For those who are new to Skulls in the Stars, my other major topic — other than science — is “weird fiction”, often but not exclusively of the late 1800s/early 1900s. “Weird fiction” is a term that broadly describes any sort of tale that includes some aspect of the unreal: horror, science fiction, fantasy, and things that are genuinely unclassifiable.
I like to argue that there are threads that tie weird fiction and science blogging together — weird fiction has historically drawn upon the science of its time to fuel its ideas and give them a plausible feel. Weird visionary H.P. Lovecraft used the then modern theories of relativity and quantum mechanics to craft a new type of cosmic horror, and was knowledegable enough about science to write an astronomy column for his local paper. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), a science fiction utopian novel, introduces robots, ray guns, the equivalent of jetpacks — and justifies it using direct quotations of Michael Faraday!
However, I also review weird fiction on the blog because I adore the genre and blogging gives me a motivation and an excuse to delve into rare, neglected and forgotten works that are truly wonderful.
One of those truly wonderful books is the collection of stories about “John the Balladeer”, titled Who Fears the Devil? (1963), by Manly Wade Wellman. I’ve been aware of this collection for some time, but waited to read it until the release of Paizo Press’ new edition in February of this year:
This isn’t my first encounter with Wellman’s work, however; I previously reviewed Wellman’s sublimely silly and naive novella Giants From Eternity, which featured history’s greatest scientists resurrected to do battle with an alien invader! This isn’t even my first encounter with “John the Balladeer”: I also blogged about Wellman’s series of five novels featuring the character; you can read the description of those books here.
What can I say about John the Balladeer, also known as “Silver John”? He is an Appalachian mountain man and wanderer who travels the wilds of the South meeting folks, learning new songs, and performing to pay his way. The wilderness of Wellman’s imagination is a dangerous land populated with the fearsome creatures of Southern folklore, and Who Fears the Devil? is a collection of tales in which John faces off against supernatural evil using only his wits, his brawn, his goodness, and his silver-stringed guitar!
These are some of the most beautiful and I dare say inspiring stories I’ve ever read. There has never been another character quite like Silver John, and I venture to say there will never be again. Let’s take a closer look at Wellman and the stories of ‘Devil…
Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986) was initiated early into a life of folklore. His father was working as a physician at a British medical outpost in Africa when Manly was born, and Manly spent his first years exposed to legends of African magic and spirits. He moved to the states at an early age, attending grade school in D.C., and eventually college in Kansas. It was around that time that he befriended Vance Randolph, folklorist of the Ozark mountains, and Randolph took Wellman through the Ozarks, introducing him to the people, the superstitions, and the music of the region. Wellman started writing for the weird fiction pulp magazines in the late 1920s, and over the course of his lifetime would build up a vast bibliography of fiction, non-fiction, and children’s fiction. After serving in WWII he and his wife settled in North Carolina, where they would spend the rest of their lives. The Carolinas were clearly were a source of inspiration, because in 1951 the first story of John the Balladeer appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
The character of John is difficult to do justice to, because there simply hasn’t been another quite like him. He is cut of a mold similar to the famous American heroes of folklore, such as Johnny Appleseed, John Henry, and Paul Bunyan, all of whom are down-to-earth men known for their skills and their stories that exemplify the American spirit. The character¹ 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, eventually, the love of his life. 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. The only possession he typically has is his guitar, which is strung with strings of silver — hence the nickname, “Silver John.” In keeping with his unassuming character, though, most of the locals know him simply as “John”.
The beautiful thing about the character of John is how quintessentially American he seems — and how much his values clash with many modern and popular American “values”. Whereas many folks worship money and power, John cares not at all for either, and often laughs off attempts to seduce him with the same. Whereas modern “heroes” of American TV and movies are of the “shoot first, ask questions later” variety, John solves his problems primarily with his words, his fists, and his music. Where one’s “manliness” is measured by many people in how many flings one can have, John is satisfied with a more spiritual life — until he meets his one true love. Where modern folks are obsessed with getting things fast, even instantaneously, and living a hectic life (and I am as guilty as the next person), John is content to wander at a leisurely pace. Where, in modern days, the words “Southern” and “anti-intellectual” practically go hand-in-hand, John is an avid reader of books whenever he can find them. I find that, for me, John does in fact represent the sort of America one wants to belong to — a land of kindness, peace, wisdom, and selflessness — and he almost shows the way to get there.
The tales are set in the 20th century, at an early era when the Appalachian region was still very much a wilderness. Lurking in these wilds are a variety of sinister and supernatural beings, from witches and warlocks of various sorts to creatures frightening in their simplicity: the Flat, a creature that wraps itself around its prey like a blanket, and the Behinder, a creature that nobody’s ever seen because it always gets its prey from behind. John ends up matching wits, fists and songs against the most evil beings the mountain region has to offer.
The stories themselves are quite beautiful in their simplicity, and utterly charming in their use of backwoods words and phrases. Who Fears the Devil? has some 17 stories of John’s exploits, including:
- O Ugly Bird! The first story of John finds him trying to help a town that his held under the sway of a hoodoo man, and his deadly avian familiar.
- The Little Black Train. John stumbles across a magnificent party being held by a beautiful but corrupt woman, who will be struck down horribly by a curse that very evening. Can John help this woman avoid her fate, and should he?
- Nobody Ever Goes There. The town of Trimble has long avoided the abandoned mill on the other side of the river, where all its inhabitants mysteriously vanished some seventy-five years ago. When a young couple end up across the bridge after nightfall out of curiosity, they awaken a dark force that only John can save them from.
There are many more stories, and they are loosely tied together with short vignettes that are charming in themselves. The last two tales in the collection, “Sin’s Doorway” and “Frogfather”, are not John stories proper but are stories about anonymous mountain men having their own encounters with the supernatural. Wellman himself often referred to them as early stories about Silver John, but they do not have quite the charm of the official ones.
The stories of John the Balladeer are utterly charming, ensorceling, and very difficult to put down. They are highly, highly recommended.
(h/t to The Ridger, who originally introduced me to the stories of John!)
¹ Some of the text here borrowed from my earlier post on the Silver John novels; I couldn’t find a better way to write the description.