Monday, July 24, 2017

Footprints on the Trail: John's Flash Fiction

Sprinkled throughout Who Fears the Devil? are a dozen or so flash-fiction stories. Like the rest of John’s journeys, these crash off the beaten path, bringing the reader face-to-face with the hidden things of the Appalachians, covering such strangeness as John meeting his future self, tales of man-eating gardinel house-plant, shooting magic, and folk alchemy. And just like a startled doe or fleeing centaur, the meeting with the weird is over in an instant, leaving you with only wonder and an appreciation for the strangeness of nature. Writers would do well to study Wellman’s economy of story and words herein.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Who Fears the Language?

For my money, nobody writes natural dialog better than Ring Lardner.  Some folk set store by Mark Twain, but his gimmicky over-use of apostrophes reminded me a city man trying too hard to sound country.  His characters all talked with a sort of conscious drawl that works for the sort of tale he was telling, but came off as forced and mebbe a bit ironic.

Then there’s old Manly Wade Wellman.  Lemm tell you about ol' Manly.
“Law me,” said the farmer.  “I ain’t even now wanting to talk against Forney Meechum.  But they tell he’d put his eye on Lute himself, and he’d quarreled with his own son Dexwood about who’d have her.  But next court day at the county seat, was a fight betwixt Jeremiah Donovant and Derwood Meechum, and Jeremiah stuck a knife in Derwood and killed him dead.”
That’s some natural talk right there.  It rings with the sort of earnest appreciation for the Ozark patter and the casual flow of the way a man speaks his mind.  Plain and simple, but poetical nonetheless.

They call smoked sweet meat “bobbycue”.
Who Fears the Devil is no New York City -  
- or Hollywood version of the dialects of the Ozarks, Appalachians, and other tucked out of the way places in flyover country. 
Can you imagine a TV script introducing it's main character whittling a stick into something other than a pointier stick and saying, "Hidy."  Yet that's how Silver John meets the romantic couple in Nobody Goes There.  From the same story:
Well, now, a couple-three has gone, one time or another...from here, and a hunter or so a-cooning over Music Mountain from the far side.  But air come back no more.  Only them policemen that drives over quick and comes back quick - always by daylight, always three in the car, with pistols and sawed-off shotguns.  Boy," said Mr. Glover, "folks just takes off from that there place, like a-staying off from a rocky patch full of snakes, a wet bottom full of chills, and a fever.
Count the number and styles of affectations in that paragraph and you see a man with an easy command over the language of the forgotten parts of America. 

Speaking as a corn-fed mid-Western boy, I have to say that I've always had an affinity for the rhythms and casual formality of southern speech.  At the same time, I've had an aversion to the lazy caricatures that have been dominant in media.  Even ostensibly sympathetic representations always seem to have a wink and a nod and an ironic, "Isn't this cornpone stuff silly," undertone that grates on me.  I'm not one of them, but these are still my fellow countrymen, and they have a dignity and charm that folks north of the Mason-Dixon line could take a few lessons from.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Can These Bones Live

Man-eaters— such things were told of by old Indians, wise men who’d sworn to them. The wendigo, up in Northern parts. The anisgina, recollected in Cherokee tales to make you shiver. Supposed to be all died out and gone these days, but when bones rise up....

In "Can These Bones Live?", John heads for a strange clutch of bones discovered on a farm. Once there, he acts as a pallbearer for the dead creature, which might be a sasquatch or similar man-like cryptid. However, the deceased is close enough to human that a preacher says a word of grace for the departed. Later on, when conversation leads to a rousing round of the "Dry Bones" song, the bones connect and come to life. Now, with a walking skeleton swinging a club around, John must figure out how to undo this spell before his head gets smashed in.

This story is closer to the 1940s Judge Pursuivant and John Thunstone tales than the usual Silver John story. The cast is pared down compared to the usual community in John's stories, and John's peril and rescue follow the pattern of the earlier Wellman heroes. All it needed at the end was a message to Seabury Quinn's Jules de Grandin to complete the formula. However, the musical focus and homespun crowd keep this tale of hidden things square in John the Balladeer's world, as the Judge and his heir are of a higher, more genteel class.

The skeleton is dispelled by singing the "Dry Bones" song "in reverse." Instead of "the neck bone's connected to the head bone," it's "the head bone is connected from the neck bone." John takes the time to explain away this oddity of phrasing and how it undid the spell. But listen again to "Dry Bones" song, especially towards the end. The "reverse" part of the song is found in the actual lyrics! (And a lovely example of a descending chromatic melody line it is, too. But I music geek...)

All in all, this is a pleasant throwback to Weird Tales, but not quite up to John's normal adventures.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Who Fears the Romance?

