Walk on the Wild Side - By Karl Edward Wagner


Various Encounters with Karl

by Peter Straub

I remember the place where it happened and my impressions of the person better than the circumstances which brought about my first meeting with that good soul, Karl Edward Wagner. Even the year is unhappily vague, but it must have been 1975 or 1976, because the education in horror literature I had begun in 1974 under the instruction of Thomas Tessier, my tour guide, reference librarian and seminar leader, had progressed at least far enough beyond its initial stages so that I was already trying to write it.

Thomas Tessier and I had been friends since meeting one another at a 1970 poetry reading in the cellar of a Dublin pub called Sinnot’s, and our literary conversations had taken an unusual course. In 1970 and ’71, we talked about Geoffrey Hill (a modernist English poet), Derek Mahon (a not very modernist but anyhow wonderful Irish poet who was a friend of Thom’s), Wallace Stevens, John Berryman, John Ashbery and Yeats. In 1972, we were on to Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Mark Strand, Bill Knott (who called himself St. Geraud, “virgin and suicide,” and wrote brief poems seemingly from the point of view of someone recently deceased), Greg Kuzma (another now-forgotten oddity whose poems we found hilariously inept), Thomas Mann, Henry James, Federico Garcia Lorca, Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch, along with all of our earlier enthusiasms.

By 1974, we were still gabbing about these same people some of the time, but more often, before and after the endless hours frittered away in front of low-rent horror movies at the equally low-rent Kilburn Odeon, we obsessed about H.P Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Arthur Machen, Robert Bloch, Ira Levin and James Hadley Chase. I’m almost certain that I had already written my first excursion into horror, a novel called Julia. If I had not, Tessier would have had little reason to invite me along to his own first meeting with an American fantasy and horror writer of about our age named Karl Edward Wagner, who had just arrived in London.

Thom was at this time the Managing Director of Millington Books, a delightful publishing house located on the western fringes of Bloomsbury and not far from the British Museum in a structure with a curved, glass-brick exterior which bore an odd resemblance to a public convenience. Across Southampton Row from Millington’s offices were the Russell Hotel, always filled with Americans in new Burberrys, and, a little way south, another, humbler hotel memorable only because directly inside its entrance a wide, comfortable staircase led down to the congenial Peter’s Bar. After I joined Thom at Millington, we walked across the street, entered the hotel and went down the stairs to meet Karl in the chiaroscuro of the pub, as I did twice later, once when he was in the company of his dear friends, Mr. and Mrs. Manly Wade Wellman, and once with Ramsey Campbell.

On all of these occasions, Karl was accompanied by his wife, Barbara Wagner. Barbara and Karl were nothing if not a striking couple. In an ironic moment, a celestial dating bureau had arranged the conjunction of an unusually thoughtful Hell’s Angel and a Playmate of the Month with big granny glasses and a wide-open smile. He looked like someone you would mess with, were you stupid enough to think about messing with him, at some risk to your health. She looked like someone you had conjured up in a fantasy during your sophomore year in high school, except for being even nicer and more sociable. The combination of two such particular and disparate types was immediately appealing. I am representing, I rush to add here, a point of view shaped by what was already a lengthy time spent in England, and the Wagners might have, very likely would have, seemed less anomalous to anyone who had lived through the first half of the 1970s in the United States. Yet even then Barbara and Karl must have seemed to many who knew them well a couple whose great appeal had at least something to do with the utterly amiable anomaly they presented.

Then, at the time I first met him, Karl required only a couple of minutes to dispel the associations brought to mind by his cascading red-blond hair, his impressive beard, his equally impressive bulk. His sly, subtle, witty mind, the unexpectedness of his thoughts, almost instantly took care of that. I guess he did have a motorcycle, I’m not sure, but it was just a possession, not a