Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Appalachian Horrors

In his biography of H.P. Lovecraft, L. Sprague de Camp tells how Manly Wade Wellman, believing that the Necronomicon was an actual book, attempted to purchase one in a small bookshop in New York sometime in the late 1930s.  Many of Lovecraft’s fans have made similar attempts over the years, including your humble blogger, (see also Personal Note: In Search of Unholy Scriptures). 

Wellman was a younger contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, and published one of his first stories, Back to the Beast in the November issue of Weird Tales in 1927.  His story appeared with the second installment of  Edmond Hamilton’s novel The Time-Raider, Henry S. Whitehead’s The Shadows, (see also Hauntings as Superimposed Images), and The White People, a poem by Frank Belknap Long, among others.  Wellman was a prolific writer in his career.  He later wrote one of the novels in Edmond Hamilton’s Captain Future series, among many other projects. 

Manly Wade Wellman was 24 at the time of his debut in Weird Tales; Lovecraft would have been 37 at the time.  According to Daniel Alan Ross at The Voice of the Mountains, Wellman did not emulate the older author so much as offer occasional homage to Lovecraft’s work.  For example, in Wellman’s The Letters of Cold Fire (1944), his psychic detective character John Thunstone inquires about a copy of the Necronomicon in a shabby little bookstore in Greenwich Village—a case of art imitating life.

“Suppose,” rejoined the old woman, “that I gave it to you?”  She turned to a shelf, pulled several books out, and poked her withered hand into the recess behind.  “Nobody else that I know would be able to look in the Necronomicon without getting into trouble. To anyone else the price would be prohibitive.  To you, Mr. Thun—“
“Leave that book where it is!” he bade her sharply… 

In a number of Wellman’s later stories there is a mythos-like echo of Lovecraft’s better known pantheon of Old Ones.  In an article about Wellman in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), Brian Stableford notes that several of the short stories and novels produced in the early 1980s are “interesting by virtue of their elaboration of a curious syncretic mythology based in an imaginary U.S. prehistory”.  In his later work Wellman was enthusiastic in creating a kind of supernatural Americana developed out of the legends, folklore and history of the American south, especially Appalachia.

This is especially reflected in a series of stories featuring his best known character, “John the Balladeer”, often called “Silver John”.  Like Robert E. Howard’s Puritan hero, Solomon Kane, Wellman’s character wanders a mysterious, benighted, mountainous world.  He is an agent—or at least a witness—to divine and supernatural interventions.  Unlike Solomon Kane, Silver John plays the guitar and has a wry, if dark, sense of humor.  Silver John stories tend to end happily, though not for the recipient of supernatural justice.  There is a sunny, breezy quality to these tales that would probably have aggravated Robert E. Howard’s gloomy adventurer.  Yet the sunniness seems to magnify the darkness and the horrors that emerge from rocks, trees and lonely cabins. 

Silver John appears as early as the mid-1940s in stories like Frogfather (1945, see also 2. The Hazards of Frog Gigging) and Sin’s Doorway (1946), both published in Weird Tales.  But this version of the character is not as fully developed as his later incarnations, and he does not yet play guitar.  Karl Edward Wagner notes that Silver John was assumed by some reviewers to be a Christ figure, though the author denied this. However, Wellman did suggest at one point that there was possibly a link to John the Baptist.  There is certainly an overt religiosity in Wellman’s fiction that is not typically found in the work of his peers.   

Wellman developed the Silver John character across 11 stories published between 1951 and 1961.  The classic Silver John story is The Desrick on Yandro (1952), one of his best known. It is strongly recommended as representative of Wellman’s work.  (See also Back Up on Yandro, Yonder.)  As with his older colleagues Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft, Wellman’s voice is distinctive, as are his favorite narrative settings and the concepts underlying his work.  

Silver John is the protagonist of Where Did She Wander (1987), one of Wellman’s last stories.  It was published the year following the author’s death.  The story is similar in some respects to The Desrick on Yandro.  Both involve the hazards of courting an Appalachian witch, and each include an ominous climb up the mountain to a cabin that most of the locals avoid. 

