Late last year I read GODS IN DARKNESS, the omnibus from Night
Shade Books which collects the Kane novels written by Karl
Edward Wagner. Upon completing MIDNIGHT SUN, the companion
volume which collects the short stories starring Kane, I was
immediately struck by how different the short stories are
from the longer works.
In the novels, for example, Kane is essentially the villain of each
piece: An Evil Overlord drawn with such compelling and
fascinating depth that any hint of the cliche is neatly avoided.
In the short stories, on the other hand, Kane is clearly cast in
the role of the anti-hero: He lacks the barbarous chivalry of a
Conan or the derring-do of a Gray Mouser, but he is consistently
cast into situations where his self-interest guides him onto a
path of near-heroism.
The short stories also reveal a very different facet of Kane's
unique tragedy: In the novels we see a Kane whose frustration
with the world creates a desperate need for power and control.
In the short stories, on the other hand, we see a Kane at the
nadir of his eternal cycle: An introvert dulled by immortality
and withdrawn from the world. Either of these characters is
interesting unto itself, but when contrasted one against the
other upon a single soul, a poignant portrait of psychological
horror begins to reveal itself. In Kane, Wagner has created a
character who cannot be contained to a single story: His
revelation requires distant counterpoints charted across an
It is here that the Kane stories succeed where so many imitators of
Howard, Burroughs, and Leiber fail: At the center of these tales
there is, ultimately, a fascinating, unique, and
larger-than-life character. Unlike lesser works of
swords-and-sorcery, the monsters, magicks, and mayhem serve not
only to tell a rip-roaring tale, but are also the means by which
Wagner reveals to us the majesty of Kane.
The short stories are also notable for their distinctly gothic
horror. Their tone is actually quite different from the
Lovecraftian-tinged adventure fiction of the novels. Instead,
one feels the distant beats of Stoker and Poe echoing through
Wagner's masterful storytelling.
I would like to be able to say that Wagner's creation is flawless.
But, unfortunately, I can't. The most significant problem, for
me, is the inconsistency of his dialogue. In many, but not all,
of the stories found here, Wagner's characters will suddenly
slip into a jarring 20th century colloquialism. In an afterword
at the end of the volume, Wagner claims that this is entirely
intentional -- the goal, apparently, being to
"translate" the prehistoric dialogue into a purely
modern equivalent (rather than a faux-Elizabethan). If such a
goal were diligently pursued it might work (although I doubt
it). Unfortunately, Wagner doesn't stick to his guns: His
characters will randomly shift from typical fantasy dialogue
into a sudden barrage of "okays", "hold ons",
and other 20th century speech patterns. The effect is even more
disconcerting because of the powerful poetry typically to be
found in his prose.
You will also find several weaker stories in this collection. There
are three stories set in the modern era which seem particularly
out of place. At first I was excited by the idea of Kane in the
modern world: What role would he assume? What type of life would
he lead? But the actual stories themselves seemed to relegate
Kane to the minor role of facilitating whatever improbable and
pornographic magical gimmick Wagner wanted to unleash upon his
main character. In fact, the character named "Kane" in
these stories scarcely seems to resemble the dynamic and
compelling figure seen throughout the rest of the collection.
But, ultimately, what you'll find in MIDNIGHT SUN are at least a
dozen of the finest fantasy stories ever told -- several of
which easily deserve a place on your personal best list. I
strongly recommend both MIDNIGHT SUN and GODS IN DARKNESS.