Karl Edward Wagner
by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Karl Edward Wagner was one of the great modern masters of the horror novelette & novella, bringing to graphic horror a psychological complexity & reasonableness perhaps inevitable for someone trained in psychiatry. That he was a physician with the physical demeanor of a Hell's Angel translated into a literature that likewise harmonized seeming contradictions.
Not long before Karl's death I received a letter from him saying that when he returned from England he would be sending me some old books to keep or resell as I decided, strangely implying but not quite saying that paying for them might turn out to be optional; he merely thought I'd get some pleasure out of some old volumes he was tired of having about. My bookish greedy self was all in a dither of expectation, though I was certainly surprised by his promise of vintage treasures for free, treasures he could easily sell for a tidy sum to me or Bob Brown or any number of collectors & booksellers he knew well. No such package ever arrived, for Karl was not many weeks later found dead in his home. It was only after-the-fact that it dawned on me that Karl, having elected not to have his illness treated (which would likely only have extended his life a little & into increasing pain), had in actuality written me a kind farewell. And I understood the cryptic implication that any books sent to me need not necessarily require payment.
Karl & I had exchanged correspondence beginning in the early 1970s about subjects ranging from heroic fantasy (mostly) to sexual adventures (occasionally). I did not always understand Karl nor he I; his response to a minor exploit of mine was not what I expected, perhaps because I attempted to relate more to the Hell's Angel exterior than to the physician interior. The adventure involved a pimp trying unsuccessfully to buy me with horrid gaudy expensive clothing from one of his working girls' closets, claiming it was his money that bought all her stuff so he was free to give it to me! Karl said that I was living a life more frightening than any horror story he had ever read. Which took me by surprise because I thought it was a ferocious comedy & I was merely open to interacting with the underclasses as a largely but not entirely nonparticipating observer. But even when having a different outlook, Karl was invariably generous to me; he even sent me money (by overpaying for a fanzine subscription he already was receiving for free) because he found out I was momentarily in need. I later understood he had very little himself, but spared a bit just the same.
I was one of scores who liked him best of all people encountered at World Fantasy Conventions. Once I was in his room with many authors & chums who were mostly drunk or stoned. There was a box of various pills sitting out like a candy-bowl which (forgive me if I misremember) Stephen King's then-agent had provided. But smoking was prohibited! Since I too am revolted or made ill by cigarette smoke it was like Karl had arranged the little paradise of his room especially for me to feel sociable & comfortable. I hasten to add I'm a lifelong teetotlar & have frequently been the only person in my social circles not to do drugs. I am not judgmental about it however & don't regard this as evidence of a superior disposition. It's just that I need to remain in control of my interactions & from an early age used my habitual sobriety to keep out of harm's way (thereby surviving many potentially dangerous encounters). Smoking has always seemed to me the greater sin because it poisons all who surround the smoker who makes choices not just for himself, but also for friends & family & even little kids, whereas someone who puts garbage directly into their eyeballs, nostrils, stomach, or veins is not simultaneously poisoning me. So Karl's attitude in these matters was not so distant from mine.
However, a very elderly Fritz Leiber was present. Something had gone horribly wrong with his short term memory. Being twice & most politely told not to smoke didn't work. He couldn't go more than half a minute without lighting up. Karl was not able to be stern with Fritz who was after all a deity nearing the end of his time among mortals. You can't walk up to a man who merits an almost religious devotion for his literary achievement as well as for having survived his own troubled life & tell him, "I'm not giving you a third warning, putz, I'm just telling you to get the hell out of my room." Instead Karl was not-so-secretly fuming inside & finally exploded into a rage kicking everyone out of his room in order to be rid of Fritz's cigarettes without ragging on Fritz specifically. Slowly most of us came back but now the door was guarded rather than wide open.
I cannot recall if it was the same year or another but I was again in Karl's room with many horror writers present. Some young woman had brought a copy of Joel-Peter Witkin's repulsively beautiful horror photography of dwarves, amputees, dead people, & deviants with which to amaze everyone who was not yet familiar with the perverse artist's grotesque hyper-realistic vision. John Skipp & Dennis Etchison were there & were particularly memorable to me.
If Karl seemed mopey at times, at others he was a happy growly bear. By contrast, that night at least, Dennis was besotted & relentlessly melancholy. He started doting on John Skipp & talking to Skipp tearfully: "Bless you, sniff, bless you & your wife, boohoo. I was downtown in the pornography shop last week & I saw a video for rent, sniffle-snuffle, & there was your wife's face looking at me on the video box, & I said to myself, god bless those kids, bless them for getting out of that business before it was too late, bless them, boohoohoohoo, bless them."
