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stories, on the other hand, we see a Kane at the nadir of his eternal cycle: An introvert dulled by immortality and withdrawn from the world.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 immortal life.
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.
Karl Edward Wagner
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Cover Price: $35.00