THE OLD GODS WAKEN (1979) – Another Halloween Month begins here at Balladeer’s Blog with this look at the first novel featuring Manly Wade Wellman’s iconic Pulp Hero Silver John. In 2011 I reviewed all of Wellman’s short stories and vignettes about this figure. The Old Gods Waken was the first of five Silver John novels.
For newcomers to these tales I’ll point out that Silver John aka John the Balladeer was a wandering guitar player in the Appalachian Mountain communities of yore. He would do battle with assorted supernatural menaces from mountain folklore like a combination of Kolchak and Orpheus. John’s silver guitar strings and silver coins were powerful repellants against much of the evils he faced down.
For more details on this neglected fictional hero click HERE or HERE or HERE. If you want an easy comparison the Silver John stories were based on the same type of mountain/ country folklore about music and the supernatural that the song The Devil Went Down To Georgia was based on.
The Old Gods Waken deals with Silver John performing with other musicians at a music festival, then getting drawn into a property line dispute between the Forshay family and two sinister British men calling themselves Brummitt and Hooper Voth. As usual in our hero’s travels there are dark supernatural forces at work behind this boundary dispute – forces ultimately dealing with Pre-Columbian entities and transplanted Druidism.
I enjoy the Silver John short works far more than the novels and this book reflects plenty of reasons why. If The Old Gods Waken is a reader’s first exposure to the wandering balladeer then they might like it much better than I do based on the strength of the character and Manly Wade Wellman’s ear for old mountain dialects. As for me, I’ll explore the reasons why I think this novel embodies all the shortcomings of the (still very good) long form Silver John adventures.
REHASHING THE EARLIER SHORT STORIES – Rather than venture off into unexplored themes or premises that demanded a longer format, The Old Gods Waken is like a combination of earlier Silver John tales in which he battled Pre-Columbian entities feared by the Native Americans or standard Lovecraftian Old Ones knockoffs or even Biblical Age menaces like a demonic being imprisoned by Adam and Eve after their fall.
The Old Gods Waken reads like one of those short stories padded out to novel length.
A MYSTIQUE-SHATTERING CEMENTING OF THE TIME PERIOD – In the shorter Silver John works the exact era was left open. References were made to vehicles existing so that provided some narrowing down of the period but was still vague. Readers learned that the protagonist had fought in “a foreign war” years earlier but even that could be anything from the Spanish-American War (1898) onward.
Sadly the novels nailed down the already unfortunate reference in one of the short stories to the time period being the 1950s and the Korean War as the conflict that John had served in. To me, making it that far into the 20th Century made the uncomplicated mountain folk of the Silver John tales seem like aggressively ignorant hicks rather than the charming and colorful figures they appeared to be when I was picturing the setting as the 1920s, with John being a World War One veteran.
And yes, I know Wellman first conceived this heroic balladeer character during the final convulsions of the old Pulp Magazines in the 1950s but that doesn’t mean he had to tie John down to such a specific – and modern – era.
JOHN ON THE VERGE OF BECOMING A GARY STU – The short stories jumped around in Silver John’s life, so it always felt like his wealth of knowledge about mountain folklore and the way to battle eldritch menaces from the dark had come from years of experience with such forces or from listening to every tale he could sit through from other mountain folk who had dealt with those devils.
In the novels, John increasingly becomes like a traditional scholar who was an expert from the day he first set foot in the mountains after returning from war. Rather than being at a loss against some foes and having to rely on his native courage and simple faith to see him through, he’s more like a horror story version of Doctor Who calmly taking down Daleks or Ice Warriors for the umpteenth time.
TOO LITTLE EVADARE – In the short story Nine Yards of Other Cloth our hero first meets Evadare, the courageous and beautiful woman who defies human and inhuman evils beside him in a black-wooded forest. The two get married at the end of Trill Coster’s Burden and this novel is apparently set in between those two short works since the two are just engaged here.
That screws with continuity, which would be fine if Evadare played a major part in the story, but she disappears after a brief scene and Silver John spends the rest of the book alongside Holly, a different woman from the novel’s supporting cast. Why not just leave out Evadare to begin with and longtime fans could just assume this was before he met her. New readers wouldn’t even know to miss Evadare, so John’s interactions with the female lead could have been written as an actual romance.
With the negatives out of the way, let’s address the positive aspects of this fairly enjoyable book. There’s Reuben Manco, an elderly and very likable Native American college professor from Dartmouth who is well-versed enough in comparative mythology that he becomes a crucial ally for John against the Druid Priests and the forces they are unleashing.
Not only are this character’s scenes enjoyable but it does help remove some of the ugly Gary Stu aura surrounding Silver John for much of the novel.
The comparative mythology parts are excellent and it’s nice to see our hero taking on a menace from elsewhere in the world bringing their evil to the mountains. Native American monsters like the Raven Mockers (at right), who stay alive by feeding on the hearts of humans, feature in the story along with Old World grotesqueries.
There’s a nice mono-myth touch as John and his elderly comrade penetrate to the universal parallels at the core of supernatural menaces like the entities unleashed by the Druids. The Seven Trials that Silver John and his friend must overcome added a little too much of a video game feel for my taste but for 1979 readers that would not yet have been an issue.
Since I already mentioned that there are four more Silver John novels after this one it should come as no spoiler to learn that the powerful forces unleashed by the villains are subdued and the human sacrifices prevented.
As this review would indicate, my dislike of aspects of The Old Gods Waken stems from my familiarity with the older Silver John short stories and vignettes. Anyone coming to the novel fresh will not find their enjoyment hindered by such considerations. +++
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