Monday, July 31, 2017

On the Hills and Everywhere

"John, the children have opened their presents, and I want them to have some hot rations inside them before they start in on that store-bought candy you fetched them. So why don't you tell us a Christmas story while Mother's putting dinner on the table?" 

It's Christmastime, and John's been asked to tell a story before dinner.

Mr. Abalsom and Troy Holcomb were the best of friends. But they started fighting over a piece of land between their properties, it went to court, and Mr. Absalom won. The crop planted on this new parcel failed, and the feud grew deeper, until Mr. Absalom called his friend a witch man.

Now Mr. Absalom calls a carpenter to do the unthinkable and set a wall on the property line where only a ditch divided the one-time friends' lands.

While the carpenter works, Mr. Absalom's crippled son Little Anse keeps the man company. An inquisitive lad, Little Anse asks the man questions as he hands over each tool. The Carpenter answers every one until the job is finished.

Mr. Absalom rushes out, ready to complain. He ordered a wall, not a bridge. But at the other end of the bridge is Troy. The two friends reconcile, and the Carpenter walks along his way. But before he leaves, he tells Little Anse that he no longer needs his crutches to walk. The boy flings them away, no longer crippled.

John then leads the children in a resounding hymn before dinner.

*****

I had a fancy that this might be John and Evadare with their family in the future, but I have family in the Ozarks, and there is no way they would allow their children to call their parents by their first name. They sure enough didn't let me.

"Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." Hebrews 13:2

*****

This was published in 1956 in Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now such tales get banished to the ghettos of Christian publishing, where only a Stephen Lawhead or a Frank Perretti may escape the walls. Not only have expressions of faith been lost from science fiction, we currently live in a culture that does not know how religious people act. (Don't get me started on Donnie Yen's monk in Rogue One. Even aping the monks in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin would have been an improvement.) At one time, not that long ago, mainstream fantasy and science fiction writers would write stories of the faith in the magazines of their time. And the stories varied from the devotional to exploring the weird corners of the Holy Book. Now everything in SFF is ironic, anti-theist, and fluffy-bunny pagan--not even a shadow of that old time religion C. S. Lewis wanted in "Cliche Came Out of its Cage". And much was lost in the process.

But I'll keep an eye out for the Man who is six foot tall. For I've got a bridge needin' building...

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Nine Yards of Other Cloth

But I knew she was Evadare. I’d fled from before her pretty face as never I’d fled from any living thing, not even evil spell-throwers nor murder-doers, nor either from my country’s enemies when I’d soldiered in foreign parts and seen battle as the Bible prophet-book tells it, confused noises and garments rolled in blood. Since dawn I’d run from Evadare like a rabbit from a fox, and still she followed, climbing now along the trail I’d tried not to leave, toward the smoke of the fire I’d built before I knew she was still coming. 

No getaway from her now, for night dropped on the world, and to climb higher would be to fall from some steep hidden place. I could wait where I was or I could head down and face her.

*****

John is leaving Hosea's Hollow, pursued by Evadare, a pretty young woman who has been following him all day. Understanding that he is well and truly caught, John waits for her to catch up and reflects on how they met.

In Hosea's Hollow, during a party sprung up around a hog butchering, John is coaxed into playing songs for the celebration. A fiddler named Shull Cobart takes the next turn making melodies, and as this master plays, John wanders off and finds the old grave of Hosea Palmer, a man thought to have been taken by Kalu, a bone monster. He continues on the trail and finds a cabin. He stops by the river, only to be confronted by Evadare.

The petite blonde is ready to run John off, thinking he is Shull Cobart, but when she sees the silver-stringed guitar, Evadare grows friendlier. Cobart has tried to court her, but when she refused, he picked up the fiddle and grew scarier. Evadare fled into Hosea's Hollow to escape him.

Shull Cobart arrives soon after, using his fiddle to charm Evadare and John. Evadare, he would have for wife, while John will be sacrificed to Kalu in return for the fiddler's gift. But there are two types of power music, and John's silver-stringed guitar sings out against Shull's black fiddle.

Then Kalu comes to the cabin...

