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.
I’ll be adding this to my fall reading list for sure. Love stories set in Appalachia, that “old” feeling you get from the area suits these kinds of stories so well.
Thanks for the comment! Wellman does a magnificent job of capturing that Appalachian spirit — apparently he had a summer home in the mountains right next door to a well-known folk singer, and they would have get-togethers to eat, tell stories, and play music.
I love those stories. I agree about this vision of America and I feel these were giving a sense of the idealized rural America. Clifford Simak’s vision I always thought was similar. Curious non-materialistic intelligent people. They live in beutiful area if one wants to look where mysteries are around every corner. Gordon Dickson obviously copies some of this in some of his stories too.
I’m so glad you love John. I felt sure you would.
Thanks again for recommending him!
You ass-hole. You little shit.
I am a southerner and a beleiver in education.
I am not a “Teabagger” like you find so damn sickening but I do believe in THEIR America.
I believe that education is “what remains 20 years after graduation, everything else doesn’t matter- Albert Einstein.
I came here looking for information on a book I thought seemed interesting and found a rant on Libertarian-Conservatives?
The word “Liberal” (Something you sound like) means keeping an open mind. The southerners I know and grew up with are only anti-intellectual when it comes to evolution. You have seen the movie “Deliverance” to many times. The southerners I know believe in what you would call
Street smarts. They can’t afford Education and refuse to take out a colledge loan because they don’t have the time to sit on their asses shouting “WE ARE THE NINTEY-NINE PERCENT” they’re just to damn busy working for a living. If you want FREE EDUCATION (Something we don’t believe in) Go get a GI Bill like my grandfather, who was rejected from three medical jobs due to bigots like you hating on the minority of poor whites that no one pays attention to. You are a Bigot. I challenge you to name 1 instance of the behavior you described above. Not something you saw on the news but a personal instance.
If you can’t do it then your opinion is based on ignorance.
Um, not sure what you’re talking about. I didn’t say *any* of the stuff that you seem to be accusing me of. I didn’t mention “teabaggers” at all in the post, and certainly didn’t rant about “libertarian-conservatives”. (Though if you’re a representative of them, you’re kinda proving the points you imagined that I said.)
Oh, and you do know that I realize that “The Book-Lover” and “Cody” are the same person? “Sock-puppetry” — pretending to be multiple people to pretend you have more support than you do — is pretty much shunned on all of the internet.
I live in the South, too, BTW. I can say, based on your own statements and without a hint of “bigotry”, that you are a moron.
Hi. Enjoyed your comments on John. Thank you. I think Cody/Book Lover was/were referring to/reacting to comments in your review of the novels. I am not a southerner, though I have nothing against them, and I agree with you that the comments of Book Lover/Cody was/were so overwrought as to be idiotic even knowing they were inspired by a different post of yours where tea baggers are mentioned a bit dismissively (though not dismissively enough to match my opinion).–Jay C. Smith
I agree. Whoever wrote this needs some serious therapy. Why do you Hate southerners so much? What have they done to you to call them Lovers of ignorance? You know Prejudice is Ignorance . . .
And if you can’t name an instance of chosen ignorance in the south then that by definitition makes you . . . . . . .
By the way my wife and I live in the south, are southerners, and I would really like this comment edited for your bigotry. If you think southerners are really just that DAMN ignorant then please send me and booklover an explanation on the well known southern intellectual
Edgar Rice Burroughs (A well known smart dude)
Also I showed this to my Grandfather He wants me to pass on a few messages:
“May you inherit a hotel with a thousand rooms and be found dead in every one! For if a fool as ignorant as you were twice as smart…You would still be stupid!”
(My grandfather’s Jewish… I hope you socialist-Nazi types still don’t hate them to)