Thursday, December 17, 2009



Manly Wade Wellman was one of the most successful fantasy and SF writers of the '30s and '40s. His SF was generally of a juvenile nature, popular at the time but of limited interest today. His fantasy, however, was thoroughly adult. While Lovecraft and Howard were writing, Manly was in the second rank of Weird Tales authors; after they died, he became one of the magazine's mainstays.

Despite the high quality of his earlier fantasies, Manly didn't really hit his stride in the field until in 1949 appeared The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—a digest magazine which would publish fantasy of the highest literary quality. For F&SF Manly created John the Balladeer, drawing on his existing knowledge of folk music and folklore and his growing love of the North Carolina mountains.
– David Drake

The stories of John the Balladeer are some of the best American fantasies ever written. This collection of short stories is filled with the delights of the namesake guitar slinging ghostbuster. A backwoods wandering minstrel, who is always happy to follow where trouble leads him, helping where he can while asking for little in return.

The time of the stories is never explicitly given, but can be taken as the middle of the twentieth century since John, is a veteran of the Korean War. Resembling a young Johnny Cash, he has an implied mystic link of some sort to John the Baptist, and much of his personal philosophy can be traced to a primitive, Gospel-based, Christianity

Despite being one of the great sci-fi/fantasy/horror pulp writers, the creator of Silver John, Manly Wade Wellman, is far from as well known as he deserves. His stories are unique, drawing upon the rich vein of southern Appalachia folklore mixed with Cherokee myths and Scots-Irish ballads.

The stories are full of the customs and lore of the region and many of the folk songs John sings are authentic. Wellman did introduce some original songs and legends, but his creations blend seamlessly with the traditional material.

On a different note, Wellman also contributed to the writing of the comic book The Spirit while the franchise's creator, Will Eisner, was serving in the US military during World War II.

Wellman’s best known character, John, wanders the mountains with his guitar strung with silver strings, thwarting all manner of supernatural threats with his wits, common sense and knowledge of the old ballads. Along the way he encounters hoodoo men, witch-women, ghosts, raven-mockers, familars and all kinds of other horrors living in the backwoods.

In John The Balladeer, all of the Silver John short stories are collected together. However, there are also five novels featuring the character – The Old Gods Waken, After Dark, The Lost and Lurking, The Hanging Stones, and Voice of the Mountain.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Wellman's fiction is that it does draw upon uniquely American themes. John is very down-to-earth, a hero of the common people. Definitely worth checking out, especially if you’re appreciate Lovecraft, Shaver, Blackwood, and the like.



Bill Crider said...

Wonderful stories! I got my Ballantine copy signed by Wellman at a World Fantasy Con about 30 years ago. I can read these stories again and again.

Armstrong Sabian said...

One of my all-time favorites. I started reading this book while waiting for someone in the Asheville, NC airport...and started with the story where John is doing the same thing. It was mighty creepy.

I just bought an old copy of The Old Gods Waken for my Dad for Christmas!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I would expect a romance from the cover.

Todd Mason said...

David Drake is wrong--Wellman was fully formed even in his WEIRD TALES years before F&SF, but the John stories were my favorites among his work, as well (along with scattered others such as "The Valley Was Still"). Also, SIDEWISE IN TIME is often considered a good sf story among his efforts in that mode. (Though the first Ballantine paperback of the Arkham House collection WHO FEARS THE DEVIL is ludicrously prominently labeled "Science Fiction" that the edition you have, Bill?)

John is just wise enough not to strike a romance with a demon, Patti, no matter how enticing...thus out of step with today's publishing trends.

Todd Mason said...

Oops...the Wellman novella was TWICE IN TIME. "Sideweise" being a Will Jenkins, iirc.

Evan Lewis said...

Never heard of this one, but it sounds very cool. Thanks.

George said...

Night Shade Books is reprinting all of Wellman's work including this volume.