The very name evokes images of strength and power, warriors and wizards, gods and goddesses, epic tragedies of loves won and lost; and even of the Twilight of the Gods, the end of time itself. The name, Wagner, is one of the most common surnames in Germanic speaking nations. Nevertheless, it is most often associated with Richard Wagner, whose music, both orchestral and operatic, was based on Germanic myths. His work is often considered definitive of Romantic Era music and extravagant festivals celebrating his music are still held to this day.
ut it is not to Richard Wagner that this website is dedicated. It is instead dedicated to Karl Edward Wagner, a distant relative of the great composer who blazed another meteoric path through the fine arts, but in literature rather than music. Like his predecessor, Karl Wagner’s work dealt with many of the same themes as Richard, but in a different manner. He also relied upon a substantially broader assortment of literary materials for inspiration than did Richard. Karl is best known for his stories of epic fantasy, horror and science fiction. During the 1970s and into the 1980s, he was considered one of the very best writers in all three genres.
owever, his most memorable works are the tales of Cain, or in Karl’s stories, “Kane”. The altered spelling, combined with a broader array of arcane and hermetic works for source material enabled Karl to “re-create Kane/Cain” and the antediluvian world in which he lived. A few examples of the arcane and hermetic literature Karl used in creating Kane and his world include the Book of Genesis, the Sefer Ha-Aggadah, the Zohar, the Book of Enoch as well as other Near Eastern myths such as The Epic of Gilgamesh. Later interpolations of those myths and legends, such as those presented in Pike’s Morals and Dogma and Regardie’s The Golden Dawn were also used. Even more significant were the 19th c. “Gothic” authors and early 20th c. pulp fiction writers including Poe, Walpole, Shelley, Radcliffe, Maturin, Chambers, Lovecraft and Howard to name but a few. Combined with his innate skill as a story-teller, Karl produced perhaps the most unique, astounding and memorable character to ever stride through the genre of epic fantasy: Kane.
ane the accursed, Kane the damned, humanity’s first murderer who slew his own brother in a fit of jealousy! As punishment, the insane god who created humanity cursed Kane with physical immortality. The curse was rife with irony for the god gave Kane the life he took from Abel and with it, the rage he used against his brother. Combined with immortality, his hatred and rage over his total rejection by the divine powers, Kane was forced to wander forever never finding peace. Only violence as great as his own could kill him, but Kane’s curse, his mark, would always overcome any who raised their hand against him and in his wake, a trail of desolation followed forcing him to continually run, to hide, to fight, to conspire, to practice sorcery, to do whatever was necessary to survive. In this fashion, Kane had his own type of vengeance against the mad creator god who cursed him.
n addition to the Kane stories, one of which is now currently in the early stages of production as a motion picture, Karl Wagner wrote several pastiches of Robert E. Howard’s characters including Conan of Cimmeria. He also wrote some of the best horror stories of the 20th century. He was no stranger to science fiction although this genre was by no means his favorite or most productive. Regardless of genre however, all of his stories were imbued by an atmosphere of haunted darkness that few, if any, other authors can match. Consequently, he has been dubbed the founder of “Gothic or Dark Fantasy”. In addition to his work as an author, he was the editor of the noted Year’s Best Horror Stories for 15 years. He also edited a number of limited edition collections, via the small publishing outfit aptly named Carcosa (after the dead city in mentioned in Chambers' The King in Yellow), of some of the horror genre’s earliest and best authors who first published their works in the pulp fiction magazines (Weird Tales, Avon Fantasy Reader and Fantasy Magazine for a few examples) of the first half of the 20th century. These beautifully bound and signed editions contained the collected works of authors such as Manly Wade Wellman, E. Hoffman Price and Hugh Cave. Karl also edited a definitive three volume set of R.E. Howard’s unforgettable stories of Conan of Cimmeria. In “editing” these, he in fact “un-edited” them by going straight to the pulps where the stories first appeared and having the stories appear exactly as they appeared in the 1930s. He did this to undo what he felt were unfair editorial “corrections” made in earlier 1960s paperback editions of the Conan stories by L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter.
arl was born on Dec. 12, 1945 in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was the youngest child of Aubrey J. Wagner and Dorothea Huber. He had three siblings, one sister and two brothers. His father would go on to become Chairman of the Board of Directors, Tennessee Valley Authority in 1960, a presidential appointment made by then President John F. Kennedy and would remain in that position until his retirement in 1978. His father’s position helped enable Karl to be raised in what could be fairly termed “upper middleclass”. However, his father never used his position to curry favors with the political elite, with whom he constantly interacted. Thus, Karl went to public schools rather than private including Knoxville’s Central High School where he graduated in 1963. He was a straight “A” student and his grades plus his family’s income allowed him to attend Kenyon College where graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in History in 1967. He would later attend medical school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and earn an MD in psychiatry. However, his real love was writing and once he figured he could at least make a minimal living at it, he left medicine for good.
