by Paul F. Olson

Originally published in Hellnotes, Vol. 1 Issue 9, 1997

What do you think of when someone talks about the music of horror? Chances are, you think of some hard-driving, modern, urbanized piece of rock and roll. Or perhaps it's something classical that comes to mind -- full and lush, eerie, spine-tingling. Anyone who ever read Manly Wade Wellman’s tales of the wandering balladeer John, however, is apt to think of a different kind of music. Folk music. Hill music. Music played on a silver-strung guitar. Music that connects you to a simpler time -- that connects you, perhaps, to the earth itself.

John was not Wellman’s only continuing character, nor the only Wellman character who would find himself facing a number of different weird and frightening menaces. As a young New Jersey writer, Wellman would create several memorable psychic detectives, including Judge Pursuivant, Nathan Enderby, and the playboy John Thunstone. But few would argue that John was his most memorable creation, a blending of spooky storytelling with the myths and legends of the Appalachians, all of it struck through with wit and wonder and accompanied by that amazing soundtrack ... the sound of John himself singing the songs and stories of the south.

John made his first appearance in a story called "O Ugly Bird!" that appeared in the December 1951 issue of Weird Tales.

Nearly twenty more stories followed between 1952 and the late 1980s. Beginning in 1979 there were the John

novels -- The Old Gods Waken, After the Dark, The Lost and the Lurking, The Hanging Stones, and The Voice of the Mountain -- published rather inappropriately as science fiction by Doubleday. It all added up to a lot of output, a lot of strange encounters for old John, who served as both the narrator and main character. But no matter how many times John confronted darkness and evil and arcane magic, the reader was always left wanting more.

What was striking about the John tales was their sheer, overpowering sense of place. The best writers often return to the same setting again and again, and in the process the reader becomes a part of the geography -- an honorary citizen of Castle Rock or Yoknapatawpha, Oxrun Station or Middle Earth. So it was with John’s hill country. When he talked about walking down a winding mountain trail on an autumn night, you shivered in the chilly air, you felt the brambles, smelled the leaves, and you could almost reach out and touch the stars whirling overhead.

That heightened sense of having found a road map to a special place, of being connected to the landscape, connected you to the story as well. That’s why the hairs stood up on the back of your neck when the
footsteps came up behind you.

But even more remarkable was the way Wellman himself came through in the stories. For those who had the honor to meet him during his long and staggeringly productive life ... well, after that experience you were never quite the same. He was a big, boisterous friendly, warm, gracious, generous man. He was the sort of person who would not hesitate to let out a rebel whoop when he heard something that pleased him, but who would then turn around and quietly share private words of encouragement with a young and struggling writer. Those qualities are present in the John stories, as well. It’s as though Wellman had found a way to turn those tales of the south into something else entirely, as if he was creating more than fiction but was instead carefully leaving bits of himself behind, like a legacy for those who knew him and for those who would never have the chance.

If you’re one of those unfortunate souls who have not made the acquaintance of magical John, you’ve been missing a lot. You’d do well to find one of the now out-of-print novels, to track down the 1963 Arkham House volume Who Fears the Devil, or the 1988 Baen paperback John the Balladeer. Read the tales and feel the soft kiss of the southern breeze on the back of your neck. Listen to John strum those silver strings. Let him take you by the hand and lead you into the night, through the darkness and to the light on the other side.

John’s stories form a great gift from a wonderful writer. Take the gift savor it. You’ll be richer if you do.

by Paul F. Olson

The Voice of the Mountains original content © Daniel Alan Ross, Paul F. Olson & Mark Cannon. 
Reproduction prohibited by law unless granted by original author.
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