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Black Static


The Late Review: A Little Ochre Book of Occult Stories

17th May, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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I'm not as familiar with the work of Karl Edward Wagner (1945 - 94) as I should be, and perhaps you aren't either. If so it's a situation editor Stephen Jones set out to rectify with A Little Ochre Book of Occult Stories. Published in 2016 by Borderlands Press in a limited edition of 500 as part of their Little Books series, this slim volume is both a sampler for Wagner's work and also a way of keeping him in the public consciousness. It's shown as "Out of Stock" on the publisher's website, but a quick google unearthed a copy on AbeBooks, so if you desperately want to get your hands on the book that's the route to go.

The book opens with "A Letter to Karl by Stephen Jones" , a warm and heartfelt address come appreciation of the man Jones regards as a great editor and writer and personal inspiration. Next up we have the poem "Death Angel's Shadow", an effective and evocative reminder of our own mortality. The first of three, "The Last Wolf" is the story of the last writer in a world where books have been lost as a medium thanks to the indifference of the public. The writer's agent explains the situation to his client. Bradbury is name dropped in the story, which is entirely appropriate, and the underlying mood of the piece is elegiac, mourning for all that has been lost, the death of the imagination, and a determination to carry on regardless. I do have to say though that I felt the character was unduly harsh on other mediums, such as television.

Another poem, "Naichoryss' Song", is an ode to necrophilia, or undying love if you want to romanticise it. Next is probably Wagner's best known story, "Sticks", which some credit as the inspiration for The Blair Witch Project. An illustrator trekking in the country stumbles across a procession of stick formations that hint at an alien geometry and lead him to a ruined building, where something monstrous is waiting. Years later the experience inspires his illustrations for the work of a deceased writer, only something else entirely is going on. Beautifully written and paced, it is easy to see why this is regarded as such a classic. Wagner is superb at creating mood, with his shadowy woods and brooding ruin, and the thing that lives inside it. We get an appreciation of the ways in which horror illustrations can be used to an evil end, with a discussion of ancient megaliths informing the text and suggesting an evil that has lingered down the years, and along the way there are strong hints of something very sinister going on, only for the story to then hit us with a delicious sting in the tail. The ephemerality of love and life is considered in the next poem, "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul".

The story "Undertow" is my first encounter with Wagner's character Kane, an ageless swordsman and sorcerer. Here the woman Desslyn tries to escape from Kane's love by ensnaring other men to use against him, but in a plot that deftly interweaves separate strands her true nature is unknown to even Desslyn. The influence of Robert E. Howard is evident in this tale of sorcerers in towers, sea captains, and mighty thewed barbarians, but what makes it special is the character of Kane himself, his stern and unforgiving nature. On this showing he is the very definition of the anti-hero, perhaps more reminiscent of King Kull than Conan, as amoral as he is powerful. Kane is also the subject of poem "Mourning of the Following Day", which adds a tragic element to the figure, hinting at how his bloodlust is a product of something missing in his life. "Midnight Train to Providence" is an essay Wagner wrote celebrating H. P. Lovecraft's story "He", the piece deftly skewering why the story was so effective, but with wit and an awareness of the flaws in both the work and its creator. Finally we have another poem, "Night Winds" which invites sleep in as the catalyst for the imagination, the key to the land of dreams.

Slim though it is at only 136 pages, this volume certainly whets the reader's appetite for the work of Karl Edward Wagner. I can't help wishing though that it was available in electronic format and so could reach a wider audience.




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