DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

Gods in Darkness: The Complete Novels of Kane
Karl Edward Wagner
Night Shade Books/ 520p/$75 (Limited Hardcover)
ISBN 189238924X

For those of you making nasty noises about fantasy daring to be found on these pages -- how about dark fantasy by the man who invented the term -- Karl Edward Wagner? Night Shade Books has brought together all three of Wagner's Kane novels and republished them in hardcover. If you've never read any of the three novels or four short story collections featuring Kane, you might dismiss them as mere sword-and-sorcery or a knock-off of Robert E. Howard's Conan series. (Wagner did, in fact, write a Conan novel as well as a sequel to Howard's Bran Mak Morn series. He was also involved in some Howard-related screen projects.) But, as Wagner always pointed out, his anti-hero was a Gothic or horror hero, not really a sword-and-sorcery type.

Wagner's prose is not typical of heroic fantasy either. He somehow carries the atmosphere of Poe but without the poetry. He's as adumbral as Lovecraft, but without the rococo embellishments. The style is clean, sharp, and utterly masculine, but far from misogynistic. There's something about this clear almost understated style that makes the darkness even more effective. There's one passage -- involving not the gore and violence of battle, but a game of kickball among some children -- that's perfectly, succinctly horrifying.

Of the three novels, I had read only Bloodstone previously, but I had read a few of the short stories here and there. (I don't actually own any of the collections, though, so I couldn't fact check) I had some knowledge of the mythology Wagner devised, but many of the mysterious hints about Kane aren't in the novels. We do discover he is a "gigantic warrior with knowledge of strange secrets...left handed...of fair but cruel face, with red hair, and cold blue eyes whose gaze calls to mind the murderous fury he shows in battle...doomed to wander eternally through the savage world of his making branded as an outcast by the mark of death that lighted his eyes." So long as he eludes death by violence "time can not wither his physical being." His wounded body will heal without a scar "endlessly rejuvenated to the state held at the instant of an insane god's curse." His flesh can heal it leaves a scarred soul and the centuries consume the "bones of his hope." He is smothering under boredom and a chance for new adventure is his one release. Although often called such, Kane is not a sorcerer --"the true nature of my power so defies human comprehension that men call it magic." Kane is intelligent, a master of military tactics, and obviously possesses knowledge beyond the ken of the people he deals with. He amorally "serves himself and no other gods or obscure values."

CoverIn the third book of the trio, a demon provides us with some further information about Kane and his curse, but we've got the basics of it before then. Looking back on Kane over a generation after his birth, you can easily see he's become a trope of his own, a character often found in comic book anti-heroes and mimicked by rock stars (or those who want to be rock stars) as well as in books and stories. He belongs to the subgenre of "idiosyncratic fantasy characters" that includes Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melibone and Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. What surprised me was what else I found in the books. First, briefly, the books--

Kane seeks to harness the power of Bloodstone, an alien crystal that is a sentient creature as well. An entity of godlike power, it is the focus of cosmic energy. Bloodstone's power is not supernatural, but a result of alien science that Kane believes is beyond human concepts of good or evil. He hopes to use it to unlock vast power and use it for his own purposes. Those purposes involve more than a blind lust for power.

Dark Crusade:
Sataki, a God of Darkness, takes possession of a bandit chieftain. Proclaiming himself The Prophet, he is destined to turn the World of Light back into a World of Darkness. He leads a vast but unorganized mob of true believers who, when confronted with trained soldiers, are slaughtered by the tens of thousands. Kane, again for his own purposes, becomes The Prophet's general and builds a mighty army of mercenaries and the those of the rabble he can train.

Darkness Weaves:
A hideously maimed woman is a malevolent force of vengeance who seeks to regain a lost throne. Kane, again, assumes the role of general. This is the blackest of the novels and the most supernatural. Kane is colder if not more calculating here. It's also not quite as smoothly written as the first two. The prose stands up, but there are several "let me tell you the story" moments that are not woven as well into the novel as they might be. Practically everyone is dead by its end. But Kane is complex.

In each of these books, Kane makes a grievous error. He misjudges Bloodstone's motive and power as well as the fact the creature is deeply Evil and foolishly thinks he can master it. In Dark Crusade he misunderstands that The Prophet is more than a run-of-mill false holy man out for his own gain -- the type Kane's seen a thousand times. He errs again in Darkness when he overlooks the vengful lady's secret alliance. Worse, he is unaware of how much she knows about him. Time and time again, women prove fickle or are traitors, but Kane is still far from immune from emotional involvement. Nor is he completely amoral, his own interests tend to support some ideal or another.

Are these weaknesses that lead to doom? Is the theme one of lost hope? Is Kane's survival an unrelenting cruelty or is there actually a path to redemption? I'm not sure Wagner himself could have answered these questions (and a bunch more I have) about Kane early on. He wrote many stories and certainly had planned further books, but perhaps the story arc was not complete in his mind from the start.

Wagner was also very much a reflection of his own time. I don't know if I am over-reacting or reading more meaning into the work than the author put into it; nor am I sure that the first readers would have seen what I do with the acuity of hindsight. The mid-70s zeitgeist was as full of gloom, blood, brooding cynicism, and boredom as Kane's world. (Where do you think Punk came from anyway?) The same very brief era, however, were also the high (literally) point of cultural freedom -- before AIDS was known and cocaine was still "harmless recreation" and the arts were not yet as moribund as now. But by 1978, when the third of these novels was published, innocence was fading and all that freedom became a curse. "Now all his dreams had been plunged into nightmare," Kane realizes at one point, "and the lure of adventure had become a spiderweb of horror." What is Kane's true curse?

As I said, I was surprised out how much I found in the three Kane novels. I'm not sure it would be born out with a reading of all the short stories. My questions may be answered, or they may not. But Night Shade has done a great service by providing us a chance to consider (or re-consider) Kane. Is there a hope of a similar gathering of all the stories? That's one question I hope is answered in the affirmative. [Note: Barring a new Kane cover from Frank Frazetta -- whose images of the anti-hero were so appropriate -- this cover from Ken Kelly is as good a selection as you could make.] Cemetery Dance #42)

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Copyright © 2003 Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.