Saturday, August 18, 2012

Peak Performance

Where the Summer Ends: The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner Volume 1 edited by Stephen Jones (2012): Centipede Press has done readers of horror and dark fantasy a tremendous service with the release of the two-volume collection of the late Karl Edward Wagner's best horror fiction. This is by far the strongest of the two volumes, collecting Wagner's longer short works, including his finest stories -- "Sticks", "In the Pines", "Where the Summer Ends", and "Beyond All Measure."

Wagner started his writing life as a dynamo, both in horror and in heroic fantasy, much of the latter featuring his time-jaunting anti-hero Kane. He also worked on his own short-lived specialty press (Carcosa), wrote a licensed Conan novel (The Road of Kings), and took over editorship of DAW Books' excellent Year's Best Horror series in the early 1980's, a job he'd hold until his death in 1994.

Along the way, something happened. It involved the consumption of astounding amounts of alcohol and the growth of an intermittent writer's block that would persist from the late 1970's until his death. Trained as a psychiatrist, Wagner must have known something was going on. But what? We'll never entirely know, and the prose pieces in these two volumes by Wagner's friends suggest that he was ultimately a mystery to them as well.

But we do have the stories, and more than ten years of the DAW anthologies. At his best, Wagner conjured up an extremely specific and detailed sense of place populated with psychologically complex characters and character interactions. While I tend to associate his best work with the American Southeast, "Sticks" actually takes place in and around the Hudson River Valley. The first half of that award-winning novelette represents Wagner's high point, a pitch-perfect evocation of horror centered around a hiker's discovery of odd-looking arrangements of sticks. If the second half moves into too-literal Lovecraftiana -- well, it's still a competent finish to a brilliant beginning.

"Beyond All Measure" gives the reader one of the more fascinating spins on vampires I can recall, while ".220 Swift" plunges into the backwoods of the American Southeast in search of creatures and situations that recall some of the tales of Arthur Machen. "In the Pines" is a harrowing tale of ghostly obsession, maybe Wagner's most sustained work, and one fit to stand beside similarly themed stories that include "The Beckoning Fair One" and "How Love Came to Professor Guildea."

I'm not as stuck on the two dream-odyssey stories included here -- Wagner's greatest strengths didn't lie in the surreal or the purposefully vague -- and one later novelette suggests a massive deterioration in skill. But the riches here, handsomely assembled and with generous accompanying prose pieces and illustrations, are worth your time. Highly recommended.

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