Manly Wade Wellman may be one of the very best writers of dark fantasy fiction that hardly anyone knows about. Over five decades, he wrote dozens of novels and stories of all types, but he especially excelled at the weird horror story, particularly those of the "supernatural investigator" variety. As a young man, he earned his stripes writing for pulp magazines like Astounding Stories, Unknown, and, most memorably, Weird Tales, where he first introduced his erudite, monster-hunting men of action, Judge Keith Hilary Pursuivant and John Thunstone. Most of Wellman's fame arises from the cycle of stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 50s to early 60s, featuring a wandering, amiable guitar-strumming fellow named John. Those 11 original "Silver John" stories were eventually published in the collection Who Fears the Devil? by Arkham House in 1963. (Wellman was never fond of the "Silver John" nickname, a publisher's idea, and never used it himself in any of his stories featuring the character.)
It's hard to describe what makes Wellman's stories so special. It's a subtle flavor, really. His work is seldom scary in the traditional sense; it's more that he creates an extremely effective sense of unease, of strange, evil entities, lurking just out of the range of one's vision, haunting the isolated, dark forest trails of the Appalachian mountains. In an almost offhanded way, he created a unique mythology, peopled by voluptuously beautiful, wicked witches, sneering, disdainful warlocks, Native American legends, ancient races inimical to humans (such as the Shonokins), and all manner of creepy critters like the Flat, the Gardinel, the Behinder, and the Dakwa. While Wellman is very, very different in prose style from that other American master of the supernatural, H.P. Lovecraft, the two share a talent for vivid, carefully-constructed world building, giving their otherworldly manifestations a rare authenticity through cumulative effects, such as the use of fictional tomes of black (and white) magic. Lovecraft's The Necronomicon is the more well-known, but just as effective is Wellman's book of simple evil-thwarting spells, The Long Lost Friend, used across several stories and multiple series.
When fellow fantasist and fan, Karl Edward Wagner, edited Worse Things Waiting, published by Carcosa Press in 1973, the collection went on to win Wellman a World Fantasy Award, and the author enjoyed a well-deserved career resurgence which lasted until his death in 1986. A whole new passel of influential fans commissioned new works, and Wellman eventually returned to his most popular creation, penning a handful of new Silver John stories. He eventually went on to produce five more John novels for the Doubleday Science Fiction imprint, starting with The Old Gods Waken (1979), After Dark (1980), The Lost and the Lurking (1981), The Hanging Stones (1982) and The Voice of the Mountain (1984).
The novels, it must be said, all suffer from some definite padding and the occasional repetitive conversation, and lack the control, sharp through-line and lean beauty of the early Silver John short stories. Despite this, the novels all have points of interest, particularly the chance to spend more time in the pleasant, garrulous company of John, who one can easily imagine sitting on the porch outside some old-timey country store, relating his adventures to a wide-eyed audience. While The Old Gods Waken remains, for me, the best of the bunch, The Hanging Stones is still an engaging read, thanks to its inspired premise and the brief but welcome presence of Wellman's first supernatural investigator, Judge Pursuivant. This meeting of two of Wellman's legendary creations enlivens the second half of book; the first half, it must be said, is a little too much talk, and not a lot of action.
The paperback synopsis reads:
"Millionaire industrialist Noel Kottler had no respect for mountain lore. He wanted to build a duplicate of Stonehenge high on top of Teatray Mountain, turn it into an amusement park, and hire Silver John to entertain the tourists. But the sharptoothed wolf demons who dwelt in the back-country were angered by the invasion of their sacred ground. And Silver John had no use for money-mongers and citified mystics. When his beloved Evadare was kidnapped and unholy darkness was unleashed upon the land, only the pure-hearted power of Silver John could restore the sunshine and subdue the savage spirits."
"It was made out of planks, I said, sawed out of big trees sometime in the past, and now turned all gray with crumbly black veins for want of a coat of paint since God alone could remember when. Two windows in front, one on each side of the cleated board door, and their glass all broken in and jaggly-looking. On the gabled roof of shakes, a little steeple thing, though it had nair been big enough to have a bell in it. On the door itself was a bald place where once two slats had been nailed to make a cross, the cross now fallen off from it. Over the walls scrambled vines and patches of gray-green lichen.
I tell you for a natural fact, it was lonely and empty, and I felt lonely and empty to look at it. I stood there and looked, and thought my thoughts.
Then it was that the door caved open, slow and creaky on red-rusted hinges. It opened inward, though no hand was on it, and I could see into the dark inside where there were rickety benches with no backs to them - benches home-carpentered of more whip-sawed planks, set up on round chunks of poles. At the far end, where things were the gloomiest, a little low-set platform and a reading desk, where once a preacher could make him a pulpit of it. The opening door showed me those things, and it seemed like as if it bade me to come in.
But you can bet your neck I didn't do that thing."
Despite its leisurely pace, the high quality of the writing, and John's easy-going, countrified yet elegant narration, keep the reader turning the pages until the exciting finale. And despite the coziness lent by the presence of its multiple heroes, the novel ends on a chilling final image of death.
Wellman was hale and hearty into his early 80s, but when he sustained a serious fall in 1985 which rendered him an invalid, this proud, strongly-built man's health rapidly deteriorated, and he died the following year. He managed to produce one more novel, Cahena, a historical adventure, before his death, and it was published in 1986. By now a close friend of Manly and his wife, Frances, Karl Edward Wagner edited a new collection of miscellaneous Appalachian fantasy stories also released by Doubleday, The Valley So Low, in 1987.
If you're a fan of this kind of literature, I'd say get a hold of some of these editions by any means necessary. If and when you are lucky enough to do so, I wouldn't be surprised if you, too, became a Wellman fan for life.
The Hanging Stones: B
All the stories in Who Fears the Devil, plus many of his other short works: A+++