The Folk Horror of H. Russell Wakefield in Two Stories.

H. Russell Wakefield is an author who is perhaps not as well recognised as he deserves. When mentioned at all, it’s often in the same breath as M. R. James, with readers declaring him a marginally sub-standard version of that author in the classic English ghost story vein.

h russell wakefield - the clock strikes twelve - whenchurchyardsyawn

However, with the current trend towards putting the folk back into horror it’s time to take another look at Wakefield as, if not exactly a progenitor, then certainly a pioneer in the weird rurality of what was to become the Folk Horror genre. With this in mind, we’re going to look at two of his stories, both first published in his 1940 collection, The Clock Strikes Twelve. The first is Lucky’s Grove and the second, which could be considered the absolute classic folk horror tale (as the title suggests), The First Sheaf.

If you’re not familiar with the term Folk Horror then I’ve written a little about it in these links:

Folk Horror Revival – Field Studies

The Venomous Serpent

This page will contain spoilers for both stories so I’ll leave it up to you whether you would like to continue or not.

L u c k y ’ s   G r o v e

Wakefield opens this tale with an epigraph:

And Loki begat Hel, Goddess of the Grave, Fenris, the Great Wolf, and the Serpent, Nidnogg, who lives beneath the tree.

I can only imagine that this is his own take on an excerpt from the Edda, the 13th century Icelandic text relating to the Norse pantheon. As you will have noticed, the three children of Loki in the epigraph is not quite correct. Loki’s third child was Jormungand, the great sea serpent. Nidnogg, or Nidhogg (as it is more commonly anglicised) was the serpent gnawing at the roots of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. However, as we will see, Wakefield was probably aware of this and transposed them to fit the plot.

As the story opens it’s approaching Christmas at Langdale Hall, a great sprawling stately home with extensive grounds. The Hall is owned by Braxton, a crass, self-made and semi-retired businessman. Braxton spent his childhood growing up in the grounds of The Hall, his father working there as a farm labourer. However, the lowly life wasn’t for Braxton and as he grew to adulthood, he found he had an innate aptitude for business. After making his first several million he purchased Langdale Hall to become the Lord of the Manor.

On the grounds is the titular Lucky’s Grove. This is a perfectly circular copse of trees in the middle of a large fallow field; a place of awe and reverence among the locals; a place rich in superstition and folklore. This copse has an outer ring of Holm Oaks, these give way to an inner ring of Larch, within these are the dark and twisted Yews. At the very centre, towering above the rest is an ancient Scots Pine. Braxton himself would often visit this Grove as a child and face the mighty Pine:

And when he stood before it, he’d always known an odd longing to fling himself down and – well, worship – it was the only word – the towering tree. His father had told him his forebears had done that very thing, but always when alone and at certain seasons of the year.

It is generally thought that the pre-Christian Germanic people considered certain natural places to be sacred and this, of course, included groves. Often these places would be dedicated to certain deities of their pantheon. Let’s look at Lucky’s Grove, the name has obviously changed slightly through the shifting folk etymology of successive generations and would have originally been Loki’s Grove. A place dedicated to the trickster god of Norse mythology, a place dedicated to the deity that begat Hel, Fenris and, in this tale, Nidnogg.

So, what happens when Braxton’s new estate manager is charged with cutting an enormous Christmas tree for the upcoming festivities in the The Hall and, being new to the area and unaware of local superstition, decides to cut one from Lucky’s Grove? Obviously, it doesn’t turn out well.

As soon as the labourers bring the massive Larch from the grove into the house (yes, I thought a Larch was a surprising choice for a Christmas tree too, what with it being deciduous!) the trouble begins. When a grove is dedicated to a deity, or deities, then each tree in that grove is sacred. When a tree is taken from that grove then the gods come with it.

It begins innocently enough, with two workmen being injured by the branches, but soon the guests are seeing figures in the shadows, a wolf, a witch and a serpent. These otherworldly visions could of course be mere hallucinations but things soon take a turn for the worse on Christmas Day.

With the assembled worthies (who Wakefield in his customary satirical manner refers to as ‘The Cream of North Berkshire society’) enjoying the festivities, the weather turns. A blizzard, complete with thunder and lightning, engulfs The Hall as Loki’s children bring about a new Ragnarok and we witness a Twilight of these petty gods of polite society.

