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.

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