. There are some naturalists who suggest that the red wolf is, in fact, the descendent of a wolf-coyote hybrid. Generally, though, wolf packs will not tolerate coyotes, and coyotes do not venture where wolves are established. Other naturalists have suggested that it may be the other way around: that the red wolf is the ancestor of both the wolf and the coyote. At this time there were few left in the wilderness and, shortly after, by 1980, there were none; red wolves existed only in captivity. Years later they were reintroduced into the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge where, coincidentally, Karl Wagner's nephew, naturalist Mike Wagner, worked on acclimating them. Video footage exists of Mike cutting up a black bear with a chainsaw for wolf food; the black bear had been killed by a car. Later they were also introduced into the nearby Smoky Mountains, but lost favour with the public after they were seen killing a bear cub and also due to the fact that they did not limit their wandering to the confines of the park; they were eventually removed.
But I knew nothing about red wolves at the time; only that my new wolf was far punier and less impressive than I'd counted on. But hope springs eternal; I named him Three Toes after the elusive renegade pack leader in scores of books and movies, the cunning wolf that strikes and vanishes unseen, recognized only by the toe missing from one of his pawprints. Three Toes was not actually missing a toe, but the great inner toe of his left foot was deformed and stuck straight up into the air, so that he would have, indeed, left a print showing only three toes. I did some research on the red wolf and, in fact, though he was only reputed to be half wolf, Three Toes looked just like the photos of red wolves in the library books.
However, as he recovered, he proved to have all the ferocity of a cocker spaniel, except where Cerberus was concerned. I had to go to great pains to keep those two separate, and, despite my best efforts, Three Toes would manage to force his narrow muzzle into a partially opened door, shoot past whoever was trying to block him, and attack, till poor Cerberus finally decided it was the better part of valour to keep his distance. He began hanging out a block away from Toad Hall, returning warily only to be fed. At last I decided he'd be better off elsewhere and gave him to a friend and his new wife. (Later, after I’d decided the wife was not a good person to entrust with an animal she refused to return him. I got him back anyhow, and he turned out to be the best dog I ever had, but that's another story.) But Three Toes was docile with my friends and myself.
I began to get over the idea of having a ferocious wolf as a pet to augment my youthful masculinity. I began to suspect there'd been more than a little exaggeration on the part of the attendants at the Oak Ridge shelter, but that was okay. Three Toes was a handsome and affectionate dog. I feared he wouldn't provide much protection for Toad Hall in my absence in that seedy neighbourhood a bit beyond the area of student residences; he seemed scarcely more formidable than a lap dog. But I was coming to feel it was unworthy to expect my pets to protect me; rather, it was my job to care for and protect my pets.
It was not uncommon back then to permit dogs to run loose, even in city neighbourhoods, and I would occasionally let Three Toes out onto tree-shaded Forest Avenue. But the morning the dogcatcher came I had Three Toes chained up around back. I was startled when I answered the door; Knoxville dogcatchers were official members of the city police, and he was in full uniform. But I seldom smoked during the daytime, so there was no tell-tale odour of marijuana and I relaxed. The chubby young man with the officer was well dressed, almost certainly a student, as was I when I could afford to be. “This man says your dog bit him,” the animal control officer announced, jerking his thumb at the fellow with him, who was hanging back a bit.
“Which dog?” I asked. Cerberus was living with friends, and Precious mostly only bit people on motorcycles or who were playing brass instruments.
“Do you have a dog that looks like a wolf?”
“Well, maybe a little. But that dog's no biter. He's about as vicious as Snoopy.”
“Mind if I take a look?”
“Sure, but I'm telling you: you have the wrong dog. This dog is a pussycat.”
I led them around the house to where Three Toes was tethered. I'd forgotten the bit about his hatred for uniforms. When he saw the uniformed animal control officer my lapdog became a ravening werewolf, lunging at the end of his chain, literally foaming at the mouth, and, I swear, his eyes glowing red. All my protests as to this animal's gentleness suddenly rang hollow; the dogcatcher made a jaundiced moue. “You need to keep him quarantined for ten days,” the officer said, which seemed perfectly reasonable.