*****

Gentlemen, don’t ask me to say too much what Kalu was. Bones, yes— something like man-bones, but bigger and thicker, also something like bear-bones, or big ape-bones from a foreign land. And a rotten light to them, so I saw for a moment that the bones weren’t empty. Inside the ribs were caged puffy things, like guts and lungs and maybe a heart that skipped and wiggled. The skull had a snout like I can’t say what, and in its eyeholes burned blue-green fire.

Most of the strangeness hidden in the hollows of the Silver John stories has been either evil or an amoral neutral ruinous to passersby. Despite Kalu's fearsome appearance, the creature was taught good by Hosea Palmer. Like Frankenstein's monster in the 1980s cartoon, Kalu fills the role of the protective monster, which makes him unique so far in the Silver John tales.



*****

This is the fourth tale where a pretty woman is pursued by a witch man in the hopes of snaring her into evil. And, like the rest, John frees Evadare from this vile threat. Shull Cobart's magic is in his music, and echoes of Robert Johnson's crossroads encounter with the devil appear in Cobart's tale. Once again, John pits white against black, and is saved by supernatural intervention. Finally, he leaves before he has to break the woman's heart.

This time, the woman gives chase. And unlike the women who used feminine charm and black magic charms, Evadare catches her prey.
But she didn’t stand, she came on. And I knew who she was. And if I asked her to marry she wouldn’t answer no.  
The rest of that day I fled from her, not stopping to eat, only to grab mouthfuls of water from streams. And in the dusky last end of the day I sat quiet and watched her still coming, leaning on her stick for weariness, and knew I must go down trail to meet her.  
She was at the moment when she’d drop. She’d lost her ribbon, and the locks of her hair fell round her like a shadow. Her dress was torn, her face was white-tired, and the rocks had cut her shoes to pieces and the blood seeped out of her tom feet.  
She couldn’t even speak. She just sagged into my arms when I held them out to her.
In later stories, Evadare becomes John's wife. But from this point on, John now helps other couples draw closer to each other instead of freeing pretty girls from sinister suitors.

*****

As seen before, Wellman uses actual songs in his stories. Here is one version of "Nine Yards of Other Cloth":

Saturday, July 29, 2017

One Other

Her lips tightened, red and hard and sharp as her nails. “Nothing at all, John. You did nothing, you ignored me. Doesn’t it make you furious to be ignored?” 

“Ignored? I never notice such a thing.” 

“I do. I don’t often look at a man twice, and usually they look at me at least once. I don’t forgive being ignored.”

*****

John climbs to the top of Hark Mountain, and finds a woman casting a love charm for him. Annalinda, a big town beauty, wants John to fall in love with her, not for her longing but for her pride. Weeks earlier, John ignored her charms, and now she's turned to folk magic taught by a Mr. Howsen.
“I’d been told a charm can be said three times, beside Bottomless Pool on Hark Mountain, to burn a man’s soul with love. And you came when I called. Don’t shake your head, John, you’re in love with me.”
“Sorry. I beg your pardon. I’m not in love with you.”
As John and Annalinda argue over what brought him to the top of the mountain, Mr. Howsen arrives. Annalinda makes to pay him, but he says that she and John will pay the price instead to One Other by the Bottomless Pool. With a scratched mark, Mr. Howsen binds them to the mountaintop to await One Other's arrival...

 *****

One Other is a tempter from another dimension, and John's charms for angels and demons slide off this creature. He is looking for more servants to give him more power and influence in our world. Inspired by alchemy, John uses fire to drive One Other back into his dimension.

While not necessarily Mythos, "One Other" certainly resonates with the extended stories of Lovecraft's creations. Wellman had made Mythos homages before, in such stories as "The Terrible Parchment" and in such stories as "The Letters of Cold Fire:, John Thunstone's arch-enemy, Rowley Thorne, mimics the interests and misadventures of Mythos magicians. But while Wellman would namedrop several names familiar to the Mythos in his writings, as he was wont to do with many Weird Tales worlds, little of the actual Mythos could be found in his work. Yet he would return, time and again, to the idea of extra-dimensional terrors such as One Other and the Shonokins. But where Lovecraft wrote of strange beings incomprehensible to human understanding, Wellman's aliens share with the Devil an ability to assume a pleasing shape...or one that, while grotesque, is more pleasant than their true form. For more on Wellman and the Mythos, check out the page devoted to it on his estate's website.

