By Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986)
It’s hard to categorize the stories in Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer. They are at once works of dark fantasy, horror and an entirely original kind of American folklore. Haunts, witches, demons, familiars and other fell creatures skulk through the forest-shrouded mountains and valleys of Wellman’s Appalachia. Some seek only to waylay and devour travelers in lonely places; some are vengeful ghosts; others would spread their malice across the world…if not for John.
John (a.k.a. “Silver John” or just plain old “John”) wanders through the countryside, playing songs on his silver-strung guitar, learning new tunes and bits of lore wherever they come. The guitar and the clothes on his back are all he owns, and he’s happy with that. We know little of John’s past, except that he is a veteran of the Korean War. Quick with his wits and good with his fists, he is a loyal friend to any who need him and just as determined an enemy of evil.
Besides the ever-present darkness, Wellman’s writing is alive with old-time music, memorable characters and a strong sense of place. These twenty-five stories and vignettes are meant to be savored like down-home cooking, and rereading them is always a pleasure. My favorites are “Call Me from the Valley,” “Shiver in the Pines,” “Walk Like a Mountain,” “The Spring” and “Owls Hoot in the Daytime.” Wellman also wrote five Silver John novels—The Old Gods Waken (1979), After Dark (1980), The Lost and the Lurking (1981), The Hanging Stones (1982) and The Voice of the Mountain (1984). They aren’t bad, but I prefer the short stories.
Wellman immersed himself in the culture and folkways of rural North Carolina. His love for the music and the landscape are a great contrast to the sense of menace and fear running through the Silver John stories. John the Balladeer is out-of-print, but Night Shade Books has reissued many of these stories and novels in hardcover editions. They’re expensive but worth it.
The complete list of this week's Forgotten Books picks is on Patti Abbott’s blog.