Up these Heights and Hollows: The Mythology of Manly Wade Wellman
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Best known for his contributions to magazines like Thrilling Tales and Astounding Stories, Manly Wade Wellman was a pulp science fiction and fantasy writer par excellence. His fiction draws on his extensive knowledge of folklore to inspire a sense of timeless dread that is seldom matched.
Wellman's work is set almost entirely in the meeting ground between rural isolation and development, in the space between the modern and the mythological. In that fertile ground, he finds room for magic, ritual, and a sense of cosmic horror.
Now, decades after his death, the man behind that exploration has himself begun to recede into that uncertain middle ground between myth and certainty. Born in Africa, but of Native American descent, Wellman’s keen ear for folklore results in a narrative style that incorporates elements from both Native American and African stories, presenting myth in the context of a modern world that often responds to mythic events and subjects aggressively.
Wellman’s work often runs the risk of being dismissed as bombastic adventure fiction, but this may be because Wellman's life story reads like an adventure story. Born the son of a military doctor in Angola, Wellman was famously adopted by a chief whose eyesight his father had restored. It was in this context that Wellman would encounter the first of the mythologies to shape his fiction.
In 1927, Thrilling Tales published what is generally considered to be the earliest of Wellman’s fiction, the short story, “The Lion Roared.” It seems fitting that, just as Wellman began his life in Africa, his literary career began with a story that is said to have been deeply influenced by his knowledge of African folklore. Unfortunately, like so many other mythic figures, the origins of Wellman’s literary career remain shrouded in mystery, and “The Lion Roared” is now effectively lost to time, having been reprinted only once in the fanzine The Tome (issue six, if you happen to have a copy).
When Wellman moved to North America, he eventually settled in North Carolina, where he was steeped in the folklore surrounding the Appalachian mountains. Indeed, when he later moved to New York it was to become an assistant director of WPA's New York Folklore Project. That these folk stories also influenced his writing is inescapable, but what is most striking is not his beautiful treatments of those stories so much as his careful management of their interactions with a modern world that seems to collide with myth in uncomfortable fits.
For those of you intrigued enough to want to get a general impression of Wellman's work, you'd be hard pressed to find something better than a short story collection like Sin's Doorway and Other Ominous Entrances. These give a broader glimpse into Wellman's style and range. If you'd rather something tied more specifically to myth, read on.
Today, Wellman is perhaps best known for the character of “Silver John,” also known as “John the Balladeer,” described as a man who knows “more of the old-timey songs than air soul left on Earth.” Silver John is effectively a combination paladin/troubadour, combatting supernatural threats along his travels. While some of Wellman’s earlier work takes a third-person perspective, these stories are often narrated from Silver John’s point of view. Moreover, where his other stories are presented in standard English, the Silver John stories of the Appalachian mountains are communicated in a loving entextualisation of the region’s accents.
In the introduction Silver John offers in Who Fears the Devil, there is almost perfect summary of Wellman’s use of myth, delivered with that spectacular turn of phrase,
Up these heights and down these hollows you’d best go expecting anything. Maybe everything. What’s long time ago left off happening outside still goes on here, and the tales the mountain folk tell sound truer here than outside.
While many of the best John Silver stories are found in that first collection, the longer The Old Gods Awaken gives Wellman’s style more room to breathe. There is a sense throughout of a beautiful ease with a very particular style of English, one that takes a simple pleasure in the rhythm and patterns of a regional speech,
And it might could be that Mr. Creed Forshay and his big son Luke worked it as well as air Forshay known to history.
While the above quote is from our near-omniscient narrator, those rhythms are only more evident when the characters themselves are speaking, as in this exchange between Creed Forshay and Silver John himself,
“… maybe help us out with the knowledge I hear tell you have, I'll be pleased."
"So will I be pleased, sir."
If the broad shape of the story, as well as the peculiarities of speech, is beginning to feel familiar, then it may be because it has so much in common with books like Stephen King’s The Gunslinger. The two convey similar senses of the mythic crossed with wholesome Americana, as well as of near-forgotten myth actualised in isolated locales. For those of you who already know Roland, the gunslinger of Gilead with his magic bullets, Silver John feels somehow similar, though he's armed with a silver-stringed guitar and a head full of folk songs, “the older the better.”
Being set somewhere that Wellman was intimately familiar with lends the whole text a sense of place that’s almost inescapable. The combination of accent and strange detail leads to offhand observations that bring a sense of rare vitality to the prose, breathing life and sensation into every detail. Following paragraphs detailing the verdant mountainside, he adds a tinge of discomfort to the whole,
The branches of a gum showed shaggy with the close bunches of witches'-broom. Folks said that grew where someone had been murdered. If witches'-broom grew air place murder had happened round Wolter Mountain, there'd be a sight of it no matter where you roamed.
If there is one thing that Wellman’s prose communicates in these stories, it is a sensation of total familiarity, an embedded comfort with the surrounding landscape and language. If the essence of horror is confrontation with the unknown, then this is the context in which the unknown is most immediately disturbingly alien. Into the surroundings he has made so familiar, Manly injects characters like the brothers Voth.
That the brothers are foreign interlopers is immediately clear, but when the time comes to describe them, we are given the description,
Brummitt Voth was tall and lean and looked maybe a little small bit elegant, with a checked vest on over his black shirt and an expensive white hat.
After our introduction to the Forshays as hardworking, practical people, there is a sense that even that “little small bit elegant” is somehow out of place in this world. Moreover, we're then told that the Voth’s have been heard singing in the trees, “songs in no language air fellow in the Wolter Mountain country knew of.” This edge of the unknown rings discordant in an environment that otherwise feels so familiar, and sows the seeds for the sensation of creeping horror that underpins the story.