So, how does Lucky’s Grove fit into the Folk Horror genre? As I’ve said before, the boundaries to the genre are often nebulous and intuitive, rather than concrete; however Adam Scovell of https://celluloidwickerman.com/ devised a set of four rules which are usually found in the genre.

1: Landscape

2: Isolation

3: Skewed moral beliefs

4: Happening/Summoning.

As we can see in Lucky’s Grove, it certainly is well grounded in the Landscape and there is certainly a Happening/Summoning at the end, but there is no sense of Isolation and, although most of the characters are abhorrently pompous, we cannot really equate this with the sort of skewed moral beliefs we would expect from Folk Horror.

Now, with the Scovell Scale in mind, let’s take a look at:

T h e   F i r s t   S h e a f

Anyone with an interest in Folk Horror browsing through the contents page of an anthology couldn’t help having this intriguing title catch their eye. Perhaps they would flip straight to that story and be greeted, and sucked in, by this opening:

“If only they realised what they were doing!” laughed old Porteous, leaning over the side of the car. ‘They’ were a clutter of rustics, cuddling vegetable marrows, cauliflowers, apples and other stuffs, passing into a village church some miles south of Birmingham. “Humanity has been doing that, performing that rite, since thousands of years before the first syllable of recorded time, I suppose; though not always in such a refined manner. And then there are maypoles, of all indecorous symbols, and beating the bounds, a particularly interesting survival with, originally, a dual function; first they beat the bounds to scare the devils out, and then they beat the small boys that their tears might propitiate the Rain Goddess. Such propitiation having been found to be superfluous in this climate, they have ceased to beat the urchins; a great pity, but an admirable example of myth adaptation. Great Britain swarms with such survivals, some as innocuous and bland as this harvest festival, others for more formidable and guarded secrets; at least that was so when I was a boy. Did I ever tell you how I lost my arm?”

Does that not whet your appetite? This preamble serves as an introduction to the main body of the story, which has Porteous recounting the story of how he lost his arm when he was a boy.

At the age of 13 Porteous moved to the small Essex village of Reedley End, after his father, a vicar, was granted the curacy there. Reedley End was a remote village in the bottom of a narrow valley and the only way in or out was a rough cart-track, the people were:

…a strange tribe, aloof, dour, bitter, and revealing copious signs of intensive interbreeding.

The residents soon broke the new vicar’s evangelical zeal, with him declaring that:

“They seem to worship other gods than mine!”

This local dourness could have stemmed from the fact that Reedley End is situated in perhaps the most arid spot in Britain; prone to dry weather in the best of times and, at the time we join them in the story, having experienced three years of extreme drought which caused crops to fail and livestock to die.

Porteous and his father are not the only new inhabitants in Reedley End. A ‘foreign’ farm-labourer (all the way from Sussex) also lives there with his wife and thirteen year old daughter. The young Porteous takes a shine to this girl as she is different to the other girls of the village; being blonde, she was:

…like a golden oriole in a crew of crows.

However, it’s the disappearance of this girl, and the suspiciously subsequent and much needed rainfall a couple of days later, that creates a sinister turn in the story.

On exploring the local area Porteous discovers a perfectly circular field enclosed within a ring of evergreen trees, Holm Oaks and Yew (note the similarity to Lucky’s Grove!). Within this field is a single 8’ tall standing stone. The children of the village call this field the Good Field which, if we follow the same rule of shifting etymology as Lucky’s Grove, we may assume was originally called God’s Field. The adults of the village give it a different name, Odiues Field, which, with a stretch, could perhaps come from Odin’s Field?

harvest - holinshed chronicles - whenchurchyardsyawn
Harvest – from the Holinshed Chronicles

As the summer passes, the harvest time arrives and we see the local labourers swathing through the crops; all equidistant from the Good Field and all cutting their way towards it. Porteous becomes aware that something is going to happen in that field at the end of the harvest and hides in the treeline in the early hours of the morning to wait and see what the day brings.

What he sees is the villagers ceremoniously approach the stone in the centre of the field, each with a wreath of corn around their neck and singing a ‘primitive’ song…

I won’t spoil the ending for you. I think we have enough there to fulfil the four points on the Scovell Scale.

We have the reliance on the landscape as a major part of the narrative.

We have the sense of isolation both physically, with the remoteness of the village, and psychologically, with the way the locals refuse to accept the new-comers.

