Finally, after all those years, the very first novel Wagner had written, Bloodstone, was published in 1975. He brought me a copy and I began to read it. It was, of course, vastly changed from the version he'd scribbled on five-hole Blue Horse-brand notebook paper when he was 14. I had flipped past the title pages, so it was some time before I realized the book was dedicated to me: For John F. MayerColleague and friend, Brother in infamy a reference to one of my high school novel attempts, Five for Infamy in which Karl, Max and I starred with two other Centralites as a band of hired assassins. In the German edition, the translator, unclear on English nuances, made it Bruder in Schande, Brother in shame. Still, I was touched.
As many of the old pulp writers had done, Wagner often worked in hidden references to friends. In Bloodstone, Kane remarks that he'd rather be lounging around Toad Hall partaking of yellow sunshine. Yellow sunshine was a 300-microgram variety of LSD. He also inserted little tributes to his favorite rock bands. On the first page of that same book is a reference to "Several Species of Small Furry Animals Grooving in a Cave with a Pict," a cut on Pink Floyd's Umma Gumma album. "Several species of small furry animals picked their way through caves and grooves in the moss-hung debris "
Among the friends Karl made through his writing was Glenn Lord, the executor of the estate of Robert E. Howard. Lord was disgusted with the liberties editors (and posthumous collaborators) Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp had taken with Howard's work. Back when Howard's work was little known, L. Sprague de Camp had made arrangements to edit the Lancer Conan series. The series was so successful that de Camp, in order to keep up with demand, was obliged to print stories Howard himself had discarded or rewritten, to assemble and rewrite abandoned story fragments and stories Howard had written in other genres (a detective story, for example), old grocery lists, and finally, it seemed, to solicit passersby for new Conan stories. "Excuse me, sir, how'd you like to be the author of Conan?"
The result was a Conan who would have been at home in Saturday morning cartoons. Those of us who knew Howard's work from the pulps were incensed at the indignities his literary corpus was suffering; we were prone to quote Baudelaire: "Is there, then, in America, no law to prevent dogs from entering cemeteries?" Lord knew that Wagner shared his sentiments and asked him to edit new collections of the original Conan tales as Howard had penned them. It seems there had been a clause in the Lancer series contract that reverted all rights to the estate in the event that the stories were out of print for such and such a period. Karl accepted with glee; not only was this a chance to pay homage to one of his formative influences, but, also, to right a wrong. The first volumes of the Berkley Conan series were printed, edited by Karl Wagner but without editorial "emendations." Alas, if only good Aquilonian steel could deal with lawyers as handily as with other monsters. There was a loophole. De Camp et al. brought legal action and Conan disappeared from newsstands for a time. Sadly, committees of evildoers worked a terrible transformation. Conan the Conqueror became Conan the Corporation.
* * *
Wagner began to move away from heroic fantasy in favor of modern horror tales. Many of these were set in Knoxville and environs. One day when he was in town, I took him to meet my friend Mr. Brock who lived in a quaint little cottage he'd built himself from packing crates and scrap lumber. He ran a little flea market in his front yard and Wagner collected old bottles. Mr. Brock also managed to grow a sizeable vegetable garden in the coal dust along the train tracks behind his house, though he waged a constant struggle against the kudzu that encroached upon it daily. He canned those vegetables and they helped see him through the winter. His struggle seemed to me to have a Hemingway quality.
"Someday," I remarked to Wagner as we headed beneath the Asylum Avenue viaduct back to my place, "I'm going to write a story about Mr. Brock titled "The Old Man and the Kudzu."
"You know, Mayer, if you're joking, I believe I can do something with that." I was jokingI hadn't done any writing since high schooland I gave him my blessings. The story became "Where the Summer Ends," a horror tale quite unlike the one I'd proposed. It concerned the creatures that lived in symbiosis with kudzu, and took place in Fort Sanders (an old Knoxville neighborhood). I learned later from Barbara that Wagner had determined that the protagonist would survive or perish based on whether or not I got back together with Julie, my love at that time. Next to "Sticks," "Where the Summer Ends" is Wagner's most frequently reprinted story.
Another local story is "Cedar Lane," set in his boyhood home on that street in North Knoxville, back when there were still cedars on Cedar Lane, before they were cut down to make drive-throughs for Burger Doodles. It concerns the Walk-Home and paths his life might have taken. Sign of the Salamander is a serial written in pulp style about the adventures of John Chance, an occult investigator. It takes place in Vestal, Sequoyah Hills, and the Smokies. "Spare Parts" was based on one of the Knoxville junkyards Wagner used to patronize, probably Red's or Bigfoot's.
Some of his stories were based on his medical experiences. One was rejected for its lack of realism. "You should spend some time around doctors, listen to how they talk," the editor advised him. His story "The Fourth Seal," about the way in which doctors insure their job security, was optioned for a movie.