 *****

One of the truisms currently out of favor in contemporary times is that men and women have different mentalities, and when women break, they break in a different manner than men. We've seen how the rich and the proud break men in "Vandy, Vandy" and "O Ugly Bird!", and how the need to control drives the witch men in those stories. In "The Little Black Train" and "One Other", vanity drives the women bad, and the need to be praised drives them to their evils. Wellman shows the faults of both sexes throughout his writings.  For instance, John mentions that "Nothing flurries a woman like being caught in the truth." But while evil is challenged no matter if committed by man or woman, the evil men get led to destruction while the women are usually saved from the full consequences of their evil. And not in a "make it go away" sense, but with the full moral knowledge of the choices they made.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Little Black Train

“Only thing is,” the mouth-harp man went on, “folks say the train runs on that track. Or it did. A black train runs some nights at midnight, they say, and when it runs a sinner dies.”

*****

While out on a walk, John is pulled into an outdoor party and asked to play. It's a strange celebration, for it marks the last day of a curse on Donie Carawan, a women tending towards her 40s who inherited a small fortune. The reason for the curse is as follows:
“Donie Carawan was to marry Trevis Jones,” the mouth-harp man told me. “He owned the High Fork Railroad to freight the timber from this valley. He’d a lavish of money, is how he got to marry her. But,” and he swallowed hard, “another young fellow loved her. Cobb Richardson, who ran Trevis Jones’s train on the High Fork Railroad. And he killed Trevis Jones.”  
“For love?” I asked. 
“Folks reckoned that Donie Carawan decided against Trevis and love-talked Cobb into the killing; for Trevis had made a will and heired her all his money and property— the railroad and all. But Cobb made confession. Said Donie had no part in it. The law let her go, and killed Cobb in the electric chair, down at the state capital."  
“I declare to never,” I said. 
“Fact. And Cobb’s mother— Mrs. Amanda Richardson— spoke the curse.” 
“Oh,” I said, “is she the witch that—” 
“She was no witch,” he broke me off, “but she cursed Donie Carawan, that the train that Cobb had engine-drove, and Trevis had heired to her, would be her death and destruction. Donie laughed. You’ve heard her laugh. And folks started the song, the black train song.”
In contempt of the curse, Donie teaches the black train song to John. But, later, when John sings it, they both can hear a train coming an see ghostly tracks. Then, at midnight, the train comes... 

*****

The key concept of "The Little Black Train" lies in a piece of musicality lost in this age of overproduced electrical instruments and drum machines. Roots music, including the family of styles descended from the blues, often used the rhythms of the world around them in their music. At first, this might be the clop-clop-clop of a horse's hooves, the rainfall clatter of falling chains, or the hammer fall of iron on an anvil. But as the iron horses ran across America on tracks of steel, the train with its relentless shuffle and distinctive whistle quickly became the preferred rhythm. Take a listen to Joe Bonamassa's "Slow Train Coming" and hear how only a handful of instruments can mimic the rousing rhythm of the train:



Wellman's unique take on this lies in the modulation of key combined with the musician's tendency to continually speed up when playing. He explains it through the use of the Doppler shift, where objects coming closer to a listener have a higher pitch than retreating objects. Add a slow increase in pace and a slight crescendo, such as what tends to happen when bands get into the songs they play, and it is easy for even a small band, say that of a guitar and harmonica, to sound like a train speeding towards you. It's a clever bit of science in fiction--or scientifiction as Hugo Gernsback would call it--which crosses over into Weird Tales territory when it meets the ghost story behind Donie's curse.

But its with the curse itself that Wellman departs from the conventions of his Weird Tales work. Once again, the proud are laid low and sins find out their sinner, but unlike in "Laroes Catch Meddlers", where the thieves are led to their destruction at the hands of a Confederate mummy, Donie repents of her machinations and the cursed train leaves her. Judgment is replaced by mercy. And if the criminal excesses of Prohibition spawned a deep cry for justice that seeped from the pulps, Wellman in the 1950s had a strong theme of repentance and redemption. Perhaps enough blood had been spilled in the wars between the two times, perhaps the spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction gave cause to blunt the tyranny of law, or, more likely, that the beliefs and legends of the Appalachian people demanded that the Gospel be treated with the same reverence as their folk tales. For horrors exist in the backwoods hollows, but so does hope, given by the only Man ever to be exactly six feet tall. And of Him, we will speak soon.

