This is a sneak preview of my page that will take a look at old pulp heroes. As I’ve stated on my About page I won’t be covering the obvious heroes like the Shadow, Doc Savage, etc. In keeping with my blog’s theme I’ll be looking at those forgotten pulp heroes and heroines that I feel deserve to be better known. We’ll start with Silver John, many of whose tales were collected in Who Fears The Devil?
SILVER JOHN – Created by fantasy and horror writer Manly Wade Wellman, Silver John heroically fought supernatural forces in the Appalachian Mountain communities of long ago. He was an itinerant musician and ballad singer who wandered on foot among towns isolated from each other by mountains and forests as riddled with unearthly menaces as Lovecraft’s Miskatonic River Valley. Silver John (no last name was ever given) was so-named because of the silver strings on his instrument of choice, a guitar, and because of the pure silver coins he carried in his pockets: in the universe of Silver John stories silver was a potent weapon against all unholy forces, not just werewolves.
Nothing compares to the feel of the Silver John stories. They are told in the first person from John’s perspective in dialect that is authentic for the region but that is never difficult to follow. It makes for a lyrical, almost poetic narrative that eventually takes on its own internal logic the more stories you read. Silver John faces a wild and unique assembly of monsters drawn from the Appalachian folklore that Wellman was steeped in. (The song The Devil Went Down To Georgia is based on the same type of Mountain Folk Tales) Oh, there is the occassional run-of-the mill ghost or werewolf thrown in, but largely our backwoods Kolchak faces creatures you will likely never have encountered before, and even when he confronts witches and warlocks, they are presented in off-kilter ways that make them seem fresh.
There are several Silver John short stories and vignettes, with those vignettes reading like written word equivalents of those pre-credit sequences from the Indiana Jones and James Bond movies. There were also five Silver John novels, but personally I think the nature of the tales works best in a short format.
The only thing I think Wellman did wrong in these stories was to specify a time period. In some later stories it is firmly established to be the 1950′s which I don’t like for two reasons:
1. Having it be the 1950′s makes the mannered way the characters speak seem incredibly outdated instead of quaint. (Trust me, the citizens of Mayberry look like sophisticated members of the Algonquin Round Table compared to the characters who populate the Silver John tales) Until one story specifically set the era in stone I was assuming it was sometime in the first two decades of the 20th Century.
2. More importantly, I think the stories work best when you can lose yourself in an indeterminate time period, like you can with Max Brand’s pulp westerns. Prior to it being fixed as the 1950′s I was admiring what I thought was Wellman’s clever way of obscuring the exact decade, with only the occassional reference to the existence of cars giving you a vague sense of period. Even John’s remarks about having fought “in that war overseas” could have been referring to any conflict from the Spanish American War, the Philippine War that followed, or ( I thought) at the latest World War One. When we are at last told point-blank that John fought in the Korean War it shatters that illusion and his mannerisms and speech patterns suddenly seem hickish, not charming. That’s a minor quibble, though, since we readers always take liberties with reading material in our own minds.
Though I’m an ardent skeptic I often recommend the Silver John stories to religious-minded co-workers who ask me for suggestions on stories that might be okay for their children to read. I do this with one warning: John’s adventures pit him against some very ghoulish creatures, and though his pure nature, native courage and simple faith always see him triumphant, there are some hair- raising moments along the way. People whose religious beliefs are offended by ANY mention of monsters and witchcraft, even when those dark forces are defeated, should stay away.
I have long been disappointed that NPR never did a series based on the Silver John stories. They cry out for audio presentation, with our imagination filling in the gaps that Wellman artfully leaves in his descriptions. The short stories are SO short, in fact, that even the longest of them could be polished off in a half hour, with many (especially the vignettes) being short enough that you could package two of them in a half hour slot. Barring NPR, though, I can’t believe these stories aren’t available in books-on- tape format.
KEEP CHECKING BACK AS I WILL PERIODICALLY GIVE A SYNOPSIS OF EACH OF THE SILVER JOHN SHORT STORIES AND VIGNETTES. AND YES, I’M INTENTIONALLY IGNORING THE HORRIBLE MOVIE BASED ON SILVER JOHN’S ADVENTURES.