John the Balladeer – Manly Wade Wellman

– O Ugly Bird – the first Silver John story. It’s rather weak and John doesn’t know very much about ha’nted stuff.
– The Desrick on Yandro – an evocative title and a slightly better introduction to John and John’s way of doing things (which is to pick at his guitar and watch things happen, basically) while, more importantly, Wellman develops his style. Here we get our first glimpse of the things that live down up on the mountains, of witches whose loves and hates remain beyond the years and beyond death, of the men whose love for gold guarantees they might be missed but ne’er mourned, and the oddly-specific folk songs that record these things.
There is a mega creepy sequence of John and his companion climbing up Yandro in the dark, and seeing things looking back at them where no eyes really ought to belong. Also, very Dresden Files-ish, John gets a glimpse of the Behinder, the creature no man has ever seen (but him) because it always attacks from behind. Nice.
– Vandy, Vandy – John happens upon a mountain family who is scared stiff of a towner man…and there’s only one thing that can scare mountaineers like that….
There’s a rather awesome cameo by the man who could pitch a dollar across the Rappahannock or jump twenty-four feet broad, or wrestle down his biggest soldier…
– One Other – This is a John-centric story, and it exposes the problem with giving John a love- (or even, as in this case a hate) interest: in a serialized, short-story format, it’s just not worth the trouble it takes to set it all up. But Wellman has a pretty good handle on how to write John now:
She laid hold on a poolside rock next to her.
“That will smash my head or either my guitar,” I gave her warning. “Smash my head, you’re up here alone with a dead corpse. Smash my guitar, I’ll go down the trail [and leave her to One Other].”
–and he’s got an excellent grasp on the creepy sort of things that John encounters, and is able to overcome and, sometimes, save people from.
– Call Me From the Valley – Have you ever heard of a dumb supper? It’s a old folk superstition that a girl will cook a meal and set out a table and then stand behind a chair put at ready until the candles go out–and that’s when you’ll see what she’s called up, the ghost of the man she’ll marry. Now, have you ever thought about running this scenario backwards? I’ll bet you haven’t–but Wellman has. And does. And the result is both sweet…and creepy.
This one, I think, sets up what is going to be the general pattern of romance in the John short stories, i.e., John observes someone else’s romance from the outside and offers advice, maybe, or mayhap help, or perhaps just beats a hasty retreat when warranted.
This one also contains (what to me was, anyway) a little bit of foreshadowing: you’ll never see a man exactly six feet tall, because that was the height of the Lord Jesus. Me, I has a dubyus about that, but…
– The Little Black Train – Don’t whistle up the devil…unless you’re really damned sure you can whistle him back down again. And the only way to do that is to have someone who can and wants to do that for you…
– Shiver in the Pines – This is one of my favorites, since it introduces an element of realism (heh) into the genre…and yet still ends on a MEGA creepy note that shouldn’t be read after sundown.
– Walk Like a Mountain – I really liked this one, because it folds a character study and then a redemption arc (and also a romance) into a compact package that also has drama, suspense, high stakes, and a satisfying climactic action scene, not to mention a deft flavoring of humor.
– Over the Hills and Everywhere – John tells a story about a carpenter who builds a bridge.
– Old Devlins Was A-Waiting – Linguistic drift can be a real bitch to deal with, especially when you’re dealing with a parapsychology professor who is trying to call up the dead…(This one’s awesome, because “six feet three of Satan, two hundred pounds of hell” really does show up and put the fear of himself into an obnoxious scholar.)
– Nine Yard of Other Cloth – You can kill a monster and that will sometimes defeat it. But you can also become its friend–and that will utterly defeat it. Oh, also, John gets his love interest Evadare in this one. She’s….actually a rather boring character.
– Wonder as I Wander – this is a collection of microfictions about John and some of the people and things he encounters–from gardinels to shooting contests.
– Trill Coster’s Burden – Evadare takes on Trill Coster’s sins for her and they come a-collectin’ that night.
This one was definitely written by an author who wanted to start wrapping up a character and also collect a few fast bucks.
– The Spring – See, I think there’s a problem here. Witches don’t melt, they float. (if they’re lighter than a duck.)
– Owls Hoot in the Daytime – This one was kind of a throwback to the earlier John stories: aka, there are actual high stakes, creepy settings, horrifying enemies–but by this sign we conquer…and it’s awesome.
– Can These Bones Live? – Yeah, no, duh.
– Nobody Ever Goes There – this one is an odd one out, since it’s not told from John’s first-person perspective. It’s instead the story of young Mark Banion, who all his life has lived in Trimble and looked across the river to the old mill on the mountain…where nobody ever goes. Except Mark’s fiancee. And Mark. And a guitar-picking stranger who wanders in one night and knows why things might be better left alone…
So don’t go across the river .Nobody goes there.
Where Did She Wander – A self-disposing villain is generally rather unsatisfying, especially if all you’ve done to defeat them is literally shove a guitar in their face. Eh. But, you know, it’s about the journey, not the destination–and where did Becky Till Hoppard go when the Trudo folks hanged her?

So a check of the publication dates more or less confirms what I suspected: these stories were written over a period of about thirty years–from the early 1950s to 1987. O Ugly Bird! was written in 1951 and is a little rougher and less certain about who John is and what he knows than others; but The Desrick on Yandro to Nine Yards of Other Cloth (which ends with John’s marriage to Evadare and therefore presumably the end of his wandering days) were all written from ’52-58.
My personal favorites–Shiver in the Pines, Walk Like a Mountain, On the Hills and Everywhere, and Old Devlins Was a-Waiting–were written by an author, I feel, who was fairly young and on the top of his game. On the other side, Trill Coster’s Burden and The Spring just feel tired and trite–they were written about twenty years later.
Well, what about it?
Nothing. I liked some of these stories better than others–but they’re all really good. The forewards to the book, written by Karl Edward Wagner and David Drake, point out that: John is a totally unique character, and that Manly Wade Wellman was able to bring the Appalachian folkways to life because he knew them intimately and lived them himself. And they’re totally right.
The charm of these stories comes both from the character of John–the wanderin’ man who makes music and, in a quiet way, defeats evil–and the setting itself.
So, basically: it’s really good. Read it.

Rated: It’s John–just John.

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