In the earlier story an arrogant capitalist—a typical Wellman villain—gets a gruesome comeuppance at the hands of a mountain sorceress he had jilted years before. Unlike Lovecraft, Wellman was very much a populist and a man of the people.  Silver John passively observes how this vengeance unfolds high up on Yandro Mountain, and shares the tale with the reader.  But in Where Did She Wander, the balladeer is in town to vanquish an evil witch and her family of devil worshippers.  As in several of the Solomon Kane stories, the hero does not immediately realize his role as an agent of divine or supernatural justice, but is effective in a final conflagration.

Where Did She Wander begins informally and offhandedly, as Wellman’s stories often do.  John walks into the town of Trudo with his guitar, planning to join some bluegrass friends at a music festival.  He passes the grave of Becky Til Hoppard—“hung by the Trudo folks Aug. the 12 18 & 49”.  Fresh wildflowers are strewn about the stone. 

John quickly learns the local history:  Ms. Hoppard met her end not long after the meager remains of her last suitor—a belt buckle and his teeth—were discovered in the fireplace.  A local ballad, which John learns and plans to sing at the festival, suggests that her grave might actually be empty.  The Lovecraftian influence can be seen in some of the Hoppard family history, which includes unconventional religious practices, (idolatry), herbal remedies, inherited eye color (demon green) and untimely deaths.  Will John avoid the fate of the previous visitor?

“You,” and she kept her smile.  “You’re next, John.  Every few years I find somebody like you, somebody with strong life in him, to keep my life going…But why don’t you play on your pretty guitar?”     
According to Karl Edward Wagner, Wellman suffered a serious fall, fracturing his shoulder and elbow, but still managed to edit and revise the final draft of Where Did She Wander before he died of complications in April of 1986.  He was 82 at the time.

Wellman wrote stories in various genres, including science fiction, westerns, and crime fiction but was probably best known for the horror and fantasy work he produced for Weird Tales.  Two of his stories, the The Desrick on Yandro and O Ugly Bird were combined in a financially unsuccessful 1972 film called Who Fears the Devil, (also known as The Legend of Hillbilly John 1973). 

A collection of Wellman’s Silver John stories may be found in the excellent Owls Hoot in the Daytime and Other Omens, The Select Stories of Manly Wade Wellman Volume 5 edited by John Pelan (2003, Night Shade Books). 

An interesting article about the influence of the Cthulhu Mythos on Wellman’s work can be found at The Voice of the Mountains, (see http://www.manlywadewellman.com/Wellmythos.html).    

Saturday, March 28, 2015


In his Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), H.P. Lovecraft describes The Castle of Otranto (1764) as “tedious, artificial and melodramatic”, and criticizes the work for being “devoid of the cosmic horror which makes weird literature.”  However, he acknowledges, as others before and after him have done, that Walpole created something very new at the time.  The Castle of Otranto established the basic form of the Gothic novel, replete with dark castles, hidden passageways, ghosts, family curses and the eerie mechanisms of supernatural justice.

Horace Walpole’s novel is not an easy read, at least not initially, though some might consider it mercifully short.  The reader needs to get through the first chapter or two in order to calibrate to the archaic English and the absence of conventional markers for dialogue.  The experience is similar to reading a play by Shakespeare, (unless one regularly reads such literature).  Though a challenge, The Castle of Otranto, yields an appreciation of how Gothic weird fiction developed and was later reflected in the work of Lovecraft and his contemporaries.

The story is very episodic, allowing for short readings across several sittings, and if the reader persists, there is some enjoyment to be had in the unfolding weird imagery and in some of the dialogue.  The appearance of ghostly apparitions who offer vague premonitions and other supernatural special effects will remind readers of similar elements in Hamlet or Macbeth.

In one scene, the character of Frederic, who wants to have the hand—and other parts—of Manfred’s daughter Matilda receives a spectral warning.  (I have altered the text somewhat for readability.)

And then the figure, turning slowly around, discovered to Frederic the fleshless jaws and empty sockets of a skeleton, wrapt in a hermit’s cowl.“Angels of grace, protect me!” cried Frederic recoiling.
“Deserve their protection,” said the spectre.  Frederic, falling on his knees, adjured the phantom to take pity on him. 
“Dost though not remember me?” said the apparition.  Remember the wood of Joppa?”
“Art thou that holy hermit?” cried Frederic, trembling.  “Can I do aught for eternal peace?”
“Wast though delivered from bondage,” said the specter, “to pursue carnal delights?”
[Of course not!]
“… I have not, I have not,” said Frederic.  “But say blest spirit, what is thy errand to me?  What remains to be done?”“To forget Matilda!” said the apparition—and vanished.

