THROWBACK SF THURSDAY: Who Fears the Devil? By Manly Wade Wellman

Thursday , 13, April 2017 26 Comments

I went to a panel at the WorldCon in San Antonio a few years back on Texas Pulp SF.  Apart from the 800-lb. 1800-lb. gorilla in the room, Texans were grossly underrepresented in the pulps.  The consensus was that they were writing speculative fiction, and good speculative fiction, but that it was getting published as folklore.  That struck close to home.  I sometimes say I didn’t discover speculative fiction until my mom forced The Hobbit on me, but that isn’t quite true.  Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, I grew up with ghost stories.  Much like that Texas “folklore.”  The difference, of course, merely being one of perceptive.

You can imagine my interest then, when I discovered that an Appendix N and Weird Tales stalwart, Manly Wade Wellman, wrote an entire series of short stories very much rooted in the lore of my people.  About John.  At least that’s the only way his name is given in the stories.  He is more usually known as John the Balladeer or Silver John.  He may also be a parallel universe Johnny Cash.  Or maybe John the Baptist.  Or maybe both.

I picked up a copy of Paizo’s Hidden Worlds and Ancient Mysteries Planet Stories, The Complete Tales of Silver John, Who Fears the Devil?, presented by (and with an introduction from) Mike Resnick (2010).  Unfortunately, it is now out of print and offered at an obscene price every time lately I’ve checked on Amazon.  There is a Kindle version available for a few bucks, but it appears to be a different edition and I have no idea which stories it includes and what the quality is like.  I don’t trust Kindle editions of the old stuff and usually stick to what I can find at used bookstores.  That’s probably your best bet here.  This is billed as a complete collection of the Silver John short stories, but Wellman also wrote five novels about John.

Anyway, the Paizo edition has an introduction by Mike Resnick.  It also has an “introduction” of sorts by Karl Edward Wagner.  I’m not sure when that one was written, but Wagner has been dead since 1994, so not recently.  Wagner, like Wellman, and like Andy Griffith and Vic Huggins, lived in Chapel Hill despite knowing better.  Wagner says there “hadn’t been anything like the John stories at that time, and there hasn’t been since.”  I reckon I could dig up a few, but I suppose no one not listed in Chapel Hill could have pointed Wagner to ‘em.

Anyway, being a genuine hillbilly, and just the right particular sort of hillbilly for the job at hand, can I say that Wellman, outsider that he was, captures the voice of my people, lest my lived experiences suffer erasure?  Damn straight I can.  Wellman nails it.  He may have wasted time in Europe and at Columbia, but Wellman captures the voice of the region like only Ron Rash seemingly can.  He doesn’t inexplicably pepper his dialogue with extraneous apostrophes.  Nor does he condescend or reinvent the region’s people to reflect outsider stereotypes (the usual way to sell your stories to New Yorkers).

The stories owe much to Appalachian folklore, people, and the place itself, Wellman’s setting.  When he talks about “the ending place of the world,” I’ve been there.  Hell, I smoked, er, drank beer there in high school.  I asked my wife to marry me the first time there.  (She didn’t jump off, but it otherwise went as poorly as possible.)

The stories are deeply rooted in the mythology of Appalachia, but Wellman draws on elements common across many cultures.  The magic in music.  The magic in silver.  Like H.P. Lovecraft, Wellman writes about the occult.  But John is no nebbish professor.

The stories are old-fashioned, and two things matter above all: a good heart and the power of silver.  And don’t you need both that far from the county seat.  The stories are standalones—sometimes events from earlier stories are mentioned but they are also sometimes forgotten entirely and never are necessary to follow the latter story.  They are also of very consistent and high quality and very short.

Where Did She Wander?, by the way, was the last story Wellman ever wrote.  After writing it, he fell and broke his shoulder and elbow to shit.  Most Columbia men would have quite right there, which is why the Columbia fighting pussycats football team lost 44 games in a row.  But Wellman, like my 96-year-old grandma after she fell and busted her shoulder, couldn’t just “sit around.”  He went on to revise and polish the story before his death.

The very first story in the collection gives just about the best introduction of a man I ever read:

Where I’ve been is places and what I’ve seen is things, and there’ve been times I’ve run off from seeing them, off to other places and things.  I keep moving, me and this guitar with the silver strings to it, slung behind my shoulder.  Sometimes I’ve got food with me and an extra shirt maybe, but most times just the guitar, and trust to God for what I need else.  I don’t claim much.  John’s my name.

My edition also includes some nice artwork.

I haven’t got to it—yet—but Wellman wrote all sorts of stuff.  He wrote under at least six pen names.  Jeffro wrote here about some of his pulpier offerings.  He also kicked Faulkner’s ass in a mystery story contest.  He would have to settle for just being nominated for a Hugo Award and for a Pulitzer (for a nonfiction work).