I felt at that moment that I was in some dark version of Heaven (indistinguishable from a bizarre but likeable literary society in Hell) where it was okay to be an artfully depressive weirdo with very little about oneself that blithe suburban Ordinary Folk would understand. And something else was going through my mind as well, which will take a minute to explain:
Several years earlier, when I was young & svelte & by some folks' estimation beautiful, I was hanging with the local chapter president of C.O.Y.O.T.E. (the prostitutes' union, Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a woman who some while later got sent to prison for bombing a Safeway Store (I hadn't known she was also involved with an extremist group, the Weathermen). She & I co-dated a KOMO News reporter who boasted to waiters, "This is my paramour, this is my whore," whenever introducing me & Jenny, plus when he could convince his reluctant wife to participate, adding, "And this is my wife." None of us appreciated it, but he was a handsome fellow & he paid for everything & only his wife had to deal with him in any big way & hey we got to say we were dating the hunky black guy on the six o'clock news.
Because of such odd types of associates, I was one day approached by a film director who wanted me to take a role in one of his films. He mentioned money but I think it was only a couple hundred dollars, so if I said yes it would be mostly for the adventure of it. He was a charming sleezebag & made it seem not an entirely bad idea, so I told him I would think it over. I went home & pondered the opportunity, feeling by turns honored & insulted. I asked myself, did I want to be in a porno film & participate in demeaning exploitation? Maybe. However, although it might seem an amusing diversion today, mightn't I regret it a few years on? Then again, even if it did turn out to be embarrassing, I reasoned, at least none of my friends watch porno, so who that mattered to me would ever know? (Never mind that I had formerly dated a dyke who worked as ticket-girl in a downtown porn theater & had house-set for the same theater's projectionist cum science fiction critic, & in fact knew plenty of people well-acquainted with such films.)
But now, sitting in Karl's room at World Fantasy Con, with John Skipp having his shoulder wetted by a tearful pal, I realized Dennis Etchison would know! I have no recollection what film it was to be; time-wise it must have been Supervixen which is today regarded a minor classic of comedy porn. From my point of view in the 1970s, I could never have guessed the video era was forthcoming & every damned person on earth would someday be able to see it without having to bold the nasty skidrow theaters. It had taken several years to realize I for sure made the right decision, but woo-whee was I ever glad to have decided stardom wasn't for me.
Yeah, I liked Karl tremendously & knew he was fond of me. But I had no illusion we were best friends or anything like that. He was at base a kind soul openhearted to many. For years I assumed I was just one of a horde whose face & name he was glad to be able to remember between long intervals of meeting. But then a pathetically bonding experience occurred between us, laughable really but meaningful at the time. He'd broken up with his sweetheart -- it was a terrible event in his life -- & this ran parallel to the demise of my own seven-year relationship with an artist greatly beloved by me & whose true blue faithful adoration I never expected to lose.
First at a convention, & then several times on the telephone, Karl & I had intense exchanges about lost love & deep depression, & outlined to one another gory plans for suicide. If these conversations had been recorded & transcribed we would come off, I'm sure, as insane & stupid. But our mutual sadness really was profound. Suicide did seem a reasonable option & certainly an appropriate fantasy. It was oddly palliative to be able to describe to one another how we would do ourselves in -- to lay out these horrible plans without either of us freaking out the hearer, each being permitted to wallow in self-pity & dreams of personal annihilation, simultaneously trying to cheer up the other without quite telling the other to stop with the unacceptable gory part.
I have a slight phobia about phones. I love to get phone calls but I hate to call anyone up. After Karl had called me thrice to relive our self-pity-fest together, I felt comfortable calling North Carolina at an odd hour when I was feeling in the dumps, & discovered the connection indeed went both ways. Karl was just as willing as I had been to stop whatever was going on in order to chat.
Well, all this might not have been as pathetic as I make it out to be. We also talked about Victorian horror literature & about Robert E. Howard, & Karl had greatly liked my novel Anthony Shriek which he read in manuscript before publication. So it wasn't entirely woe-is-us. But the thing that bonded us for that period in time was undoubtedly the woe-is-us part. Some may laugh or roll their eyes that it would be so, yet it was a demented form of mutual love, & even demented love is a good thing say I. Several people helped to see me through those dark days of sorrow -- I incurred a debt of emotion to several patient & worried friends -- but no debt was incurred with Karl because it was so delightfully reciprocal in its ridiculousness & graphic detail.
I am not especially sociable. I find most people dull & irritating. Those people I admire & would love to hang with, it's sometimes hard to imagine they wouldn't find me dull & irritating, so I keep my distance. Therefore every friend matters a great deal to me, every loss stabs deep into my heart. It's not like I have the capacity to go to some convention or neighborhood bar & drum up a half-dozen new friends in a trice. I lived far away from Karl & our communications were not great in number. But the goodness of the man was palpable. That he was capable of judging a like goodness in me remains a gift I will treasure unto the grave.
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