Dark Crusade, by Karl Edward Wagner

dark-crusade-by-karl-edward-wagner coverGenre: Dark Fantasy
Publisher: Warner Books
Published: 1976
Reviewer Rating: fourand a half stars
Book Review by Jack Crane

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The 1970’s were a Satanic time. Following on the heels of the “love” generation, the “me” generation turned to hedonism, drugs, disco, strutting and, beneath the celebratory veneer, a cynicism that propelled many people toward immediate and intense pleasure, rather selfless, “change the world” activism.

Karl Edward Wagner’s saturnine character, Kane, rose through the era of Nixon, cocaine, and polyester as a SF emblem of nihilism and violence, giving the term “antihero” a rather powerfully new spin.

The novel Dark Crusade is a blood-strewn, skull-ridden anthem to this bygone age of post-psychedelic disenchantment, and as such, it is a brilliant narrative unlike anything you’re liable to find on the publisher’s lists today.

Kane, for those unfamiliar with the scarlet haired, sword slinging protagonist, is an immortal mercenary, whose “ruthless intelligence” is matched only by his martial prowess… and his grim, survivalist soul. Wildly innovative at the time, Kane, though recalling Robert E. Howard’s character Conan the Barbarian, emerged through Wagner’s coldly scribed stories and novels as a unique persona, mostly due to Wagner’s peculiar mixture of the medieval and modern in Kane’s psychological makeup and “heavy metal” philosophy.

Interestingly enough, Wagner’s mythos is heavily steeped in what one might call Germanic myth and there is a distinct “Wagnerian” temperament (here meaning the composer, Richard Wagner) to both his thematic coloring and his “larger than life” protagonist. Kane, unlike any other “hero” of his time, synthesized murderous impulses with refined knowledge of military tactics, “classical” culture, and occult power. Dark Crusade is short novel and reads more like a collection of interconnected short stories with a large cast of characters, vast settings, and enough plot-twists to satisfy Dickens. On the other hand, the novel is deeper than its episodic adventures and stands as a chilling sociological indictment of political hypocrisy and the mass submission to a culture of lies and failed ambitions.

Beginning with the transformation of an outlaw, Orted, into a vessel for Demonic possession, Dark Crusade recounts the war-mongering onslaught of a faceless, zombie-like horde which follows the possessed outlaw in a Crusade to turn the world from light to darkness. The Sataki cult, driven by the self-proclaimed God, now known as Orted Ak-Ceddi, rampages the southern kingdoms butchering those who refuse to follow the Dark God and enslaving those who do….

Against this background, Kane emerges, at first preoccupied by his own Machiavellian intrigues within the southern kingdoms to pay any heed to the Dark Crusade, and then, later, becoming the General of Orted Ak-Ceddi’s armies, forging them from a rabble-mass into a powerful, disciplined force.

Wagner’s brutality is unrelenting and there is little room for warmth or humor in this novel. Such small glimpses of joy or hope that do emerge within the story are often shown, later, to have been mistaken weaknesses that lead to ruin. Kane’s plot to use the Dark Crusade stands as the central example of Wagner’s theme of shattered hope. Even ruthless ambition is too hopeful within the context of the cold, Wagnerian cosmos, and Kane must ultimately face, not only the defeat of his army, but the ravages of his own mind. That he survives is a testament, not of hope, but of utter cruelty, because in Wagner’s mythos, Kane’s immortality is curse, not a gift, of the Gods.

Many novels, comic books, and even rock bands, have followed in the wake of Wagner’s one-time “visionary” creation. If you are a fan of Dark Fantasy, especially of the sword-slinging “barbarian” variety, chances are you’ve read a tale or two that owe their substance to Wagner. The difference is in the telling.

Wagner’s prose style is vivid, unrelentingly masculine, and carries a chill not unlike the darker aspects of Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe. Don’t crack the cover expecting Lovecraft or Poe’s lyricism, however, as there is an almost taciturn tone to Wagner’s prose and you will encounter few wasted words, and even less poetic flourish.

Re-reading Dark Crusade I was reminded of how powerful SF can be in terms of sociological insight, and moral/philosophical impact without sacrificing the tone of pure adventure. Wagner slips his philosophy, grim as a raven’s wing, into the flow and force of his narrative expertly and in so doing, elevates his novel to greatness, something most of his imitators fail to do in spades.

If you want to get back to the roots of Dark Fantasy, there’s no better place to start than with “Dark Crusade”. The only real complaint I have with the novel is it’s rather fragmented story line — though his device of letting the reader only glimpse Kane through episodes does enhance his mythological impact.

This book is out of print, but is available through Barnes and Nobles out-of-print network. It’s definitely worth tracking down.

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