The week of Halloween this year I read seven books by Manly Wade Wellman.
Wellman slips in close to sublimity in many stories and novels, and produced consistently high quality popular fiction for decades.
The Silver John stories feel so eloquently timeless that details of everyday life come as a shock. Paper plates and plastic flatware? I assumed these stories were set in interbellum North Carolina sometime between the Coolidge and Roosevelt regimes. Turns out the fictional timeline is coincident with the time of composition.
John is not a nomad or accursed wanderer. But after brutal soldiering in Korea, his travelling and his oft-repeated revulsion over the war externalize a feeling of ethical homelessness.
One of the strengths of the Silver John stories is the absence of occult detective mummery. John never gets hired to solve a mystery. His interest in the people he meets, his sense of solidarity toward them, leads John to taking a hand in solving their problems. The threats to these rural toilers come from boss-type exploiters: witch men, real estate megalomaniacs, Shonokins, and Bonapartist magnates. John's conjurations protect himself and friends and are usually nothing more than recitations from a respected book. Along with judicious strumming of his silver-string guitar and strategic handling of a silver coin.
The guitar itself is a lovely metaphor for modesty, harmony, and resilience. A violin would be pretentious, a banjo vulgar. The guitar is the sublime expression of John's ethic.
John is not a lonesome traveller. Men skeptical and rancorous toward him - like the construction worker in The Hanging Stones - are won to his side pretty quick.
Wellman is very specific in the way he depicts the uncanny in these stories. Violence and violent death are rare. Supernatural agency is employed for material reasons: land theft, subordination of young women. John interposes himself sharply and decisively in these showdowns. No Harry Potter fireworks, just native wit and careful application of pressure.
In such conflicts John does not come on like a messiah or great white hope. He seeks unity and his reputation as a wise man precedes him. Vetoes of friends' ideas are judicious and tactical.
"One Other" and "Call Me From the Valley," two personal favorites, strike sharply the Machenean note. Though Wellman does not use the term "perichoresis," when John and Annalinda talk at the edge of the bottomless pool atop Hark Mountain, the soap-bubble analogy serves the same purpose.
Wellman's Silver John stories surpass the work of many of his contemporaries by virtue of his skill handling unique and compelling subject-matter. The novel
After Dark expresses this aesthetic perfectly .
17 November 2018