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).    

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