As the story begins, the current patriarch of the castle, Prince Manfred of Otranto, is eager to create a dynastic line beginning with his doomed son Conrad’s marriage to Isabella, the daughter of the marquis of Vicenza.  The intent of this arranged marriage is to cement Manfred’s hold on the estate, for there is a question about the legitimacy of his rule.  

Regrettably, an enormous helmet falls out of the sky and flattens Conrad as he is about to arrive at the wedding ceremony.  This forces an abrupt change of plans.  How do the principle characters react to this tragedy?  Manfred efficiently overcomes his paternal grief and quickly begins scheming to retain his properties by some other means.  Conrad’s mother and sister are despondent. But Isabella, the bride to be, is marvelously ambivalent:

Yet her own situation could not help finding its place in her thoughts.  She felt no concern for the death of young Conrad, except commiseration; and she was not sorry to be delivered from a marriage which had promised her little felicity, either from her destined bride-groom, or from the severe temper of Manfred, who, though he had distinguished her by great indulgence, had imprinted her mind with terror, from his ceaseless rigour to such amiable princesses as Hippolita and Matilda.

Ever resourceful, Manfred maneuvers to divorce his wife Hippolita and marry his would-be daughter-in- law Isabella.  This travesty causes several characters to flee to a nearby convent by way of underground passageways, unleashing all kinds of spectral events.  Manfred even conspires with Isabella’s father Frederic, the marquis of Vicenza:  the two men will marry each other’s daughters, with Manfred taking Isabella and Frederick taking Matilda. 

Attention gradually shifts away from the villain and his machinations to a noble and impertinent youth named Theodore.  Theodore coincidently resembles a statue of the previous lord of the castle, one Alfonso, a knight who had fought in the Crusades.  The subsequent violence, melodrama, ghostly phenomena, and revelations of family secrets demonstrates the unfolding of an ancient italicized prophecy:  “That the castle and lordship of Otranto should pass from the present family, whenever the real owner should be grown too large to inhabit it.”  The real owner of course is the ghost of Alfonso, who is too enormous to materialize all in one place, preferring to appear as an assortment of gigantic limbs in various parts of the castle.

Some of the dialogue is amusing, especially when Manfred is expressing exasperation with some of the servants and with the impudent Theodore, who either challenge him openly or conceal important information from him.  Here, Manfred is trying to extract information from Bianca, a confidant of both Matilda and Isabella, after bribing her with some jewelry:

“Stay,” cried Manfred, “thou has not satisfied my question!  Hast thou ever carried any message, any letter?”
“I! Good gracious!” cried Bianca: I carry a letter?  I would not to be a queen.  I hope your highness thinks, ‘though I am poor, I am honest’.  Did your highness never hear what count Marsigli offered me, when he came a-wooing to my lady Matilda?”
“I have not the leisure to listen to thy tales.  I do not question thy honesty; it is thy duty to conceal nothing from me.  How long has Isabella been acquainted with Theodore?”
“Nay, there is nothing can escape your highness,” said Bianca.  “Not that I know anything of the matter.  Theodore, to be sure, is a proper young man, and as my lady Matilda says, the very image of good Alfonso:  has not your highness remarked it?”
“Yes, yes—No—thou torturest me,” said Manfred:  Where did they meet?”

These interactions may remind some readers of the passive-aggressive bantering between the John Cleese character and his staff in Fawlty Towers, or some of the old Monty Python skits.

The influence of The Castle of Otranto and similar works can be seen in Lovecraft’s fiction, particularly those stories that take place in Gothic settings or involve the discovery of terrible family secrets.  The Rats in the Walls (1924), The Festival (1925), and The Outsider (1926) come to mind.  He also seems to have emulated some of the 18th century English diction in a number of his tales, given his enthusiasm for that historical period.  (See also Lovecraft’s amusing 1917 piece A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson, at 2. ‘Shou’d My Present Recollections Meet With Fav...).