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Literature / Silver John

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Silver John on the cover of the John the Balladeer short story collection.
A series of Dark Fantasy stories by Manly Wade Wellman about a traveling musician named John who frequently finds himself battling supernatural menaces in the deep backwoods of Appalachia. Wellman had already written other Occult Detective stories, demonstrating a talent for weirdness and a quirky sense of humour, but these stories are additionally enlivened by Wellman's enduring interest in the folklore and folk music of backwoods America.

The series has no official overall title, but is usually called the "Silver John" (referring to John's silver-stringed guitar) or "John the Balladeer" series. Neither of these names is ever used in the series to refer to the protagonist, who is always just plain John.

The series includes both short stories and novels:

  • Who Fears the Devil? (Arkham House, 1963) (short stories)
    • John the Balladeer (1988) (Ed. Karl E. Wagner, revised collection containing all Silver John short stories)
    • Owls Hoot In The Daytime And Other Omens (2003) (Ed. Night Shade Press, also contains all Silver John short stories)
    • Who Fears the Devil? (Paizo Publishing, 2010) (reprint of AH edition with two additional stories)
  • The Old Gods Waken (1979)
  • After Dark (1980)
  • The Lost and the Lurking (1981)
  • The Hanging Stones (1982)
  • The Voice of the Mountain (1984)

It inspired a movie, The Legend of Hillbilly John, in the 1970s.

This series provides examples of:

  • Afterlife Express: "The Little Black Train" has the local Rich Bitch trying to escape a curse that the train will come for her (by removing all the local tracks). "A black train runs some nights at midnight, they say, and when it runs a sinner dies." It comes anyway, but she repents and the train retreats.
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: In Voice of the Mountain, the main villain Ruel Harpe is described after embarrassing a young witch in his service as being rather like "one of those parents who enjoys embarrassing their children on purpose."
  • The Antichrist: John's last recorded enemy, Ruel Harpe, descendant of the infamous Micajah 'Big' Harpe, has shades of this. He intends to use the Gospel of Judas to kill roughly 99% of the human race and then turn his home atop Cry Mountain into a temple to himself. He wants John to help. It doesn't work.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Many people quote "The Book", appropriate given they're from the backwoods. Most notably, early in "Shiver in the Pines", one character (asked what he's up to) gives Satan's greeting from the book of Job — which garners a disturbed reaction from those present.
  • Brain Bleach: John wishes for some after seeing the Behinder in "The Desrick on Yandro" and decades later when he sees it again in the novel The Voice of the Mountain.
  • Celibate Hero: John, until he weds Evadare.
  • Cheaters Never Prosper: John gets into a shooting contest with two old rivals out in the backwoods. Both have wrought powerful magic to beat the other, but John wins handily. When asked how, John simply states that he was the best rifle marksman in his regiment when he was in Korea.
  • Covers Always Lie: As shown above, John never plays a song on his guitar for a winged demoness, though admittedly it's the sort of thing he might do.
  • Did You Just Scam Cthulhu?: John's good at this, though sometimes he takes Eldritch Abominations down more physically.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Discussed in "Old Devlins Was A-Waiting". John mentions that one time during his war years he had a dream that came true, but he calls it "no tale to tell" and declines to give details. One of the other characters has a theory that it's a consequence of Intangible Time Travel into the future.
  • Druid: In The Old Gods Waken the two main human enemies are a pair of English druids working with both The Man in the Oak, a malevolent tree spirit formed out of the long-dead ghost of another druid, along with the Raven Mockers, Cherokee vampire-witches.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Wellman was a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos and it shows in his work. A lot of the monsters John meets are described as something utterly alien to normal human life. That is, when they're described at all.
  • Evil Counterpart: "Nine Yards of Other Cloth" pits John against another musician with an ebony fiddle, who seems to have gotten his skills from a less holy source.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Multiple examples, usually shown terrorizing the local countryside before John comes along.
  • Fantasy Americana
  • Fearsome Critters of American Folklore: A whole flock of them appear at the climax of "The Desrick on Yandro". Another pack of them shows up in The Voice of the Mountain, and they are mentioned in quite a few of the other stories.
  • Feathered Fiend: The eponymous buzzard-monster in "O Ugly Bird", which is a sort of familiar to a sinister hoodoo man.
  • Feuding Families: The Hatfield-McCoy Feud, a historical event that became part of American folklore, forms part of the backstory of "Old Devlins Was A-Waiting".
  • Funetik Aksent: Most of the series characters' are from the Appalachians and speak the dialect, which is done properly. Wellman lived in the mountains of North Carolina for decades, and did his research.
  • Future Self Reveal: In "Who Else Could I Count On?", John is asked for help by an old man who has traveled from forty years in the future to Set Right What Once Went Wrong. The reveal comes after it occurs to John that the man is old enough to have a younger self in the present, and he asks the old man what will happen if he meets his younger self.
  • God Was My Copilot: In "Over the Hills and Everywhere", John tells a story about an itinerant carpenter mending a feud between two brothers, and implies that it was Jesus taking an active hand.
  • Handy Man: The carpenter in "Over the Hills and Everywhere".
  • Hell Gate: In "Owls Hoot In The Daytime" John finds one of these, complete with its own demon, Molech. Molech tries to get John to take some of the precious jewels it has laying all over the place so it can hurl him into a fiery pit. It works about as well as you'd think.
  • Hillbilly Horrors: Scary and supernatural happenings in rural Appalachia. Unlike most versions of this trope, however, the hillbillies themselves are generally depicted as pretty decent, ordinary people.
  • If I Can Only Move: At the climax of "Vandy, Vandy".
  • Improbable Weapon User: John's silver-strung guitar is sometimes the only thing standing between him and death or worse.
  • My Future Self and Me: The whole point of the aptly-titled "Who Else Could I Count On?".
  • No Immortal Inertia: In "Vandy, Vandy", a man who's unnaturally prolonged his life for nearly three hundred years dies, and his body crumbles into a mouldy little heap.
  • No Name Given: John
  • Our Giants Are Bigger: Rafe Enoch from "Walk Like A Mountain". He differs also in that he's rather cunning for a giant, and oh yes, he can control the weather.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Cherokee vampires, the Raven Mockers, in the novel The Old Gods Waken.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: Hoph from "You Know the Tale of Hoph" is implied to be one, though it's not stated. He has hair, fangs, and claws, and feeds on the blood of beautiful women. He's also only vulnerable to a Silver Bullet, which John promptly puts into him once he tries to attack someone.