All of a sudden the accounts of the workers at the Oak Ridge pound began to look quite plausible. I quit letting Three Toes out to relieve himself unattended. I warned my two housemates and our friends that Three Toes was never to be turned loose. Mostly they complied. However, Gene, the huge, affable hunchback who lived next door laughed one evening when I arrived home about seeing Three Toes pursue a visitor back to his car and applauded the young man's adroitness; he'd managed, Gene said, to sail cleanly through his open window just ahead of Three Toes' snapping teeth. Apparently this person had not even been wearing any sort of uniform. I never had any confirmation of this event from any of Toad Hall's habitués, but I'd never known Gene to fib. Perhaps it had been a Jehovah's Witness.
Some weeks later there was an incident that cost everyone within Toad Hall, including Barbara Mott, the future Mrs. Karl Edward Wagner, some very bad moments. I had two housemates, Terry and Ken; we were hippies, revolutionaries in search of a revolution, outraged at the excesses of the Nixon administration. While strolling along Forest Avenue one Summer night a police car had passed Terry and one of his friends and Terry had uttered the word “pig” perhaps a bit too loudly.
Barbara and her friend Marilyn were listening to music in the living room. I was drawing at my desk in my front bedroom when I heard a guttural, threatening redneck voice from the front porch. I dashed to the front door but when I saw a city officer standing there I decided I really had nothing to contribute, so I returned to my room, not expecting much to come of whatever lecture the cop was delivering to Terry. I hadn't noticed a visitor, Pat Crouch, sitting over to one side on our porch and clutching Three Toes' collar. He swore later that he hadn't released Three Toes, that the animal had torn himself from his grasp. Somehow the cop made it to his patrol car in one piece and called for backup.
We shut the front door and doused the lights. In minutes the cop was joined by not one, not two, but four more police cars and five or six additional police officers all clustered on the sidewalk in front of Toad Hall, discussing their next course of action. Five police radios squawked raucously. Terry and his friend and Pat Crouch headed out into the darkness of the back yard and away down the alley, taking Three Toes with them on a leash. Barbara and Marilyn lingered, urging me to flee with them, but I declined. In my mind's eye I clearly saw the cops storming the house, finding it empty and, under the pretext of looking for drugs - which we always hid off-premises - destroying my artwork. I couldn't let that happen. I foresaw with certainty that one of them was going to start to smash one of my sculptures, that I would attack him to prevent that, and that I would be shot down like… well, like a dog. I saw this looming tragedy with great clarity. I hugged and kissed Barbara, and Marilyn too, and urged them to see that a statue was someday erected in my honour, sculpted by an artist whose talents were as nearly equal my own as possible. Then I sent them away* and stood by the window, peering through the drapes, waiting for the moment when the cops would make their move. The minutes crawled by. One of the cops got back in his car for some reason. Then he drove away. The rest followed, one by one.
I suppose I'll never know what they were considering, or why they didn't raid the house. Maybe they couldn't get a warrant. A friend who claimed to have contacts in the KPD said that the reason Toad Hall was never raided while houses all around the university were was that the cops had heard we had an arsenal, that we were a bunch of fanatics, and that they figured there were easier pickings elsewhere. Maybe there was another police action in the works that a raid at this time would have undermined. I'll never know what brought about that great anti-climax. But I was grateful for it.
I mentioned that Toad Hall was located in an area just outside the student ghetto, a neighbourhood of once fine houses now gone to seed and occupied by poor labourers - which is what I was, at this time - welfare recipients, pensioners and the like. It was the scion of one of these families, a young man I'd seen around from time to time, but didn't know, who suddenly began promenading Forest Avenue in the uniform of a Marine. Whether he had actually joined the Marines - my old branch of the service, as I like to imagine, though I was only a Marine for one day - and was waiting to ship out, or had begun wearing a borrowed uniform for reasons unknown, he plainly took great pride in his new outfit. It seems Three Toes had a different view of it.
I didn't know Three Toes had gotten out, nor that the young man had been bitten, likely as a direct consequence of his attire, until he and his parents showed up at the front door of Toad Hall one evening. “Your dog bit my son! What are you going to do about it?” his father demanded to know.
“By all means, take him to the emergency room and get him looked at; I'll cover all expenses,” I hastened to assure them. “And I'll see that the dog's kept confined for ten days, just to be safe. But please don't call the dogcatcher; I'm afraid they'll seize my dog.” There must have been an intervening incident I've forgotten, as I remember thinking, if not saying, that Three Toes was already a two-time loser.
