1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1963, 1970s, 1980s, Arkham House, fantasy, folklore, Horror, Hugo Award nominee, John the Balladeer, Kieran Yanner, Manly Wade Wellman, Paizo, Planet Stories, pulp, Southern Gothic, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, weird fantasy, weird fiction, Weird Tales
Where I’ve been is places, and what I’ve seen is things, and there’ve been times I’ve run off from seeing them, off to other places and things. I keep moving, me and this guitar with the silver strings slung behind my shoulder. Sometimes I’ve got food with me, and an extra shirt maybe, but most times just the guitar, and trust to God for what I need else.
Damn, did they have names back then. Manly Wade Wellman got his start writing in the pulp ghetto, churning out low-grade pulp space opera with names like “Disc-Men of Jupiter” and “Rocket of Metal Men” while honing his craft. In a few decades, though, he managed to cement his reputation as a rising star in the field, when in 1946 he beat out William Faulkner—yes, that Faulkner—to win the first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award—and yes, that Ellery Queen. Rumor has it that Faulkner never got over losing to a pulp writer, especially since Wellman’s 1946 bibliography revolves around the pulps Weird Tales and Thrilling Wonder Stories. Faulkner’s loss, because it proved something that a lot of readers already knew: Wellman was a master. He went on to win an Edgar Award in 1955, and was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1956, but didn’t win the hat trick.
And sadly, now a forgotten master, save for the efforts of the small-press companies working to reprint old pulp stories. Haffner Press has just collected Wellman’s tales of occult detective John Thunstone; before that Paizo’s Planet Stories rescued Wellman’s Who Fears the Devil? from the dustbins of history. Who Fears? stars Silver John, also known as John the Balladeer, his most iconic character—Silver John takes Wellman’s love of Appalachian folklore and gives it a mouthpiece, a character who’s neither a Beverly hillbilly nor an unstoppable superman. Nay, John is the perfect everyman of the rural Appalachian mountain folk, trekking through the pristine forests and contemporary backwater towns to fend off dark magics and Lovecraftian horrors.
So, imagine a young Johnny Cash roaming the Appalachians to fight off unspeakable horrors and ancient evil, and you’ve just about got it.
Another lightning flash, another thunder growl. Old Mr. Jay hunched his thin shoulders under his jeans coat, and allowed he’d pay for some crackers and cheese if the storekeeper’d fetch them out to us.
“I ain’t even now wanting to talk against Forney Meechum,” said the farmer. “But they tell he’d put his eye on Lute for himself, and he’d quarreled with his own son Derwood about who’d have her. But next court day at the county seat, was a fight betwixt Jeremiah Donovant and Derwood Meechum, and Jeremiah put a knife in Derwood and killed him dead.”
Mr. Jay leaned forward. The lantern light showed the gray stubble on his gentle old face. “Who drew the first knife?” he asked.
I won’t bother to go over every single story in detail, for two reasons. First, the stories are separated by story vignettes, oozing atmosphere and weird menace in a few simple paragraphs, and if you include those vignettes the story count soars up to thirty in one slim volume. Second, the stories all follow the same rough pattern. John has heard some rumor of fantastic events in the vicinity and has come to learn more, or John has wandered into town in search of country ballads and learned of some weird occult-based past that’s currently threatening the populace, be it a malicious voodoo man, a monster of some kind, or the weight of the sins of a now-dead sinner. John sings some songs, stumbles into a weird menace, resolves it through his purity of faith, fortitude, and knowledge of traditional Southern ballads, and moves on to the next story. The stories all have different threats, different songs or characters, but sharing the same rough structure makes them feel a bit same-y. The word “subtle” comes to mind when I think of the Silver John tales.
I wasn’t blown away by this book because of the repetitive nature, but by Wellman’s prose. All but one or two stories are from John’s first-person perspective, and are rich in authentic argot that is by no means demeaning to impoverished Southerners. John is an excellent character: he’s intelligent and canny but also sure in his Christian beliefs, worldly despite his impoverished appearance, and his tone conveys comfort and friendliness. John fought in The War but carries no weapon but his silver-stringed guitar and his silver tongue; he knows how to identify helpful white magic from the darkness that rests in some people, and the only thing second to his faith is his trust in the goodness of human nature. And it’s his comforting narrative, authentic jargon, and rich Americana history that makes every dangerous, dark encounter a thing of wonder and beauty.
That, in a nutshell, is why I loved this book: Wellman’s narration through John is just so damn evocative, it’s hard to imagine that Wellman was not a native English speaker: born in Portuguese West Africa, the son of a British physician at a medical station, he spoke the native tongue before learning English. These tales are rich in atmosphere, creating a mythical, magical world based on American folklore of all kinds—elements of voodoo and lumberjack tall-tales make an appearance. That’s kind of a first; most fantasy leans towards classical mythology or an invented pseudo-Medieval world, whereas Who Fears The Devil? is twice as fantastic from using homegrown elements.
