Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Who Fears the Romance?

The simple pleasures that can be found in an open and honest love seems to be lost on the sorts of writers and storytellers that infest Hollywood these days.  Guardians of the Galaxy and GoG: Volume 2 are fine movies that fall flat on their faces when it comes to the love of a good man for a good woman, or even the love of a scoundrel for a bitter, but trying to get better, woman.  To continue beating up on Marvel, here's somebody else that has noticed the trend in the print editions of Marvel Comic Books.  After a few minutes of dancing around Buziek's writing the host of this video hits it out of the park when he observes that romance at Marvel is dead.

Manly Wade Wellman has no time for such foolishness, as he knows that romance makes for the best prime motivator in all of literature.

He also knows that there is far more to love than the plain jane “boy meets girl” arc.  In Manly Wade Wellman’s capable typing fingers, that’s just arrow in Cupid’s motivational quiver.  The “will they or won’t they?” question that Hollywood hates to answer with a driving passion makes an appearance, but only as one possible way in which the concept of romantic love can drive a story.

Consider that in Shiver in the Pines, Sarah Ann is the literal girl next door to Clay – everybody knows they will be wed.  When a stranger arrives seeking help in finding a lost treasure, the couple and their respective fathers agree not because they doubt Sarah Ann and Clay, but not until Clay has a proper home for her.  The desire to find lost gold is only a desire for a better life for the couple, and a chance at one heck of a nice dowry.
There was a time when the Sabine Women opening of Walk Like a Mountain was common, even a the giant playing the role of a Roman soldier was motivated in part by a desire to save big Page from a flood.  The shoe changes foot when Page turns out to have a susceptibility to the Florence Nightingale syndrome. 

Sometimes, the romance only makes a last minute appearance as part of a happy ending, as it does in Old Devlins Was A Waiting.  The just reward of a penitent prankster plays a part in ending a generations old curse that had claimed the lives of nearly every member of two sprawling families.  Sometimes, the lovers who were meant to be together just need to resolve lingering familial issues before they can even recognize they were meant to be.

In Nobody Ever Goes There, the town of Trimble knows not to cross the bridge over the Catch River.  What prompts Mark to go gallivanting off to a place he's been warned against his whole life?  The small and slim history teacher with the blonde hair with a spice of red to it, Ruth Covell.  She has more curiosity than sense, treading where even the fearsome Indians dared not go.  They had already been dating a bit, but it's only after their narrow escape from the half-glimpsed shaped across the river - that shared experience of surviving danger - that they acknowledge how perfectly suited for each other they are.

Romance is one of the oldest motivations around, and yet these days all too many storytellers leave that cupid's arrow out of their quiver.  Thank God we still have the example of writers like Manly Wade Wellman to show us how easy and natural it can be to use romance in even the darkest stories.



Monday, July 17, 2017

The Frogfather

As mentioned before, there are two stories included in the Kindle version of Who Fears the Devil? that predate John the Balladeer's introduction in "O Ugly Bird!".  "The Frogfather" is the shorter of the two, a tale following Johnny as he follows Mr. Cuff into unforeseen danger. With the same name, young age, and similar type of story as the older John, one might be forgiven for thinking that this might be one of John's adventures before he went off to war. And so "The Frogfather" got grandfathered into the Silver John stories as perhaps John's earliest adventure.

In it, John and an old Indian follow Mr. Cuff, their company town employer, into the swamps. As John would put it:

"Cuff was going to get a mess of frogs’ legs, which he loved, and which he’d love three times as much because he’d killed the frogs for them."

While in pursuit of their prey, Mr. Cuff demands that they paddle into an area where no sane Indian would dare go, as it is the home of Khongabassi. After Mr. Cuff pitching the protesting old Indian over the side, Johnny and Mr. Cuff head into the neck of water, which teems with frogs. Mr. Cuff gigs one, and out of the water rises Khongabassi, who tips over their boat and drags Mr. Cuff off to his demise. Johnny escapes, meets up with the old Indian, and ponders the strange things in the corners of the world. Afterwards:

“Oh,” said the old Indian, “we shall think of a story, you and I, that explains Mr. Cuff’s death. A story that white men will believe.”

