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.

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