WHO FEARS THE DEVIL? by Manly Wade Wellman (Dell, 1980; Arkham House, 1963)Where I’ve been is places and what I’ve seen is things, and there’ve been times I’ve run off from seeing them, off to other places and things. I keep moving, me and this guitar with the silver strings to it, slung behind my shoulder. Sometimes I’ve got food with me and an extra shirt maybe, but most times just the guitar, and trust to God for what I need else.
—from “John’s My Name”
In the 1950s Manly Wade Wellman made his home in North Carolina, going into the mountains to hear folk music and listen to tales. Mixing what he heard with what he imagined, he created John, who became known to readers as John the Balladeer or Silver John, a young man raised in the South, back from the war (given the copyright date of the earliest story, 1946, WWII rather than the Korean War though Wellman doesn’t specify) and wandering the woods and mountains of North Carolina with his silver-strung guitar to sing and to track down the sources of the old songs dear to his heart.
Like Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence and William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, John the Balladeer was featured in a series of short stories (and, late in Wellman’s career, a series of novels). The early stories first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and were revised for this collection so one story led into another (this according to Karl Edward Wagner, a close friend of Wellman’s), allowing the publisher to market the book as a novel. Between each story is a vignette, John telling us a little more about himself and his adventures. Some of the vignettes are effective (“The Stars Down There”; “Find the Place Yourself”) and some just mark time, but the stories are uniformly entertaining.
John gets plenty of chances to learn the origins of his songs, some of which seem to come to him appropriate to the situation in which he finds himself, and to help those mountain folk caught in the reality of the source of the song. All of the stories make for spritely reading, in no small part due to Wellman’s ability to suggest dialect and regional speech through word choice and syntax. Even so, some of the stories particularly appealed to me:
“O Ugly Bird”: The first story in the book and the first published. Mr. Onselm rules the little village. Anything he asks for is given to him. Now he wants Winnie and John is not inclined to let him have her. Thing is, Mr. Onselm has a bird, a very large bird with a sharp beak and claws. The bird even a little resembles Mr. Onselm …
“Shiver in the Pines”: Where “O Ugly Bird” and the second story, “One Other,” suggest a pattern of John coming to a place, first meeting the people involved and then the enemy for that story, this one alters the pattern a little, making a slight mystery of who is not to be trusted – or maybe not who so much as why. There is a treasure in the cave, and the four men who go there aim to get it. Except maybe the treasure isn’t what it seems.
“The Desrick on Yandro”: Mr. Yandro wants to visit the mountain known as Yandro, and as John accompanies him we learn of the Toller, the Flat, the Behinder and the Bammat, all the rare creatures on the mountain from which Polly Wiltse’s desrick keeps her safe, Polly who has been waiting for someone to visit for many a long year.
“Vandy, Vandy”: Similar to “O Ugly Bird” in concept and execution, enough so John acknowledges what he learned in dealing with Onselm could be useful with Mr. Loden, an old man in a not so old body who, like Onselm, is a witch man. And Mr. Loden wants Vandy.
“Walk Like a Mountain”: The statuesque beauty Page Jarrett, tall as John himself, has been scooped up by the giant, Rafe Enoch and hauled to his mountain top home. Rafe has not mixed well with the little people below, still there’s a flood coming and he aims to save Page. John does, too, though not from the flood. But Page proves a challenge to save for both of them.
“Nine Yards of Other Cloth”: The last and most personal of these stories for John in which the fiddler Shull Cobart pursues Evadare and Evadare pursues John. Cobart’s fiddle and John’s silver-strung guitar could make interesting music, except they are on opposite sides and in Hosea’s Hollow, where the Kalu lives, Cobart has the advantage.
In Horror: Another 100 Best Books (ed. Steven Jones and Kim Newman), a collection of short essays, each by a different writer discussing a book he or she loves, Glen Hirshberg (American Morons and The Snowman’s Children) says of Who Fears the Devil?, “…through it all strides Silver John, comfortably solitary, but capable of love, using music like campfire light to chase back loneliness. I love his sense of justice, which is site-specific, derived partially from Native American traditions and partially from Judeo-Christian theology but mostly from intuition. Told that witches can’t prevail against a pure heart, John says, ‘I can’t claim that,’ and he can’t. But he listens, and he learns, and he sorts for himself, and his judgments aren’t global, and his fights are his own even when they benefit others.”
Who Fears The Devil? is a landmark work of quiet horror from the early 1960s, also a landmark work of fantasy and fine Americana. Wellman explores folklore even as he adds to it, and as Hirshberg points out, in Silver John Wellman created something that horror doesn’t often create, a character the reader wants to follow. If Silver John doesn’t change much from the beginning to the end of this book, he does shows signs of longing for something more than to know what’s beyond the next ridge, of wanting someone to share his experiences with. This basic human desire and his innate decency and empathy for those afflicted by the magics loose in the mountains make John an admirable travelling companion.
Next, more outdoors fun: “Longtooth” by Edgar Pangborn and “Near Zennor” by Elizabeth Hand