Karl Edward Wagner rounds out his collection Echoes of Valor with a modern Arthuriana story ‘Wet Magic’ by Henry Kuttner (1915-1958). This story was originally published in Unknown Worlds, February 1943. To date, Echoes of Valor is the only other place this story has seen print since. There has been a recent resurgence of re-prints of Kuttner’s work —Paizo’s Planet Stories collections and the F. Paul Wilson and Neil Gaiman backed Hogben collection from Borderlands Press—but even those are a few years in the past. I think Wagner’s inclusion of this story really has saved it from obscurity.
I’ve never knowingly read a story by Kuttner before however, that doesn’t mean I’ve never read a Kuttner story. Wikipedia lists seventeen names that he published under in addition to his own. He was also known for co-writing with his wife C. L. Moore —creator of Jirel of Jorey and Northwest Smith—so seamlessly neither could remember who wrote what. Wagner says “…Kuttner’s extensive use of pseudonyms would seem to indicate an author of multiple personalities, and to one extent this holds true: Henry Kuttner was an extremely versatile writer.” Wagner goes on to explain that Kuttner was a master of adapting his style to match the masters of whatever genre he was writing in. He quotes Robert Bloch as saying “Hank never became a superstar, because he was so versatile. He never became known for one style, one theme, one famous story.”
I think his most famous story now is ‘Mimsy Were the Borogoves’ which was adapted to film under the title The Last Mimsy in 2007. I’m certainly intrigued by his span of work, I feel like Kuttner is the type of writer where I’ll have to read a large body of work to get a sense of his style. I’m looking forward to the Kuttner stories that are included in Echoes of Valor III.
The story ‘Wet Magic’ stands out as being quite different from the first two stories in the collection in that it takes place in modern times, that being 1943 when it was written. An ex-Hollywood star turned pilot is shot down by a pair of German Stukas over Wales and parachutes to safety through the heavy mist. Through a series of comedic misunderstandings and intrigues, including a tree that kicks and an invisible maiden, the pilot Arthur Woodley finds himself trapped in the underwater lake kingdom of Morgan le Fay. He encounters several characters from Arthurian legend who either help or hinder his escape and eventually he has a final confrontation with Morgan.
Of the three stories in this collection ‘Wet Magic’ stuck with me the most after I finished. It has definitely been the story I’ve put the most brain power into turning over in my head. I was caught off guard by the slow tonal shift it carried from a goofy fairy-tale into a more serious fantasy. There was a gossipy bride to be and a drunken hiccupping wizard that had me wishing for flashing swords and mighty thews. The story reeled me in when it began to discuss the return of King Arthur at England’s time of greatest need. What better time than World War II? It also brings in the idea of myth changing as time progresses and that in turn changes reality. Arthur Woodley denies the call to action and the boon of Excalibur because ultimately he doesn’t feel worthy. Eventually, his plans go to hell and he has to confront Morgan anyway but now, without the help of Excalibur. The ending was a complex examination of failure and how to continue to move forward with heart.
I enjoyed all three stories in Echoes of Valor, I think it’s a pretty good anthology. It’s different from other anthologies I’ve read in that it contains just three stories. This gives each story a bit more heavy lifting to do. You can’t skip ahead to the next story without skipping 1/3 of the book. As I’ve said earlier in this series it’s fairly apparent Wagner’s goal with the collection was to save lost stories. Do I think Wagner was successful? Ultimately, yes. Adept’s Gambit perhaps didn’t need the assist, but the other two did and as a collection it was enjoyable.