Saturday, November 24, 2007
Gothic Touches in The Gothic Touch
The first Karl Edward Wagner story I ever read was The Gothic Touch. This was a crossover between Wagner's anti-hero Kane and Michael Moorcock's iconic albino, Elric of Melnibone, which appeared in an anthology of Elric stories called Tales of the White Wolf. At the time that I read it, I knew very little about Kane, Wagner, or the Gothic Novels of the eighteenth century. All that would soon change.
Like many people who hadn't actually read the Kane books, I assumed he was just another Conan knock-off. The Frank Frazetta covers of the Warner paperbacks did a lot to further this image, showing the usual sword & sorcery images of a big guy in armor fighting demons or just standing there looking dangerous. Reportedly, Wagner wasn't completely pleased with Frazetta's vision of Kane, but a Frazetta cover certainly didn't hurt sales in the mid 1970s.
As I began to track down and read the Kane stories though, I soon learned that Kane not only wasn't a Conan clone, he wasn't even a barbarian. He was instead, a staggeringly well read and intelligent man who had traveled his world for centuries and was able to discuss music, poetry, politics, and any number of subjects. He was also a born killer and completely amoral. He was, in fact, the biblical Cain, an immortal who must walk the world until slain by violence. And Kane is darn hard to slay.
In his essay, The Once and Future Kane, Karl Edward Wagner discusses the origins of his character. While Wagner admits to admiring and being somewhat influenced by the works of Conan's creator Robert E. Howard, he gives his primary influence as the Gothic Novels of the 1700s.
The Gothic genre got its start in 1765 with Horace Walpole's novel, the Castle of Otranto, the book that defined the genre and set up many of its tropes and conventions. It features a gloomy haunted castle, a brooding hero-villain, and much supernatural goings on. The next few years would see the novel become very influential and imitated. The scope of the genre is too wide for me to get into here, but the recognized classics of the genre, what Wagner calls' 'The Standard Four' are Otranto, Mathew Lewis's The Monk(1796), Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (which comes in a little late in 1820).
It was Maturin's work which would be the biggest influence of the creation of Kane. Wagner says, "If I had to pick the book that shaped Kane into the character he is, it would have to be Melmoth the Wanderer. Melmoth, a doomed wanderer who trails catastrophe and misfortune in his footsteps, immortal so long as he can find another soul willing to sacrifice itself willingly for his sake...I don't know how Kane would have taken shape without Melmoth, but he would be a different character if I hadn't read Maturin."
Not that Kane is in any way a copy of Melmoth or the Gothic Wagner's only influence in the development of his writing. Wagner goes on to list many other writers who influenced his work, including C.L. Moore, Poul Anderson, Robert W. Chambers, Manly Wade Wellman, and others.
As I noted, at the time that I first read the Kane stories, I wasn't that familiar with the Gothic Novel genre and thus missed a lot of the references Wagner was making. It was reading Jess Nevin's The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, with its history of the Gothic and its summaries of the plots of the major Gothics that got me seriously interested in the subject. Once I began to study the genre I began to see what Wagner had been trying for in much of his work. An invaluable resource was The Literary Gothic webpage. (see link at bottom of post) This site has hundreds of articles, stories and links to further reading. Of particular interest was a list of Gothic tropes included with Lilia Melani's 'The Gothic Experience" a course related website from Brooklyn College.
* a castle, ruined or intact, haunted or not,
* ruined buildings which are sinister or which arouse a pleasing melancholy,
* dungeons, underground passages, crypts, and catacombs which, in modern houses, become spooky basements or attics,
* labyrinths, dark corridors, and winding stairs,
* shadows, a beam of moonlight in the blackness, a flickering candle, or the only source of light failing (a candle blown out or an electric failure),
* extreme landscapes, like rugged mountains, thick forests, or icy wastes, and extreme weather,
* omens and ancestral curses,
* magic, supernatural manifestations, or the suggestion of the supernatural,
* a passion-driven, willful villain-hero or villain,
* a curious heroine with a tendency to faint and a need to be rescued–frequently,
* a hero whose true identity is revealed by the end of the novel,
* horrifying (or terrifying) events or the threat of such happenings.
Many of these themes show up over and over in the Kane stories. Ruined or partially ruined castles feature prominently in Misericorde, Lynortis Reprise, Reflections for the Winter of My Soul, Mirage, and of course, The Gothic Touch. (See, I was going somewhere with all of this.) In fact, the Gothic Touch is practically a catalog of all of the above and I suspect purposely so. It almost seems as if Wagner was winking at us, wondering if anyone would catch all the Gothic references. Let's look at the list alongside the story. (There are some spoilers here, so if you intend to read The Gothic Touch, go read it, then come back. You've been warned.)
A castle, ruined or intact, haunted or not. In the first few paragraphs, Elric suggests that he and Moonglum take shelter from pursuing enemies in a nearby ruined castle that is reputed to be haunted. That covers item two as well.
Dungeons, underground passages, crypts, and catacombs. After explaining to Elric that he needs his help o recover a treasure fallen from the sky, Kane leads the albino and his sidekick Moonglum into a stairwell that leads into an underground passage and then into a maze of tunnels. They pass through a dungeon torture chamber that is described in loving detail.
Shadows, a beam of moonlight in the blackness, a flickering candle, or the only source of light failing. Elric and Moonglum are attacked by weird mutant creatures who knock over Elric's lamp and threaten to do the same to Moonglum's which would leave the two heroes in the dark with the creatures.
Extreme landscapes, like rugged mountains, thick forests, or icy wastes, and extreme weather. The ruined castle is located amidst rocky terrain, and a massive thunderstorm rages as the story begins.
Omens and ancestral curses. The original inhabitants of the castle are said to have raised a demon to guard the treasure that fell from the sky. Also, the hideous mutant creatures that live underground are thought to be the decedents of survivors of a battle between the castle owners and an army of treasure seekers.
Magic, supernatural manifestations, or the suggestion of the supernatural. Hello? It's Elric and Kane.
A passion-driven, willful villain-hero or villain. Hello again? It's Kane!
A curious heroine with a tendency to faint and a need to be rescued–frequently. Okay, Wagner skipped that one.
A hero whose true identity is revealed by the end of the novel. Not his identity so much as his true motives are revealed as we learn that most of what Kane told Elric was a lie. He covered up the extra-terrestrial origins and the true nature of the 'treasure' so that Elric would help him.
Horrifying (or terrifying) events or the threat of such happenings. Pretty much from the first paragraph to the last.
This is a wonderful story filled with a lot of dark humor as Kane and Elric fence verbally and a lot of sword wielding action as well. I believe that it was the last Kane story that Wagner wrote, and if so, he went out on a high note, using as many of the tropes of a beloved genre as he could work in. There's more than a touch of the Gothic in The Gothic Touch.
Now go check out the Literary Gothic web page. Tell em Kane sent you.