If you’ve been following Dancing Tuatara Press since our inception, you’ll have no doubt noticed our efforts to restore to in-print status those books that comprise Karl Edward Wagner’s list of the thirty-nine best horror novels—or, at least, those books which require such attention. The Wagner List ranges from titles that are common as today’s newspaper to books so scarce that the number of known copies can actually be enumerated. We know for a fact that less than fifty copies of H.B. Gregory’s brilliant take on the Lovecraft mythos from the Judeo/Christian standpoint were actually distributed. We don’t know the number of copies of either Paul Busson’s The Fire Spirits or Philip George Chadwick’s The Death Guard that made it into circulation, but one can ascertain from reviewing the catalogs of specialty booksellers over the last forty years that both books can be rightfully called extremely scarce.

The present volume was one of two fantasy novels by Paul Busson that were translated into English for William Heine­mann Ltd. Originally published in Germany in 1923, The Fire Spirits was translated into English by J. Eglington. The Heine­mann edition appeared in 1929, an inauspicious year for luxuries such as books. The first novel translated, The Man Who Was Born Again, appeared in 1927, and, based on the ease with this book is found, one can deduce that there was likely a substantial print run with somewhat disappointing sales, resulting in a much lower print run for the second novel. In his Guide to Supernatural Fiction Everett Bleiler considers The Man Who Was Born Again “a key work of expressionistic fantasy”, whereas Wagner and I both consider The Fire Spirits to be far and away the superior book.

Before going much further it’s probably a good idea to look at the context in which Karl formulated his rather eclectic choices and evaluate whether or not The Fire Spirits really deserves such extravagant praise. The Wagner List, as it’s come to be known, ran in Twilight Zone Magazine during the mid-1980s. Well known as a writer and as the editor of the annual Year’s Best Horror Stories, Karl Edward Wagner was a “student of the game”, and devoted many, many hours to learning as much about the field of horror literature as possible. The lists that he came up were the result of frequent trips to England (often in the company of Ramsey Campbell and Steve Jones) and scouring the book stalls for interesting-sounding titles. Some of the tricks of the trade that he taught me and have served in good stead included searching by publisher. Assuming that Publisher X has done one or more book(s) that you find of interest, it therefore follows that the same editor may well have acquired other titles along similar lines. An obvious example would be Philip Allan under the editorship of Charles Birkin, which produced the famous “Creeps” series and related titles.

Armed with this and similar tricks of the trade, Karl not only put together a magnificent collection of rarities, but was also able to assemble his three lists of thirteen titles each, broken down into the sub-categories of “Supernatural Fiction”, “Non-supernatural Fiction”, and “Science Fictional Horror”.

The most frequently asked question is: “Did he really consider these novels to be the best that the genre had to offer?” In a word, “no”. Karl told me that the column in which these lists appeared was essentially a bully pulpit to call attention to works that otherwise might be overlooked by modern readers, as well as providing a reminder to not neglect the classics. Books earn the sobriquet of “classic” for a reason, hence the presence of Frankenstein on the list. Then there’s the matter of continuing discoveries after the appearance of the list. Karl told me that given the chance he would make some revisions, but wouldn’t tell me what those revisions would be. Speculating on possible revisions makes for an interesting guessing game. For example, I consider The Shadow on the House to be Mark Hansom’s weakest novel, but it was the only one that Karl had read when preparing his list. So, would he have replaced it with a supernatural novel such as my favorite, Master of Souls? If so, then what book gets bumped from the listing of supernatural tomes?

In any event, to bring us back around to The Fire Spirits, we find it unusually odd because the number of historical fantasy/horror novels is a very small one, and tends to weigh very heavily on one or two periods in history with scant attention to many other important eras.

Since the 1980s and the advent of “steampunk” this landscape has changed somewhat, but in the pre-WWII time period historical horror novels could pretty much be counted using only one’s fingers. On the horror side of the equation there’s H. Warner Munn’s Werewolf Clan cycle and Chandler Whipple’s The Curse of the Harcourts, both starting during medieval times and progressing to the present. In fantasy, James Branch Cabell would be the leading figure with his multi-volume opus, The Biography of Manuel, also spanning similar eras, though later volumes in the story do a fine job of portraying the 16th and 17th Centuries. The setting of The Fire Spirits is rather unusual in that the action is set in Napoleonic Europe, in the Tyrols to be specific.