“That's fine,” the father assured me. “We just want to make sure our son gets his doctor bills paid.” I didn't make much as a toilet trucker, so I resigned myself to tightening my belt for a couple of weeks. Then, as now, even a minor emergency room visit was expensive. But at least the authorities wouldn't be coming for Three Toes; a third offence would almost certainly mean his execution.
When they'd gone I knelt and grabbed Three Toes by the fur of his neck, exasperated. “Three Toes, what am I to do with you?” Tongue lolling, he wagged his tail.
It was less than an hour later that the dogcatcher, a different and less agreeable one than the first, appeared at my door demanding that I turn my vicious dog over to him. I couldn't do that. Maybe I wasn't the most responsible pet owner, then, but I had a sense of loyalty. Three Toes would have tried to protect me; I could do no less. I refused. The dogcatcher threatened to call for back-up and take me in. I thought how humiliating it would be, in light of my growing street rep, which included a few arrests, to be taken in by the dogcatcher. He warned of dire consequences if I continued to obstruct him. I asked him what sort of person would choose a career capturing and killing children's pets. He responded that “it pays good.” I told him I'd already taken the dog to my parents' home in the suburbs. He finally offered to let the matter go if I could prove that the dog was now out of his jurisdiction. That seemed a pretty good deal, so I gave him my guarantee to do so the following day. And the next day I presented Three Toes to my parents.
A few days later I saw the young man, without his Marine uniform, in the 13th Street IGA. I laid down the items I'd been about to purchase and stayed out of sight while he checked out, and then followed him up the street till he turned into a broad alley. He heard my approach and turned his head toward me a moment before I reached him but was too startled to move; I caught him in a full nelson. “You bastard!” I hissed. “You promised not to call the pound. You could have gotten my dog killed!” He protested that had been his parents' doing, not his. “Now have them call the dogcatcher on me!” I dared him, and bit him in the neck hard, bringing blood.
[An irrelevant piece of business happened then, which my meagre knowledge of story-telling suggests should be omitted as it can only serve to break what I believe is called the “narrative drive” of my account, but it happened so I'll include it for Benjamin to pass judgment on. It does reflect well on Knoxvillians' willingness to get involved, though in the heat of my anger I didn't entirely appreciate that fact at the time. As I was releasing the object of my wrath I saw a young man, no doubt a student, standing nearby with a knife still in its sheath. “And what did you mean to do with that knife?” I demanded, my dander still up.
“I just wanted to make sure no one got hurt,” he responded.
“With a knife?” I sneered.
“It doesn't matter, now,” he said. “I heard you say he'd done something to your dog, so let's let it go.” But he hung on to the knife as I approached him. “Let's not have anybody get hurt.” He repeated.
“Get rid of that knife or someone is going to get hurt,” I said. So he tossed it into the open window of a car, presumably his own, and we went our separate ways. It was not until later I came to appreciate the young man's willingness to stick his neck out for a stranger.]
My father loved animals, was much better with animals than with people. He was more likely to inflict corporal punishment upon my sister or myself than upon his pets. He and my mother accepted Three Toes grudgingly, but my father's growing admiration for the animal was obvious. He soon had a photograph of the canine, whom he renamed simply “Wolf,” displayed in his bedroom (he and my mother at that time had separate rooms). Wolf quickly transferred his loyalty to my father and they became great friends, a pack of two lone wolves.
My friend Dr. Marcella Cranford used to raise, train and exhibit wolves as part of her nature program in and around Knoxville. She worked with some of the top wolf experts in North America including the well-known Dr. Klinghammer. She had a special disdain for those who deliberately cross-bred wolves with dogs, a practice that became rather common in those years, for reasons ranging from a misplaced admiration for wolves to, again, macho psychotics wanting to lay claim to courage and character they didn't possess within themselves. The combination was an especially unfortunate one, she told me, as wolf-dogs have the territoriality and fierceness of the wolf, but lack their fear of man, making for a dangerous mix.
Another problem with wolves as pets - and at least some wolf-dogs - is that they can't be house-broken. Three Toes tried to be as discrete as possible when that aspect of nature called, by going far back under my parents' house to the section that had never been fully excavated. My penance for sticking my parents with my problem animal was that I had to crawl back there whenever I visited and collect the scat of the previous week. Little enough payment, as things turned out.
