Friday, March 16, 2018

The Lovecraftian Thing a Day (2018) No.75: Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Why Not You Or I?’

Karl Edward Wagner remains one of the unappreciated greats of moden weird fiction - he was certainly doing the bleakly nihilistic noirish horror thing decades before Laird Barron came on the scene. I first encountered Wagner in this edition of Dagon, with an amazing portrait of Wagner by Jeffrey Salmon gracing its cover:

Ahead of the curve, in the UK Dagon was the pre-internet entrypoint into what was then at the cutting edge of the literary weird (in its pages I first encountered Ligotti, Mark Samuels, D.F. Lewis, and a host of others). Sadly, last year Carl T. Ford, editor and publisher of Dagon, passed away.

As a result of Dagon, I sought out Wagner’s work, and managed to pick up a signed copy of Why Not You and I? during a visit ot Peterborough’s specialist bookshop ‘The House on the Borderlands’ at some point in the early 1990s:

Whilst none of Wagner’s tales collected therein are explicitly Lovecraftian, the shadow of the Lovecraft circle via Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber hangs heavy over them; indeed, both Howard and Leiber inspired what perhaps became Wagner’s best known creation, Kane the Mystic Swordsman (who makes a brief appearance in ‘Lacunae’ - probably one of the best contributions to Why Not You and I?); Howardian melancholia also informs ‘The Last Wolf’ - my personal favourite from this volume (a similar melacholia inhabits my best-loved piece of Wagner’s writing, ‘At First Just Ghostly’ - a fragment of a larger, unfinished work, which was publshed posthumously).

Other of Wagner’s best work was informed by the pre-Lovecraft weird tradition, with ‘The River of Night’s Dreaming’ being an early addition to the now burdgeoning post-Chambers ‘King in Yellow’ literary mythology; the shade of Machen hangs over ‘.220 Swift’; sadly none of these appear in Why Not You and I?; neither does ‘Sticks’, Wagner’s British Fantasy Award-winning contribution to the Cthulhu mythos (and which supposedly inspired elements of both The Blair Witch Project and the first season of True Detective). All the more reason, then, to search out Wagner’s writing and appreciate a somewhat-forgotten master of the modern genre.

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