Monday, February 22, 2010

The Mark of Kane

"His long red hair was torn by the wind despite the rain. His eyes seemed to glow with cold blue fire in the burst of lightning. In his left hand he carried a long sword; in his right hand he held a human head."

- Karl Edward Wagner, "The Gothic Touch"

While not exactly what you would called a forgotten hero of sword and sorcery, Karl Edward Wagner's immortal anti-hero Kane is criminally under appreciated today. Of course, it could certainly be argued that outside Howard's heroes and perhaps Fafhrd and Gray Mouser that all sword and sorcery heroes are under appreciated, but that's a lament for another time. Still, Kane's low profile is particularly unfortunate. I believe he stands with Charles R. Saunder's Imaro as one of the two most significant sword and sorcery characters of the seventies revival--which makes him one of the most important sword and sorcery characters since the death of the pulps.

Kane is Wagner's re-imagining of the Biblical first murder. Created by a "mad god" who wished humanity to be his play thing, Kane rebelled against the "sterile paradise" offered and slew his brother (or half-brother, it's hinted) who was the god's favorite. Perhaps realizing what he had loosed upon the world, the god cursed Kane. Immortal, he would wander the world bringing only violence and strife, only able to find death through violence. Men would know him by his startling blue eyes, the eyes of a killer--the Mark of Kane.

In his essay "Once and Future Kane," Wagner tells us that the primary inspiration for the character was gothic fiction, particularly Charles Robert Maturin's 1820 novel of another unfortunate, cursed to immortality, Melmoth the Wanderer. Certainly, the gothic touch can be seen in the Kane tales, but filtered through Wagner it's (as he put it) "acid gothic"--which is to say it has a tinge of psychedelia about it (or maybe phantasmagoria would be a better word) and some "experimental" (for a fairly conservative genre) stylistic flourishes on occasion.

Darkness Weaves with Many Shades (later just Darkness Weaves) was the first Kane novel, published in 1970 by Powell, in a badly edited edition. Darkness Weaves has some first novel shakiness but it's great piece of pulp fantasy for all that, cheerfully mixing science fantasy, horror, and a little hard-boiled attitude.

In 1973 it was followed by Death Angel's Shadow, a collection of three novellas from Warner. In "Reflections of the Winter of My Soul," Kane takes on a werewolf in a sort of And Then There Were None-ish mystery. "Mirage" features a seductive vampire, while "Cold Light" has Kane up against a righteous paladin and his party in a Die Hard-esque confrontation in a ghost town out of an Almeria filmed Spaghetti Western.

Next came two short-stories. "Lynortis Reprise" has Kane returning to the site of an old battle, and re-imagines the Trojan War with the horrors of World War I. "Dark Muse" is a horror story evoking Chambers' The King Yellow wherein a poet seeks an ancient, magical artifact with ruinous results, and Kane is a side-player/observer.

The second Kane novel, Bloodstone (1975), got a Frazetta cover, and has Kane trying to take over the world with the eponymous ring which controls a sentient, alien super-weapon. 1976's Dark Crusade finds Kane leading a mercenary army for the prophet of a revived (and evil) ancient cult--and of course, trying to turn the whole affair to his advantage.

Over the next few years, Kane short stories appeared elsewhere. "Two Suns Setting" has Kane helping the last hero of giant-kind attempt to regain the crown of their greatest king. "Sing a Last Song of Valdese" is ghost story with Kane helping a wronged sorcerer and his love get their revenge. "Raven's Eyrie" introduces Kane's daughter, Klesst, and his old supernatural enemy, Sathonys. These stories, plus "Lynortis Reprise" and "Dark Muse", were collected in Night Winds (1978).

At the dawn of the eighties, Wagner was devoting more of his time to horror, but not far into the eighties that too would begin to falter. There were a few more Kane stories--including the crossover with Elric, "The Gothic Touch" (1994). Two of the others moved Kane out of his prehistoric past and into the modern day. The much discussed Kane novel, In the Wake of Night, was never completed. Maybe Wagner was tiring of Swords and Sorcery? We'll never really know.

Wagner died in 1994 at the age of forty-eight. It was apparently due to complications of alcoholism, though the internet also relates he had "tick fever" (presumably that means Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever), but David Drake suggests this was an unconfirmed (and dubious) self-diagnosis on Wagner's part--and an excuse.

Flawed though the creator may have been, he gave his creation immortality. Kane lives on. Though out of print, the Warner editions and the handsome Night Shade Books hardcovers can still be found and are worth whatever you pay might for them.

"He strode away laughing into the cold night;
Kane had returned, a new challenge begun."

- Karl Edward Wagner, "The Midnight Sun"


Lagomorph Rex said...

While never my favorite character, I cannot argue that they were well written. It's truly a shame that Wagner died when he did and wasn't able to give us any more stories.

I personally wish that Night Shade would issue TPB versions of their two Kane Omnibuses.. along the vein of the recent Glen Cook Dread Empire ones.

Thanks for the Comment at my blog btw.

Trey said...

You're welcome.

Yeah, I wish Night Shade would release paperbacks, too. I suggested to Paizo that they do something with Kane in Planet Stories, but the recent hardcovers detered them--despite the fact they were pricey to begin with and already pricier in the secondary market.

James Robert Smith said...

I really miss the Kane books and stories. I miss Wagner, for that matter. I used to meet him at shows and did some correspondence with him as far back as the late 1970s.

Trey said...

He seems like he was an interesting guy and certainly a great talent.