The simple pleasures that can be found in an open and honest love seems to be lost on the sorts of writers and storytellers that infest Hollywood these days.  Guardians of the Galaxy and GoG: Volume 2 are fine movies that fall flat on their faces when it comes to the love of a good man for a good woman, or even the love of a scoundrel for a bitter, but trying to get better, woman.  To continue beating up on Marvel, here's somebody else that has noticed the trend in the print editions of Marvel Comic Books.  After a few minutes of dancing around Buziek's writing the host of this video hits it out of the park when he observes that romance at Marvel is dead.

Manly Wade Wellman has no time for such foolishness, as he knows that romance makes for the best prime motivator in all of literature.

He also knows that there is far more to love than the plain jane “boy meets girl” arc.  In Manly Wade Wellman’s capable typing fingers, that’s just arrow in Cupid’s motivational quiver.  The “will they or won’t they?” question that Hollywood hates to answer with a driving passion makes an appearance, but only as one possible way in which the concept of romantic love can drive a story.

Consider that in Shiver in the Pines, Sarah Ann is the literal girl next door to Clay – everybody knows they will be wed.  When a stranger arrives seeking help in finding a lost treasure, the couple and their respective fathers agree not because they doubt Sarah Ann and Clay, but not until Clay has a proper home for her.  The desire to find lost gold is only a desire for a better life for the couple, and a chance at one heck of a nice dowry.
There was a time when the Sabine Women opening of Walk Like a Mountain was common, even a the giant playing the role of a Roman soldier was motivated in part by a desire to save big Page from a flood.  The shoe changes foot when Page turns out to have a susceptibility to the Florence Nightingale syndrome. 

Sometimes, the romance only makes a last minute appearance as part of a happy ending, as it does in Old Devlins Was A Waiting.  The just reward of a penitent prankster plays a part in ending a generations old curse that had claimed the lives of nearly every member of two sprawling families.  Sometimes, the lovers who were meant to be together just need to resolve lingering familial issues before they can even recognize they were meant to be.

In Nobody Ever Goes There, the town of Trimble knows not to cross the bridge over the Catch River.  What prompts Mark to go gallivanting off to a place he's been warned against his whole life?  The small and slim history teacher with the blonde hair with a spice of red to it, Ruth Covell.  She has more curiosity than sense, treading where even the fearsome Indians dared not go.  They had already been dating a bit, but it's only after their narrow escape from the half-glimpsed shaped across the river - that shared experience of surviving danger - that they acknowledge how perfectly suited for each other they are.

Romance is one of the oldest motivations around, and yet these days all too many storytellers leave that cupid's arrow out of their quiver.  Thank God we still have the example of writers like Manly Wade Wellman to show us how easy and natural it can be to use romance in even the darkest stories.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Frogfather

As mentioned before, there are two stories included in the Kindle version of Who Fears the Devil? that predate John the Balladeer's introduction in "O Ugly Bird!".  "The Frogfather" is the shorter of the two, a tale following Johnny as he follows Mr. Cuff into unforeseen danger. With the same name, young age, and similar type of story as the older John, one might be forgiven for thinking that this might be one of John's adventures before he went off to war. And so "The Frogfather" got grandfathered into the Silver John stories as perhaps John's earliest adventure.

In it, John and an old Indian follow Mr. Cuff, their company town employer, into the swamps. As John would put it:

"Cuff was going to get a mess of frogs’ legs, which he loved, and which he’d love three times as much because he’d killed the frogs for them."

While in pursuit of their prey, Mr. Cuff demands that they paddle into an area where no sane Indian would dare go, as it is the home of Khongabassi. After Mr. Cuff pitching the protesting old Indian over the side, Johnny and Mr. Cuff head into the neck of water, which teems with frogs. Mr. Cuff gigs one, and out of the water rises Khongabassi, who tips over their boat and drags Mr. Cuff off to his demise. Johnny escapes, meets up with the old Indian, and ponders the strange things in the corners of the world. Afterwards:

“Oh,” said the old Indian, “we shall think of a story, you and I, that explains Mr. Cuff’s death. A story that white men will believe.”


"The Frogfather" is more in line with Wellman's typical Weird Tales offerings than John the Balladeer. It echoes his earlier tales of Western men failing to give the native oddities and spirits the proper respect, such as "The Dreadful Rabbits". And while the location is in the South, "The Frogfather" doesn't sing of the mountains and hollows the same way John the Balladeer does. For Johnny is a boy experiencing things on his own, while John is always a member of a community, helping others and helped by them in turn. And it is these ties of community that enrich the Silver John stories beyond mere horror tales of spooky monsters.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Who Fears the Dark Places?

A common lament bandied about the world of literature for decades revolves around the lack of blank spaces on the map in which to place the otherworldly evils that drive spook tales of the sort found in Who Fears the Devil?  Manly Wade Wellman shows the world that mystery remains, if you know where to find it.

