A Walk on the Wild Side: Karl Edward Wagner’s Tales of Unordinary Madness

Centipede press, J.K. Potter

Centipede Press, J.K. Potter

While volume one highlighted Wagner’s more expansive work, this 2nd collection goes for the throat, or should I say, it kicks a steel-tipped boot deep below the belt. This is not high fantasy, or literary horror with a wide scope. Most of these stories are reclusive, depressing, grotesque, violent and unrelentingly sadomasochistic. It’s as if Wagner is no longer channeling the pulp-era icons of Weird Tales but instead traveling into the same desperate, raw-knuckled universe that Hubert Selby Jr. wrote about. Whether a prostitute or a drug-addled actress, his characters here get lost in their own addictions, and the brutal sex in some of them comes across so lurid, you’ll either laugh in shock, or gag in nauseous reflex. There is no comfort or desire in the sexual act here. ‘The Kind Men Like’ is a tale of a succubus-type Bettie Page where the bondage goes beyond titillation into brass-knuckled territory; ‘The Picture of Jonathan Collins’ is a sordid take on ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ and features turn-of-the-century porn with none other than a sadistic and cruel Oliver Wilde starring as the villain; and ‘Brushed Away’ introduces us to a beaten-down man who grew up fantasizing about the air-brushed anatomies of early pin-up models, only to turn into a psychopath with hopes of recreating the human body in accordance with his own desires (quite a predictably sick ending in this one, but still entertaining).

There are some other stories that are quite eloquent, sad and well-envisioned. High school reunions are lined with darkness and regret in ‘Passages’. ‘Into Whose Hands’ shows the ragged and depressing life of a round-the-clock psychiatrist who knows a thing or two about death and how easy it is to manipulate and control. ‘Lost Exits’ takes the fragmented story lines of a budding relationship, and meshes the good times and the bad times with a razor-blade tenacity, one in which rivals the alternate-universe, head-fuck climax to Jim Thompson’s phenomenal classic, ‘A Hell of a Woman’.

An important collection despite its excess. Coupled with memories and eulogies written by Wagner’s friends and peers, the stories show the unhappiness, fear and abuse that Wagner inflicted upon himself in his later years. And with that, it feels as though we are reading a crypto-biography, a demise told by the author’s own short stories. The medical world, the writer’s scene, the city as purgatory for a lost soul, each tale has the knack to pour salt in the wound, in which Wagner exposes to the readers unflinchingly, and almost with a sadistic glee.

The last story, ‘Lacunae’ brings the return of his titular anti-hero, the immortal Kane. But no longer is he high up on the chain; now he’s just a scumbag drug dealer, and with that, a hero who has clearly fallen wayside with the passing of time. And that was perhaps what Wagner realized when writing this story, in that he too couldn’t rise to the top again, so he simply wallowed in the bottom until the end. Wagner was a brilliant writer and editor, and understood the genre top to bottom, and it’s a shame he didn’t stick around a bit longer. As his good friend, David Drake states, “He could have been so much more.”


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