When Karl Edward Wagner began writing his
Kane stories in 1970 he inherited the legacy of the barbarian
hero from Robert E. Howard. Howard had almost single-handedly
created sword-and-sorcery with his works, but Wagner – in
creating his character of Kane – not only went back to the
roots which had been planted by Conan and Kull (as so many other
pale imitators had done), but also infused those roots with the
rich traditions of fantasy and horror which had blossomed in the
forty years since Howard had died.
Kane is one part
Elric, one part Conan, but a creation all his own. His tales
inherit the purity of Howard’s barbarism, but also reach back
into Howard’s own influences to crank up the elements of
Lovecraftian horror. You can feel the influences of Moorcock,
Leiber, Moore, and Tolkien bubbling beneath the surface.
To this rich tradition, Wagner brought
his own natural talent for the fantastical and the horrific,
telling his stories with a brutal, beautiful prose.
DARKNESS, from Night Shade Books, is a collection of all three
of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane novels: BLOODSTONE, DARK CRUSADE,
and DARKNESS WEAVES. It has a sister volume, THE MIDNIGHT SUN,
which collects all of the Kane short stories.
the first novel in this collection is almost certainly the
weakest. Perhaps the most persistent and grating problem here is
Wagner’s infatuation with the thesaurus, coupled with an
inordinate amount of obvious pleasure taken in finding the most
obscure terms possible. The intention appears to an evocation of
Lovecraftian prose, but the effect which Lovecraft so expertly
crafts is rendered impotent through the sheer tenacity with
which Wagner pursues it.
The plot, while
strong in many regards, is conveyed in an episodic fashion –
with many events relegated off-stage with description or
narration. The effect, in later works, is to keep the action
focused on the primary cast of characters – seeing their place
and their reactions within a large world. In BLOODSTONE,
however, the effect is disjointed and further weakened by the
fact that most of the characters (with the exception of Kane
himself) have strong taints of the cliché about them.
BLOODSTONE I had heard that Wagner was something of a hidden gem
in the sword-and-sorcery genre: A writer whose talents compared
favorably to Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock – but whose career
had been cut tragically short by an early death. Reading
BLOODSTONE, I was disappointed to discover an author of only
second novel in the collection is DARK CRUSADE, which should be
on the reading list for any fan of sword-and-sorcery.
I don’t know
if BLOODSTONE was just an early work which took its time getting
into print, if Wagner was simply rushed or off his rhythm while
writing it, or if Wagner had a major breakthrough between ’75
and ’76: Whatever the case may be, everything which was only
nascent mediocrity in BLOODSTONE comes together in DARK CRUSADE
to craft a top notch novel.
One of the
interesting things to note about Kane is that, unlike his fellow
heroes-in-arms, Kane frequently finds himself on the wrong side
of a conflict. Conan finds a crown when he joins a just
rebellion against a tyrannical king. Kane seeks empire, and
frequently allies himself with any power which becomes
convenient or available. He believes that he can overcome
whatever flaws or corruption exist within the power base he
takes advantage of, but finds – time and time again – that
the flaws and corruption are inherent to the power. As a result,
Kane often finds himself in a role which would be villainous if
it were not for his own nature as an anti-hero: Often he
destroys his own dreams in an attempt to purify them of a
tarnish which cannot be removed.
It is this dark
depth of contradiction and tragic flaw – a wisdom and strength
coupled with folly and weakness – which makes the character of
Kane so infinitely fascinating. Like all of the great
sword-and-sorcery tales, it is not the plot of pulp adventure
which makes the stories of Kane a compelling read: It is the
careful drawing of their larger-than-life protagonist.
The third novel
in GODS IN DARKNESS is on the same playing field as the second.
If anything, DARKNESS WEAVES represents an improvement over the
craft and skill which went into the telling of DARK CRUSADE.
Notably, a more complex cast of characters is invested with more
detail, drawn in more depth, and (as a result) given greater
Ultimately, none of these novels impressed me with the
quality of Howard’s THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON or Leiber’s
“Ill Met in Lankhmar”. But DARK CRUSADE and DARKNESS WEAVES
are both classics – and if I want to see more of the war in
DARK CRUSADE and more of the twin romances in DARKNESS WEAVES,
that’s only a testament to the strength of what’s already on
- DARKNESS WEAVES: A-