One of Wellman’s strong suits is the timelessness of his tales.  Given the technology and attitudes of characters, we know only that they might take place sometime in the first half-dozen decades of the twentieth century.  That’s a long stretch of time covering everything from pre-WWI horse and buggy backroads to the last gasp of heritage America before the 1964 Immigration Act would shift the culture away from respect for the pioneering spirit and towards the proposition that there are no non-Americans, only those who haven’t yet journeyed to her shores.

Regardless of whether the stories take place in the post-war 50’s, the Depression Era 30’s (my own favorite take), or even the roaring 20’s, the backroads down with Silver John travels lie on the border between civilization and the unknown.  The characters he meets are not the safe and secure Mayberry types, but those simple country folk too poor for middle-class upgrade, too socially clumsy to thrive in more civilized lands, or those who, with a casual disregard for tradition and law, opt to put as much distance between themselves and organized law enforcement as possible.

As a result, many of Wellman’s tales of monsters and black magic and Things Man Was Not Meant to Know take place on these fringes among people who lend an additional air of mystery to the proceedings.  They are tucked well off the roads, down in hollows, in the depths of mines, or way out in the middle of the endless muddy swamps.  Places that are nearby as the crow flies, but hard to find for we land-bound men.

Consider Shiver in the Pines where the haunt who guards a Spanish gold mine.  The opening to the mine lies at the bottom of a dark hollow, and the thing that guards the treasure lurks way down in that hole.

Walk Like a Mountain begins with the line, “Once at Sky Notch, I never grudged the trouble getting there.”  Silver John’s journey takes him over ridges and up a twenty mile stretch of valley river even before the long climb to Sky Notch.  The giant of man who lives even beyond that high destination might as well be on the moon for all that modern man can reach him.

Even a country college like Flournoy seems trapped in a far off Brigadoon-like hollow.  Silver John makes his way up and up and over ridge and over a high saddleback to get his first glimpse of that plain and poor college in Old Devlins Was A Waiting.  Making something as cosmopolitan as a college seem to be a far flung place inaccessible to all but the most determined, but Wellman pulls the trick off with the ease of a stage magician.

So don’t let anyone fool you into thinking the world lacks dark places.  The dark places are dark because they don’t want you to know they are there until it’s too late.  But make no mistak, they still exist – all around us – you just have to know where to look.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Desrick on Yandro

There were mountain night noises, like you never get used to, not even if you’re born and raised there, and live and die there. Noises too soft and sneaky to be real murmuring voices. Noises like big flapping wings far off and then near. And, above and below the trail, noises like heavy soft paws keeping pace with you, sometimes two paws, sometimes four, sometimes many. They stay with you, noises like that, all the hours you grope along the night trail, all the way down to the valley so low, till you bless God for the little crumb of light that means a human home, and you ache and pray to get to that home, be it ever so humble, so you’ll be safe in the light.

"The Desrick on Yandro," Manly Wade Wellman

In this adventure, John is entertaining at a party when he meets a Mr. Yandro, who coincidentally shares the name of one of his songs. Not content with his riches, Mr. Yandro seeks a treasure on Yandro Mountain, where his ancestor is rumored to have found the gold that made his family's wealth. He convinces John to come with him. At the foot of Yandro Mountain, they run into an old woman who tells of the witch in the desrick house atop the peak, and the strange bestiary that makes its home in the surrounding hills. Seems that the witch fell in love with Mr. Yandro's ancestor, and wants him back--or someone close enough like him. Mr. Yandro scoffs at all but the idea of treasure, and heads towards the mountain. John and Mr. Yandro find the desrick, and the weird creatures swarm, capturing Mr. Yandro. As the rich man is dragged into the witch's house, the creatures allow John to flee.


If there is one theme that sets John the Balladeer apart from his more well-to-do occult investigating brethren, it is the constant chime of the wedding bells throughout his stories. Whether driving away persistent witchy suitors, reuiniting long lost lovers, or giving a couple a nudge towards the altar, many of John's adventures deal with matters of the heart. Thunstone and the Judge deal with more academic puzzles than the Balladeer, although Silver John has just as encyclopedic an understanding of the hidden things of the world as his predecessors. But magical machinations, both mundane and occult, have been wrapped up in romance since time immemorial, and not even John will prove immune to its call.

The haunted house in its many guises appears once more in Wellman's stories. Along with the Behinder, Skim, and Toller, the haunted house is a familiar monster to readers, although Wellman usually puts his unique spin on his creatures.

Finally, also common to John the Balladeer stories is that the rich and the proud usually come to bad ends. As the six foot tall Man says in Matthew 19:24, "I'll say it again--it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!" Mr. Yandro and Mr. Onselm are the first to be brought to destruction, and won't be the last. But it is not necessarily riches that destroy, but the lust for power that accompanies them. In one of the flash fiction stories in Who Fears the Devil?, John learns to turn rocks into gold, but he doesn't allow this potential windfall to corrupt him.