*****

"The Frogfather" is more in line with Wellman's typical Weird Tales offerings than John the Balladeer. It echoes his earlier tales of Western men failing to give the native oddities and spirits the proper respect, such as "The Dreadful Rabbits". And while the location is in the South, "The Frogfather" doesn't sing of the mountains and hollows the same way John the Balladeer does. For Johnny is a boy experiencing things on his own, while John is always a member of a community, helping others and helped by them in turn. And it is these ties of community that enrich the Silver John stories beyond mere horror tales of spooky monsters.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Who Fears the Dark Places?

A common lament bandied about the world of literature for decades revolves around the lack of blank spaces on the map in which to place the otherworldly evils that drive spook tales of the sort found in Who Fears the Devil?  Manly Wade Wellman shows the world that mystery remains, if you know where to find it.

One of Wellman’s strong suits is the timelessness of his tales.  Given the technology and attitudes of characters, we know only that they might take place sometime in the first half-dozen decades of the twentieth century.  That’s a long stretch of time covering everything from pre-WWI horse and buggy backroads to the last gasp of heritage America before the 1964 Immigration Act would shift the culture away from respect for the pioneering spirit and towards the proposition that there are no non-Americans, only those who haven’t yet journeyed to her shores.

Regardless of whether the stories take place in the post-war 50’s, the Depression Era 30’s (my own favorite take), or even the roaring 20’s, the backroads down with Silver John travels lie on the border between civilization and the unknown.  The characters he meets are not the safe and secure Mayberry types, but those simple country folk too poor for middle-class upgrade, too socially clumsy to thrive in more civilized lands, or those who, with a casual disregard for tradition and law, opt to put as much distance between themselves and organized law enforcement as possible.

As a result, many of Wellman’s tales of monsters and black magic and Things Man Was Not Meant to Know take place on these fringes among people who lend an additional air of mystery to the proceedings.  They are tucked well off the roads, down in hollows, in the depths of mines, or way out in the middle of the endless muddy swamps.  Places that are nearby as the crow flies, but hard to find for we land-bound men.

Consider Shiver in the Pines where the haunt who guards a Spanish gold mine.  The opening to the mine lies at the bottom of a dark hollow, and the thing that guards the treasure lurks way down in that hole.

Walk Like a Mountain begins with the line, “Once at Sky Notch, I never grudged the trouble getting there.”  Silver John’s journey takes him over ridges and up a twenty mile stretch of valley river even before the long climb to Sky Notch.  The giant of man who lives even beyond that high destination might as well be on the moon for all that modern man can reach him.

Even a country college like Flournoy seems trapped in a far off Brigadoon-like hollow.  Silver John makes his way up and up and over ridge and over a high saddleback to get his first glimpse of that plain and poor college in Old Devlins Was A Waiting.  Making something as cosmopolitan as a college seem to be a far flung place inaccessible to all but the most determined, but Wellman pulls the trick off with the ease of a stage magician.

So don’t let anyone fool you into thinking the world lacks dark places.  The dark places are dark because they don’t want you to know they are there until it’s too late.  But make no mistak, they still exist – all around us – you just have to know where to look.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Desrick on Yandro

There were mountain night noises, like you never get used to, not even if you’re born and raised there, and live and die there. Noises too soft and sneaky to be real murmuring voices. Noises like big flapping wings far off and then near. And, above and below the trail, noises like heavy soft paws keeping pace with you, sometimes two paws, sometimes four, sometimes many. They stay with you, noises like that, all the hours you grope along the night trail, all the way down to the valley so low, till you bless God for the little crumb of light that means a human home, and you ache and pray to get to that home, be it ever so humble, so you’ll be safe in the light.

"The Desrick on Yandro," Manly Wade Wellman


In this adventure, John is entertaining at a party when he meets a Mr. Yandro, who coincidentally shares the name of one of his songs. Not content with his riches, Mr. Yandro seeks a treasure on Yandro Mountain, where his ancestor is rumored to have found the gold that made his family's wealth. He convinces John to come with him. At the foot of Yandro Mountain, they run into an old woman who tells of the witch in the desrick house atop the peak, and the strange bestiary that makes its home in the surrounding hills. Seems that the witch fell in love with Mr. Yandro's ancestor, and wants him back--or someone close enough like him. Mr. Yandro scoffs at all but the idea of treasure, and heads towards the mountain. John and Mr. Yandro find the desrick, and the weird creatures swarm, capturing Mr. Yandro. As the rich man is dragged into the witch's house, the creatures allow John to flee.

