Who fears the Devil? says Jane unto Jim,
Who fears the Devil? says Jim unto Joan,
Who fears the Devil? says Jane unto John –
Not I! Not I! says John all alone.
~from a game song, once popular with Southern children
This is the epigraph to Manly Wade Wellman’s first collection of short stories concerning his enigmatic protagonist John (sometimes known as Silver John or John the Balladeer), a wandering, folk-singing, backwoodsman, folklorist kind of a guy who travels the Appalachians battling evil with his silver-stringed guitar.
Ok, I’ll be the first to admit that the premise sounds a bit daft, a bit like one of those American serials they used to show on ITV of a Saturday evening where the lone hero wanders from town to town getting himself into all sorts of scrapes and never finding peace. Think The Incredible Hulk, Highway to Heaven or The Littlest Hobo……..NO, stop it! Don’t think of those, this is much better!
Wellman was a long time, and very popular, contributor to genre magazines Weird Tales, Astounding Stories etc. etc. In the 1950s he moved from New York (where he wrote his fictional hero John Thunstone, a Manhattan playboy occultist) to the small town of Pine Bluff in North Carolina. Having a lifelong interest in the esoteric and folk magic, here he immersed himself in southern history, folklore and folksong to create the stories about John.
The stories in this collection all appeared in magazines during the ‘50s and were first published as a collection in 1963 by Arkham House. The first paperback edition came from Star Books in 1975. Let’s have a look at the cover shall we?
I’ve no idea who created the artwork for this (…if anyone does know then I’d love to hear from you). Just look at that demonic figure trapped behind the guitar strings! Do you recognise him?
Go on, look a bit closer.
It is, or course, a blatant copy of Christopher Lee’s character Edward Blake from ‘I, Monster’, the 1971 Amicus loose adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde. Here he is:
Anyway, down to the contents. The eleven stories proper are each prefaced by an atmospheric little half page italicised vignette.
John’s My Name
O Ugly Bird!
Why They’re Named That
Then I Wasn’t Alone
Shiver in the Pines
You Know the Tale of Hoph
Old Devlins Was A-Waiting
Find the Place Yourself
The Desrick on Yandro
The Stars Down There
I Can’t Claim That
The Little Black Train
Who Else Could I Count On
Walk Like a Mountain
None Wiser for the Trip
On the Hills and Everywhere
Nine Yards of Other Cloth
Most of these stories are written in first person from John’s perspective, so they’re full of a warm Appalachian dialect. Wellman judges the use of language well, never overdoing it to the point of parody. He creates a subtle and believable world for John to traverse; strange and dreamlike it is a world of tall mountains, bottomless pools and dark pinewoods; it is filled with hoodoo men, witches and double-dealers. The landscape is a dangerous place of ‘scarced-out’ animals with folknames, like The Toller, The Flat, The Skim and The Behinder (so called because it always gets people from behind and, as such, no one has ever seen it (‘cepting John, of course)).
Wellman subtly mixes fact with his fiction to lend a plausibility to the fantastic. John sings real songs and Wellman includes snippets of lyrics to add depth and atmosphere, including the wonderful ‘In the Pines’ (here’s the famous version from Leadbelly):
Historical figures exist alongside fictional ones, such as in the Hatfield and McCoy feud sequence in ‘Old Devlins was A-Waiting’. In this story Wellman also introduces us to ‘real’ magical practices with the inclusion of a ritual with the Sator Square. The magic in this world is primitive sympathetic folk magic and the shamanistic feel is mirrored in the natural world vividly described, even the creatures are described in terms of natural objects. When we first see the monster known as One Other his “…shoulder was like a cypress root humping out of the water, the head was like a dark pumpkin”. The monsters were there before humans so, in effect, they are a part of nature and, as many folk tales stem from warnings about the natural world, this is quite fitting.
When it comes to the human characters John meets through these tales Wellman paints the world in black and white. All the good men are honest, hard-working, poor-but-contented types and we know the bad men as their inner traits are exposed by their physical ugliness. The women are either pretty innocents waiting to be rescued from the bad men or glamorous femme fatales waiting to entrap the good men. There’s no room for ambiguity with his characterisation but Wellman does have a wonderful knack of describing each new player with a Chandleresque precision. A favourite of mine is from The Desrick on Yandro:
“His buckskin hair was combed across his head to baffle folks he wasn’t getting bald. His round, pink face wasn’t soft, and his big, smiling teeth reminded you there was a bony skull under that meat. His pale eyes, like two gravel bits, prodded me and made me remember I needed a haircut and a shine.”
For all the curses, monsters and supernatural terror in Wellman’s tales the biggest evil of all is money, or at least a love of money. The villains are invariably wealthier than their victims and the only real use for a silver coin in this world is to ward off evil. And if you see a feller that’s flashy enough to be carrying gold well, gentlemen, you can bet he’ll have them hellhounds a-snapping at his heels.
And to finish with a song, Wellman dedicated his book to his friend the folksinger and folklorist, Bascom Lamar Lunsford (among others) and even referred to him by name in Old Devlins was A-Waiting. Here he is performing Dogget’s Gap. Look at this scene and imagine a tall stranger with a silver strung guitar slung on his back walking out of the woods and joining the song and you’ve got the start of a Who Fears the Devil story right there:
There’s a fair bit of old-time religion in these pages, as you’d expect from good old god-fearin’ folk, but the penultimate tale ‘On the Hills and Everywhere’ is an awful, saccharine parable and how it got past a submissions editor I just can’t imagine.