Karl Edward Wagner was many things: originally trained as a psychiatrist (a profession he ended up rejecting), a longtime editor of the influential Year's Best Horror and Fantasy series, a poet, a writer of dark horror, an alcoholic (it eventually killed him), and - perhaps most famously - the author of a series of odd stories and novels featuring the immortal Kane. this iconic character is widely considered to be the most successful of all the Conan-esque creations to follow in Conan's footsteps.
Wagner writes his Kane stories using a dark but vibrant palette of throbbing colors. his pastiche of the classic Robert Howard style manages to stay true to the form while injecting his own brand of despair, various hallucinatory elements, and a deeply cynical outlook on life. these tales of 'adventure' often read as gripping horror stories (plus swords & sorcery, 'natch) that are informed by a very modern nihilism and a free-floating feeling of ambiguous menace.
Kane himself is none other than that infamous brother-slayer, Cain, cursed to immortality for his crimes by - as Wagner sees fit to describe - "a long dead god." it is interesting to see an author use a biblical character while completely rejecting the religion that created that character. it is even more interesting to see how that immortality plays out, story by story. events and places and people that Kane encounters in one story become historical tales told by people in other stories - no doubt with Kane silently smirking at the mistelling of those stories. ah, immortality. what a cross to bear!
Wagner cheats a little bit in these tales. at different points in his career, Kane is a Machiavellian courtier, a bloodthirsty warlord, a murderous sorcerer... his history is that of an immortal, capital-V Villain, one who causes kingdoms to fall and cities to be sacked and towns to be plundered, happily manipulating events for his own obscure goals, an infernal architect of countless plans that result in the deaths of countless people. he's not tragic or noble - he's a monster. the cheat comes in that we never actually see that particular Kane, those different villainous aspects - at least not in the stories collected in this compendium. instead the reader meets Kane between his notorious misdeeds and misadventures. we don't see the cruelty or the devious machinations; we see those presumably rare moments when Kane is on the run or is revisiting the scenes of his crimes or is just having a little side adventure that actually isn't hurting anyone. we see Kane when he is kind - when he protects the weak and rescues the innocent. an odd but usually very effective strategy. I came away from this book feeling pretty sympathetic to the character.
the first seven stories amazed me! thrilling, often sinister tales that portray a compelling antihero and atmospheres full of sorrow & regret, or hot-blooded but misguided vengeance, or the threat of sexual violence, or intangible dangers, or all of that combined. "Undertow" cleverly uses parallel narratives to illustrate why Kane's girlfriend is someone we all should just avoid pursuing. the bittersweet "Two Setting Suns" details Kane's journey with a giant as his companion attempts to reinvigorate his dying race. "The Dark Muse" is very Clark Ashton Smith with its drug-taking poet and interdimensional threat and scary journey through the ruins of a dead city. the remaining stories of this first seven ("Raven's Eyrie" & "Misericorde" & "Sing a Last Song of Valdese" & "Lynortise Reprise") are all equally compelling.
the stories that follow are less compelling. I don't know what happened here. "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul" (that title!) and "Cold Light" have so much promise and do such an excellent job at creating an intriguing premise full of eerie atmosphere... but they are done in by the terrible anachronisms of the dialogue - it gets genuinely laughable at times - and the extreme overuse of exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!! "Mirage" and "The Other One" are not bad, but are also rather flimsy and unmemorable. the less said the better of the Kane-meets-Elric adventure "The Gothic Touch."
there are three modern day stories of horror featuring Kane in his new guise: a drug-dealing man of extraordinary wealth engaged in a battle against the forces of evil. or just engaged in drug dealing. frankly, these three stories are terrible. the modern elements are eye-rollingly awkward, with the exploitative use of 'alternate sexuality' feeling particularly forced. the protagonists are pathetic and irritating. also... an Elvis dildo, really? ugh. the experience of reading "Lacunae" & "Deep in the Depths of the Acme Warehouse" & "At First Just Ghostly" was repellent, to say the least.
I hate to end my review of such an interesting and idiosyncratic author on a sour note, so I'll repeat myself: those first seven stories were FANTASTIC. so good that they have helped me pretend that those other stories don't even exist. I am really looking forward to reading the three Kane novels, all thankfully set in archaic times.