The incident with the mosquitoes happened one day while Karl was visiting at my parents’ house; I don't recall why we were there, out in their big back yard. Three Toes raced around their large house, trying to reach us, and, somehow, knocked the cover off the small aquarium perched on the basement windowsill, the aquarium where my father raised mosquito wrigglers to feed his fish. For some reason my father attributed the freed swarm in their house to the malignant machinations of Karl whom he never really liked. Thus the phone call mentioned earlier. Karl had no idea what he was talking about with his vague hints of freed mosquitoes and simply, and not for the first time, thought him mad.
But that was the last time Three Toes was to be stymied by mere windows. I mentioned that wolves are highly territorial. There came a day when Three Toes now Wolf saw a dog intruding on my parents property and crashed through the window of one of the basement doors to defend their turf. He chased the offending dog far, far away but didn't harm him. Only Three Toes was injured, cut rather badly from the glass.
No sooner were his stitches healed than he crashed through another window to defend my parents' mailbox from the Sweets across the street. Mrs. Sweet had been going for the newspaper in the mailbox which happened to be right next to my parents' mailbox, but Three Toes growled at her, letting her off with a warning. There was some rancour over that, and my father replaced the glass in Three Toes' preferred exit window with unbreakable Plexiglas.
But wolves are cunning, and my parents' house had many windows. The next time Three Toes chased the paperboy into the Sweets' house. They called the dogcatcher - yet a third one - who came out to capture Three Toes, but was, instead, chased back into his truck. He was wearing a uniform. The Sweets gave him my father's work number, and he contacted him at the post office where he worked and demanded he come home and control his dog. And that he promptly remove him from his jurisdiction.
Which is how Karl came to own the wolf dog. What lover of fantasy, let alone writer thereof, could fail to have a fascination with wolves? And he thought Three Toes would provide valuable protection for The Valley Park Clinic and Cycle Shop, as he called his house, while he spent long hours away in classes at UNC medical school. No doubt, he was also trying to help Dad and me out of a bad situation, bearing my father no ill will for his unfounded hints as to Karl's acts of bioterrorism. While in town he came by in the Falcon station wagon, a true collector's item, that had seen him through four years at Kenyon College and was now getting him to and from med school. He had to admit that Three Toes was a handsome wolf, albeit smaller than the ones in the movies.
Three Toes' fourth owner, not counting the Oak Ridge pound, in the space of less than a year, Karl took Three Toes to his parents' house in the Seven Oaks subdivision where they maintained a room for him for his visits to Knoxville. All his pulps, including his nearly complete collection of Weird Tales, were stored there, not yet moved to his Chapel Hill home, so he and Three Toes spent the night within the miasmic scent of mouldering fantasies of long ago, Three Toes lying at the foot of Karl's antique brass bed. On the shelves of thousands of volumes of horror stories, among the animal skulls and other eldritch bric-a-brac, was the werewolf statuette I had so meticulously crafted years ago and given him as a Christmas present, way back in high school.
The next day Karl drove his father, Aubrey “Red” Wagner, chairman of TVA, to the auto lot to help him find a new car. They took Karl's new dog along for the ride. Probably they were checking out Thunderbirds; father and son were big fans of Fords, and of the Thunderbird in particular. I don't know how long they spent looking over cars, but it was long enough. When they returned to Karl's Falcon the upholstery was in shreds. It looked rather like Lon Chaney, Jr.'s room after the full moon has risen. Karl decided this really wasn't the pet for him.
Fortunately, the Wagners knew a couple they thought could provide Three Toes the perfect home. I never met them and can't recall their name, so I'll call them the Glendons, David and Beth. They were a young couple, married only a couple of years. David Glendon was doing very well for them; they had a nice house and a farm, where they kept horses as a hobby, out in the country on Norris Freeway, actually a well-maintained, two-lane country road rather than a real freeway, running the six or seven miles between north Knox County and the city of Norris, near where TVA's first hydroelectric dam had been built in the 30's. But his job required him to work nights, and he liked the idea of having a dog around the place that would not only be company for Beth in that isolated location, but which might actually provide a degree of protection for her while he was away. They rarely had visitors, and certainly no one ever showed up out there in uniform. Or so they thought. They'd forgotten about the meter man.
