Mar 8 2013 4:00pm

Unchancy Flowers: How I Discovered Silver John

Planet Stories Silver John Who Fears The Devil

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).

After Dark Manly Wade Wellman Silver John Novel

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).

D. Bell
1. SchuylerH
Interesting, I've got this book on order.
Pamela Adams
2. PamAdams
You will love them! (And I've just made a library request for The Hum and the Shiver)
D. Bell
3. SchuylerH
@2: Good to know. Do you know which stories are in the edition pictured?
David Levinson
4. DemetriosX
Wellman was a national treasure and most of his work is worth tracking down. The four Silver John novels were released in the 80s by Berkeley, so they ought to be findable. Someone ought to put them out again. They're short enough that they could be put into one volume. The Thunstone stories are also pretty good, as are those concerning his predecessor Judge Pursuivant. And Ruben Manco, who I think is one of John's helpers in After Dark also crops up from time to time.

You migh also like David Drake's Old Nathan. It's an episodic novel written as an homage to Wellman (who was a friend of Drake) and Silver John shortly after Wellman's death.
Mary Decker
5. Ki
I loved The Hum and The Shiver, and this looks fascinating, too. May tide me over until Wisp of a Thing, if I can find them in the library!
D. Bell
6. SchuylerH
@4: I've just downloaded Old Nathan. It's quite easy to get, since it's in the Baen Free Library. (It can also be found in Mountain Magic with Kuttner & Moore's Hogben stories, or, in the ebook version, the Silver John stories.)
Nicholas Winter
7. Nicholas Winter
The Complete John Thunstone Stories was just released on Heffner Press. It's a very, very handsome edition.
Nicholas Winter
8. JohnnyMac
I have this book in a tattered but treasured paperback edition (Ballantine, 1963, cover price 50 cents). On one of the front pages, it has the source for the title:

"Who fears the Devil? says James unto Jim,
Who fears the Devil? says Jim unto Joan,
Who fears the Devil? says Joan unto John--
Not I! Not I! says John all alone.

--from a game song, once popular with
Southern children.

These stories are some of Wellman's best and that sets the bar pretty dam high.
Nicholas Winter
9. JohnnyMac
"I mean, how do you not love the term "unchancy flowers"?"

"...unchancy flowers" sounds like it ought to be the title of a book of really good ghost stories.
Nicholas Winter
10. wizard clip
Wellman could always be counted on to add a unique touch to the old pulp occult detective archetype. John is a great character, though I think his stories are better in short form, rather than at novel length. "The Hanging Stones," for example, is a bit of a let down, with John and his allies encountering very little resistance from the villains of the story. The short stories, though, are all reliably entertaining.

The Hellboy miniseries "The Crooked Man" from a few years back was a fine homage to Wellman and John.
Nicholas Winter
11. Zenspinner
I love all of the Silver John stories that I've read so far. When I was at school at Berea College, I made a bit of a push to get some of the more interesting professors and the library to start doing something with Wellman's stuff. The library prides itself on being a major research library for all things Appalachian, but hardly anyone there had heard of him. Granted, he wasn't Appalachian by birth, but you really wouldn't know it from the stories.

I'd really love to see a GURPS Appalachian setting come out; my boyfriend thinks I should just produce one but I'm not that well versed on game mechanics. But can you imagine playing in that setting? I get the shivers just thinking about it.
Clark Myers
12. ClarkEMyers
The stories were a treat to read individually in F&SF or as encountered in the periodic Best of F&SF more likely to be in libraries. I'm not impressed by the later fixup with material joining the stories but it is handy.

I'll never ask David Drake if the novels were a response to market changes and I'll cherish the joy of long ago finding a new short.
Nicholas Winter
13. Rich Warren
I'd like to see Haffner Press do a collected volume of the Silver John Stories including the novels as they have with the John Thunstone stories. My birthday present to myself this week was the pretty Night Shade Books edition of the John stories published as 'Owls Hoot in the Daytime & Other Omens' (ISBN: 1892389231) Nightshade published this as part of a lovely 5 volume matching set of the Wellman short fiction collections between 2000 an 2003. The paperback edition I like the most is 'John the Balladeer' (ISBN: 0671654187) which has the restored texts and the vignettes, sadly a little on the costly side (expect to pay $15-25 for a VG copy). The Paizo edition of 'Who Fears the Devil?' (ISBN: 1601251882) is also supposed to be the restored texts, and adds two stories that are listed as tales of John before he got his guitar. I can't answer for the texts on the previous paperback editions of 'Who Fears the Devil?' it's likely they are the 'revised' texts that August Derleth published in the original 1963 Arkham House Collection, they also do not include the handful of later stories. The Arkham House Edition will set you back between $175 and $300 for a pretty copy depending on the week and how broke the book dealer selling it is :-) There is also a Silver John Graphic Novel due from Sequential Pulp all though I believe there are some delays to the release of that.

Rich Warren (Starfarer's Despatch)
Nicholas Winter
14. filkferengi
Don't forget the album. Joe Bethancourt put out "Who Fears The Devil? The Songs Of Silver John."

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