It was around 1975 when I read my first Karl Edward Wagner novel, Bloodstone, with that great Frazetta cover pictured to the left. I remember really enjoying it, and I thought his Kane was a fascinating creation. I quickly realized that I had discovered a fantasy writer that was quite a bit better than most of the other sword and sorcery authors that were peddling their crap at that time.
In 1977, I picked up the Berkley/Putnam edition of The People of the Black Circle and my estimation of the Bloodstone author rose even higher, because, in this Wagner-edited volume Howard fans got to see the Conan stories as they had originally appeared in Weird Tales, with no pastiches, no yarns by lesser writers trying to self-promote themselves with their own versions of the dark barbarian.
Two more additions to this series followed, The Hour of the Dragon and Red Nails, but that, unfortunately, was it. To any reader of this blog it should be apparent there is only one Conan and that is, of course, the Robert E. Howard Conan. No movie, no comic book adaptation, and no pastiche should ever be considered part of the Conan canon—if Howard didn’t write it, it ain’t Conan, simple as that.
So my respect for Wagner soared when I noticed that the only by-line to appear on the book-spine was Howard’s, and nowhere in his foreword does Wagner mention the names of the other writers that had worked on the Lancer series—and since Mr. Wagner didn’t feel it fulfilled any purpose to state their names I’ll follow his lead and won’t either. Hopefully it’s not necessary and hopefully their tales of their Conan will be buried somewhere and forgotten.
Wagner shows he’s my kind of Howard fan when he writes, “It is this editor’s feeling that the Conan stories should be presented exactly as Howard wrote them, and that examples of pastiche writing have no place in a collection of the original author’s own stories. Pastiche-Conan is not the same Conan as portrayed by Robert E. Howard—and I say this as one who has written Howard pastiches.” Beautiful.
In the second volume in the series, The Hour of the Dragon, he adds to this statement, noting, “later writers have revised nonfantasy adventures to turn them into Conan stories, and have further altered Howard’s Conan through a vast body of frank pastiches. These are not Conan stories—not Robert E. Howard’s Conan—and have no more validity in relation to the stories than any Conan tales you might yourself decide to write.” Wagner is becoming my hero.
In the last volume of this series, Red Nails, he refers again to the earlier tampering by, well, you know. “Unfortunately these earlier efforts [the Gnome and Lancer editions] were burdened with the aforementioned Conan collaborations and pastiches, and Howard’s text in the completed stories was tampered with by previous editors.” And then Wagner reiterates his belief that no collection of Conan should contain any stories except those by Howard. My man.
Because of this high regard I check eBay quite often for Wagner items and I was delighted to come across Michael Moorcock’s Stormbringer, pictured to the left with the J. Cawthorn cover. While the book is in itself collectible I was somewhat amazed to discover this was actually Wagner’s own copy, and contained his bookplate. I quickly bought it and added it to my library.
Shortly after this purchase eBay yielded another surprise—a teleplay by Wagner adapting Howard’s “The Horror from the Mound” for the series Tales From the Darkside. I had heard of this somewhat legendary script, but I’d never had the chance to read it. So, on the day it arrived, I spent a pleasurable hour familiarizing myself with KEW’s remarkable adaptation. Wagner deserves all the adulation Howard fans can give him, because this is the way Howard should be treated by screenwriters and movie makers.
It’s a solid retelling of one of my favorite REH yarns with one notable exception; Wagner introduces a third modern-day character, Jarrett Buckner. The creation of this character helps KEW move the teleplay along, especially during the sequences when Brill reads the manuscript left by Juan Lopez—with Buckner on stage Brill can narrate Lopez’s tale aloud, instead of only reading it to himself.
I was never a Tales From the Darkside fan, at the time it first aired I felt most of the episodes fell kind of flat, and I ended up sarcastically calling the program Tales From the Unimaginative Side.
One of the episodes I fuzzily recall concerned an old man who had apparently died but would not admit it to himself, or his loved ones. His relatives are of course unsettled by this and are trying to prove to the elderly gentleman that he has indeed perished and that it’s time for him to take his place in the coffin. So, during one meal, his family members pepper his plate severely, enough to make him sneeze so heavily that he blows his nose off, thus confirming to himself that he is, indeed, a walking dead man. I believe the last scene in the show is of his nose still embedded in his handkerchief, with lots of gross material surrounding it.
How correct my memory is of this show I’m not exactly certain but I do know that my estimation of Tales From the Darkside does not place it on the top shelf of horror shows—Thriller has nothing to worry about. However, after reading Wagner’s teleplay, and recognizing how good it would have appeared on television, I may have to go back and take another look at some of those old Tales episodes. The fact that “The Horror from the Mound” was even considered to be a possible candidate for this old horror series does say something good about Tales From the Darkside—I may have to take back that Unimaginative Side crack.
This Wagner teleplay deserves publication—if only to show that Howard can be brought to the small, or big, screen with very little tampering. It can be done, Howard fans, and we all know it.