How my imagination was ensnared by
Karl Edward Wagner's
It all started one cold, clear evening in the early spring of 1975. I was attending college in a small Iowa town called Spencer, when I became hooked on a fantasy genre called Heroic Fantasy. Sure, it all started simply enough; an issue of Savage Sword of Conan here, a couple of Conan the Barbarian Comics there, and before I knew it I was an addict. Before long I was ordering every Conan comic I could find and scrounging in derelict bookstores trying to find long out-of-print Lancer paperbacks. I had hit rock bottom.
Then one night, on an all but hopeless visit to my local bookstore, I spied a gleaming paperback cover shining out like a beacon in the night. The cover had large man on it, standing with a sword in front of what appeared to be a green and red dome. The title on the cover was Bloodstone. I read the back cover and the book seemed pretty cool. It was definitely a heroic fantasy, so I bought it and took it home to devour it. Kane was different, not a hero so much as an antihero. Played both sides against the middle. Killer Frogs! What more can a person ask from the genre. To this day I think of Bloodstone as a fondly remembered first love and it remains my favorite Kane novel.
I discovered a second Kane book had already made its appearance, so I trundled back to the bookstore and asked to order Death Angel's Shadow. Alas, it was out of print. I seemed to be out of favor with the gods of fantasy. Three months later I found a copy (entirely by accident) at the neighborhood Pamida. It had been published by Paperback Library and sported a picture of a mail-clad Kane on a mostly white cover (I still prefer this cover to the later Frazetta one, mostly because it depicts Kane and not some generic monster-killing warrior). Of the stories within, Mirage and Reflections were pretty good, but the best one, in my opinion, was Cold Light. Between this story and the novel Bloodstone, the character of Kane became fully crystallized within my mind. Years later, Cold Light became a great D&D session as I had my villain take apart an adventuring group in a very similar manner.
Dark Crusade I discovered in an Estherville bookstore in 1976. I was somewhat disappointed by this novel, as the story was relatively straightforward (compared with the earlier ones). I also felt Kane was acting in a somewhat inconsistent manner by not learning from his mistakes. My favorite scene in the book is Kane's conversation with the little girl playing kickball with her mother's head (something I have never read in a Conan story). Years later I discovered, to my pleasure, that the story had aged well. I still feel that Kane not understanding Orted-Ak-Ceddi's motivation is still a weak spot in an otherwise outstanding novel.
Two years later, I discovered Darkness Weaves in a tiny supermarket book section. I bought it and read it with the usual gusto. This is a great Kane novel, and I've always felt it would make a killer movie. It seems to me to be a better-written version of Dark Crusade (Kane leading an army on a mission of revenge). The characterization is superb and subtle, and everyone's motivations are crystal clear from the start. My only regret is that Wagner didn't see fit to enlighten us as to why the Lartroxian Combine "thirsted for Kane's blood". I later found out that this was actually the first Kane novel to be published, years before in an abridged, badly edited edition. I'm glad I found the unabridged version of the book.
The way I found Night Winds was positively creepy. The term night wind figured prominently in a dream that I had the night before I found the book. Went into my local bookstore and my eye was immediately drawn to the book with the title Night Winds. Imagine how unsettling it felt to discover the name I had dreamt of to be a Kane collection. Call it synchronicity, but at that moment reality WAS a concept. This actually happened. Getting beyond that, the book was pretty good. The best stories were Two Suns Setting and Raven's Eyrie. In a sort of morbidly funny way, Wagner answered the question "Who would win a fight between Kane and Conan?" The story Undertow has Kane fighting a wizard-slaying barbarian fashioned after a certain Cimmerian. Since this is the first story in Kane's long career, I'll leave it to your imagination as to who won. After the publication of Night Winds, Kane seemed (to me anyway) to drop off the face of the Earth.
Unknown to me, Donald Grant published a third Kane collection titled The Book of Kane in 1985. It contained a number of previously published stories including two that hadn't been collected before, The Other One (that I first read in the Barbarians anthology) and Misericorde (which was published in Barbarians II).
In March of 1989, I discovered a Kane story in an issue of the new Weird Tales magazine. At First Just Ghostly was unusual in that Kane appears a third of the way into the story and that it is set in modern times. His daughter Klesst makes an appearance (she's apparently immortal as well). The story concerns Kane fighting Satan for control of the world in London shortly after the Harmonic Convergence (Harmonica Virgins?). My favorite part is when Kane claims to have killed God (this must have happened before Time magazine decided God was dead).
The next Kane story I found was called The Gothic Touch. It had been published in a story collection titled Tales of the White Wolf and told of a meeting between Kane and Elric of Melniboné. It is one of the best Kane short stories I've read in ages.
Last year (1987) I learned on the newsgroups that a new Wagner compilation called Exorcisms and Ecstasies had been published. Within it is a section called Silver Dagger that contains 5 previously uncollected Kane short stories. Of the five, I had already read At First Just Ghostly and The Gothic Touch. The other three stories were pretty inconsequential (a fragment, a juvenile effort, and a modern psychodrama). The novel fragment, In the Wake of the Night, makes me really, really wish that someone would publish the whole fragment one day, not just the prologue (perhaps as part of a Great Kane Omnibus?). The best part of Exorcisms and Ecstasies is the working bibliography at the back of the book. Reading through it I discovered a Kane short story called Lacunae that I had never read. I found a copy of it in an anthology called Splatterpunks II. It is another modern psychodrama that seems to take place before At First Just Ghostly.
Karl Edward Wagner died in October of 1994, so it is pretty doubtful we will see anymore tales of Kane. It seems a shame, because this is one character that really speaks to me. And while Kane might not have the universal appeal of a Conan, to me he is a towering giant in the field of Heroic Fantasy. He can easily take his place beside the likes of Elric, Imaro, Kull and Conan. And can you really ask for anything more than that?
Bloodstained Memories - Karl Edward Wagner essay and Website Copyright 1998-2020 Dale E. Rippke
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