Science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction was so unpopular that Wagner and I were compelled to try our hands at writing it. I liked the surprise endings of the vignettes and short-short stories of Frederick Brown and John Collier. Wagner was influenced by the weighty Gothic novels of the early 19th century such as Melmoth the Wanderer, The Castle of Otranto, and The Worm Ourobouros. These were long, brooding, philosophical fantasies that bore no resemblance to the modern formula romances of the Dark Shadows stripe. He also was a great admirer of the cynical yet whimsical allegories of James Branch Cabell, popular in the 1920s. His first novel, Bloodstone, featuring Kane, the character for whom he was to become best known, had much of the tone of Cabell's mordant myths.
Then, in one of the South Central junk shops, I found an old pulpUnknown Worlds, I thinkthat contained a story titled "The Black Stranger" by Robert E. Howard. The story was about a powerful barbarian pursued by adversaries, whoarmed initially with only a knife and sheer will and staminaultimately triumphs against both human and supernatural foes. The character Conan was unknown to us, not having been seen on newsstands since Howard blew his brains out in 1936 at the age of 30. Wagner liked Howard's bleak, two-fisted styleHoward was a better storyteller than might be apparent to readers who know his characters through the pastiches of lesser writersand Bloodstone began to take on a less humorous, grimmer, and more action-oriented tone. After several revisions, Bloodstone was finally set aside for newer works.
We had been submitting our stories to the only two outlets for fantasy, Fantastic and Fantasy and Science Fiction. Our efforts had garnered nothing more encouraging than a couple of complimentary, handwritten rejections. I began to lose enthusiasm for writing and Wagner offered to polish up my stories and submit them on my behalf. One of my last vignettes concerned a group of vampire hunters. Having found the monster's daylight resting place, the old priest briefs his assistants once more on thwarting the vampire's evil powers: his superhuman strength, his ability to change form, his hypnotic eyes. Thus prepared, they fling open the coffin and the vampire lifts his pistol and shoots them. After two rejections, Wagner began to cast about for other outlets; Warren Publications was publishing Famous Monsters, which occasionally printed a short story. We got no response, nor was the manuscript returned. We forgot all about it until five years later when the manuscript appeared in Wagner's mailbox without explanation. Almost at that same time, a story appeared in Warren's new publication Creepy that seemed like a paraphrase of the tale. The vampire was now a werewolf and the pistol was now a bulletproof vest.
Long before then I had given up on writing and turned my efforts toward art. Wagner promised that he would call upon me to illustrate his first sale.
In '63, Wagner graduated without having broken into print and, with the aid of a National Merit award and a humble but reliable Falcon station wagon from his folks, Wagner headed off to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. His pre-med major was history, a subject he felt would be helpful in his real career: writing.
I was left behind, a five-year man. Suddenly realizing that most of my few friends had gone on without me, I took my classes a little more seriously and actually made the honor roll a couple of times. (Mrs. Pierce was very proud.) Even so, I graduated 334th in a class of 380.
Wagner sailed through undergraduate school but his writing efforts were less successful. Tales of Conan, though badly bowdlerized, were rediscovered by the public and J.R.R. Tolkien's Ring trilogy was published in the U.S. The phrase "swords and sorcery" was coined to describe the work of hacks like Lin Carter and John Jakes. Still, Wagner remained unpublished. Gradually, however, the rejection slips were replaced by encouraging personal notes. It was at this time that Wagner discovered, to his great disillusionment, that the quality of a story had little to do with its chances of being published, and that the function of an editor was not to separate the good from the bad but the marketable from the unmarketable. He received letters from several editors to this effect:
But then, one evening, Wagner called me from Ohio. I was managing to go to the University of Tennessee with the help of a stipend from the Vocational Rehabilitation department based on my aptitude tests and my record of mental illness. I was living in a house that was becoming as notorious, under the name Toad Hall, as I myself had been at Central. "Mayer," he said, "are you able to accept a commission?" Powell Publications, a small outfit in California, had decided to diversify their catalogue from the porn that was their mainstay and was taking a chance on Wagner's latest novel, Darkness Weaves. Wagner had remembered his long-ago promise to let me illustrate his first published work. Neither of us realized how little say the writer actually had in these matters, but Wagner did, in fact, persuade his editor to let me do the interiors. In retrospect I realize that my work was crude, even amateurish, but Karl was especially fond of my frontispiece of Kane leering vindictively from beneath his brow; he was later convinced that it had been swiped by a much better-known artist. In an interview in Nightshade years later, he said that my depiction of Kane, among all the artists who had drawn him, was closest to his conception of him. And why not? I had been drawing Kane even as Wagner was developing him.
