Walk on the Wild Side: The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner, Volume 2
by Karl Edward Wagner
Cover Artist: J.K. Potter
Review by Mario Guslandi
Centipede Press Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781933618982
Date: 13 March 2012 List Price $45.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Widely known as the long-standing editor of the mythical Year’s Best Horror Stories series (a task he carried on for fourteen years) and the founder of the World Fantasy Award winning imprint Carcosa, Karl Edgar Wagner was also a fine and prolific writer. Creator of the famous heroic fantasy character Kane (the Mystic Swordman) featured in various novels and stories, Wagner was the author of countless horror tales, collected in various volumes that appeared before and after his untimely death at forty-eight.
As an avid reader of the Year’s Best Horror Stories anthologies I discovered Wagner’s talent as an horror writer many years ago by reading a Kane story with a distinctly dark side “Sing A Last Song of Valdese”, a superb mix between horror and heroic fantasy. A similar, excellent genre mixture was represented, years later, by the Kane story “At First Just Ghostly” ( Incidentally I hope you have noticed Wagner's knack for incredibly enticing titles).
You won’t find the above stories in the present collections of The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner simply because his fantasy fiction has been purposely excluded. But you’ll find, in the two volumes edited by Stephen Jones, a lot of extraordinary material, such as the cult stories “Sticks”, “In the Pines”, “Beyond Any Measure” and “Where the Summer Ends” (Where the Summer Ends: The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner, Volume 1) , “More Sinned Against”, “A Walk on the Wild Side” and “Lacunae” (Walk on the Wild Side: The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner, Volume 2), just to mention a few.
Commenting in detail upon tales which have made the history of horror short fiction in the '80s and '90s would be useless and arrogant. It's enough to say that Wagner was a great storyteller, author of vivid, strong but perceptive fiction. Trained as a psychiatrist, he made use of his medical knowledge to add a peculiar taste to some of his stories, such as the devilish “Into Whose Hands” (again, what a great title!) or “Final Cut” by Wagner the writer, selected by Wagner the editor, for inclusion in the unfortunately long forgotten, splendid anthology Diagnosis: Terminal. An Anthology of Medical Horror.
Another side of Wagner’s writing is the strong erotic ingredient, that makes some of his work very spicy. This is evident in some of the stories assembled in volume two (“Lacunae”, “Brushed Away”, etc.) but also in volume one (“The River of Night's Dreaming“ is known to have been firstly turned down by the editor of the Shadows anthology series because it was too sexually explicit ). Thus, after Wagner's death it didn’t come as a big surprise to his friends the discovery among his personal belongings of a porn novel published under a pen name.
Wagner, as pointed out by himself in an article, was also a big dreamer, both in a spiritual and in a physical way. A few of his stories (“Endless Night" and "Neither Brute Nor Human") appear to be actual dreams later transferred on paper by the writer.
The two volumes - which no horror fan should miss - are enriched by some insightful and affectionate commentaries written by some of Wagner’s fellow writers and personal friends such as Stephen Jones, Peter Straub, and David Drake. Their recollections portray an extraordinary, lively person, but also, in his last years, a sick, lonely man destroying himself day by day by means of his drinking vice. A shame, which has deprived us of many more stories and novels he could have given us for years thanks to his great talent.