Reflections Upon Karl Edward Wagner, Fifteen Years Gone



  Karl Edward Wagner (1945 -1994) died fifteen years ago today. I never knew Karl. Nevertheless, his work as an author, essayist, editor and REH scholar has affected my views regarding the entire field of weird literature since I was barely a teenager. I believe that he should be remembered and due attention paid.

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REH in The New York Times Magazine, Courtesy of Jack Vance



Last week, Robert E. Howard got name-checked in the New York Times Magazine, due in equal measure to Jack Vance and Carlo Rotella. Jack’s contribution consisted of being the subject of the article and of having been a fan of Weird Tales during the Depression. Rotella did his part by being an assiduous journalist and a reader of discerning tastes.

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A Review of REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #13

My copy of REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #13 came in the post on the same day that a long-awaited guest arrived. Due to previously scheduled essays, I’m only now getting around to singing this issue’s praises. Morgan Holmes has already weighed in on the REHupa site, but I hope that this review will complement his.

I must admit that I never read the earlier issues of “TGR” when they were published back in the 1970s. I was but a wee lad back then. However, I have perused the “Out of Print” section on Damon C. Sasser’s website. REH: Two-Gun Raconteur has always been a worthy publication, mixing real Howardian scholarship, quality art and fannish fun. That was definitely my impression when I bought the first “relaunch” issue in 2003.

REH: Two-Gun Raconteur #13 greets you with a full-color cover depicting Kull and Brule whaling away at serpent-men. Sasser went with color covers (one of the advancements of civilization we can all be thankful for) a while back. That move got my unequivocal support at the time, and this cover changes that opinion not one whit.


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Three friends of The Cimmerian in the news


Don Herron’s The Dashiell Hammett Tour: Thirtieth Anniversary Guidebook is released

Don Herron is the best critic in Howard studies, bar none. However, REH is but a small part of his professional output. He’s most famous for helming the longest-running literary walking tour in the US, San Francisco’s Dashiell Hammett Tour. Over three decades it has become a Bay Area institution and a must-do for mystery fans and literati alike. In 1991 City Lights, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s legendary counterculture imprint, published Don’s The Dashiell Hammett Tour: A Guidebook, which garnered great reviews and has been much sought after on the used market, often selling for over $100 in fine condition.

Now, Don has released a brand new, fully revised and updated version of his book. Published by Vince Emery as a part of his Ace Performer Collection, a group of titles by and about Hammett, this new edition looks beautiful, and is in hardcover to boot. Don has been running around doing various appearances in support of the release — just in the last few weeks he hit Boise, Idaho; Tuscon and Scottsdale, Arizona; and a bunch of places in and around San Francisco. MSNBC has a write-up of the book’s contents and of Don’s future book signings in the Bay Area. You can also keep up with the action at his website.

All of Don’s books are well worth hunting down — he’s collected, in fact, by the prestigious Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, an organization that calls him on their website “the godfather of San Francisco mysteries.” But The Dashiell Hammett Tour book occupies a special place in his canon. The tour has been written up hundreds of times in virtually every major newspaper and venue, making it one of the most popular of its kind in the world. It (and Don) even appeared as an answer/question combo on Jeopardy! once. (To bring a bit of Cimmerian flavor into all of this: Don found out about the Jeopardy! thing when his good pal, the fantasy writer Fritz Leiber, called him up with the info. Leiber was a Jeopardy! fiend in his later years and caught wind of the Herron appearance during his usual afternoon viewing.)

So if you are a Hammett fan, or a fan of great literature in general — pick up a copy of the book at Amazon or wherever fine mystery books are sold.

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Birthday Toasts


So I was digging through my Howardian archives on REH’s 102nd birthday, reading yellowed manuscripts, delicately handling crumbling photographs, when I came across a famous portrait of the Texan. “Valka!” I gasped to myself, “What a fitting image on which to dwell during this august anniversary!” Properly impressed, I thrice bowed reverently in the direction of Cross Plains, as is my wont whenever Howard’s shade looms before me so magnificently.

Later, I remembered that it was also the birthday of one of Howard’s greatest champions, the writer and critic Don Herron. Possessing a large cache of rare and precious Herronian memorabilia — don’t you? — I began sifting through that chest of immemorial treasures, when lo and behold I came across a familiar likeness, glimpsed through a glass darkly:


Murmuring appropriate benedictions, I turned northward and thrice inclined towards San Jose, where the spirit of the Bard of Cross Plains holds festival by night with the Lord of the Hammett Tour, and Schlitz ever pours in an icy froth from monstrous schooners built to fit nothing less than the gnarled hands of frost-giants.

Happy birthday, Bob and Don.

Bird Brains. . . .

Don Herron has forwarded me a message from the REH Inner Circle group, where he and Frank Coffman were reminiscing about the 2007 Howard Days festival, specifically an event that occurred on our drive back to Cross Plains from Enchanted Rock State Park. We had all gorged on sausage and beer at a fantastic German restaurant in the ‘burg — that would be Fredericksburg, a town legendary for its amazing Teutonic cuisine. While the rest of our group dozed contentedly, Don Herron navigated down an endless Texas highway in the light of the dying sun. Suddenly, WHACK! — something fairly big hit the windshield full on. Feathers and gore splattered across the glass and up over the hood. In an instant it was over, leaving only a quivering glob of bird brains on the windshield to mark what had happened:


Everyone was startled into wakefulness by the sound, but the van itself hadn’t swerved an inch. Don drove onward, his nerves and thews all steel springs and whalebone, in total control of the vehicle:


Throughout the van rose a mad howl of exultation as we beheld the quivering remnants of that ghastly communion between bird and barbaric man. We beat our chests and tore our hair and tattooed a lugubrious melody on our shields, as drenched in ornithographic bloodlust as Solomon Kane in “Wings in the Night.” We knew, with a dread instinct older than Atlantis and Acheron, that this fallen creature was but an emmisary for enemy legions far more horrifying. Yet as the sun fled and darkness engulfed the world, we drifted back into an easy sleep, secure in the knowledge that the Dark Barbarian was at the wheel, holding the terrors of the night at bay with an icy stare that was hoary when the Earth was young.