It was a month or so later. It took Beth Glendon a moment to realize that what she was hearing that morning was not a peacock or other farm animal but human screams. When she got around the house to the meter she was horrified to see Three Toes crouching over the unfortunate meter man, savagely tearing at him. Adding her own screams to the bedlam she dragged Three Toes away and into the house, then rushed back to his victim to see if she could administer first aid. But, miraculously, the meter man was entirely unscathed. Only his uniform had been harmed; it hung in tatters, almost completely ripped from his body. Sobbing with relief Beth begged his forgiveness and promised to somehow make it up to him. But no real harm done, praise the Lord. Except that before the meter man had driven 100 yards he had a heart attack and ran off Norris Freeway and into a tree.
He recovered completely. The Glendons' homeowners' insurance along with workman's comp covered the related expenses. But, rather surprisingly, the Glendons didn't repent their decision to adopt Three Toes. He'd done his job in protecting the homestead; they'd just neglected the detail of the meter man. They'd not make that mistake again, and now they both felt even more confident about Beth being home alone.
But both of them were home, sleeping in the very wee hours, when human screams were again heard on their farm. Among the horses in their pasture was a very valuable Arabian. A couple of local good old boys had decided to do a little rustling. They had backed their horse trailer up to a gate distant from the house with the idea of getting themselves a half a ton of prime horse flesh and had, instead, gotten 70 pounds of wolf dog. Karl told me that when the sheriff had arrived the horse thieves had been overjoyed to be arrested, that one of them had had the flesh stripped to the bone in places along one arm.
The Glendons were not horrified at the damage Three Toes had done to their marauding neighbours; in fact they bought him a steak dinner. But a few weeks later Three Toes vanished, never to be seen again. The Glendons feared he'd been shot or poisoned by a vengeful horse thief, but no carcass was flung into their lawn, no gloating, unsigned letters arrived. Perhaps he'd wandered off, in pursuit of a female in heat or just expanding his territory. They advertised in national dog magazines offering sizeable rewards, but Three Toes was never seen again. Perhaps he wandered back down to Louisiana, in search of others of his kind but finding none. Perhaps Three Toes became the last wild red wolf in America.
4. Did you and Karl ever work towards a collaborative project?
Well, there were the short stories I mentioned in that “memoir” you referred to. For a while I tried my hand at writing, also, but, with one or two exceptions, had received nothing but rejection slips (the exceptions were more personal, but still rejections). Aside from whatever other shortcomings I had as a writer, I was dilatory about polishing up the stories and getting them in the mail. Karl offered to attend to both those tasks, and sent those off as collaborations. None ever saw print, though there was that strange incident I related earlier, when the manuscript came back from Warren five years after we submitted it with no note at all, even a rejection slip, and the curiously analogous story appeared in Creepy. And Karl accepted my unfinished manuscript of Five for Infamy, a tale of a band of hired assassins, to add a few pages from the point of view of the character in the story that was based on himself, Dr. Brewer, the strangler. But I don't think he ever worked on it, probably because it wasn't very good. When I'd ask him about his progress he'd tell me things such as that so far he'd only had time to change the title to A Bullet is My Pillow.
He did acknowledge that my offhand gag about The Old Man and the Kudzu had inspired “Where the Summer Ends.” And he altered at least one description, in Darkness Weaves, to conform to my illustration of the scene. And we collaborated on a couple of talent night skits including the non-narrative Da-Da skit that outraged the Talent Night advisors. But beyond that nothing specific comes to mind, though I'd like to think that growing up together, getting through high school and college, extricating one another from some ticklish predicaments ranging from getting out of detention hall to facing down armed thugs, reinforcing and challenging one another's ideas, fighting over women and reminiscing over drinks was a form of collaboration.
But even the kudzu story, in which the main character, Karl said, was based on me, was just a matter of my having started a chain of thought in his mind, not having provided an actual story idea. Karl’s stories owe nothing to me, nor, I hasten to add, to anyone else, other than that everything and everyone he encountered was grist for the marvellous mill of his mind.
