A few months ago, The Ridger noted the birthday of weird fiction author Manly Wade Wellman, and introduced me to his character "John the Balladeer", also known as "Silver John" but typically just known as "John": an Appalachian mountain man and wanderer who faces off against supernatural evil using only his wits, his brawn, his goodness, and his silver-stringed guitar. Wellman wrote 5 novels and a collection of short stories about John; I'm waiting to purchase an upcoming reprint of the short stories, but I couldn't wait to read about John's exploits! I picked up all 5 novels and went through them in short order. All of them I believe are currently out of print; a photo of my used collection is shown below:
The five novels are:
- The Old Gods Waken (1979)
- After Dark (1980)
- The Lost and Lurking (1981)
- The Hanging Stones (1982)
- Voice of the Mountain (1984)
Let's take a look at the wonderful character of Silver John and the adventures he has...
Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986) was born in Portuguese West Africa where his father worked as a physician at a British medical outpost. He apparently picked up a fascination of supernatural folklore from his childhood in Africa, an interest that would stay with him through his entire life. He became a regular writer for pulps such as Thrilling Tales and Weird Tales starting in the late 1920s, and around the same time he became acquainted with back country traditions, and eventually became a scholar on southern folklore and history. After serving in WWII, he moved to the Carolinas, eventually settling with his family in Chapel Hill, NC, where he lived the rest of his life.
The character of Silver John serves as a tribute and a chronicle of the backwoods country people and culture that Wellman grew so fond of. He is a man of simple needs, only caring about good companionship, his music, and the love of his life, Evadare, who is often mentioned but only encountered once in the novels. John spends much of his time wandering the Appalachian mountains, making new friends, learning new songs and performing whenever he has a chance. He carries little money and typically relies on the kindness of strangers and the bartering of his talents to get by.
This is rather easy to do, as he has quite a powerful reputation amongst the mountain folk. The silver strings on his guitar are often a giveaway, but sometimes the name is enough:
We shook hands together.
"Did she call you John?" he asked. "Then I've heard of you, I think."
"I'm right proud for so many folks to know me by name."
In what is clearly an intentional irony on Wellman's part, John is recognized not by his last name, but by the absence of it!
Though the novels are set sometime in the mid-20th century, the Appalachian region is still wild and relatively unexplored, and filled with supernatural holdouts from a less rational time. Among them are the Shonokins, a humanoid race which occupied North America before the Native Americans (and want to take it back), the Raven Mockers, subhuman creatures that caw like a raven and drink blood like a vampire, and the Behinder, which nobody's ever seen because it jumps down upon its prey from behind. In addition to these creatures, a fair share of witches and warlocks use the remote wilderness as a place to work their evil arts without drawing much attention.
John comes into regular conflict with these dark forces, usually to protect friends old and new, and occasionally at the request of the U.S. government! Each of the novels finds him squaring off against an enemy with supernatural powers:
- The Old Gods Waken. John visits Wolter Mountain, and finds that its top, an ancient and sacred site, has been purchased by a couple of Englishmen with mysterious motives. At the request of friends, John investigates the recent unsettling sights and sounds around the area, and uncovers a plan to awaken old and evil powers. When his friends are kidnapped, John and a medicine man must brave seven magical perils to rescue them.
- After Dark. Drawn by a music festival, John comes into conflict with the Shonokins, and he and friends must hold out against a supernatural siege.
- The Lost and Lurking. The U.S. government sends John to investigate the isolated town of Wolver, which is suspected of dark dealings. There he encounters a beautiful witch and her coven, and must face the choice of joining -- or being destroyed.
- The Hanging Stones. John stumbles upon New Stonehenge, a tourist trap being built at the top of a mountain by millionaire industrialist Noel Kottler. However, a series of wolf demons lay claim to the land, and they capture John's true love Evadare to make their displeasure known...
- Voice of the Mountain. John sets it in his mind to investigate the source of the mysterious wailing which gives Cry Mountain its name, even though nobody has ever returned from investigating. At the top of the mountain, John meets a warlock of nearly limitless power, who plans to reshape the world to suit his purposes, first and foremost by killing most of the people on it.