*****

Another woman rebounds off of John's armor. Ever since leaving at the end of "Vandy, Vandy", women have been trying harder to catch his eye. One has used love magic to salve her pride wounded after John's refusal to notice her. Donie tried sex appeal. It was not effective. John is trying to live up to the virtue of previous men with his name, and, at least for the moment, he's an outright bum magnet, attracting a number of Proverbs 7 gals whose beauty often hides self-destructive character flaws. And, since bad company often drives out good character, John does not stay with them.

It is a refreshing change of pace to read stories where women are given enough actual moral agency to be evil instead of just misunderstood or tricked into their deeds. The current infantilizing pedestalization by men and women alike robs today's stories of any drama and promote the dreaded Mary Sue.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Who Fears the Christ?

Nothing terrifies modern writers like the Christ.

His is the name none dare speak.  His teachings must not be allowed to escape from the low-budget and independent ghettos into which they have been thrust by the gatekeepers and tastemakers over the last few decades.  When Christ does make an appearance in modern cinema, he must be presented as the Marxist stepin-fechit style of Jesus ready to argue that the salvation of man can only come about through the forcible starvation deaths of six million Ukrainians or thirty million Chinese peasants.

Not joking - actual line from the execrable 2016 version
of "Ben Hur".  Subtle, filmmakers.  Subtle
Of course, Who Fears the Devil taps into a great deal of Christian mythology.  As the mythology of America for the first 200 years of its existence, give or take a decade or so, the biblical references were a natural way of tapping into the core culture of the reader.

Not only does Walk Like a Mountain contain a pair of big folk likely descended from the giants who walked the earth in Genesis, the biggest ingĂ©nue ever chides the savage beast by pointing out, “The least man in size you’d call for, when he speakes to God, he says, ‘Our Father.’”
The haunted spook come to set things right in Old Devlins Was A Waiting demands a tribute not of blood or bits of the guilty man’s soul, but a penance as strict as any priest might assign.

Not for Manly Wade Wellman the heresy of the Niceness Doctrine.  When Craye Sawtelle stops by to make an offer for a spring of holy water that heals even sick chickens, the Godly men who created the spring (Silver John himself) and care for it (Zeb) know exactly what she is up to, and don't grin and apologize and scrape for her approval in the hopes that love will conquer all.  Instead, they remind her that:
"Nobody's hurt to kneel before God," said Zeb.

Silver John doesn't negotiate with the woman who all but admits to serving the devil.  He doesn't lay out a welcome mat in the hopes that love will conquer all.  He doesn't refuse to fight back, because "fighting back makes us the same as the person attacking us."  He hits the witch square in the face with a pail of holy water and washes her darkness from the face of the earth, Dorothy style! 

(As ends all the best fairy tales in which the evil snake is vanquished, Zeb can finally get with the fair maiden Tilda.  Is there a more suitable ending for a Chirstian tale than the lovely couple going forth and multiplying?  I think not.)

Interestingly, when the carpenter himself does make an appearance, it is to build a bridge rather than a wall.  Of course, the peace that He makes between neighbors who have fallen out is the peace among neighbors and equals and men of good will, rather than the peace of those who would trespass and impose upon their neighbor who lives at a higher elevation - an important distinction and one so self-evident as to be literally unremarkable to the common sensical among us. 

And yet, it is in these simple, home spun tales that we see the true genius of stories like One The Hills and Everywhere.  They do not require a deep understanding of Biblical scholarship, or a fervent belief in the minutiae of say, the Catholic Catechism.  These are simply the natural sort of spook tale that can bridge the gap between religious and secular.  They appeal to everyone, and touch on deeper truths about mankind and his place in it - deeper truths than you can find in the bleak secularism of today's culture where nothing matters and everyone is fine and the worst things you can do are resist temptation and fight back against those who would lay the slave chains of sin lightly upon your shoulders.

