MANLY AND JOHN
by Paul F. Olson
Originally published in Hellnotes, Vol. 1 Issue 9, 1997
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.
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
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
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.
a great gift from a wonderful writer. Take the gift savor
it. You’ll be richer if you do.
by Paul F. Olson