There is also much to be said for the fact that the rural characters of Wellman’s stories are never written off as incompetent, simple, or out of touch. Instead, they are savvy, practically-minded individuals whose interactions with the (often supernatural) world around them are informed by a combination of folklore and sagacity.
If that sounds at all familiar, then it may be because the theme of the intersection between the modern world and the isolated spaces in which traditional mythologies reign is a key component of a number of more recent series, not least of which TV shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files. In both cases, there is a sense that a fast-modernising world is beginning to impinge on spaces that had previously been so isolated that they had been more affected by myth than anything else. Indeed, Wellman’s description of old stories sounding truer in isolated places could serve as a perfect description of either.
This becomes even more interesting is you consider the case of Wellman’s other hero, John Thunstone. Written in the 1940s, the first of the Thunstone stories, What Dreams May Come, precedes John Silver by almost twenty years. By contrast, the prose of those stories has less of the impressive regionalised style of the Silver John stories, instead favouring a spare and more regular approach. This means that they lack the immediate charm and sense of place that the later books offer, but often feel more direct.
If What Dreams May Come has one thing on the John Silver stories, it is the strange interplay between overlapping mythologies as they interact with the modern world of the 1940s. Here, the powerfully built antiquarian and folklorist John Thunstone travels to the English rural hamlet of Claines to investigate a massive stone figure carved into a chalk cliff face.
When he arrives, Thunstone finds that the local curate, Mr. Gates, is the recognised expert on the history of the figure, as well as the nearby statue colloquially known as the “Dreaming Rock.” Unfortunately, Gates rejects the pagan mythologies surrounding the artefacts, and his knowledge is broadly limited to their physical histories. His physical access to them is also limited by a man named Ensley, who owns most of the town.
Early in the book, Thunstone suffers a kind of psychic assault and is cast out of his body. What follows is a short passage in which he finds himself adrift beneath the stars, staring up at the constellations. There are faint echoes of a Lovecraftian cosmic horror for a few moments, until he manages to stabilise himself only by invoking elements of another folklore,
Thunstone sniffed at the bowl of his pipe. It had a special odor, for the tobacco he had stuffed into it was blended with kinnikinnick and the crumbled bark of the red willow. Long Spear, an Indian friend, had told him that to smoke that mixture was a strong guard against all evil magic.
The use of elements of one folkloric wisdom to help anchor Thunstone in reality while he is threatened by elements of another is not limited to kinnikinnick tobacco. He also carries with him a cane that houses a silver sword inscribed with the latin phrase, “Sic pereant omnes inimici tui, Domine” ('So perish all thine enemies, O God’).
That these various mythologies are all woven together in the same stories, and often placed in direct opposition with one another, deepens the creeping sense of strangeness that the stories work so hard to establish, and leaves the reader never quite sure if the trappings of one will have power enough to overcome the agents of another. It’s strange to think of myth and legend as things that can be put into direct competition with one another, but it’s very hard not to be charmed by it.
Throughout the novel, Wellman makes comparisons between the artefacts (both cultural and physical) that are turned up by people tilling the soil the world over. The general trend of his thoughts is toward an ancient past and the common experiences of all humans in that dimly imagined state. His depictions of a common human history that transcends continents is one of a shared humanity that is somehow beyond our mental reach, but immediate and tangible in the flint tools turned up from the soil.
Where Wellman feels most ahead of his time is in offhand sentences that follow the same line of reasoning,
Thunstone had heard a friend say bitterly that London was no longer a white man's town, one who in saying that had sounded like the diehard, death-or-glory voice of the Empire that now was no more.
If the combination of the big, broad-shouldered man living a life beset by mythological terrors feels familiar, it may be because Thunstone often recalls Gaiman’s American Gods novella, Monarch of the Glen. Indeed, it’s tricky to explain the differences between the two without spoiling either, but both are certainly worth reading.
While it differs somewhat, there is a healthy argument to be made that figures like Sherlock Holmes, who have been constantly reinterpreted by different authors, begin to approach the level of a modern ‘myth.’ Whether you accept that or not, it’s worth noting that Wellman also worked with Conan Doyle’s great detective for his Sherlock Holmes’ War of the Worlds. Obviously, there will be those who disagree with any labelling of Sherlock Holmes as “mythic,” but the book deserves a mention alongside any discussion of Wellman approaching English myth.
If the impression we have built of Wellman over the course of these works is that of a man who repeatedly deployed different folklore traditions throughout his fiction, then it is perhaps sweetest that the one subject he mythologised most often was probably Wade Manly Wellman. One needn’t look too hard at the figures of John Thunstone (the antiquarian and folklorist) and Silver John (the collector of old songs and stories) before similarities begin to appear. Moreover, they fit into a broad swathe of Wellman characters described as strongly built, who like their creator made their way through college playing football. It’s entirely possible that these are simply some of the memetic storytelling elements that Wellman tended to fall back on, but the feel is very much that he was a man writing what he knew, and mythologising the life he had lived along the way.
That Wellman found such success with Silver John is particularly sweet, considering that Fantasy Newsletter described Wellman in 1980 as someone who “travelled a lot on his own as well — hopping freights, by horse or car, sometimes just on foot — and scraped along with various temporary jobs.” Indeed, the longer you look at Wellman, the more Silver John you see.
To take us back to the beginning of this article, Silver John’s introduction in John’s My Name opens,
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.