And that's what makes them so dangerous to the Adversary.  And that's why they have to be memory holed by Fire Departments of the Bradbury type. 

And that's why reading books like Who Fears the Devil can be a superversive act of defiance.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Vandy, Vandy

That valley hadn't any name. Such outside folks as knew about it just said, “Back in yonder,” and folks inside said, “Here.”

*****

John sets out in search for a good song. He runs into the Millen family in an out-of-the-way valley, who are protective of their daughter, Vandy. John asks them about "the Vandy song", one of many he is searching for. After telling John just how many generations the song has been in their family, the Millens sing for him, only to be interrupted by Mr. Loden, who has come to woo young Vandy.

Too neighborly to send both men away, the Millens invite them to eat. At the dinner, John plays a hunch, and as the songs and talk turn toward witchcraft, Salem, and "King" Washington, he scares Mr. Loden with silver. After Mr. Loden leaves, John learns that the "Vandy" song tells of a witch man who, every 100 years, tries to seduce the Millen girl bearing the name Vandy. Two Vandys have resisted his charms, but now a third has his attention. As the night grows dark, John makes his bed by the cottage door and waits.

Late at night, John confronts Mr. Loden as he sneaks in. Mr. Loden paralyzes him with magic from the Long Lost Friend, admitting to being the witch man that has plagued the Millen family. As Mr. Loden conducts a ritual of killing magic, John attempts a counter-charm and manages to fling a silver quarter into a fire. A shade from Mr. Loden's past--and America's--appears to avenge a long-standing wrong...

*****

At first blush, "Vandy, Vandy" holds to the same formula as "O, Ugly Bird!", where John comes across a pretty girl plagued by the attentions of a witch man who sees John as a rival for her hand. The witch man holds the upper hand by his magic, but John prevails through bravery, cleverness, and light magic. What sets "Vandy, Vandy" apart is the use of music as lore and the historical roots of the Mr. Loren's Faustian bargain. These provide an extra anchor of verisimilitude, and with the heightened stakes, I find "Vandy, Vandy" to be the better of the two.

And devotees to Lester Dent's Master Formula should see the familiar bones here, with the confrontations at each quarter of the way through the story, the pacing of the revelations, and the absolutely haunting punchline of Vandy singing the final verse of her song.

Once again, John flees before the young lady can tie him down. One day, he'll find one that will follow him...for Evadare awaits in his future.

*****

I recently started reading a history of story structure that described how the earliest novels that derived from a combination of epic poetry and the personal letter. Then, in Gothic times, the next step of the novel's development occurred:
Writers who took the next step in developing internal structure for the long prose narrative made it a small step: They built their novels around a series of entries in a journal or diary (Robinson Crusoe being a good example). 
Bickham, Jack. Elements of Fiction Writing - Scene & Structure (Kindle Locations 75-76). F+W Media. Kindle Edition. 
And many of the Gothic-inspired occult investigators of Weird Tales followed a form of this device, combining the immediate action of the pulps with personal correspondence for exposition, explanation, and revelation. Wellman would return to this device time and time again, in Weird Tales such as "The Undead Soldier", "Among Those Present", and "The Terrible Parchment". John the Balladeer's predecessors, Judge Pursuivant and John Thunstone, would use these correspondences to solve such mysteries as "The Dreadful Rabbits" and "The Dai Sword"--and link their stories to the works and characters of Seabury Quinn and E. Hoffman Price. With the cursed painting of "The Golgotha Dancers", Wellman starts to shift towards embedding clues in other media, be it print art or music. These tales are puzzles, with the clues obscured by riddle and by the threat of violence. "Vandy, Vandy" follows in this shift, with John having to rely on his own memory and cunning to defeat Mr. Loden, as opposed to sending away for another's wisdom. And, like "The Golgotha Dancers," the final confrontation was a near run thing, with a chance effort at the end saving him.

Despite being the embodiment of Campbell's new fantasy, Wellman maintained--and grows--the connection to fantasy's Gothic roots that Campbell sought to eliminate.

