Buried Treasure

One of my regrets in life is not taking time to speak with Karl Edward Wagner.

In the early 1990s, I used to be a member of the HWA (Horror Writers Association). Through their annual conventions, I got to meet many of the writers I admire, including heavy-hitters like Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, and Robert Bloch. I was once in a huckster room, picking up a paperback copy of In A Lonely Place, when someone said, “You ought to have him sign it. He’s right over there,” and pointed to an intimidating, biker-esque, bearded man standing alone. “Maybe I will,” I answered… and did not. He died a few years later.

Karl Edward Wagner was known primarily for his character, Kane, a dark fantasy anti-hero of short stories and novels. Though not my genre of choice, I have read a collection of Kane short stories and thoroughly enjoyed it. But he also wrote several award-winning horror stories, originally published in now defunct (and sorely missed) magazines, like Twilight Zone and The Horror Show.   

I won’t rattle on about the plots of these stories, but the imagery, subject matter, and prose have stayed with me for decades–not unlike other established masters (Poe, Blackwood, Barker). There are two collections containing these stories: In a Lonely Place, and Why Not You and I? Both are out of print currently, but used copies are out there. I have the former in well-worn 1983 paperback, and the latter in a beautiful Dark Harvest edition, 1987 (both pictured above). The paperbacks editions are often found easily and inexpensively at your local used bookstore.

Wagner and I have East Tennessee in common, and I suspect that this is part of my strong connection with his writing. He was born there; I grew up there. Many of the stories are set in and around Knoxville, and the Great Smokey Mountains. I have fond memories of walking slightly off campus while attending the University of Tennessee, wondering if I was treading the same sidewalks as in Where the Summer Ends

Recently, having reacquainted myself with the two collections, I got curious as to Wagner’s influences. I started with his website, discovering that he has a cited list of what he considered to be the 39 best horror novels (divided into 3 groups of 13–supernatural, science fiction, and non-supernatural). I found a complete copy of this list on Thomas Ligotti’s website here (scroll down after clicking).

Treasure maps are not that easy to come by. When you do happen upon one such as this, the level of excitement is difficult to define. For me–an avid reader who prides himself on being fairly knowledgeable of the horror genre–I was simultaneously mystified, unnerved, and giddy. There are several authors and titles on that list that I have never read or even heard of! I am only familiar with five. FIVE! That means there are at least thirty-four titles out there that I am now curious to read.

Of course, many of these are old, out-of-print, expensive, forbidden, or cursed… but that makes it all the more exciting to track them down. Echo of a Curse by R.R.Ryan was recently reissued in a brand new edition with a foreword by none other than Stephen King himself. 

So, even 20+ years after his death, Wagner is the author that keeps on giving… to me, at least. Thank you, Karl. I wish had told you in person how much you mean to me.


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