When Tor released my first Tufa novel, The Hum and the Shiver, back in 2011, many people asked me if I’d been inspired by Manly Wade Wellman’s tales of Silver John. Although I knew of them by reputation, I’d never actually read them until last year, when Planet Stories published Who Fears the Devil? The Complete Tales of Silver John.
The resemblance, as is so often the case in comparisons like this, strikes me as mostly cosmetic. Yes, Wellman’s stories are set in a vague Appalachia, and yes, they involve magic and inhuman creatures. But they’re far more Lovecraftian than Tufan, with their invocation of things from other realities bleeding into ours and poking out around the fringes to snag the unwary. And John, who never gets a last name, is an enigmatic protagonist with a murky, nonspecific history. His magic is prosaic: the silver of his guitar strings is antithetical to evil because it’s silver, not because it carries any power he’s put into it or acquired, and most often the songs he plays are traditional hymns or folk tunes that function as spells.
Now, that may sound like a criticism, but it’s not. In fact, I’m delighted that the stories are so different from my own stuff, because that means I can devour them with a clear conscience. These stories are cool.
Further, before CapriCon in Chicago this year, I didn’t even know there were full length Silver John novels. Rich Warren of Starfarer’s Despatch, a used-book dealer, clued me in, and I picked up After Dark based on his recommendation. And lo and behold, it was a real, literal page-turner that kept me reading when I should’ve been doing other, more important things (like writing, or parenting).
It’s a bit like the film Pumpkinhead crossed with I Am Legend, in which John and three compatriots run afoul of the Shonokins, a strange inhuman race that claims to predate the Indians and essentially wants its territory back from the Americans who now occupy it. The last third of the novel details a night-long siege by the Shonokins against the survivors barricaded in a cabin, in which taunts, promises and spells are hurled in both directions.
Wellman writes in first person vernacular, which for me at least is close enough to my own natural (i.e., Southern) speech patterns that it’s not a problem. For example, here’s John’s description of some vegetation near the Shonokin settlement:
“I made out growing things in the yards, but those weren’t plants like what I’d air seen before; and I recollected that vine that had grown beside the track, the one with the unchancy flowers.”
I mean, how do you not love the term “unchancy flowers”?
I hope to track down the other Silver John novels, as well as the recently published collection of Wellman’s overlapping John Thunstone stories. For, while John the Balladeer may not walk the same mountains as my Tufa do in The Hum and the Shiver, as well as the upcoming Wisp of a Thing, his travels are a wonderful trip into an alternate reality where you’ll find that, to borrow the title of another Silver John novel, The Old Gods Waken.
Alex Bledsoe is author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, Wake of the Bloody Angel), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the Tufa novels (The Hum and the Shiver, and the forthcoming Wisp of a Thing).