Walk on the Wild Side: The Best Horror Stories of Karl Edward Wagner Volume 2 edited by Stephen Jones (2012): Centipede Press has done readers of horror and dark fantasy a tremendous service with the release of its two-volume collection of the late Karl Edward Wagner’s best horror fiction. This is the weaker of the two volumes, collecting Wagner’s shorter works with an emphasis on his late-life burst of often pornographic short stories.
Wagner started his writing life as a dynamo, both in horror and in heroic fantasy, much of the latter featuring his time-jaunting anti-hero Kane. He also worked on his own short-lived specialty press (Carcosa), wrote a licensed Conan novel (The Road of Kings), and took over editorship of DAW Books’ excellent Year’s Best Horror series in the early 1980’s, a job he’d hold until his death in 1994.
Along the way, something happened. It involved the consumption of astounding amounts of alcohol and the growth of an intermittent writer’s block that would persist from the late 1970’s until his death. Trained as a psychiatrist, Wagner must have known something was going on. But what? We’ll never entirely know, and the prose pieces in these two volumes by Wagner’s friends suggest that he was ultimately a mystery to them as well.
We know that Wagner wrote at least one pornographic novel, and an awful lot of his late output collected here ranges into the territory of erotic horror (or ‘horrotica!!!). I really wish he hadn’t.
Gone for the most part is Wagner’s marvelous sense of place and psychological depth, replaced with spurting penises in foaming hot tubs and more girl-on-girl action than normally found in a frat boy’s hashish dream. There are a few gems here — the creepy asylum story “Into Whose Hands” and the sad homage to The King in Yellow, “I’ve Come to Talk to You Again, are excellent, as is the punk-rock nightmare “Did They Get You To Trade?”
There are several stories across both volumes that deal with writers, writer’s block, and writers either grown old or old before their time. How autobiographical these stories are is ultimately unknowable, but the cumulative effect certainly feels autobiographical. As an editor and a writer, here lies a fallen giant, an indispensable part of 1970’s and 1980’s horror, dark fantasy, and heroic fantasy. And if Karl Edward Wagner never became as great as he could have been — well, the tragedy of his personal fall outweighs literary concerns. Recommended.