The Feckless Wonder (uvula_fr_b4) wrote,
The Feckless Wonder

Hot air and posturings: A review of Karl Edward Wagner's Nightwinds.

I recently finished Karl Edward Wagner's Nightwinds (NY: Warner Books, Inc.; 1978; July 1983 reprint; ISBN: 0-446-30812-9; mass market paperback; 286 pps.), a book of five short stories and one novella featuring Wagner's left-handed, red-headed, red-bearded, ice-blue-eyed anti-hero Kane (yes, he's the biblical Cain; his "killer eyes" are his mark); aside from the fact that the pieces all feature, to one degree or another, Kane, they are otherwise only loosely related to each other: indeed, one isn't quite sure that they even take place within a few years of each other, as Kane is immortal in the Asgardian manner (i.e., he doesn't age or ages verrrrrry slowly, but can, one presumes, be killed by sustaining enough physical damage).

The short stories are: "Undertow" (far and away the worst piece collected here), "Two Suns Setting," "The Dark Muse," "Lynortis Reprise" and "Sing a Last Song of Valdese;" the novella is Raven's Eyrie, and in this collection it falls between "The Dark Muse" and "Lynortis Reprise."

Some of the pieces are diverting enough, but, on the whole, I enjoyed it far less than I did Bloodstone (and I didn't give Bloodstone an unqualified thumbs-up either); I was irritated in several spots by the amateurishness of Wagner's prose, particularly as regards his over-reliance on exclamation points. He is evidently someone who can't write up to the strength of some of his concepts.

"Undertow" is an underwhelming thriller wherein Kane's current lady, Dessylyn, never stops scheming to leave him, ensnaring various would-be rescuers (one of whom plays as a blonde stand-in for a dumbed-down Conan, albeit with a low-level magical sword) with her feminine wiles; to my great unsurprise, Dessylyn turns out to be a zombie: more specifically, a reanimated corpse kept fresh-looking and -smelling by Kane's arcane alchemy-cum-wizardry. Even though Kane serves as this story's villain and consequently is off-stage for much of it, Wagner's writing is at its absolute weakest here, and he totally flubs any suspense that a better execution of this plot might've had.

"Two Suns Setting" is essentially a reprise of Robert E. Howard's "Twilight of the Grim Grey God," with the biblical Kane meeting one of the last of the (apparently) biblical giants, Dwassllir; the two outcasts attempt to retrieve the long lost diadem of the last great king of the giants, Brotemllain, with predictably unhappy results. Despite the utter lack of suspense, Wagner managed to retain a smidgen of poignancy to his telegraphed ending, and the philosophical musings with which he is wont to season his Kane stories are at their most effective here.

"The Dark Muse" is a story in which Kane features as a catalyst to the story's true protagonist, the "mad" poet Opyros (the similarity of his name to "Orpheus" should make it obvious as to the general drift of this story), who yearns to write a Necronomicon-like poem, Night Winds, and, with the help of Kane and a figurine of "Klinure, the muse of dream, whom some call the dark muse" (p. 107), manages to do just that, after a bout of real madness brought about by his sojourn in the realm of dreams and a battle between Kane's forces and some mercenaries of Erberhos (note the similarity to "Erebus"), an assistant to the alchemist Damatjyst, who staked the figurine of Klinure for the fifty gold pieces that he needed to borrow from Kane to win at dicing: Kane subsequently refused to return the figurine to Erberhos after the latter had cleaned out all of his fellow gamblers, but, since Erberhos had "borrowed" the figurine from his master without his permission or his knowledge, he was most anxious to reclaim it, even if he had to unleash a very nasty Lovecraftian-type horror against Kane and his party to do so. Opyros survives his magnum opus only a little longer than Abdul Alhazred survived his.

Raven's Eyrie returns Kane to a more Howardian milieu, with a smidge of ersatz Moorcock tossed in for good measure. Kane is nearly fatally wounded and hounded with his few surviving band of highway robbers to the wreckage of an inn he had plundered some seven years ago, harried by a large troop of bounty hunters eager for the reward offered for the capture and killing of Kane and his men. Kane learns that he has a daughter, a red-headed, blue-eyed girl named Klesst, begotten on the innkeeper's daughter, Ionor, when he raped her; Ionor has never forgiven Kane for her violation and the murder of much of her family and her family's staff, and so she has entered a pact with Wagner's version of Satan (called variously Sathonys, Tloluvin, Lato, or, generically, Demonlord; he has a huge black hound named Serberys, whose etymological model surely needs no pointing out) to blast Kane to the netherworld in exchange for the life of her rape-begotten child. Ionor and her family were as evil as Kane is here, however, and evil will out, no matter how many conflicting impulses for good there are. Raven's Eyrie is the most successful piece of Night Winds, but even the appropriately nasty ending isn't wholly successful, as Kane's daughter is summarily shunted aside, never to reappear. (Wagner evinces an unwelcome, Roy Thomas-like trait of inserting apocryphal pop cultural references into his dialogue here: just as in Bloodstone he managed to work in part of one of Pink Floyd's most unwieldy song titles into a bit of exposition on the very first page, here he drops a Creedence Clearwater Revival song title -- "Bad Moon Rising" -- into a character's dialogue [p. 150], which has the effect of yanking the reader entirely out of the oh-so-spooky atmosphere Wagner is laboriously trying to create.)

"Lynortis Reprise" is a fumbling meditation on the futility of war, particularly total war, that suggests a medieval fantasy version of World War I, especially with its phosphorous shells and shells of choking black vapor; Kane proves to have played a significant part in the downfall of the great city of Lynortis after a thirty year siege, and returns to the ruins for mysterious reasons. Wagner's writing is too self-conscious here to be as effective as he apparently wanted it to be, but the maimed and crippled veterans from both sides of the conflict who make the bombed-out city their home manage nonetheless to recall in part the 1932 Tod Browning movie Freaks and Ernst Friedrich's gruesomely illustrated anti-war tract War Against War!. There are some plotting bobbles that detract from the story's overall effect as well (for example, the "half-men" hail the story's sole female character, Sesi, as their queen in such a way as to give the impression that they've always worshipped her, when in fact they meet her for the first time during the course of the story; neither Kane nor Sesi make any note of this).

"Sing a Last Song of Valdese" is probably the second most inconsequential story of this collection (it's only 19 pages long), and is essentially the prose treatment of a common revenge theme of medieval balladry -- a woman done wrong by lustful would-be suitors who maim her lover unto death and foully violate her -- in which Kane barely appears. "Sing a Last Song of Valdese" isn't as poor as "Undertow," but it never eludes the D-movie blues; if you're in the mood for a macabre and cheesy revenge fantasy, you're much better off popping The Abominable Dr. Phibes into the DVD player.
Tags: adventure fiction, book reviews, fantasy, horror, pulp fiction
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