© John Mayer

 

 

 

Ed. Note: This is not a story for everyone. It's a 12,000-word recollection of someone whose career you might not be familiar with. But for those fascinated by dark fiction and its writers, this is well worth the read. Karl Edward Wagner wrote and edited much award-winning science fiction, fantasy, and horror before his death in 1994. While he first gained fame for creating the anti-hero Kane, he also went on to make The Year's Best Horror Stories an anthology series to be reckoned with, and established his own publishing house, Carcosa, to return his pulp-fiction-writer heroes to print. Wagner looked more like a rogue biker than an accomplished author with a medical degree—and he lived like one, too, until he finally passed away at age 49. Although the Kane tales can still sometimes be found at certain bookstores—genre publisher Night Shade Books recently issued Midnight Sun: The Complete Stories of Kane—Wagner's works haven't been kept in print like those by some of the more revered masters of the form. This remembrance by Wagner's sometime collaborator and longtime partner in crime, John Mayer, serves not only to illuminate the Wagner "legend," but to recall a time when being a science-fiction/horror reader meant being viewed as abnormal. It is also a tale of pulp-fiction writers of the Golden Age, passionate fandom, and lifelong friendship.

* * *

The last writer sits alone in his study.

His eyes glow bright, and his gnarled fingers labour tirelessly to transform
the pictures of his imagination into the symbolism of the page. His muscles
feel cold, his bones are ice, and sometimes he thinks he can see through his
hands to the page beneath.

There will be a knock at his door.

Maybe it will be death.

Or a raven knelling "Nevermore."

Maybe it will be the last reader.

Karl Edward Wagner, "The Last Wolf"

 

"Well, Wagner, I hear your undeveloped twin is taking form on your back."

Having had my long-distance service restored, my first call that summer evening in '94 was to Karl Wagner, my friend since our days as seemingly the only science fiction and fantasy fans at Old Central High. His ex-wife had told me of the ugly black mass growing on his left shoulder blade. He had stubbornly refused her entreaties to see a doctor, and I shared her concern.

"Yeah, Mayer, it's good to have a little company." Though he was dating a bit, he remained disconsolate about the breakup of his marriage. Barbara had left him when, she told me, she had given up any hope of his overcoming an affliction common to writers: too much drink. Indeed, Wagner's friends often marveled at his capacity for alcohol; he seemed to regard drinking almost as an athletic event and was able to finish off a fifth without any apparent intoxication.

"Seriously, Karl, you need to see a doctor. I understand melanoma can be a real bitch once it gets going."

"Mayer, I am a doctor. That's why I'm not bothering. If it's melanoma it's too far gone to do anything about. I'd just as soon not know till I have to."

Wagner was, in fact a medical doctor, though he hadn't practiced in years having devoted himself to his writing. He was the only person in my circle of friends who had medicine to fall back on as a second career.

"But you don't understand, Wagner! If you let this thing go, I'll get it, too!" This was sort of a running gag between us. Whether it was because we'd hung out together so much since freshman high school, or due to our common German heritage, or because our childhood heroes were the baritone, manly stars of children's radio dramas such as The Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston, Wagner and I had almost identical speech patterns. This caused consternation among our friends who saw us together for the first time and would often remark to the effect that we were just alike. We'd respond along the lines of, "She says we're just alike! Ridiculous, Tweedledum!" "Preposterous, Tweedledee!"

But now my jest concealed real worry. Wagner chuckled at the familiar gag. "I hope not, Mayer, but if you should get some sort of growth on your back, I'd appreciate it if you'd go ahead and get it removed. I 'xpect my neoplasm will fall off shortly thereafter." We shared a chuckle and I said good-bye quickly in an effort to keep my next long-distance bill manageable. Imagine my astonishment when, a couple of weeks later, my visiting nephew remarked, as I worked shirtless in my garden, "Hey, John, what's that thing growing on your back?"

 

Next: A Fateful Meeting at Central High
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