We have the skewed moral beliefs of the villagers; being drawn to older ways to survive when the newer ways have failed them.

And we certainly have the Happening, with the climactic finale of the ritual complete with, what has become, some classic folk horror imagery.

Perhaps we should now look at the protagonist of the piece, Porteous, and what, if any, is the relevance of him having one arm?

It’s difficult not to be drawn to the fact that the main character has a missing arm in a story dealing with mythic themes as, of course, there are many deities and heroes who have lost an arm.

If we run with the links through the two stories here we should look to the Norse pantheon where the one-handed god is Tyr. Let’s return to Lucky’s Grove and look at the mythology concerning Fenris, the great wolf sired by Loki. The Edda tells us that, when the Gods decided to trap and bind Fenris, the wolf would only consent to being bound if one of the Gods dared to place their hand in his jaws. Tyr volunteered for this task and duly had his right hand bitten off, thus ensuring due compensation had been paid. The comparative mythologist, Georges Dumézil, suggested that this act raised Tyr from the status of a God of War to a God of Law; Tyr brings order and regulation to a chaotic situation. In The First Sheaf, the young Porteous, after the young girl’s disappearance and the subsequent ineptitude of the local policeman, attempts to take the law into his own hand … and goes on to lose that hand in the bargain … and teeth are involved here too!

tyr and fenrir - john bauer - whenchurchyardsyawn
Tyr and Fenris – John Bauer

If we turn to a different tradition, we will find the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann as the one-handed deity, Nuada Airgetlám. As king, Nuada took his army into battle against the Fir Bolg, but not before allowing both side to inspect the others troops and weaponry to ensure a fair battle (there’s that legendary regulatory fairness as we saw with Tyr). Although Nuada led his people to victory, he lost an arm in the process. However, his physician made him a fully working replacement made of silver, and this is where he gets the epithet after his name, Nuada Airgetlám means Nuada of The Silver Arm. It may be fanciful but perhaps, we can see a faint echo of this ‘silver-handedness’ with our Porteous:

He had started his career with fifty pounds, and turned this into seven figures by sheer speculative genius; he seemed to touch nothing which did not appreciate.

And finally, we must turn to the film considered by most as the ultimate in Folk Horror, The Wicker Man. The First Sheaf shares similar themes to The Wicker Man; both have an outsider arriving in a remote village where weather conditions have brought about a poor harvest; both have the villagers turning to ancient nature based religions; both have a missing girl and a resurgence of ritual human sacrifice to ensure a good crop.

There are two deities explicitly mentioned as being worshipped by the residents of Summerisle in the film:

… a holy sacrifice will be offered up jointly to Nuada, our most sacred god of the Sun, and to Avellenau, the beloved goddess of our orchards …

We must assume that the goddess Avellenau was created for the film, obviously a corruption of Avalon, the legendary island from the Arthurian cycle which translates as The Isle of Apple Trees. But, if we look at that Sun God we find our old friend Nuada making an appearance.

The Wicker Man was a loose adaptation of David Pinner’s novel Ritual which, although sharing some similarities to the film, does not really share the themes mutual to The Wicker Man and The First Sheaf. It seems that The Wicker Man was very much a joint project between the writer Anthony Shaffer, the director Robin Hardy and the actor Christopher Lee. We know that Christopher Lee co-edited several anthologies of horror short stories and reputedly held a large library of horror and fantasy fiction. If we look at the anthology he co-edited with Mary Danby, Realms of Darkness, we see in the contents list a story called Lucky’s Grove by H. Russell Wakefield.

So, it is possible that Christopher Lee possibly owned the 1940 Wakefield collection The Clock Strikes Twelve. If he did own that collection then it is possible that he read The First Sheaf. If he did read The First Sheaf then perhaps it is possible, just possible, that this story filtered into Lee’s subconscious and influenced the most important film in the Folk Horror genre.

nuada - the wicker man - whenchurchyardsyawn
Nuada – The Wicker Man

The best presents are book shaped.

Some buy new books,
some avoid new books,
and some have new books thrust upon them.

A brief post on my continued foray into the world of new small/independent publishing houses. As I’ve said before, I always buy older second-hand books (I won’t bore you with the reasons again as, to be honest, I’m not sure what they are myself), so this brave new world of modern publishers is all very exciting.

