But success was beginning to take its toll on Karl. After all the lean years he could not bring himself to decline a commission, no matter how overworked he was. He would go days with little sleep trying to meet deadlines. And he continued to rely upon booze to ease the stress. Barbara, who had once enjoyed matching him drink for drink at con parties, became increasingly concerned. He refused to seek counseling with her. As a psychiatrist, he regarded psychologists as witch doctors. At last they separated.
I mentioned that Barbara had a special talent for making a man feel good about himself. I well knew how painful it could be to have that intoxicating reinforcement withdrawn cold turkey. I don't think Wagner had ever before been troubled by self-doubt. He was still harboring hopes of winning back her affection when she remarried.
Wagner's mother had a series of strokes that left her unable to care for herself. Then his father Aubrey "Red" Wagner, a former TVA board chairman whom Karl idolized, began to succumb to Parkinson's disease. At last Karl's siblings called on him to be the one, the "hired gun" as he said, to deliver his mother to Shannondale nursing home. As they wheeled her down the hall she had a moment of lucidity. She looked back at him and sobbed, "You're abandoning me here, aren't you?"
Soon, his father joined her there and, within a year, died. Barbara, whom Karl hadn't known was in Knoxville, showed up. He requested that I ask her to leave. Some old Key Clubbers from Central came to pay their respects. "You know," he told them, "I never liked you." Once they realized he wasn't joking they, too, left. Karl packed up his library of Weird Tales and other pulps and rare books, which had always been shelved at his parents' house, first on Cedar Lane, then in Suburban Hills, and carted them back to Chapel Hill.
He visited Knoxville only once or twice a year after that, to visit his mother, his old friend Tip Jackson and, sometimes, me. On nights when Brother Jack's was closed, we'd sometimes congregate at Tip's house on Boyd Street, drinking at a table in his front yard in warm weather. Tip held court for the neighborhood; a dozen people might stop by in the course of an evening to pay respects or to try to cadge a drink. One night one of the visitors, an attractive young black woman, was carrying a shotgun. Her brother had been kidnapped and was being held as a part of some dispute; she was on her way to free him. She had a drink, then continued on her mission. There seemed to be no thought in this neighborhood of applying to the police for protection
One night when Wagner left Brother Jack's, alone but for his German Shepherd Crystal, with a sizable package under his arm, the place was, evidently, under surveillance. It must have seemed suspicious to see a white boy with a package leaving a rough, black joint in a drug-infested neighborhood. Apparently, an officer in an unmarked car followed him. The suspicious behavior of the pursuing car alarmed Karl and, finally, convinced he was about to be robbed and/or murdered, he ran the officer off the road and into a concrete abutment. Backup was called, but since these officers, too, were in unmarked cars, Karl led them a merry chase through the streets of West Knoxville. At last he was run to ground and pulled from his car with guns aimed at his head. His dog, naturally, growled at the men who were abusing her master. This seemed like a good reason to shoot her, but an older officer persuaded the younger ones to hold their fire till Crystal could be placated. Wagner called me that night, but I'd been getting crank calls so I had my ringers off and the volume all the way down on my answering machine. I still have the recording: "Mayer I really need your help, Old Buddy. I'm in a world of shit."
At first Karl had trouble getting his car back: something about holding it for the DEA. When he did, his upholstery had been cut and the barbecue was missing. The officer who had been run off the road sued. "When he heard I was a famous, rich author he probably went right out and picked him out a brand new bass boat," Karl suggested. The officer arrived in court wearing a neck brace, but when Karl's lawyer pointed out that all the damage to Karl's car was in the rear while all the damage to the police car was in the front, the case was dismissed.
Karl pronounced Knoxville the Bad Vibes Capitol of the World and vowed never to return. He began, instead, to make increasingly frequent trips to London where he had made a number of friends. The Brits liked Karl, liked his writing, and told him he was the only Yankee they'd ever met who could out-drink them. "I'm no Yankee," he told them.