*****

If there is one theme that sets John the Balladeer apart from his more well-to-do occult investigating brethren, it is the constant chime of the wedding bells throughout his stories. Whether driving away persistent witchy suitors, reuiniting long lost lovers, or giving a couple a nudge towards the altar, many of John's adventures deal with matters of the heart. Thunstone and the Judge deal with more academic puzzles than the Balladeer, although Silver John has just as encyclopedic an understanding of the hidden things of the world as his predecessors. But magical machinations, both mundane and occult, have been wrapped up in romance since time immemorial, and not even John will prove immune to its call.

The haunted house in its many guises appears once more in Wellman's stories. Along with the Behinder, Skim, and Toller, the haunted house is a familiar monster to readers, although Wellman usually puts his unique spin on his creatures.

Finally, also common to John the Balladeer stories is that the rich and the proud usually come to bad ends. As the six foot tall Man says in Matthew 19:24, "I'll say it again--it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!" Mr. Yandro and Mr. Onselm are the first to be brought to destruction, and won't be the last. But it is not necessarily riches that destroy, but the lust for power that accompanies them. In one of the flash fiction stories in Who Fears the Devil?, John learns to turn rocks into gold, but he doesn't allow this potential windfall to corrupt him.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

O Ugly Bird!

"O Ugly Bird" is the first true John the Ballader adventure*, published in 1951, and is very much an establishing adventure. As John struggles to outwit Mr. Onselm, a familiar-using hoodoo man terrorizing a small town and a particularly lovely young lady, care is taken to establish John's peregrine ways, his mastery of music and lore, and his quick thinking in the presence of the strange. As Mr. Onselm attempts to press his suit for Winnie's hand, John steps in to confront him. Only John's silver-stringed guitar manages to save him and Winnie from Mr. Onselm's devices, applied percussively to Mr. Onselm's Ugly Bird familiar. With the witch man destroyed, John leaves for the next town and the next song before Winnie can try to claim his affections.

It's a charming little story, wth a vein of horror running through it, but it would be retold better in 1953's "Vandy, Vandy", another tale of a song, a young girl, and a witch man's persistent attentions.

*****

John the Balladeer is the third in a series of Manly Wade Wellman's heroes who face down the hidden things in the world. But where Judge Pursuivant and John Thunstone are well-to-do occult scholars connected to a network of investigators that include real world Weird Tales author E. Hoffman Price and Seabury Quinn's famed Jules de Grandin, Silver John is often destitute and has to rely on his own wits and the material on hand. Occasionally, the three characters would cover the same thematic ground, as John's "Frogfather" adventure bears more than a few similarities to the Judge's "The Dreadful Rabbits." Towards the end of Welllman's life, he had Judge Pursuivant and John the Balladeer cross paths, which makes John the Balladeer a distant member of the Weird Tales family and a black sheep of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Like many of Wellman's stories, "O Ugly Bird" was adapted to screen. Unlike earlier stories, which appeared in The Twilight Zone and other more reputable series, this story became part of "The Legend of Hillbilly John", a Z-grade Sunday School movie more notable for its foot-stomping opening song than its special effects and acting.

*****

*The stories "Sin's Doorway" and "Frogfather" were grandfathered into John's stories, although not every version of "Who Fears the Devil?" includes them. Baen's version, codified by Wellman's friend Karl Edwar Wagner, for instance, lacks theses two stories.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Long Lost Friend

For those in America and serving overseas, have a Happy Fourth of July.