It seems to be becoming a tradition for certain family members to buy me new books for Christmas and birthdays, and a very welcome tradition it is too. A few days ago I was delighted to unwrap two stunningly beautiful editions from Tartarus Press. I say ‘new’ publishers but, looking at their website, I see they are celebrating their 25th year at the moment. One of these days I may have to look outside of my own small world of paperback lined shelves and find out what the hell is actually happening out there in the world of the real people.

Just look at these beauties. And from two of my favourite authors too! Robert Aickman and Arthur Machen.

tartarus 1

tartarus 6 tartarus 5

All of the Tartarus covers are in slightly varied and exceptionally classy creams with minimal distractions on the spine. I really am thinking now that I may have to clear one or two shelves purely for a Tartarus collection; just imagine them there, all lined up neatly in a prime position.

tartarus 2

Look at those beautifully designed covers. The futurist/deco style typeface on the Machen and I’m thinking that’s a Garamond for the Aickman?

But that’s not all, carefully peel back the dust jacket and you reveal the foiled designs on the covers themselves.

tartarus 4tartarus 3

You can marvel (and possibly drool a little) at the Tartarus Press website here:

TARTARUS PRESS

They have a ridiculous amount of some of my favourite authors in print. I’ve seriously got my eye on the Guy de Maupassant or the Theophile Gautier next.

So much choice . . . so much choice!

The Horror Horn, 1974, Panther, (E. F. Benson)

Edward Frederick Benson, it’s usually stated in mini-biographies that E. F. Benson is best known for his satirical comedies of manners, the Mapp and Lucia novels. But, of course, to the likes of you and I Benson is best known as that much anthologised author of weird fiction, a name mentioned in the same breath as contemporaries James, Machen, Blackwood, etc. etc.

Published by Panther in 1974, ‘The Horror Horn’ was the first time Benson’s tales had been printed in a collection in over 40 years and we have the poet and novelist Alexis Lykiard to thank for bringing these stories together. I believe Lykiard was in the Panther stable himself at the time, having had a couple of novels published by them and, being a fan of Benson, he approached Panther with the idea of bringing a selection of Benson’s tales together. Happily for us, and as we know, Panther were already publishing many collections of early 20th Century horror authors at the time, so they agreed. And The Horror Horn was born, a fine selection of thirteen E. F. Benson tales spanning thirty years or so of his career, selected and introduced by Alexis Lykiard and, to top it all off, cover art by the wonderful Bruce Pennington (who else? It is Panther and it is the early ‘70s)

horror horn

It’s always a pleasure to find a Benson short story in an anthology but, as with most authors, you can never really immerse yourself in the mind-set of the author in a single story; for that you need a collection. And what a mind-set we’re immersed in when we read a Benson collection!

Shall we take a minute to talk about his background first of all? Perhaps it may put his themes into some sort of perspective.

T h e  F a t h e r

Benson’s father was Edward White Benson. Rather a brilliant man by all accounts, he started his career as a schoolmaster at Rugby, became headmaster at the newly established Wellington College, and ended up as the Archbishop of Canterbury. Quite a career path. He’s also credited with planting the seed of a ghost story into the head of family friend Henry James which went on to become The Turn of the Screw. However, his home life was quite a different story. His wife and children considered him a depressive, stern, intolerant bully. The 21 year old Edward White Benson hints in his diary that he may have homosexual tendencies but supposes that he must marry at some point so, as he gets on well with her, he decides to marry his 2nd cousin, the 11 year old Mary “Minnie” Sidgwick. He becomes engaged to her the following year, when she is 12, and marries her a few years later when she is 18 years of age.

T h e  M o t h e r

Let’s move on to “Minnie” now. A young girl with her life mapped out for her with a marriage to her respectable older cousin. But this is a woman who Gladstone was to call “The cleverest woman in Europe”, she was certainly not going to be the type to perform the act of the dutiful and loyal Victorian wife. Throughout their married life, and after her husband died, Minnie had many, many affairs with other women. Some of these ‘Schwarmerei’, as she called them, were long term, including the ones with a thoroughly modern young composer by the name of Ethel Smyth; and Lucy Tait, the daughter of a previous Archbishop of Canterbury. Mary Benson was a complex and fascinating character and the centre of Rodney Bolt’s noted biography with the wonderful title of ‘As Good as God, as Clever as the Devil’.