Needless to say, these trips were not inexpensive and writing assignments were beginning to slow up for Karl. He was editing some anthologies (he almost got to edit the revived Weird Tales) and getting some calls for fiction from small specialty houses, but the big money guys were beginning to complain that he missed too many deadlines, that the quality of his work was declining. Maybe Karl could no longer shrug off the effects of a fifth of Jack Daniels a day, plus beer and wine. Or maybe a string of sorrows beginning with his divorce had taken the heart out of him. Big, powerful Manly Wellman broke his hip, went to the hospital and lost both legs to bedsores. He had always prided himself on his physical prowess; now, demoralized, he faded away. He died in Karl's arms.
Back in Knoxville, Tip suffered several diabetic strokes, lost one leg, and then the other. Barbara helped his brother Jeep care for him during the last two years of his life. When he finally died, she called Wagner but before she could give him the bad news he interrupted her: "Tip's dead." He'd dreamed it the night before.
I, too, called, not knowing if he'd heard. I mentioned the growth on my shoulder blade. Didn't he think this was carrying a gag too far? Wagner seemed much more concerned about my neoplasm than his own. "You gotta get that looked at, Mayer. This is nothing to fool around with."
"That sounds familiar, Wagner. Isn't that what I've been trying to tell you?"
"A little late for me. But you're provided for in my will."
"Karl, I don't give a rat's ass about your will," I protested in a rare moment of seriousness.
"Well, then, I guess you're not interested in the collection of Weird Tales I was leaving you."
"Now, let's not be hasty!" I was kidding.
"By the way, Mayer, remember that story we wrote back at Central about the gun-toting vampire. I've rewritten it and it sold. I gave you credit on it."
"Hey, it pays to recycle."
"I'll send you a copy."
A week or so later it arrived. It was set in modern London and bore no resemblance to the original. With it was a note telling me where the story would appear and that he was off for London "one last time. Going with Lynn, my crazed punker. May not survive." The stamp showed a black locomotive. Underneath it he'd written "The Little Black Train," a reference to a Wellman story about the train that comes for the dying.
* * *
One morning I was preparing my coffee and playing back the messages on my answering machine that had been left while I slept. "John, this is Mike Elam." It was Karl's nephew. "I've got some bad news; Karl Wagner's dead." I've heard of being staggered by bad news; I actually missed a step and had to catch onto my sink, spilling the coffee grounds.
He had been found by a friend in Chapel Hill who became concerned when he didn't answer his phone. He was lying on his bathroom floor. It wasn't cancer that killed him; his liver had practically exploded.
He'd died on the 13th of October, 1994. You hear of statistical proof that people can postpone death till after special days; I'm surprised Karl didn't wait till Hallowe'en. It was his favorite holiday since childhood; mine too: there's a hint of adventure, a sense of potency for a kid at Hallowe'en that even Christmas lacks.
In settling his affairs it was discovered that most of his rare books, his autographed manuscripts, even his collection of Weird Tales had been sold to pay bills. His body was cremated and his remains were placed in a little cedar box. His mother was in her wheelchair at the graveside services. "I can't believe that's all that's left of Karl," she said. The little box was buried above the coffin of Aubrey Wagner.
I kept expecting to see something in the news, or Knoxville's daily paper, some sort of tribute to one of Knoxville's most successful writers, a native son who had produced enduring works of horror. But the man himself seemed to have vanished as though he'd never been, leaving only his stories, as though they had been handed down, without human intervention, from some Dark Olympus. Horror indeed.
* * *
I did see a doctor about the place on my back. "It should come off," he told me. "If it's not cancer, it will be. It's as easy to take it off as to biopsy it." But I feel so creative. This is the first real writing I've done in years. I think I'll wait awhile on the surgery.
Ed. Note: John Mayer did indeed have the offending item removed from his back. Of course, that's when his troubles really began. You can visit his site, hiredhand.org, to see more of his work.
Portions of this essay originally appeared in Metro Pulse, December 1995.
www.darkecho.com: An essay-style overview of Karl Wagner's influential career written by Paula Guran.
Visions of Black Prometheus: Dale Rippke's fan site for heroic fantasy heroes devotes an extremely thorough section to Karl Wagner's Kane and his world.
www.fantasticfiction.co.uk: A complete bibliography of Karl Wagner's works.
Moping About Karl Edward Wagner: A personal recollection of the author by Jessica Amanda Salmonson .