*****

Manly Wade Wellman was a musician as well. And while he often used existing songs such as the "Dry Bones" song in ""Can These Bones Live?", some of his original songs crossed over into his fiction. "Vandy, Vandy" is named for one of his original tunes, the lyrics of which help John save Vandy and her family from their curse. Versions of this tune have been recorded occasionally over the years, with few adhering to Wellman's original melody.

This isn't Manly Wade Wellman's preferred version of his "Vandy, Vandy" song--to claim otherwise would be to risk his wrath on the other side--but it is the cleanest recording I've been able to find.



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.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

O Ugly Bird!

"O Ugly Bird" is the first true John the Ballader adventure*, published in 1951, and is very much an establishing adventure. As John struggles to outwit Mr. Onselm, a familiar-using hoodoo man terrorizing a small town and a particularly lovely young lady, care is taken to establish John's peregrine ways, his mastery of music and lore, and his quick thinking in the presence of the strange. As Mr. Onselm attempts to press his suit for Winnie's hand, John steps in to confront him. Only John's silver-stringed guitar manages to save him and Winnie from Mr. Onselm's devices, applied percussively to Mr. Onselm's Ugly Bird familiar. With the witch man destroyed, John leaves for the next town and the next song before Winnie can try to claim his affections.

It's a charming little story, wth a vein of horror running through it, but it would be retold better in 1953's "Vandy, Vandy", another tale of a song, a young girl, and a witch man's persistent attentions.

*****

John the Balladeer is the third in a series of Manly Wade Wellman's heroes who face down the hidden things in the world. But where Judge Pursuivant and John Thunstone are well-to-do occult scholars connected to a network of investigators that include real world Weird Tales author E. Hoffman Price and Seabury Quinn's famed Jules de Grandin, Silver John is often destitute and has to rely on his own wits and the material on hand. Occasionally, the three characters would cover the same thematic ground, as John's "Frogfather" adventure bears more than a few similarities to the Judge's "The Dreadful Rabbits." Towards the end of Welllman's life, he had Judge Pursuivant and John the Balladeer cross paths, which makes John the Balladeer a distant member of the Weird Tales family and a black sheep of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Like many of Wellman's stories, "O Ugly Bird" was adapted to screen. Unlike earlier stories, which appeared in The Twilight Zone and other more reputable series, this story became part of "The Legend of Hillbilly John", a Z-grade Sunday School movie more notable for its foot-stomping opening song than its special effects and acting.

*****

*The stories "Sin's Doorway" and "Frogfather" were grandfathered into John's stories, although not every version of "Who Fears the Devil?" includes them. Baen's version, codified by Wellman's friend Karl Edwar Wagner, for instance, lacks theses two stories.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Long Lost Friend

For those in America and serving overseas, have a Happy Fourth of July.

*****

Rather than darken the mood of "King Washington's" victory (see "Vandy, Vandy") with talk of Ugly Birds, Salem witches, and the Frogfather, I instead want to take a look at the folklore in Wellman's writings. Having grown up in Africa and moved to the united States, Manly Wade Wellman drew on a wide variety of folk stories in his fiction, whether from the familiar ward of silver and laughter against evil or that an unburned werewolf would turn into a vampire. He would even create his own monsters and magics in his writing that fit the traditions he wrote about like a glove. The man-eating plant shaped as a house, known as a gardinel, is one such invention, while many of the Indian spirit monsters of the forest may--or may not--have been as well.

What is clear, however, is that the magic and folklore used by Silver John were not among his inventions. Named in that short stories "A Desrick on Yandro" and "Old Devlins Was A-waiting" are two books, The Long Lost Friend and Big Albert, or more commonly known as Albertus Magnus. These actually existed, and serve as a practical manual for Christian magic--or as the pentecostals might now recognize the body of lore among their spiritual warfare books. But while these current manuals rely on confrontation and faith, the classics used a bit more of ritual and charm. In some cases, this is a more modern form of the Christian amulets lining the inside of European museums such as the Rothenburg o. d. Tauber Medieval Crime and Justice Museum.

The website established by Manly Wade Wellman's estate even includes these books as part of their treatment of Wellman's involvement with the Cthulhu Mythos, complete with preferred texts.