Although the married life of Edward White Benson and Mary Sidgwick was obviously a troubled one, they did manage to create six children, five of which survived into adulthood. Here they are:

C h i l d  1 :

Arthur Christopher Benson, schoolmaster at Eton, lecturer at Cambridge, respected poet, essayist and short story writer (along with his brother E. F., he penned a decent ghost story). Most famously, he wrote the lyrics to Land of Hope and Glory. A troubled man who is thought to have inherited bipolar disorder from his father, he remained unmarried and child-free.

C h i l d  2 :

Mary Eleanor “Nellie” Benson, devoted her short life to helping to educate young, poverty stricken girls in London. Remember the young composer Nellie’s mother was in love with, Ethel Smyth? Nellie seems to have shared her mother’s love for Ms. Smyth, leading to a complicated love triangle. Nellie died of diphtheria aged 27, she remained unmarried and child-free.

C h i l d  3 :

Margaret “Maggie” Benson, author, archaeologist (along with her lifelong companion, Janet Gourlay) and one of the first women admitted to Oxford University. Also thought to have inherited bipolar disorder from her father. During a particularly troubled period, Maggie fell in love with her mother’s lover, Lucy Tait, and in a single night tried and failed to commit suicide and then attempted to murder her mother. She was then taken to the psychiatric hospital The Priory, where she spent the rest of her days. She remained unmarried and child-free.

C h i l d  4 :

Edward Frederick Benson. At last we arrive at E.F. himself, famed and prolific author and notable figure skater. He seems to be the most stable of the Benson clan and lived to a ripe old age before dying of throat cancer in 1940. He remained unmarried and child-free.

C h i l d  5 :

Robert Hugh Benson, another very well respected author of his day. He followed his father’s footsteps into the church to become an Anglican priest but later converted to Catholicism. Obviously, being a good Catholic priest, he remained unmarried and child-free.

And there we have the Benson family. Quite a bunch. Highly educated and prolific authors, every man jack of them. What would you expect from being brought up in an environment where you weren’t allowed breakfast until you’d asked for it in rhyming couplets?

So, back to the book in question then. Here’s the:

C O N T E N T S

Introduction by Alexis Lykiard
The Room in the Tower
Gavon’s Eve
Caterpillars
The Thing in the Hall
The House with the Brick-Kiln
The Horror Horn
Negotium Perambulans
Mrs. Amworth
The Face
‘And no bird sings’
The Bed by the Window
Monkeys
The Sanctuary

 

Lykiard offers us a selection which spans Benson’s writing career. The first five stories are from his 1912 collection ‘The Room in the Tower’, the following three are from 1923’s ‘Visible and Invisible’, the next two are from 1928’s ‘Spook Stories’, and the final three from his 1934 collection ‘More Spook Stories’.

It’s interesting to see how Benson’s writing style changed over the years. The early tales are written very much in the Victorian style, all long sentences with a very liberal use of the comma. Nothing wrong with that of course, in a skilled hand it can create a very elegant and stately feel. Reading these though, they do seem a tad on the clumsy side with the comma usage sending the prose off on tangential rambles. However, by the time we reach the later stories towards the end of the collection he’s writing with a far more assured pen and we’re treated to some finely crafted short stories.

So, what of the nightmares of Benson? What are the horrors that pervade his pages? His favoured format is a 1st person narrative and the narrator is, more often than not, a thoroughly decent, well-to-do, bachelor, sort of a chap. The horrors come from outside in an attempt to harm the ordered society of the well-mannered. Whether this is a matter of fear on Benson’s part or of wish-fulfilment I don’t know, but he did like to satirise upper-middle class society in his Mapp and Lucia novels so perhaps it’s a little of both. This encroachment doesn’t just come from his horrors, it can be found all through his work, such as the introduction to Mrs. Amworth where the setting is the idyllically quaint village of Maxley, where the heather-clad downs carry warm, scented breezes to the tranquil innocence of the village. However:

The general peace is sadly broken on Saturdays and Sundays, for we lie on one of the main roads between London and Brighton and our quiet street becomes a race-course for flying motor-cars and bicycles.

A notice just outside the village begging them to go slowly only seems to encourage them to accelerate their speed, for the road lies open and straight, and there is really no reason why they should do otherwise. By way of protest, therefore, the ladies of Maxley cover their noses and mouths with their handkerchiefs as they see a motor-car approaching, though, as the street is asphalted, they need not really take these precautions against dust. But late on Sunday night the horde of scorchers has passed, and we settle down again to five days of cheerful and leisurely seclusion.