5. Do you believe Karl Edward Wagner will become an author who will be studied in an academic environment?
Well, you never know what's going to be offered in colleges today; Onondaga Community College, for example, offers a course called Horror and Fantasy Films as part of the Cinema program. And Brown University has accepted his papers into their special collections (Wagner's own family has to receive special permission to examine them now). I'm not aware of much academic interest in the works of Howard or Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith or even Edgar Rice Burroughs yet. But it took Poe many years after his death before he began to be considered one of the United States' great authors. Maybe time enough will win him the respect I believe he is due. When he died I thought to do a Lycos search for him (Google was not to be for another decade or so), to gauge how widely known he'd become. There were two hits, both mentioning him in passing. Just now there were 163,800. His stories belong to the hardworking people, to the salt of the earth. Considering how low his regard was for the academicians of medical school, and theirs of him, I doubt he would much care if scholars analyze and comment on his work. Chances are they'd get it all wrong. As Yeats put it:
Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love's despair
To flatter beauty's ignorant ear.
6. What are you feelings towards the forthcoming Kane movie?
Trepidation. Fear that it will never make it to theatres, fear that it will and will fall short of Wagner's vision, thereby clouding the public's perception of his work for years thereafter (imagine if the public's attitude toward the works of Robert E. Howard were based primarily upon the two piss-poor Conan movies [Sendahl Bergman not having been enough to redeem the first one]). And hope: hope that it will, after all, be so masterfully crafted that legions of new fans will be won to Wagner's work. I'll mention that I hope someone in the process recognizes that Karl's description of Kane was very clear: he is massively muscled. If the producers choose to cast some photogenic young man who is just buffed up a little, that will not be Kane as I drew him. But that's just a personal fixation; possibly that will not matter much to most viewers. From all I’ve heard, I’m happy to report, the movie is in good hands.
7. Were you ever asked to contribute to Exorcisms and Ecstasies (1997)? Your absence from the volume was surprising, in light of your magnificent memoir.
You are far too kind; thank you. No, I was not contacted, but, in all fairness, even had the publishers wished to contact me, I realize that I'm rather a hard person to locate. I've deliberately kept a low profile; process servers, bill-collectors and revenge seekers, you know. Actually, I've never seen the book, but I'm hoping to find a copy on eBay when I'm flush.
8. What other writings have you produced?
Essays and articles for newspapers, small publications and fanzines, a few poems, a comic strip that ran in my home town for a couple of years. I'm hoping to find time to add one more instalment to the comic strip some day, enough to fill out a graphic “novel” which, of course, I will dedicate to Karl, with a dedication that will read “Right back at ya, big guy.”
9. What other authors do you enjoy reading? Do you have any favourite works?
To be honest, now that I'm back in school, I have little time for fiction. But, when I did, I enjoyed many of the same authors Karl did: Cabell, Smith, Howard, Vance. Later I got into Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Maugham - the segment of Of Human Bondage dealing with the hero's studies in art hit me like a ton of bricks - too late, too late - the nature and carnival stories of Daniel Mannix, the archie and mehitabel collections of Marquis, the poetry of Blake and Yeats - I think “Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea” is an excellent example of heroic fantasy (http://www.bibliomania.com/0/2/332/2424/28077/1/frameset.html). And lately I've been rereading the Dark Horse reprints of Little Lulu and Tubby by Tripp and Stanley. Tubby was probably the first anti-hero I encountered in fiction, Lulu the first feminist (note that Kane was a villain-hero, not an anti-hero). I recommend the series. No doubt a little thought would add a couple hundred other authors to this list.
10. What plans do you have for the future?
Considering the reverses I’ve experienced in the last few years I’ve ceased to make plans for the future; as a former artist it's possible I never did. As someone has said, “Nam homo proponit, sed Azathoth disponit.” But I have undertaken studies in a medical field, with the hope that I will graduate and live long enough to make some use of what I learn, maybe visit far off places where such skills are most badly needed. At any rate, one must do something and returning to school, even at my age, beats sitting around waiting for the Reaper to find me (another good reason, by the way, to have an unlisted number).
*Barbara remembers that Karl was there that night and that it was he who led her and Marilyn out the back way and down the alley. Could be; that would explain why I did not feel the need to entertain the girls, but it raises the question of how I was able to resist a joining them. Sorry; memory fails me on that score, but Barbara seems certain.