UPDATE: I’ve been alerted that the people reminiscing were hoping to see some bird brain sunset pics. These two are the best I have:



Herron vs. Joshi Smackdown


I recently read some perceptive comments on the TTA Press Discussion Forum about two of the Big Names in the Weird Fiction field, S. T. Joshi and Don Herron. The posts were intriguing because they did not come from the usual crowd. These are not fans plugged into the main Howard scene, and hence are people who are judging the merits and demerits of Joshi and Herron objectively.

On the forum, under the Joel Lane folder, there is a discussion thread about Joshi. It gets interesting when Joel says on Wednesday, November 24, 2004:

There should be an emoticon for the pensive but resigned frown… I’m continuing this topic from the Nemonymous board to canvass thoughts on this extraordinary critic and archivist–a man whose sharp insights and sarcastic barbs are as impressive as his blind spots and biases are frustrating.

He is, of course, speaking about the inimitable S. T. Joshi. Gary Fry asks, “Well, I’ve only read the Campbell book. What else should I seek?”, to which Joel responds:

The Lovecraft biography is a serious classic. Joshi’s recent book The Modern Weird Tale is a mixed bag, highly idiosyncratic and unfair, but full of good insights. His new book The Evolution of the Weird Tale, despite its grand title, is basically a collection of review articles; but it’s enormous fun and less narrow than some earlier Joshi stuff. The Weird Tale, published in 1990 and covering the weird fiction genre from Machen to Lovecraft, is ambitious and dynamic but heavy-handed and too fond of extreme statements. Behind the veils of academic objectivity, Joshi can be seen to be a volatile, short-tempered, aggressive and highly intense young man. He has mellowed a little since, though his sarcasm can still wither at forty paces.

Howard fans can only laugh–that’s almost exactly the rep Joshi has acquired in our neck of the woods. Some “good,” “ambitious,” and “dynamic” insights, marred far too often by “highly idiosyncratic,” “unfair,” “heavy-handed,” “extreme,” “volatile,” and “short-tempered” critical judgments.

Joel later adds:

And the latest news is that the two volumes of revised, annotated Lovecraft stories edited by S.T. Joshi for Penguin Modern Classics is to be followed by a third containing… everything else! ‘The Dreams in the Witch-House’ will be out in the UK next year and will complete the set of revised Lovecraft texts in mass market paperback. I’m not sure whether to be impressed by this purposeful rebranding of Lovecraft’s work or disappointed that the opportunity to consign the dozen or so weakest stories to the dustbin of history was missed.

When asked about other books in the field to look up, Joel mentions Herron:

Well, there’s the ‘Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural’, about 20 years old now. And the St James Encyclopedia of Horror, Ghost and Gothic Fiction, a massive and costly volume which I don’t own–I wrote six entries, but didn’t qualify for a comp. copy.

There’s some very good stuff on the horror genre in Ramsey Campbell, Probably, as well as much else of interest (and the occasional foray into the realm of Too Much Information). And Don Herron’s excellent anthology of essays on Robert E. Howard, The Dark Barbarian, has recently been reissued by Wildside Press.

Can anyone recommend other studies of the field?

To which Gary Fry responds “Don Herron is an excellent critic: he wrote some very even-handed reviews of King’s earlier work.” And a bit later says:

Don Herron’s take on King is, in my view, the definitive assessment: he claims King writes the kind of fiction you’d expect from a professor (loaded with theme and symbols, ripe for critical dissemination), rather than a raw artist. However, he also claims that King, at his best, could produce great stuff (not Shakespeare, but great all the same): “Apt Pupil,” The Shining, “The Woman in the Room,” etc. Nevertheless, he also claims that King can’t control the quality, that he only ever hits to high notes occasionally.

Sums the guy up nicely, methinks.

Another reader, “Stu,” chimes in on Don’s take on King with:

Gary, I’ve not read a lot of King but that does sound a more balanced assessment than a lot of people offer on him. Way more charitable than Joshi’s take on King, for example.

There you have it, guys outside of Howard fandom simmering with many of the same evaluations of Joshi and Herron that we have historically had. Joshi is blissfully unaware of how many intelligent fans his criticism has offended on an aesthetic level over the years, how plain wrong many of his opinions are, by any standards. I wonder if he’ll ever figure it out.

Joel finishes the Joshi commentary with:

Yes, I think King’s vast popularity has blinded some critics to the power of his best work. The Dark Half in particular is brilliant. He’s not terribly original, but he is passionate and intense–features that most commercial horror fiction notably lacks. Joshi’s grandstanding denunciation of King is the most disappointing feature of his criticism, though he does offer a fair-minded critique of Straub.

“Disappointing” is one of the words I hear most associated with Joshi’s critical work. Oh well, bad criticism fades away when the living critic does, while good research–Joshi’s strength–endures. My guess is that books like The Weird Tale, The Modern Weird Tale, and The Evolution of the Weird Tale will fade into merciful oblivion in due course, while the various indexes, pure texts, and biographical finds will become standards.

Meanwhile, Herron’s critical books on Howard, as far as I can tell, are here to stay. For each essay contained within, one finds it very difficult to think of another essay anywhere that has covered the same subjects better.