 

This was first published in 1923, a world still in the shadow of the very real horrors of The Great War and the Spanish Flu pandemic. Everyone was recoiling from the previous few years, there were those who tried to cling to traditionalism and there were those who embraced modernism, both sides of the coin wrapped up in a neat paragraph.

In the aftermath of The Great War there was also a marked rise in the popularity of spiritualism and psychical research, contemporary mores which Benson regularly addresses with both suspicion and admiration. Benson’s maternal Uncle, the philosopher Henry Sidgwick, was one of the founders and first president of the Society for Psychical Research and his maternal Aunt, Eleanor Sidgwick, became president in 1908. So, Benson had strong links with the SPR and mentions them often in his stories, if a character is not an active member of the society then they invariably have an interest in the spiritual realms. As opposed to an average M. R. James tale, where the central character begins as a cynic and undergoes a conversion (such as ‘Oh, Whistle…’), an E. F. Benson character will be more likely to begin the story as a believer (or at least be open-minded) and have those beliefs confirmed.

The branch of psychic ability which Benson seems to have the most interest in is that of the prophetic dream. Dreams appear, in one way or another, in seven of the thirteen tales in this collection. This tone is set from the very beginning as the opening story, The Room in the Tower, famously introduces itself with a five hundred word discourse on the nature of dreams. Of course, a cynic may suggest that the device is used a little too often by Benson; ensuring the plotline is developed by giving the protagonist a ‘forewarned is forearmed’ status with such a simple construct as a prophetic dream could conceivably be considered as a little lazy. But, I would never say such a thing, it’s obviously a subject close to the author’s heart.

And talking of subjects close to the author’s heart, let’s move on to the horrors which Benson has these brave chaps defending the ordered world against.

In two of the stories we have female vampires, both mature women who invariably suck the life from young men.

We have a lost tribe of savage, mountain-dwelling primitives who rape both their male and female victims.

Most peculiar of all is Benson’s seeming obsession with oversized worm-like creatures. We have them writhing on a four-poster bed:

…covered with great caterpillars, a foot or more in length, which crawled over it. They were faintly luminous, and it was the light from them that showed me the room. Instead of the sucker-feet of ordinary caterpillars they had rows of pincers like crabs, and they moved by grasping what they lay on with their pincers, and then sliding their bodies forward. In colour these dreadful insects were yellowish-grey, and they were covered with irregular lumps and swellings. There must have been hundreds of them, for they formed a sort of writhing, crawling pyramid on the bed. Occasionally one fell off on to the floor, with a soft fleshy thud…

 

We also have an instance of a grey worm falling onto someone’s shirt-front, seemingly from nowhere and with very little relevance to the story.

But strangest of all is the recurring creature which appears in several of Benson’s tales. It’s usually described as an elemental and it’s rather a Lovecraftian beast; in fact, Benson gets a mention in Lovecraft’s essay ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ which gives particular mention to one of the finest in this collection, ‘Negotium Perambulans’. This ‘elemental’ is large and slug-like; it is sparsely haired and rears up when aroused; it is foul smelling and mostly comes out in the dark; it is as thick as a man’s thigh and has a bluntly pointed end with a single orifice; and instead of blood it contains a pale, viscous fluid. Although we do not know where this creature comes from it appears to act as servant to a greater intelligence and has the ability to turn a chap’s mind to brutal and nefarious thoughts; eventually, it will suck the life from whoever it haunts, draining them of bodily fluids and leaving only a limp and flaccid skin behind.

Add to this the final story about a distant family member and his clan indulging in some strange religious practices and we have enough to make any Freudian psychoanalyst think they’ve hit the mother-lode with Benson.

And on that note I’ll leave you with a quote from Benson’s tale ‘The Face’:

Psychologists taught that these early impressions fester or poison the mind like some hidden abscess.

Who Fears the Devil? Star Books 1975 (Manly Wade Wellman)

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?

who fears the devil cover

Go on, look a bit closer.

Anything yet?

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:

I, monster 1i, monster 2

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
One Other

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
Vandy, Vandy

Blue Monkey
Dumb Supper

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

Nary Spell
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:

Afterthought

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.