Manly Wade Wellman (May 21, 1903 – April 5, 1986) was an American writer. While his science fiction and fantasy stories appeared in such pulps as Astounding Stories, Startling Stories, Unknown and Strange Stories, he is best remembered as one of the most popular contributors to the legendary Weird Tales, and for his fantasy and horror stories set in the Appalachian Mountains, which draw on the native folklore of that region. Wellman also wrote in a wide variety of other genres, including historical fiction, detective fiction, western fiction, juvenile fiction, and non-fiction. Karl Edward Wagner referred to him as “the dean of fantasy writers”. 
Three of Wellman’s most famous reappearing protagonists are Silver John, aka John the Balladeer, the wandering backwoods minstrel with a silver-stringed guitar; the elderly ‘occult detective‘ Judge Pursuivant; and John Thunstone, also an occult investigator. (from Wikipedia)
Now, it’s fair to say I’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to Wellman’s work. All I’ve read is a sampling of his “Silver John” stories. Silver John, however, is a fascinating character. Here’s a bit about Silver John himself:
Silver John is a fictional character from a series of fantasy stories by Manly Wade Wellman. Though fans refer to him as Silver John or as John the Balladeer, the stories call him simply John. He is an example of the loner hero.
The stories are set in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. The time is never explicitly given but seems to be the middle of the twentieth century. John is a wandering singer who carries a guitar with silver strings. He is a veteran of the Korean War and resembles a young Johnny Cash. He frequently encounters creatures and superstitions from the folk tales and superstitions of the mountain people. Though John has no special skills or weapons (other than basic Army training), his courage, wit and essential goodness always allow him to triumph over supernatural evils. He has an implied mystic link of some sort to John the Baptist, and much of his personal philosophy can be traced to a “primitive”, Gospel-based, Christianity. He is widely read, and it is implied that his knowledge of folk legendarium is of Ph.D level. On one occasion he is “employed” by the State Department to investigate on their behalf a possible instance of Satanism.
The stories are rich in the customs and lore of the region and many of the folk songs John sings are authentic as well. Wellman did introduce some original songs and legends but his creations blend seamlessly with the traditional material. Whereas Tolkien integrated Northern mythology into his mythos, and C.S. Lewis the European Fairy Tales of yore, Wellman’s stories are drenched in the folktales and songs of old Americana; the haunting stories of the slaves and the tall tales of the Revolution, strange beasts, witch-women, and dark apparitions. As famed author Karl Edward Wagner wrote: “These stories are chilling and enchanting, magical and down-to-earth, full of wonder and humanity. They are fun. They are like nothing else you’ve read before.”
The short stories of John have been collected three times, as Who Fears the Devil? (1963), John the Balladeer (1988), and Owls Hoot in Daytime and Other Omens (2003). In addition, there are five novels about John. Wellman was planning an additional novel, to be titled The Valley So Low, but died before writing it. The title would be used for a collection of his stories, instead. (from Wikipedia)
I first encountered Silver John in the story “Where Does She Wander?”, in one of the Whispers anthologies. It was a revelation. Here was “genre-blending” long before it became a buzz-word and fad. And how? Because Wellman was tapping into myth, legend and folklore – and I think it’s safe to say that fantasy and horror both spring from those roots.
And John is a wonderful character. A man wandering the countryside, eschewing complicated, “modern” and “sophisticated” life in pursuit of a quiet and simple one. Full of arcane knowledge and a deep spirituality and faith in God, John lives simply and peacefully.
While dispatching demons and spirits and gremlins and beasties of folklore along the way, of course. He’s an iconic character, and more than one author – Brian Keene, being one, with his fan-favorite character, Amish mage Levi Stolzfus – has claimed him as an inspiration.
My first Silver John experience was the collection of short stories, Who Fears the Devil? What I really enjoyed about this is its linked nature: all the stories proceed in order as John makes his way across the countryside, and each stop along his way, he encounters some monster or demon or even a moderately Lovecraftian entity.
Wellman’s knowledge of Appalachian folklore is astounding. I’ve heard that he commanded lots of respect in scholarly/literary circles, and I don’t doubt it.
The next book I read was After Dark, in which Silver John stands against a tribe of alien humanoids who are seeking to infiltrate the human race. They look like us – except for an extra long pointer finger – act like us, but practice strange alien magic, and wish to slowly “breed out” humanity. So in this book, we see Silver John’s ultimate flexibility – he fights demons, witches, warlocks, mages, spirtes, ancient beings and aliens, too.
What I’ve really enjoyed about Silver John are his principles. That may see a little old-fashioned and idealistic, but then again, I’m an idealistic sort of guy. I’ve never been very fond of either post-modernism or nihilism, and even though flawed characters can be engrossing, it’s also nice to read about characters you sincerely WANT to root for. Folks who stand for something. Silver John is one of those characters.
I started this blog series not only for a general horror audience – and for my own whimsy – but also for those interested in submitting stories to future editions of The Midnight Diner. Eventually, I’ll detail in greater length just what the Diner is, how it’s – in my opinion – a quality publication, run by quality folks, pay irregardless. And one of the reasons why Diner editor Scott Garbacz allowed me this space to post about horror was to educate those who’d like to submit to the Diner in the future.
For you folks, Manly Wade Wellman’s “Silver John” character is an excellent place to study the genre, the type of archetypal, iconic character we’d like to see more of here at the Diner. A principled character relying on simple truths, God, and his knowledge of the arcane to battle against evil. And the stories are so well written, rich, and full of substance. Some of the “Silver John” books are little pricy and hard to track down, but well worth the effort.
**Update: Several reasonably-priced collections of his work can be found at Night Shade Books.
Kevin Lucia is a Contributing Editor for Shroud Magazine, and a blogger for The Midnight Diner. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. He’s currently finishing his Creative Writing Masters Degree at Binghamton University, he teaches high school English and lives in Castle Creek, New York with his wife and children. He is the author of Hiram Grange & The Chosen One, Book Four of The Hiram Grange Chronicles, and he’s currently working on his first novel. Visit him on the web at www.kevinlucia.com.