The Third Cry of Legba, by Manly Wade Wellman

Thursday , 5, October 2017 4 Comments

The glare and the clatter died at the same time throughout the Club Samedi. Even the buzzing crowd-noise suspended in expectation. Behind the orchestra sounded a gong. Once. Twice. Thrice…

The master of ceremonies intoned:

‘Midnight. The witching hour. And Illyria!’

The gong chimed on to twelve and stopped.

*     *     *      *      *

From his table on the floor of the Club Samedi, John Thunstone watches an authentic voodoo dance with his date, Sharon, Countess Montesco. Rowley Thorne, another occult enthusiast, introduces himself to Thunstone and Sharon. He declares himself to be patron of the voodoo dance, an invocation to the gateway god Legba. It’s a polite introduction, but while Thorne dances with Sharon, Thunstone slips away to question the dancer Illyria. Her account of Thorne’s patronage aroused Thunstone’s suspicions. He returns the next night, and at the stroke of midnight, Illyria dances again, but she is not alone. Some thing dances with her in the shadows. After the strange ritual, Thorne lets slip that he has designs on Sharon. Furthermore, Thunstone is studied enough in the occult to recognize that Legba is never summoned alone. Strange plans are underfoot, and Thunstone must ready himself for the third cry to Legba.

Sure enough, Rowley Thorne’s intentions were less that honorable. For when the third cry finishes, the audience for Illyria’s dance will become voodoo cultists, spreading Thorne’s power. As the Countess Montesco, Sharon owns a grand fortune that would be at Thorne’s disposal. But an amulet designed by St. Dunstan and a liberal spray of salt foil his plans. For John Thunstone knows his Lafcadio Hearn, his W. B. Seabrook. and his occult books well. And he will use every bit of occult knowledge to defend his girl and the world.

“The Third Cry to Legba” introduces John Thunstone, the second of Manly Wade Wellman’s occult investigators, and the heir to Judge Pursuivant’s knowledge and sword. The inside flap to Wellman’s Lonely Vigils describes him as:

“a hulking Manhattanite playboy and dilettante, a serious student of the occult and a two-fisted brawler ready to take on any enemy. Armed with potent charms and a silver swordcane, Thunstone stalks supernatural perils in the posh night clubs and seedy hotels of New York, or in backwater towns lost in the countryside– seeking out deadly sorcery as a hunter pursues a man-killer beast.”

“The Third Cry to Legba” serves as a better introduction for a new reader to John Thunstone than “The Dai Stone”, establishing the key relationships and rivalries for the playboy occultist. And it is in the “posh night clubs” of New York that we find Thunstone, reunited with his old flame, Sharon. Her inability to understand his fascination with the occult sent her overseas, and into a marriage to the Count of Montesco. Now the widowed Countess, she’s returned to New York, and to Thunstone. She tries to play Thorne’s intentions into Thunstone’s jealousy. Instead, she serves as a fault line between two experts in the occult. Thorne would later be revealed to be a necromancer, and would play with forces similar to those found in the Cthulhu Mythos. Thunstone is crafted in a different mold. The first resonances to St. Dunstan appear in this story, and, like the saint, Thunstone is “a gentleman borne and bred, who studied black magic–and caught Satan’s nose in a pair of red-hot pincers.” As the nursery rhyme says:

St. Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull’d the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more.

And it is Thorne who roars in the devil’s place, again and again as the two men clash throughout the 1940s. St. Dunstan’s paraphernalia reoccurs throughout Thunstone’s adventures, whether in the sapphire and silver amulet that protects Sharon or in the silver forged swordcane passed down from Judge Pursuivant. It is telling that Wellman wrote the sophisticated Thunstone while he lived in New York, and the folksy Balladeer after he left for the Carolinas.

Silver, sapphires, St. John’s wort, and salt. Wellman’s fascination with white magic and the occult shines through. As he would mention in the Eyrie notes in Weird Tales, every book he mentions not only exists, but occupies a place in Wellman’s library. Many of these sources are contemporary to Weird Tales, written in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Thunstone and Wellman draw from a wide variety of folklore, from Caribbean Jesuit priests, followers of Aleister Crowley, and Japanese youkai experts. Even in John the Balladeer’s stories, actual occult tomes appear time and again. It strikes me as odd that a writer so inventive in bestiary and folklore would adhere so strictly to established lore to dispel evils.

If you can, try to find an audio version of this tale. Like many wordsmiths, Wellman needs to be heard to get the full effect of the writing. Even in a short snippet like the introduction quoted above, one hears the cadence of the gong, the rhythms of the orchestra, and the murmurs of the crowd.

Thunstone’s adventure here might be the most genteel of Wellman’s settings, but under the surface, it is as two-fisted a tale as any detective pulp of the 1930s. And the writer who best showcased John Campbell’s new fantasy returns here to the Gothic and romantic roots of the genre, that of menace and mystery. For an exercise in contrasts, “The Third Cry to Legba” should be paired with Wellman’s later “Vandy, Vandy”.

*     *     *      *      *

Originally published in the November 1943 Weird Tales, the text can be found in SFF Audio’s Public Domain works archive.

4 Comments
  • deuce says:

    In some ways, Thunstone is my favorite MWW protagonist. I love this tale.

  • caleb says:

    Speaking of Crowley, I cannot help but suspect that Thorne belongs that esteemed tradition in weird fiction of modeling your villains after Crowley.
    There is a bit in one of the latter stories where Thorne espouses his personal philosophy, basically “I belong neither to good nor evil, I want to rebuild and subdue the world through the power of my own will blah-blah” that is really Crowley-like. And then we have his baldness, his penchant for hunting down rich women for their money only etc… Obviously, his appearance doesn’t exactly fits, but then if you see one of Crowley’s… erm… “self portraits”:
    https://4.bp.blogspot.com/-ivxH5YAutS4/V1BWsuPbLbI/AAAAAAAAFac/A-lqlMiu9Kg7LanXnVLtMUFROmcrWH8KQCK4B/s1600/s-l300.jpg

  • Andy says:

    “As he would mention in the Eyrie notes in Weird Tales, every book he mentions not only exists, but occupies a place in Wellman’s library.”

    You can still buy some of them on Amazon, too:

    https://www.amazon.com/Pow-Wows-Long-Friend-George-Hohman/dp/1602067627

  • Terry Sanders says:

    “It strikes me as odd that a writer so inventive in bestiary and folklore would adhere so strictly to established lore to dispel evils.”

    Perhaps because it’s “established.”

    Both Thunstone and (in a less erudite way) John are portrayed as knowledgeable in the occult. Why wouldn’t they stick to what they know works?

    If you were in a weird world story and a strange huge creature menaced you, would you consider odd and esoteric methods of defense, or would you just cut loose with your rifle and see if it works?

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