One of the most refreshing things about the character of John is that he primarily fights evil with very human tools: his wits, his brawn, and his goodness. This is a sharp contrast from action heroes who dominate American movies and television these days, who range from super-skilled martial artist types to genuine superheroes. John's humble tools to fight evil are a refreshing change, and also heighten the tension in his stories, as he is typically "outgunned".
Also refreshing is John's eschewing of violence. He declines to use guns, even when they are offered to him and he is in deadly danger. Like Wellman himself, John served in WWII and knows too well the horrors of bloody conflict. That doesn't mean he is averse to using his fists to defend himself when necessary, however, and he's very good at doing so. He's also happy to let bygones be bygones after a fight, if the other side is willing to make peace.
John is also wonderful for his utter rejection of material things. People try to bribe him with riches, with fame, and with women, and John is never really tempted -- and even laughs off some of the more determined seducers. His true love Evadare is always in his mind, and he already has the things that make him happy.
My impression is that Wellman has made a character that represents his view of the quintessential American: peaceful, courageous, spiritual, and temperate. The character is so far removed from the "patriotic" filth that have ranted and raved at their "teabagging parties" in recent months that reading his exploits is the literary equivalent of cleansing one's palate.
Also in stark contrast to current views of what makes a "true American", John is not anti-intellectual. Though he does not have a formal education, he is extremely well-read:
He smiled in that square beard of his. "Shelley," he said. "The poet Shelley."
"Sure enough," I replied him. "Percy Byssche Shelley." And I said a quotation myself:
"The awful shadow of some unseen power
Floats though unseen among us -- visiting
This various world with as inconstant wing
As summer winds that creep from flower to flower."
Then it was his turn to open up his eyes and give me a stare.
"You know Shelley, John," he said, as surprised as if a mountain boomer squirrel had repeated him the multiplication tables. "You know his 'Hymn to Intellectual Beauty.'"
"It's in a favorite book of mine I've got at home," I said. "Given me by a fellow named Reuben Manco."
"Who's Reuben Manco? A professor?"
"You might call him that," I replied. "He's an old chief and medicine man amongst the Cherokees, but he's been to college."
"And he's a friend of yours."
"Air soul on earth who gives me a book is a friend of mine."
I love that last sentence! Later, in The Hanging Stones it is announced that John is to be given an honorary doctorate in folklore from local (fictional) Flornoy College!
Speaking of books, it should be noted that John has one supernatural edge against the forces of evil: a book of white enchantments called The Long Lost Friend, that John occasionally carries with him and often quotes protective spells from.
Music is a big part of the character of John, and Wellman often quotes from the folk songs that John sings, some of which are traditional and some of which are written by John (Wellman) himself. Of course, we can't hear the songs themselves in the stories, but one musician familiar with mountain music made a CD of Wellman's songs based on the likely traditional music it was based on. (I'm going to have to order it sometime soon, I think.)
The last of the Silver John novels, The Voice of the Mountain, was published in 1984, when Wellman was 81 years old himself and only two years before he would die after injuries from a fall. I find it strikingly different from the other novels, and somewhat darker in tone. First, his true love Evadare is not mentioned once, though her name was not far from John's lips throughout all the other books; it made me wonder if she is presumed to have died at this point in the series. (Wellman's own wife Frances survived him by 14 years, so he wasn't reflecting events in his own life.) The novel itself has an almost despairing tone through most of it: the villain is a character of nearly limitless power and zero morality, and almost seems a statement on the amoral nature of modern society: bad people have all the power and make all the rules. I was genuinely afraid for the character of John during this book, unlike any of the others. I should have had more faith in Wellman, however, because the novel has a surprising and wonderful climax.
The novels are relatively short and easy reads, but showcase one of the most unique characters in all of weird fiction, and provide a picture of a rarely seen slice of Americana. Highly recommended!
(And thanks again to The Ridger for pointing me to them!)