*****

For another meaning of long lost friend, here's a story told by Wellman's friend and fellow science fiction writer, David Drake:
After he returned from Columbia in the late ’20s, Manly worked as a crime reporter for the pro-Democrat newspapers in Wichita. The wife of a small-time grifter whom Manly knew (I vaguely think he may have been called Rabbit) took up with the local drug lord. Wichita was on the route that brought cocaine up from Mexico. One day the drug lord was shot to death in bed by a rival gang; they killed the grifter’s wife also. 
They wanted a picture of the girl for the front page (this is 1930, remember), so Manly hared down to Rabbit’s two-room shotgun house. The front door was ajar. He knocked and called; no reply. He stepped into the front room, looked around, and then went into the bedroom. It was empty too, but there was a silver-framed photo of the woman on the dresser. 
Manly stepped to the dresser and grabbed the picture. As he did so, he heard the click of a gun cocking behind him. He turned to see Rabbit in the doorway, ‘looking at me over the sights of a .38 with the hammer roostered back.’ 
“Oh, Rabbit!” Manly cried. “I came as soon as I heard. I’m so sorry!” 
Rabbit lowered the gun, blubbered, “Manly, you know she was no good but I loved her. She was so beautiful!” And threw himself into Manly’s arms, crying. 
They commiserated for some while. At the end of the discussion, Rabbit gave Manly the photo. Manly swore he’d pull strings at the paper to get it printed on the front page so that all Wichita could see how lovely Rabbit’s late wife had been. 
And they did.
*****

 Tomorrow, we'll look at an ugly bird...

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Stray Puppy: Almost Infinite Complexity, 37-49

So we have a puppy straying into the next month for a bit,

On the heels of Scratch's offer, everyone wants Cooper, from the journalist trying to expose him to the policeman wanting an arrest. Even with Thisbe taking her place in Scratch's furnace, she still manages to be the cause of many a misunderstanding, this time from those close to her--or those who just wanted to. Dean steals the notebook, Cooper gets exposed as a hack, and, finally, after getting fired, he agrees to take over the family business from Scratch. One "suicide by cop" incident later, the deal is permanent, and Cooper is danmed.

Hell is much like Canada, except now most of Cooper's friends somehow got redeemed in the change of ownership, leaving him all alone in its frozen wastes. Fortunately, some helpful angels provide some useful tips to freshen up the place...

...and, in India, away from the madness, an equation of almost infinite complexity is perfected...

*****

I'll keep this one short, to keep from acting as a broken record as all the previous comments, from Mulrooney's wordcrafting to the casual flashes of wit, still hold true. If you can get past the rough beginning where the set-up is being constructed one laborious brick at a time, you many find that it turns into a quicker, more rewarding read. It's like a roller coaster, before you can get to the fun stuff, the train must first struggle up that giant hill. Unlike a Tom Clancy novel, at least this hill doesn't take most of the book.

I wouldn't have picked An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity on my own, but sometimes stepping out of the routine can be rewarding.

July Puppy - Who Fears the Devil

"There’s a traveling man the Carolina mountain folk call Silver John for the silver strings strung on his guitar. In his wanderings John encounters a parade of benighted forest creatures, mountain spirits, and shapeless horrors from the void of history with only his enduring spirit, playful wit, and the magic of his guitar to preserve him. Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John is one of the most beloved figures in fantasy, a true American folk hero of the literary age. For the first time the Planet Stories edition of Who Fears the Devil? collects all of John’s adventures published throughout Wellman’s life, including two stories about John before he got his silver-stringed guitar that have never previously appeared in a Silver John collection. Lost, out of print, or buried in expensive hardcover editions, the seminal, unforgettable tales of Who Fears the Devil? stand ready for a new generation ready to continue the folk tradition of Silver John."

July, the month in which we Yanks celebrate our 1776 edition of Brexit, makes the perfect month to read the most American fantasy book that I've ever read.  Although, I must confess a nostalgic love for the trippy Ballentine cover.  Note that back then, the name had top billing, not the title.  We readers have so lost our heritage that even the sort of voracious reader who starts an on-line book club had never heard of Manly Wade Wellman until reading him by way of Jeffro by way of Gygax.  It's time to dust off this American treasure and bask in its New World charms.