I went to a panel at the WorldCon in San Antonio a few years back on Texas Pulp SF. Apart from the 800-lb. gorilla in the room, Texans were grossly underrepresented in the pulps. The consensus was that they were writing speculative fiction, and good speculative fiction, but that it was getting published as folklore. That struck close to home. I sometimes say I didn’t discover speculative fiction until my mom forced The Hobbit on me, but that isn’t quite true. Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, I grew up with ghost stories. Much like that Texas “folklore.” The difference, of course, merely being one of perceptive.
You can imagine my interest then, when I discovered that an Appendix N and Weird Tales stalwart, Manly Wade Wellman, wrote an entire series of short stories very much rooted in the lore of my people. About John. At least that’s the only way his name is given in the stories. He is more usually known as John the Balladeer or Silver John. He may also be a parallel universe Johnny Cash. Or maybe John the Baptist. Or maybe both.
I picked up a copy of Paizo’s Hidden Worlds and Ancient Mysteries Planet Stories, The Complete Tales of Silver John, Who Fears the Devil?, presented by (and with an introduction from) Mike Resnick (2010). Unfortunately, it is now out of print and offered at an obscene price every time lately I’ve checked on Amazon. This is billed as a complete collection of the Silver John short stories, but Wellman also wrote five novels about John. Haffner Press’ upcoming The Complete John the Balladeer. The two-volume edition will contain all five novels and is available for pre-order now.
Anyway, the Paizo edition has an introduction by Mike Resnick. It also has an “introduction” of sorts by Karl Edward Wagner. I’m not sure when that one was written, but Wagner has been dead since 1994, so not recently. Wagner, like Wellman, and like Andy Griffith and Vic Huggins, lived in Chapel Hill despite knowing better. Wagner says there “hadn’t been anything like the John stories at that time, and there hasn’t been since.” I reckon I could dig up a few. Or at least one.
Anyway, being a genuine hillbilly, and just the right particular sort of hillbilly for the job at hand, can I say that Wellman, outsider that he was, captures the voice of my people, lest my lived experiences suffer erasure? Damn straight I can. Wellman nails it. He may have wasted time in Europe and at Columbia, but Wellman captures the voice of the region ever bit as well as Ron Rash or David Joy. He doesn’t inexplicably pepper his dialogue with extraneous apostrophes. Nor does he condescend or reinvent the region’s people to reflect outsider stereotypes (the usual way to sell your stories to New Yorkers).
The stories owe much to Appalachian folklore, people, and the place itself, Wellman’s setting. When he talks about “the ending place of the world,” I’ve been there. Hell, I smoked weed and drank beer there in high school. I asked my wife to marry me the first time there. (She didn’t jump off, but it otherwise went as poorly as possible.)
The stories are deeply rooted in the mythology of Appalachia, but Wellman draws on elements common across many cultures. The magic in music. The magic in silver. Like H.P. Lovecraft, Wellman writes about the occult. But John is no nebbish professor.
The stories are old-fashioned, and two things matter above all: a good heart and the power of silver. And don’t you need both that far from the county seat. The stories are standalones—sometimes events from earlier stories are mentioned but they are also sometimes forgotten entirely and never are necessary to follow the latter story. They are also of very consistent and high quality and very short.
Where Did She Wander?, by the way, was the last story Wellman ever wrote. After writing it, he fell and broke his shoulder and elbow to shit. Most Columbia men would have quite right there, which is why the Columbia fighting pussycats football team lost 44 games in a row. But Wellman, like my 96-year-old grandma after she fell and busted her shoulder, couldn’t just “sit around.” He went on to revise and polish the story before his death.
The very first story in the collection gives just about the best introduction of a man I ever read:
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 to it, 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. I don’t claim much. John’s my name.
My edition also includes some nice artwork.
I haven’t got to it—yet—but Wellman wrote all sorts of stuff. He wrote under at least six pen names. He also kicked Faulkner’s ass in a mystery story contest. He would have to settle for just being nominated for a Hugo Award and for a Pulitzer (for a nonfiction work).
The stories in my edition are, in order: John’s My Name; O Ugly Bird!; The Desrick on Yandro; Why They’re Named That; Vandy, Vandy; One Other; Then I Wasn’t Alone; Call Me From The Valley; The Little Black Train; You Know the Tale of Hoph; Shiver in the Pines; Find the Place Yourself; Walk Like a Mountain; Old Devlins Was A-Waiting; The Stars Down There; On the Hills and Everywhere; Blue Monkey; Nine Yards of Other Cloth; Trill Coster’s Burden; I Can’t Claim That; The Spring; Who Else Could I Count On?; Owls Hoot in the Daytime; Nobody Ever Goes There; None Wiser for the Trip; Can These Bones Live?; Where Did She Wander?; Nary Spell; Sin’s Doorway; and Frogfather.
5 of 5 Stars.
Steven H. Silver on Manly Wade Wellman at Black Gate.
Keith West on Wellman’s The Finger of Halugra at Adventures Fantastic.
Michael Curtis on the Silver John-inspired rpg adventure The Chained Coffin.
Jeffro on Wellman’s Battle in the Dawn at Castalia House.
Tim Callahan on Manly Wade Wellman at Tor.com.
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