Saturday, May 31, 2008
Echoes of Wagner
The late Karl Edward Wagner is probably best known as the creator of the anti-hero Kane and as an author of horror fiction. However Wagner also directed quite a lot of his creative energies toward compiling and editing various anthologies. He was, for many years, the editor of DAW Books Year's Best Horror collections and along with friend David Drake, Wagner created Carcosa Press, a small publishing operation that gathered the works of pulp writers such as Manley Wade Wellman and Hugh B. Cave into hardbound collectible volumes. Wagner was also one of the first to attempt to get completely unedited and unaltered versions of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories back into print. Wagner put together three slim volumes of unadulterated Conan for Berkley/Putnam. These are worth owning purely for Wagner's incisive comments in the forwards to each volume.
In addition to the anthologies mentioned above, Wagner edited three volumes of heroic fantasy (Wagner didn't care for the label sword & sorcery) under the title Echoes of Valor. These three books, often overlooked these days, went a long way toward keeping some of the lesser known classics of heroic fantasy before the eyes of the public. Most of the material in Echoes of Valor is readily available now, thanks to print on demand technology and a renewed interest in the Weird Tales school of fantasy, but in the late 1980s, some of these stories were very difficult, if not impossible to come by. Wagner, who at one time owned a complete collection of Weird Tales pulp magazines and many other pulps, was in a unique position to edit and compile these collections.
Wagner knew his audience and he also knew the power of the name Robert E. Howard. Wagner made use of the drawing power of Conan and his creator on the cover of all three volumes. Volume one contains the first ever reprinting of the unedited version of REH's The Black Stranger. I've talked about the Black Stranger in another post, explaining how it was rewritten as The Treasure of Tranicos by L. Sprague De Camp. The original version had been rejected by Weird Tales and REH had made an attempt at rewriting it as a pirate yarn featuring his swashbuckling hero, Black Vulmea. That one failed to sell as well. Apparently a truncated version of the Conan story was published in 1953 in Fantasy Magazine. The Echoes of Valor version was prepared by Wagner from a photocopy of Howard's original manuscript and published in the complete and unaltered form in 1987. Wagner rounded out that first volume of Echoes with novellas by Fritz Lieber and Henry Kuttner.
Echoes of Valor II leads off with the two versions of The Frost Giant's Daughter. Frost Giant is another Conan story rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright. Later, Howard allowed a slightly different version, called The Frost King's Daughter and featuring a hero named Amra of Akbitana, to be published in the amateur magazine (fanzine) The Fantasy Fan. There aren't really many differences between the two stories and Wagner points this out. However, when L. Sprague Decamp printed The Frost Giant's Daughter for the Gnome Conan edition and later for Lancer and Ace, it was a heavily edited and rewritten version. The version used in Echoes of Valor is exactly how REH wrote it. Before the recent Del Rey Editions of all of Howard's Conan stories were available, it was very difficult to come by unedited Conan. Wagner was performing a valuable service to heroic fantasy fans.
However EoV volume two has far more to offer than Frost Giant's Daughter. It is a veritable treasure trove of material by and about that other sword & sorcery pioneer, C. L. Moore. The book contains the (at that time) very rare Jirel of Joiry story Quest of the Star Stone, in which Jirel teams up with Moore's other series character Northwest Smith. In 1989 that story had only been reprinted one other time since 1937, and that was in Lin Carter's hardback anthology Realms of Wizardry. EoV II also contains rare Northwest Smith stories, a brief autobiography by Moore, and articles and remembrances by Moore's friends and collaborators. Even if you own the new Paizo Jirel and Northwest Smith collections, if you're a fan of C. L. Moore's you need this book. But wait. There's more! EoV II also has Lorelei of the Red Mist by Leigh Brackett and a very young Ray Bradbury, and a Manly Wade Wellman story about his caveman hero Hok.
Volume three contains 'The Shadow of the Vulture', the single Robert E. Howard story to feature Red Sonya with a 'Y', who was the soul and inspiration for Marvel Comics' Red Sonja with a 'J'. It was Sonya of Rogatino a16th century adventuress who influenced writer Roy Thomas in his creation of Red Sonja, the Hyborian Age 'She-Devil with a sword.' Wagner gives a brief introduction explaining the differences between the two Sonjas.
It also feature another Hok tale by Wellman, a novella by Jack Williamson, three stories by Nictzin Dyalhis, and the only two Prince Raynor stories by Henry Kuttner. The invaluable Paizo has recently reprinted all the Raynor and Elak of Atlantis stories in one volume, but prior to that, Echoes of valor was one of the few places where readers of heroic fantasy could find theses tales by Kuttner. Ultimately I think that's what made the Echoes series so amazing and important for its time. Karl Edward Wagner loved the genre and he went to quite a bit of effort to resurrect and re-present these stories, which are some of the earliest and most influential tales of heroic fantasy.
So why were there no more than three volumes of Echoes of Valor? Wagner wanted to do more, but according to fellow heroic fantasy enthusiast Morgan Holmes, "Echoes of Valor didn't do too well. Karl Wagner told me he wanted to do volumes 4 & 5. It didn't help there was a big gap between books. The books didn't sell well but anthologies generally don't. I remember seeing #3 at one of those book sales where overstock would be sold for a month in empty store space in a shopping plaza."
But as I've mentioned above, virtually all the stories I've talked about here are back in print and available, proving that Karl Edward Wagner was, as usual, ahead of his time. The things you don't get in these new reprints though are the editorial comments and scholarship of Mr. Wagner, and those are well worth having. All three volumes of Echoes of Valor pop up on Ebay, AbeBooks, and Amazon. Track them down. You'll be glad you did.