Darkness Weaves was a bit too long for Powell's purposes, however, so they decided to abridge it by the simple expedient of yanking out blocks of pages at random, making for a rather disjointed read. Wagner was not consulted. Then the editor realized that the figure on the cover, painted by their staff artist, bore no resemblance to the red-bearded Kane. Wagner said it looked like an African-American with a cantaloupe stuck in his loincloth. The obvious solution: Change Wagner's descriptions of his character to match the painting. So the editor dyed Kane's red hair black and stripped him of his beard, except in a few places that she overlooked. Thus, Kane's appearance alters throughout the book without explanation. The overall effect was rather surreal. Finally, the book was released through Powell's usual adult-bookstore outlets. Still, Darkness Weaves appears to be the only Powell book to have sold out before the company folded.
"It was an ill-favored, misshapen thing, sir," Wagner said, "but it was my firstborn and I loved it."
* * *
Wagner graduated summa cum laude (in the top 10) from Kenyon and was recruited by the University of North Carolina. They were looking for Renaissance men for their medical program and Wagner's history major was just the ticket. Wagner, for his part, chose UNC largely because Chapel Hill was the home of one of our favorite writers, Manly Wade Wellman, author of more than 70 books and countless short stories. In fantasy circles he was best known for his tales of John the Balladeer, a folk historian who wanders the Appalachians recording mountain songs and encountering the ha'nts and ghoulies of the backwoods.
Manly was in his seventies but still a big, robust man and a two-fisted drinker like Karl. They became fast friends, and over their glasses Manly regaled Karl with many tales of the early days of the pulps. Manly had also been a bouncer at a roadhouse during Prohibition and a reporter in New York, where he often took to task smug Yankees who used the term "hillbilly" too carelessly. He claimed he had once challenged John Dillinger to step outside and fight.
Manly had also worked as a comic-book writer in the early days of that medium. One of his publishers had made the mistake of killing off, irrevocably, their most popular villain, The Green Clawa sort of Martian Fu Manchu. They had blown him to bits, his death had been absolutely established, and thousands of kids were threatening to spend their dimes elsewhere. The staff was agonizing over ways to bring the Green Claw back, without success, when Manly came upon the scene and offered to save the day. In the splash panel of the next episode, the myrmidons of The Green Claw were gathered about his bier lamenting his passing. Suddenly, in the next panel, The Green Claw sits up, casts off his shroud and cries, "Silence, fools! The Green Claw lives!" Manly saw no point in slowing the narrative drive with explanations.
Among the pulp writers Manly had known was L. Ron Hubbard, author of such classics as Fear and Death Takes a Holiday. One day he ran into him and remarked that he hadn't seen anything by him lately. "I don't have time for that stuff anymore," Hubbard told him brusquely. "I'm working on something that's going to make me a millionaire." That something was, of course, Scientology.
Of Manly's many anecdotes, the favorite among fantasy fans and bibliophiles alike, was one concerning the strange little shop Wellman came upon in New York surrounded by Confederate flags. It was a bookstore operated by an aged crone. "I was intrigued by the flags outside," Manly greeted her.
"It is the flag of my country," she answered.
"It is the flag of my country, too," Manly responded, acknowledging his great love for his native Southland. He looked over her books and was surprised to find many valuable occult volumes. Scarcely daring to hope he asked her, "Do you have Malleus Mallifacarum?"
"Yessss," she replied. Her bony finger traveled down a row of books and came to rest on an ancient leather volume. It was, indeed, that extremely rare book on witchcraft. It remained the prize of his collection until his death.
On a prankish impulse he asked, "Do you, perhaps, have a copy of the Necronomicon?" This was the apocryphal book H. P. Lovecraft referred to in his tales of Cthulhu and the Elder Gods. Many pulp fans refused to believe there had never been any such book.
"Yessss." Her finger again quested down a row of books and halted at an empty space. "Oh I must have sold it."