n a rather untraditional, but extremely kind, tribute to Karl in Exorcisms and Ecstasies, Stephen Jones quoted him as saying, “I became a psychiatrist and fled into writing. Counted, and I’ve written or edited fifty books. Not bad for a punk of nineteen.” If there was one thing Karl was good at, it was a flare for understatement. That attribute is evident throughout his stories. They are never too slow or too fast, too gory or too wimpy, too intense or at all boring, too much sex or too little. Karl was in fact an extraordinarily gifted storyteller whose untimely death in 1994 due to alcoholism brought a sad end to what was a stellar career. He won World and British Fantasy Awards multiple times. A literary award in his name has been established in Great Britain where his stories were most popular. In the U.S., his popularity is on the rise as new generations of “Dark Fantasy” aficionados discover his brilliantly disturbing works. Additionally, his stories have been translated into nine languages ranging from Spanish to Japanese and new translations continue to be produced. In fact, his works are more popular now than at perhaps at any time during his life. Perhaps Umberto Eco stated it best: “I understood it this evening: the author has to die in order for the reader to become aware of his truth.” A rather dark assessment to say the least; but one with which we believe Karl would have agreed. Only 48 when he died on Oct. 14, 1994, he has become something of an embodiment of Eco’s postulate. But perhaps the strangest aspect of this fact is that the comment of Eco’s quoted above comes from from his brilliant, haunting novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. And in that intricate gothic work is a character, a psychiatrist known only as Dr. Wagner, who is something of a savant and revolutionary in numerous fields of inquiry. Mere coincidence or something more?
About the Webmasters
This website is devoted to the life and works of Karl Edward Wagner. It has been produced and is operated by four people who were counted as members of his innermost circle of family and friends. All four of us have known Karl very closely; three of us all of our lives and the fourth his dearest friend from high school and earliest artistic collaborator on the Kane stories. We hope to provide some of the best insights to Karl’s work as well as his life since all of us were part in Karl’s truly amazing life. We will offer personal anecdotes that few others can offer as well as a complete listing and review of his works since this website is affiliated with (although not supported by) his literary estate and one of us works as the librarian of his personal collection of books. Ultimately, we hope that this website will become the primary site for accurate information about his life, his stories, new editions of his work, films based on his stories and to answer any questions that his fans might have.
At this point, it is worth introducing ourselves. The primary artist and co-designer of the site is Karl’s old school chum mentioned above, John Mayer. John and Karl became close friends in high school and remained so until Karl’s death. John did a number of illustrations for the Kane stories while Karl was just beginning his formal efforts as an author of epic fantasy. John continues to do so to this day. His close association with Karl has allowed him to write an incisive biography which is linked to this website. Many of the illustrations of “Mayer” (as Karl was fond of calling him) will be displayed on this site, too. In addition to working on this website, John continues to work as an illustrator, martial arts instructor (he holds a second degree black belt in judo, has boxed, and is currently studying Catch Wrestling, to the extent that decades of injuries permit) and author to mention a few of his pursuits.
Of the remaining three: we are the sons of Karl’s only sister, Audrey and thus his three eldest nephews (Karl always referred to us as “the nephews”). We idolized him from the day we first met (yep, even as infants) to the day he died. “Uncle Karl” as we always called him (or once we’d grown up, only “Uncle”) introduced us to the world of literature first through comic books, then to great, traditional writers such as Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, and Poe; and then onto the modern giants in the science fiction, epic fantasy and horror genres. He taught us much of what we learned as children through constantly playing and indulging us in pretty much whatever we wanted. Just a few examples include swimming, wrestling, boating, fishing and hiking. Whenever we were at the vacation house his father had built on Watts Bar Lake (near Spring City, Tennessee) and he was there, adventure was sure to abound. It was there that every night before bed, he would tell us a story completely extemporaneously; and they were ALWAYS enchanting (all of us wish we’d had the foresight to tape record them). It was one such night when he told us he would read us the introduction to a book he was writing and hoped to publish. It was the introduction to his defining Kane novel, Bloodstone, and we were among the very first people to hear it. All three of us still feel deeply privileged to have somehow obtained that honor.