*****

Rather than darken the mood of "King Washington's" victory (see "Vandy, Vandy") with talk of Ugly Birds, Salem witches, and the Frogfather, I instead want to take a look at the folklore in Wellman's writings. Having grown up in Africa and moved to the united States, Manly Wade Wellman drew on a wide variety of folk stories in his fiction, whether from the familiar ward of silver and laughter against evil or that an unburned werewolf would turn into a vampire. He would even create his own monsters and magics in his writing that fit the traditions he wrote about like a glove. The man-eating plant shaped as a house, known as a gardinel, is one such invention, while many of the Indian spirit monsters of the forest may--or may not--have been as well.

What is clear, however, is that the magic and folklore used by Silver John were not among his inventions. Named in that short stories "A Desrick on Yandro" and "Old Devlins Was A-waiting" are two books, The Long Lost Friend and Big Albert, or more commonly known as Albertus Magnus. These actually existed, and serve as a practical manual for Christian magic--or as the pentecostals might now recognize the body of lore among their spiritual warfare books. But while these current manuals rely on confrontation and faith, the classics used a bit more of ritual and charm. In some cases, this is a more modern form of the Christian amulets lining the inside of European museums such as the Rothenburg o. d. Tauber Medieval Crime and Justice Museum.

The website established by Manly Wade Wellman's estate even includes these books as part of their treatment of Wellman's involvement with the Cthulhu Mythos, complete with preferred texts.

*****

For another meaning of long lost friend, here's a story told by Wellman's friend and fellow science fiction writer, David Drake:
After he returned from Columbia in the late ’20s, Manly worked as a crime reporter for the pro-Democrat newspapers in Wichita. The wife of a small-time grifter whom Manly knew (I vaguely think he may have been called Rabbit) took up with the local drug lord. Wichita was on the route that brought cocaine up from Mexico. One day the drug lord was shot to death in bed by a rival gang; they killed the grifter’s wife also. 
They wanted a picture of the girl for the front page (this is 1930, remember), so Manly hared down to Rabbit’s two-room shotgun house. The front door was ajar. He knocked and called; no reply. He stepped into the front room, looked around, and then went into the bedroom. It was empty too, but there was a silver-framed photo of the woman on the dresser. 
Manly stepped to the dresser and grabbed the picture. As he did so, he heard the click of a gun cocking behind him. He turned to see Rabbit in the doorway, ‘looking at me over the sights of a .38 with the hammer roostered back.’ 
“Oh, Rabbit!” Manly cried. “I came as soon as I heard. I’m so sorry!” 
Rabbit lowered the gun, blubbered, “Manly, you know she was no good but I loved her. She was so beautiful!” And threw himself into Manly’s arms, crying. 
They commiserated for some while. At the end of the discussion, Rabbit gave Manly the photo. Manly swore he’d pull strings at the paper to get it printed on the front page so that all Wichita could see how lovely Rabbit’s late wife had been. 
And they did.
*****

 Tomorrow, we'll look at an ugly bird...

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Stray Puppy: Almost Infinite Complexity, 37-49

So we have a puppy straying into the next month for a bit,

On the heels of Scratch's offer, everyone wants Cooper, from the journalist trying to expose him to the policeman wanting an arrest. Even with Thisbe taking her place in Scratch's furnace, she still manages to be the cause of many a misunderstanding, this time from those close to her--or those who just wanted to. Dean steals the notebook, Cooper gets exposed as a hack, and, finally, after getting fired, he agrees to take over the family business from Scratch. One "suicide by cop" incident later, the deal is permanent, and Cooper is danmed.

Hell is much like Canada, except now most of Cooper's friends somehow got redeemed in the change of ownership, leaving him all alone in its frozen wastes. Fortunately, some helpful angels provide some useful tips to freshen up the place...

...and, in India, away from the madness, an equation of almost infinite complexity is perfected...

*****

I'll keep this one short, to keep from acting as a broken record as all the previous comments, from Mulrooney's wordcrafting to the casual flashes of wit, still hold true. If you can get past the rough beginning where the set-up is being constructed one laborious brick at a time, you many find that it turns into a quicker, more rewarding read. It's like a roller coaster, before you can get to the fun stuff, the train must first struggle up that giant hill. Unlike a Tom Clancy novel, at least this hill doesn't take most of the book.

I wouldn't have picked An Equation of Almost Infinite Complexity on my own, but sometimes stepping out of the routine can be rewarding.