The novel begins with Peter Storck coming to the Tyrolean village of Sankt Marein in search of answers regarding the disappearance of his uncle, who vanished from his home without a trace. The Tyrolean region is in the midst of upheaval, with the traditional reins of power long held by the Catholic Emperor of Austria being handed over to the Protestant King of Bavaria. The tension caused by this transition is never far from the surface and figures strongly as the plot develops. Having not read the original German, I can only go by the translation provided by J. Eglington for the Heinemann edition. The book is heavily character-driven, with a number of interesting personalities being introduced in the first few chapters.

On somewhat of a disappointing note, I have been told by friends who read German that a significant amount of plot development and some very evocative scenes have been cut from the English-language version and they consider the complete German text to be far superior. As I can’t begin to speculate as to when another translation might be done, we’re best served by enjoying the translation that is currently available to us. Based on this version alone, I would have to say that not only is The Fire Spirits one of the scarcest titles on the Wagner List, but also one of the very best.

The reveal as to what the mysterious lights—called “the fire spirits” by the locals—actually are is extremely well done and, while it hardly comes as a complete surprise, it definitely does put a nice twist on things.

In closing, let’s look at the other volumes that are included with The Fire Spirits on Karl’s list of Best Non-Supernatural Novels:


1.     The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin

2.     Psycho by Robert Bloch

3.     Here Comes a Candle by Fredric Brown

4.     The Screaming Mimi by Fredric Brown

5.     The Fire-Spirits by Paul Busson

6.     The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr


I can’t complain about any of the first six selections


7.     The Sorceror’s Apprentice by Hanns Heinz Ewers

8.     Vampire by Hanns Heinz Ewers


Okay, one volume by Ewers to call attention to the Frank Braun Trilogy would have been fine, but including all three is a missed opportunity to have called attention to two other books. That, and Vampire is pretty much terrible.  I believe that the publication of Karl’s lists predated the publication date of Blood Meridian: or, An Evening Redness in the West, so that omission is excusable, however, including Vampire at the expense of (as an example) Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me or Pop. 1280.


9.     Fully Dressed and in His Right Mind by Michael Fessier

An odd, but totally deserving selection.


10.   The Shadow on the House by Mark Hansom


I’ve mentioned that I consider this to be Hansom’s weakest novel (which is still pretty good), but any other Hansom novel would have been more deserving.


11.   Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau


A bizarre and exotic book to be sure. Does it invoke the feeling of “horror”? Maybe for some folks, but not for me.


12.   The Master of the Day of Judgement by Leo Perutz

13.   The Subjugated Beast by R.R. Ryan


Both of these are brilliant selections. At the risk of including too many Ryans, I’d have liked to see No Escape listed. More of a melodrama than anything else, but absolutely unforgettable.

And in closing, here is another bookscouting trick I learned from Karl that’s very easy to do in these day of internet searching. We’ve mentioned the obvious, other books by the same author, and the not-so-obvious books from the same editor or publisher. Here’s a final thought: How about authors who appeared in the same magazine? I realize that this is perhaps just a variant on the same editor angle, but I can certainly attest to it working. Early on, when the boom in fantasy started to take off in earnest and it was no longer possible to simply buy every book labeled as “fantasy,” I had to shift gears and put some limits and definitions on just what it was that I was collecting and I made the shift to focusing on material in book form that had originally appeared in John W. Campbell’s Unknown and Unknown Worlds. The concept proved to be very workable and easy to expand to the broader scope of authors who had appeared in either incarnation of the magazine. Interests have waxed and waned over the years, but looking over my bookshelves, it’s still pretty easy to detect these original roots in large selections of work by de Camp, Pratt, Hubbard, Sturgeon, Gold, Kuttner, Rice, van Vogt, and others. Feel free to drop us a line as to the parameters of your own collection(s), and I’ll get Fender Tucker (our CEO) to include the most interesting ones in a future edition of The Rambler. In the meantime, please enjoy this entry from Karl Edward Wagner’s list of the 13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels.



John Pelan

Gallup, NM

February 2015

With snow on the ground and lizards in the house!