Last week I pre-ordered a couple of books by one of my favourite Sword and Sorcery authors, Karl Edward Wagner. This morning The Book of Kane and Death Angel’s Shadow automagically appeared on my Kindle courtesy of Amazon and Gateway. These are books have been out of print for a long time and can usually only be found for hideously inflated prices on eBay. Now they are sitting there on my ereader inviting immediate attention.
It is a mark of the age we live in and a huge change from the world in which I grew up. As a teenager I treasured my fantasy books because they only intermittently appeared in the spinner racks of the local newsagents or on the shelves of Stranraer’s John Menzies. If you were a fantasy fan, you just grabbed whatever you saw while it was still there. You could go a long time between fixes of fantasy in those days. These days ebooks are slowly but surely making available almost all the texts I so desperately wanted to get my hands on.
The Sixties and Seventies were the time of the great rediscovery of 30s pulp. Paperbacks with covers by the likes of Frank Frazetta and Bruce Pennington introduced me to Robert E Howard, Clark Ashton Smith and H P Lovecraft.
Wagner’s Kane books came slightly later, somewhere around the mid–70s if I recall correctly, but they were definitely part of that tradition. As a teenager, I found them disturbing, to say the least. Characters you cared about died with a regularity that would have done credit to George R. R. Martin. There were always horrific undertones to the work of the pulp greats but Wagner amped them up to eleven. The stories were astonishingly dark. Kane himself was about as far from a hero as it was possible to get; a psychotic killing machine, an evil sorcerer, a doomed immortal cursed to wander the world for millennia. Somehow he managed to be both charismatic and occassionally sympathetic.
We were still in recognisable sword and sorcery territory. The world held echoes of Lovecraftian horror, just as,in some ways, Howard’s Conan stories did. There were elements of science fiction too with the Elder Races who were quite obviously not from this world.
The stories were beautifully constructed, the prose was impressive and the characterisation done at a level that was not common in the genre.
These ebooks are collections of Wagner’s short stories about Kane. One oddity is that the same story , Reflections For The Winter Of My Soul, appears in both of them. It’s a great story, a country house murder mystery featuring a werewolf (and I promise you a lot less genteel than this makes it sound), but this seems like overkill.
Death Angel’s Shadow contains pretty much what I remember being in the paperback version. There’s just three stories but two of them, the aforementioned Reflections and Cold Light are crackers. The latter is a long novella in which Kane is hunted through the ruins of a dead city by the so-good-he’s-bad Gaetha the Avenger and his henchmen. The third story Mirage is a minor work but still worth a read.
The Book of Kane features some but not all of the contents of the collection Night Winds. Three of my all time favourite stories Undertow, Two Suns Setting and Lynortis Reprise are missing. Instead you get Misericorde and The Other One. I’m not sure why this happened and I do hope the missing stories show up in a future volume. It would be nice to have access to these sword and sorcery classics.
You do get another of my favourites, Raven’s Eyrie, which features a sinister family reunion under the light of the Demon Lord’s moon on the one night when the hordes of hell are free to roam the earth.
I do hope that Gateway get round to releasing Wagner’s Kane novels Bloodstone, Darkness Weaves and Dark Crusade as soon as possible. They’re off to a fine start with the release of these two books.
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