  • Pious Monster: In "Nine Yards of Other Cloth", John explores Hosea's Hollow, a valley that's reputed to be haunted by a terrifying man-eating monster. A local legend tells of a man named Hosea Palmer who went into the hollow to deal with the monster; after that, the monster never raided beyond the hollow, but Hosea Palmer was never seen again. In the hollow, John finds an old grave, with a wooden marker inscribed by an unknown hand with Hosea Palmer's name, and eventually learns that Hosea befriended the monster and gave it religion, and the monster buried him when he died. It lets John and Evadare pass through unmolested because they pray at the grave and sing hymns and behave like decent people; the villain of the story, who does none of those things, never leaves the hollow alive.
  • Put on a Bus: Evadare is not heard from again in any of the short stories after "Trill Coster's Burden". In the novels The Old Gods Waken and After Dark, John mentions that Evadare is staying with friends while he gathers up money so they can start a homestead and get married. She appears in the novel The Hanging Stones.
  • Real After All: In "Shiver in the Pines" a pair of occultist con artists try to scam a pair of farmers out of their property by tricking them into entering an haunted mine that belonged to the Ancients. John figures the scam out and the two thieves are snatched away by something the Ancients left behind.
  • Real Person Cameo: Several mountain musicians like Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Obray Ramsey make appearances.
  • Reckless Gun Usage: Rixon gets taken to task for it by none less than the ghost of "Devil" Anse Hatfield. He tries to explain it away as a joke, but Anse remains unimpressed.
    "A mighty sorry joke," said Devil Anse. "I never yet laughed at a gun going off."
  • Rock Me, Asmodeus!: Usually inverted as it's implied John received his skills and silver-stringed guitar from a holy source. Played straight, however, in "Nine Yards of Other Cloth", where he is pitted against a man with an ebony fiddle from a very different source...
  • Set Right What Once Went Wrong: In "Who Else Could I Count On?", John meets a man who has travelled from four decades in the future to prevent "the war that everybody's going to lose".
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Anderson Newlands in "Old Devlins Was A-Waiting" is a veteran of The Korean War. John himself occasionally mentions that he's been to war in the past, and Word of God is that he was in Korea too.
  • Shown Their Work: As noted, Wellman was an acknowledged expert when it came to Appalachian myths, folktales and music.
  • Silver Bullet: In "You Know the Tale of Hoph", one is used to slay the monster.
  • Silver Has Mystic Powers: In many of the stories. John explains that silver is proof against evil creatures because it's the one substance Satan fears.
  • Sins of Our Fathers: "The Desrick on Yandro" features an arrogant man paying for his grandfather's sins.
  • Southern-Fried Genius: John has a Ph.D.-level knowledge of American myths and folklore, as well as deep insight into the belief systems if several Native American tribes. He was also number two on the short list of people considered for the job of recording folk songs for the Library of Congress, though he privately admits that Bascom Lamar Lunsford was the (ever so slightly) better choice.
  • Summon Bigger Fish: In "Vandy, Vandy" a warlock starts a spell to turn a picture of John into an object of Sympathetic Magic, so he can use it to harm John. John attempts to distract the warlock by throwing a silver quarter at him, and the warlock's spell latches onto the image of George Washington on the quarter instead of onto the picture of John. Result: Washington himself — or rather, an embodiment of the heroic myth of George Washington — appears out of the smoke and kicks the warlock's ass.
  • Sword Cane: The villain in "Vandy, Vandy" has one.
  • Sympathetic Magic: Magic worked on people through images of them features in "Vandy, Vandy".
  • Take Our Word for It: The Behinder in "The Desrick on Yandro."
    To this day I can see it, as plain as a fence at noon, and forever I will be able to see it. But talking about it's another matter. Thank you, I won't try.
  • Thought-Aversion Failure: "Blue Monkey" has John attending a midnight spell-casting where the caster informs everyone that if they don't think of a blue monkey, he can turn pebbles into gold. The spell fails because they all are. John tries the spell a year later, but tells the audience not to think of a red fish (so that they don't think of a blue monkey). Turns out the spell is real.
  • Time Travel:
    • In "Old Devlins was A-Waiting", a character has a theory that rituals for summoning up the dead are actually a form of time travel, bringing the subject forward from the past, not up from the grave. Their ritual succeeds in summoning Captain Anderson Hatfield, but the question of whence is left ambiguous.
    • In the story fragment "Who Else Could I Count On?", John meets a traveller from the future. It doesn't go into detail about how the travel was accomplished.
  • Titled After the Song: Several of the stories are named after/inspired by Appalachian folk-tunes, including "Shiver in the Pines", "The Little Black Train" and "The Desrick on Yandro". John always sings at least a verse or two of the song in question, accompanying himself on his silver-strung guitar.
  • Vapor Wear: Craye Sawtelle in "The Spring".
    She winnowed close then. I made out that she didn't have on air stitch under her silky dress. She was proudly made, and well she knew it.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: In "Trill Coster's Burden", The Vamp hides a giant ruby in her cleavage, and tells John that if he wants it he'll have to reach in and get it; he declines, and she gets away. (This ends badly for her, since the reason he wanted it in the first place is that it has a curse on it he's trying to break.)
  • Walking the Earth: John.
  • When Trees Attack: One novel, The Old Gods Waken, had the Man In The Oak, a kind of undead tree-spirit, as its main villain, along with a grove of literally bloodthirsty thorn vines.