Local-boy-done-good stories are usually a source of civic pride, and Knoxville has certainly embraced its role as home to celebrities of various stripes. In the literary world, most people are aware, by now, that screenwriter/director Quentin Tarantino spent a couple of formative years in the area; that novelist Cormac McCarthy lived here for nearly the first half of his life; that Alex Haley resided through his last decade in nearby Clinton.
But there’s one literary great whom Knoxville has been slow—not to say loathe—to embrace as its own. And John Mayer believes it’s high time that fantasy/horror writer and editor Karl Edward Wagner got his due in the town he once called home.
“There seems to be some snobbishness associated with the horror genre,” says Mayer. “A lot of people don’t want to be associated with that. They think of it in terms of the lowest common denominator, slasher films and the like. I guess it’s déclassé.”
A childhood friend of Wagner, Mayer is trying to change all that. He’s organizing the Karl Edward Wagner Fantasy and Horror Festival. The festival will include a number of events, coinciding with Wagner’s induction this year into the East Tennessee Writer’s Hall of Fame. One night will be hosted at Preservation Pub, on Oct. 13, possibly including a performance by reformed local gothic bluegrass act Blackgrass.
Mayer says the festival is only now gaining traction; it began humbly, in recent years as “a notion in the heads of a few of us, just a small gathering, four or five people getting together for drinks.”
But this year, with a boost from Wagner’s new Hall of Fame status, Mayer is trying to turn the gathering into a real public celebration. Check out karledwardwagner.org for more information.
Mayer first got to know Wagner as a fellow science fiction buff—and therefore, a fellow outcast—at the old Central High School. He watched as Wagner—a big, red-maned bear of a man—grew from schoolboy comic book collector to rebellious med-school student to struggling young author.
“He was a genius, literally,” Mayer says. “When he enrolled in University of North Carolina medical school, he had the highest I.Q. of any student they had ever had. He had a vast knowledge of many subjects, and a quick wit. He was the center of any party, a consummate raconteur.
“He looked like a biker. And he had a hard surface; he seemed gruff and hard-nosed. But he had a soft heart. And he was sort of a romantic. When his wife left him, later in his life, because of his drinking, it crushed him. Of course, then it only made his drinking worse.”
In his career, Wagner authored dozens of short stories, a couple of poetry collections, and a handful of novels, several of which featured Kane, the red-headed, muscle-bound warrior-mage who was his most famous literary creation. He also edited several significant volumes of genre fiction, including a series of Robert E. Howard “Conan” stories—Howard being one of his significant influences—cleaned of the sullying influence of posthumous editor-“collaborators” such as L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter.
Wagner died on Oct. 13, 1994, at age 49, from complications of what Wagner calls “writer’s disease.” “He was an alcoholic,” Mayer says. “It’s indemic among writers, for some reason. His liver almost literally exploded.”
But though he’s gone, Mayer would like to ensure that his friend’s memory, and legacy, will live on, especially in Knoxville. “If the Wagner festival doesn’t take off, it won’t have been for lack of trying,” Mayer says. “I can’t help but think that if it were a football team we were talking about, it would be a whole different matter. A prophet is seldom honored in his own land.”