The stories in my edition are, in order: John’s My Name; O Ugly Bird!; The Desrick on Yandro; Why They’re Named That; Vandy, Vandy; One Other; Then I Wasn’t Alone; Call Me From The Valley; The Little Black Train; You Know the Tale of Hoph; Shiver in the Pines; Find the Place Yourself; Walk Like a Mountain; Old Devlins Was A-Waiting; The Stars Down There; On the Hills and Everywhere; Blue Monkey; Nine Yards of Other Cloth; Trill Coster’s Burden; I Can’t Claim That; The Spring; Who Else Could I Count On?; Owls Hoot in the Daytime; Nobody Ever Goes There; None Wiser for the Trip; Can These Bones Live?; Where Did She Wander?; Nary Spell; Sin’s Doorway; and Frogfather.

 

Jeffro on Wellman’s Battle in the Dawn here at Castalia House.

Jon Mollison on Who Fears the Devil? at Seagull Rising (here and here).

Oghma on Who Fears the Devil? at Searching for Dragons.

Tim Callahan on Manly Wade Wellman at Tor.com.

 

H.P. is an academic, attorney, and author (well, blogger) who will read and write about anything interesting he finds in the used bookstore wherever he happens to be for the moment.  He can be found on Twitter @tuesdayreviews and at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.

26 Comments
  • deuce says:

    The Wagner piece is from the old Baen edition. David Drake lived in Chapel Hill for awhile as well.

  • Rick Stump says:

    What is it about North Carolina that makes spook stories?

  • Nathan says:

    The Paizo edition and the kindle edition are similar and include two “proto”-Sliver John stories in Sin’s Doorway and Frogfather. Baen’s most recent version does not include them.

    Wellman is one of the forgotten gems of fantasy, and deserves a wider read than he’s gotten. Both a Weird Tales and a Campbellian fantasy writer, he was at the forefront of American fantasy, until the elves came. I only wish that more of his work were readily available outside expensive limited editions.

    • HP says:

      It’s good to hear that there is at least one reasonably priced option readily available.

      I definitely look forward to digging up some more Wellman.

      • Nathan says:

        If you’re an audiobook sort of person, the amount of Wellman’s work available is staggering. Unfortunately, for those who wish to read rather than listen, the selection is slimmer.

  • keith says:

    Those Silver John stories of his are strange for me. I’m not from US, so that sort of american folklore with a distinct patriotic touch generally never worked for me. But Silver John stories somehow resonate, he instilled the sense of transcendental mystery into American folk tale. I can imagine myself, and any other non-American, having million different negative/amused reactions to, for example, spirit of famous President of old vanquishing the devious warlock, but Wellman can write something like that in a way that can resonate with everyone.

    • Nathan says:

      It’s interesting that you see a patriotic vein of Americana. To a non-Southron American reading Wellman’s Weird Tales, there is a thread of Confederate sympathy through many of those works. Different vantage point, different view, I guess.

  • JohnnyMac says:

    I have a tattered but treasured paperback edition of this collection (printed by Ballantine Books in 1964). I bought it second hand some forty odd years ago. In the front pages it gives the source for the title:

    “Who fears the Devil?” says James unto Jim,
    “Who fears the Devil?” says Jim unto Joan,
    “Who fears the Devil?” says Joan unto John–
    “Not I! Not I!” says John alone.
    ___from a game song, once popular
    with Southern children.

  • deuce says:

    Wellman’s CAHENA is an excellent borderline sword & sorcery novel. I know Morgan is a fan of it as well.

  • Bruce says:

    Old Nathan might be David Drake’s best book- the only book I ever read in Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John vein.

  • Fenris Wulf says:

    Just got the Kindle edition of Who Fears the Devil for the princely sum of $4.82. Looks good so far. It has all the stories and it’s well-formatted. Even has curly quotes.

  • caleb says:

    Night Shade released these classy hardbacks that collected his complete short fiction, some years ago. Problem is, they are out of print and, as things tend to go in the small press land, second hand copies command ludicrous prices. Now, Nightshade did similar series for CAS and Hodgson in the past, difference being that they received cheap, mass produced reprints. Dunno why they never did the same for their Wellman run, if they’ve lost the rights or believed that there isn’t enough interest or what.

  • M. C. Tuggle says:

    He also kicked Faulkner’s ass in a mystery story contest.

    Yes, he did. Wellman edged out Faulkner for The Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award in 1946. Faulkner was so annoyed that he wrote the editors to inform them that in Europe, he was recognized as the most important American author, and should have won.

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