All of the stories are good, and some are real winners. “O Ugly Bird!” starts off the volume, with a cretinous man lording over a small town through his voodoo magic and a supernatural dark bird; John will not stand for such indecency. “Little Black Train” I found quite memorable, despite having less of a supernatural element; John stumbles across a party, celebrating a woman’s “freedom” from a curse laid on her for killing her husband. “Shiver in the Pines” (awesome name) deals with a long-lost and cursed treasure; in “Walk like a Mountain” John tries to redeem a vengeful giant of a man; “Owls Hoot in the Daytime” is a nice twist on the haunted-house theme. “Nobody Ever Goes There” switches from John’s first-person perspective, and it’s interesting to see him as a supporting character. “Frogfather” and “Sin’s Doorway” make no mention of John by name; they are similar enough and are Wellman’s earliest forays into the Americana gothic genre he established, but are only tenuously Silver John stories. I’m still glad they’ve been included.
I swear I’m licked before I start, trying to tell you all what Mr. Onselm looked like. Words give out — for instance, you’re frozen to death for fit words to tell the favor of the girl you love. And Mr. Onselm and I pure poison hated each other. That’s how love and hate are alike.
The Silver John tales date back to the The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction from the 1950s, though two come from Weird Tales (“Frogfather” and “Sin’s Doorway” in 1946, the two stories that make no mention of John). The vignettes were written in 1963 for the first printing of Who Fears the Devil? by Arkham House, to fill the gaps and give the collected work more of a novel-like appearance. The earlier versions of the compilation either shuffled the vignettes into one pile, which destroyed their effect, or didn’t include the later stories since they hadn’t been written yet. Who Fears the Devil? has been reprinted five times now, the Paizo version being the most complete as it includes material from the 1988 collection John the Balladeer. The five Silver John novels written between 1979 and 1984 remain hard to acquire, though with interest about Wellman growing I have hopes someone will reprint them in the near future.
I didn’t rightly know what to expect, but all the positive reviews about Wellman got me curious about Who Fears the Devil?. I’m glad they did, because it is one of the most unusual fantasies I’ve ever read, with a master artist working magic through the evocative atmosphere. The ’50s Appalachia Mountains never felt so foreign, yet so familiar at the same time. I’m still enthralled by Wellman’s ability to write strong Southern dialogue without resorting to cliché or caricature, and the ambiance is impressive. This collection is nothing short of masterful, and if you enjoy weird fiction or southern gothic fantasy, you’ll probably love it. Granted, they’re a bit atypical, and oft times more humorous than terrifying, but they are of the finest quality. I was impressed by its style and uniqueness; the only disappointment is that the Silver John novels are so expensive.
Appendix: Contents List
For completion’s sake, here is the list of stories and their origins. Many are vignettes written for the 1963 collection; half the stories appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF), the later ones coming from collections and anthologies.
- “John’s My Name” – vignette
- “O Ugly Bird!” – F&SF, Dec. 1951
- “The Desrick on Yando”” – F&SF, June 1952
- “Why They’re Named That” – vignette
- “Vandy, Vandy” – F&SF, Mar. 1953
- “One Other” – F&SF, Aug. 1953
- “Then I Wasn’t Alone” – vignette
- “Call Me From the Valley” – F&SF, Mar. 1954
- “The Little Black Train” – F&SF, Aug. 1954
- “You Know the Tale of Hoph” – vignette
- “Shiver in the Pines” – F&SF, Feb. 1955
- “Find the Place Yourself” – vignette
- “Walk Like a Mountain” – F&SF, June 1955
- “Old Devlins Was A-Waiting” – F&SF, Feb. 1957
- “The Stars Down There” – vignette
- “On the Hills and Everywhere” – F&SF, Jan. 1956
- “Blue Monkey” – vignette
- “Nine Yards of Other Cloth” – F&SF, Nov. 1958 – Hugo Award Nominee
- “Trill Coster’s Burden” – 1979, Whispers II
- “I Can’t Claim That” – vignette
- “The Spring” – 1979, Shadows 2
- “Who Else Could I Count On” – vignette
- “Owls Hoot in the Daytime” – 1980, Dark Forces
- “Nobody Ever Goes There” – 1981, Weird Tales #3
- “None Wiser for the Trip” – vignette
- “Can These Bones Live?” – 1987, The Valley So Low
- “Where Did She Wander?” – 1987, The Valley So Low
- “Nary Spell” – vignette
- “Sin’s Doorway” – Weird Tales, Jan. 1946
- “Frogfather” – Weird Tales, Nov. 1946