Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Rural Ghostbuster


Planet Stories: Who Fears the Devil?: The Complete Silver John Stories by Manly Wade Wellman, introductions by Mike Resnick and Karl Edward Wagner (2010 this edition): God bless the relatively new Planet Stories imprint, which is trying to bring out-of-print fantasy and science-fiction classics back in affordable, over-sized and reasonably priced paperbacks. It's a worthy project, and I hope profitable enough for them to continue. At the very least, you should go buy this book, the two entries by C.L. Moore and Robert E. Howard's Almuric from their back catalogue. Oh, and the Kuttner and A. Merritt volumes too.

Manly Wade Wellman, born early in the first decade of the 20th century and dying in 1986, wrote to the end. He was a pulp writer in many genres, but it was the regional horror-fantasies of the short stories of this volume and the five Silver John novels that represent the pinnacle of his reputation, works of startlingly original regional American fantasy rooted in the legends and songs of the rural American Southeast.

Nothing like them had appeared before the Silver John stories found a home in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the early 1950's (though two of the stories here, "Frogfather" and "Sin's Doorway", date from the 1940's and may, Wellman maintained conditionally, be formative stories of John the Balladeer before he took up his silver-stringed guitar). The last story chronologically was written only a few months before Wellman's death.

Silver John (or John the Balladeer), never given a last name, wanders throughout the wilds of the Southeast, centered roughly in North Carolina. He carries a silver-stringed guitar and an encyclopedic knowledge of both myth and traditional regional songs. And he battles the forces of evil with those tools, his faith, and his essential goodness and decency. Silver is a bane to most things supernatural, though John will also occasionally use white magic (derived from such real spell books as The Long-lost Friend -- you can order it online!) and natural counterforces (woods such as hazel and cedar) in his wanderings.

John is endlessly curious about the origins of songs and of stories he's heard, and that drives some of his wandering, though he also does so to bring aid to friends and strangers alike who've been confronted by such things as witches, warlocks, the mysterious and malign Shonokins, the lurking gardinels (living, carnivorous houses), the weird creatures that may or may not be malign, and a variety of other back-country legends both 'real' and invented by Wellman (the line blurs sometimes, not least of which because Wellman collected stories from the people of the areas he wrote about, stories that in some cases were extremely regional in focus -- the gardinel and the stories of the Ancients Ones who mined the hills before even the Indians came may have a basis in truth. Or maybe not.)

Throughout it all, Wellman pulls off one of the most difficult feats in all fiction -- he makes good both interesting and attractive. John's neither a prude nor a teetotaler, and he's humble about his abilities in the face of supernatural evil. The scene in which he summons the ghost of George Washington to defeat a malign 300-year-old warlock is both emblematic of the series as a whole and deeply strange. But this stuff happens all the time. And maybe it does. Highly recommended.

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