* * *
With his writing finally paying off and Barbara doing office work, Karl was able to pay off the mortgage on the Valley Park Clinic and Cycle Shop and indulge some of his hobbies. He finally sold the faithful Falcon wagon and bought a new Thunderbird and a bootlegger's souped-up Cyclone Spoiler complete with welded-shut trunk. He and Barbara began taking trips to London just for pleasure; Karl had become fascinated with the city while there as convention guest. And, at long last, he was able to complete his collection of Weird Tales. He wouldn't divulge what he had paid for the earliest issues except to acknowledge that it was a pretty penny. Since the pulps had been generally considered as disposable as the daily paper, few people had saved them and most of those had fallen prey to tidy mothers and wives, silverfish, and wartime paper drives. The very earliest copies were so rare it seemed the only people who had kept them were those who actually had stories in them. Wagner's Weird Tales volume one, number two, had belonged to H. P. Lovecraft. And it was missing the front cover.
His thousands of pulps were no longer just esoteric curiosities. They were now a working resource. At last he had the capitol to realize a childhood dream: to save some of the great pulp fiction talesand their authorsfrom oblivion. With fellow Chapel Hill residents Jim Gross and writer David Drake Wagner formed the publishing company Carcosa. Their first production, in 1973, naturally enough was a compilation of the previously uncollected work of Manly Wade Wellman. Worse Things Waiting was about 400 pages long and bound in real cloth hardcovers with special endpapers, on acid-free paper and set with old-fashioned moveable type. It was a handsome volume. For the numerous illustrations, Wagner recruited Lee Brown Coye, one of the last surviving Weird Tales artists, and possibly the artist who had produced that magazine's strangest and most disturbing images. His work had a primitive, almost tribal look, but the tribe would have been one whose ancestry was tainted by unholy liaisons with beings not entirely human. Coye's signature had once been a crescent moon subtly worked into his drawings, but in recent years the moon had been replaced by bizarre assemblages of sticks. Coye's explanation became the basis of Karl's most popular story, "Sticks."
When Wellman saw the finished book he told Karl, "I thought I was doing you a favor. Now I see that you were doing me one."
And, indeed, Carcosa was a labor of love. Though the first edition numbered only 2000 copies and sold for under $10, it took years to sell out. But profit was never the point. Even while Karl was working around cartons of unsold volumes of Worse Things Waiting, he began assembling Carcosa's second collection, Far Lands Other Days, stories by E. Hoffman Price, a prolific pulp writer who had once, in the 30s, stopped to scan a newsstand and seen 10 different titles for which he'd written the cover story. He was a world traveler who had lived the fantasies he wrote about. A cavalryman, he could saber dummies from horseback, jump hurdles, and fire pistols accurately with either hand. He was also capable with the epee and had won at least one national trophy. He had been in the Philippines during the Moro campaign and had pursued Pancho Villa in Mexico. He, too, was a serious drinker and a connoisseur of exotic liquors. "I found demerara and half a dozen other kinds of rum, kao liang, Calvados, marc de Bourgogne, Armagnac, raki, slivovitz and many another." The illustrator for Far Lands Other Days was George Evans, who had drawn for E.C. and Classics comics and, appropriately, for Terry and the Pirates.
Far Lands sold even more slowly than Worse Things Waiting but Karl just stacked the cartons of the new book beside the older ones and began assembling Murgunstrumm and Others. This was an anthology of stories by another contributor to Weird Tales as well as Strange Tales and other shudder pulps, Hugh B. Cave. He had written nearly 800 short stories, but he'd lost every one of them in a fire. Happily, Wagner had his library. Coye was again called upon to illustrate. Wagner proudly presented me a copy of the new book. Across the top of the spine in large letters was the name Cave. "Cave," I muttered, pronouncing it CAH-vay.
"Ah, Mayer! Pace More Johnson would be proud of you."
Murgunstrumm, too, sold slowly, but Karl and Carcosa pressed ahead. Last came Lonely Vigils, a second volume of Wellman tales illustrated this time by Evans.
Wagner was becoming popular enough that he attracted the attention of copycats. The first installment of a serial starring a scheming and immortal mercenary named Cain appeared in a popular science-fiction magazine. It bore striking parallels to the long out-of-print Darkness Weaves, though it was set in the future instead of the past and science replaced magic (the fair young maiden's actual brain was switched with that of the evil old hag instead of just her persona). Copyrights are tricky things, but after Wagner and others complained, the rest of the installments were dropped from publication. And one of Marvel's King Kull comics seemed to follow the story line of Wagner's short story "Reflections on the Winter of My Soul" more faithfully than was customary with Howard's actual Kull stories. In fact, the Kane-like villain in that story, Thulsa Doom, became a popular and recurring villain in both the Kull and Conan comics, a pretty piece of irony.