Manly Wade Wellman’s “The Old Gods Waken”

Recently, I had the good fortune of coming across several short stories by Weird Tales alumnus Manly Wade Wellman. Now, I had been aware of him for decades, because of his association with Weird Tales magazine, which was the alma mater of many of the 20th century’s biggest names in the Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror genres, many of whom were part of the “Lovecraft Circle” of writers that under the guidance of H.P. Lovecraft, helped create and expand upon the original Cthulhu Mythos. This elite group consisted of many Weird Tale luminaries such as Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Robert E Howard, and Robert Bloch, to name a few. Wellman, however, was not part of this circle (although he later apparently wrote some covert Mythos tales in his later years and even made reference to his WT colleagues within these tales), and so I ignored him for years, and only now do I see the error of my slight.

Weird Tales July 1946, featuring the novella “Shonokin Town” by Manly Wade Wellman.

Manly Wade Wellman delved into several different Fantasy subgenres creating characters that he would return to in various short stories and novels over the span of his decades-long career, including Hok the Mighty (Swords & Sorcery), Detective John Thunstone (Occult Mystery), and most famously, John the Balladeer.
John a/k/a “Silver John” is a traveling minstrel who lives in mid-20th Century Appalachia. He is a veteran of the Korean War and a home-grown scholar of local folklore and occult knowledge. In Wellman’s stories John roams from town to town singing old-timey folk tunes (some genuinely traditional and some original to the tales) on his silver-strung guitar, which he also uses to ward off local haints (i.e. ghosts) and a host of supernatural creatures which hail from Native American and European folklore, as well as the odd Weird Tales indigene. The stories, though never preachy, do have some Christian overtones, but it all seems to fit within the contextual framework of the stories, which are also full of genuine Appalachian folk beliefs, customs and patois, that all serve to enrich the stories and give them an air of authenticity.

“The Old Gods Waken” 1979 Doubleday.

Silver John appears in 30 some-odd tales as well as 5 novels; one of which I read recently called “The Old Gods Waken”. In this slim novel, Silver John agrees to help a couple of friends (Luke and Creed Forshay) settle a land dispute with a couple of recently transplanted Englishmen who are trying to set up a fence just beyond the legal border of their land, and in the process encroaching upon the Forshay’s territory. During a meeting with the Brits, Brummit and Hooper Voth, a couple of eccentric brothers with a keen interest in Druidism and the indigenous folklore, Silver John notices some odd things on their land that make him uneasy so he enlists the help of a couple of knowledgeable friends, the lovely Miss Holly Christopher, who is part Cheyenne and well read in many anthropological subjects and an older Cherokee man named Ruben Manco, who is equally acquainted with many local folk beliefs and traditions. Holly and Luke hit it off right from the start but end up getting kidnapped by the Voth brothers, whom it seems intend to use them for some nefarious Druidic rituals. Creed who is injured in the kidnapping, is told to rest up while John and Ruben agree to go retrieve their friends and end up embarking on a quest, bonding with one another while facing 7 specific perils on their way through the forest and up the mountain to the Voth estate where their friends are being held. The individual challenges feel almost like the hillbilly versions of the sort of tests a Homerian hero would have endured in an odyssey of yore. I won’t say anything more so as not to ruin the fun of reading them as they appear in the tale, but I do recommend you check it out if you can ever find a copy of this book in a library or second hand store.

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