I remember my first encounter, nearly 30 years ago, with the wonderful, weird fiction of Manly Wade Wellman. I was browsing the shelves of my local library when I came across a copy of The Old Gods Waken. Intrigued by the cover and the synopsis, I took the book home and was instantly captivated by its story of a folksy hero named John, whose pure heart and silver-stringed guitar help him defeat a couple of modern day druids up to no good in the remote Appalachian mountains. Wellman felt like some sort of a private little discovery to me, and from then on, I tried to get my hands on nearly anything else written by him I could find...not always an easy task.
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.)
These early Silver John stories are beautifully crafted pieces of work, all featuring a clear, strong narrative voice, a terrific sense of place, and above all, a cohesive and original take on mountain culture and homegrown legend, complete with plentiful details of the food, living conditions and folk songs of the region. Wellman lived most of his later life in North Carolina and made a deep study of the region. This knowledge lent conviction and authority to his many eerie tales of the monster and magic-haunted backwoods of Appalachia.
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."
If the above plot description doesn't sound busy enough, the book also features the ancient spirits who built the original Stonehenge, summoned back to violent life by a mysterious stranger named Esdras Hogue, to ultimately devastating effect. All these elements would make for a crackerjack 50 - 70 page novella, but the impact is somewhat dulled due to being stretched out to novel length. Nevertheless, once John's lovely wife Evadare is taken captive by the brutish werewolf folk who claim Teatray mountain as their own, John's lackadaisical narrative takes on a much-needed urgency and the last 50 or so pages barrel along nicely, ending in a fiery, mystical climax. That's not to say that there isn't some typically evocative writing earlier on in the book. Take this passage, for instance, as John goes poking around the dark woods where the wolf-like men dwell, and chances across an old, run-down church:
"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."
Atmospheric stuff, ain't it?
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.
For those new to Wellman, I'd suggest leaving late-period novels like The Hanging Stones until later, and instead seek out his earlier short masterpieces, such as "O Ugly Bird," "One Other," "Old Devlins Was A-Waiting," "Toad's Foot," "Hundred Years Gone," "Yare" and "The Dakwa," to name but a very few. All the Silver John short stories can be found in the paperback John the Balladeer (1988, also edited by Karl Edward Wagner). In the early 2000s, Nightshade Books published 5 handsome hardback volumes, collecting pretty much all of Wellman's fantasy short stories and novellas, including a volume of all the Silver John stories, Owls Hoot in the Daytime and Other Omens. Sadly, all but one of these collections seem to be out of print and going for big bucks on Amazon Marketplace, but are well worth getting if you can find them cheaper elsewhere. There was also a nice hardback collection of all the John Thunstone stories, including the two later novels What Dreams May Come and The School of Darkness, put out by Heffner Press in 2012, and now going for outrageous prices.
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+++
Welcome to the Armchair...
Look out the window. It’s a dark, cold, rainy day. Too nasty to go outside.
Better stay inside, read a good book.
There’s a bookcase over to your left. Run your fingers over the spines. Books of all shapes, sizes and genres; hardbacks, paperbacks. Take your time browsing through the titles. No rush. Find something that feels just right.
Now turn around. Over in the corner is a beat-up, black leather armchair. The leather is faded and cracked in places, the cushions battered. This chair has seen better days. But boy, does it look inviting...
Next to the chair is a standing lamp and a small table. Plenty of room for a nice cup of tea, a plate of cookies, whatever’s your poison.
So switch on the light, settle down with your book, open to page one, put your feet up, and let the author whisk you away to another world.
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