Monday, January 12, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Who Fears the Devil?

Manly Wade Wellman is one of the authors whom Gary Gygax lists in Appendix N without indicating the title of a single book that inspired him in his creation of Dungeons & Dragons. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd suggest it was the short stories of Silver John of which Gygax was thinking. Originally appearing separately in magazine form during the 1950s and 1960s, they were collected under a single cover by Arkham House in 1963, with new linking material written by Wellman especially for the occasion. The collection gave these stories a somewhat greater currency than they'd had previously and it's possibly in this form that Gygax encountered them, although I have absolutely no evidence of this.

Silver John, so called because he carries a guitar with silver strings, is a mysterious wandering balladeer, who possesses a remarkable knowledge of the supernatural. He travels from place to place in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, where he uses his knowledge, courage, and wit to do battle with occult enemies of various sorts, many drawn from the folk tales and legends of the region he knew so well. John is a picture perfect example of a "wise fool," a simple, unassuming man whom others underestimate despite the fact that he clearly possesses a keen insight others lack.

The Silver John stories are folksy picaresque tales with a strong moral undercurrent that I imagine would have appealed to Gary. As I said, I have no idea if he ever read them, let alone took anything from them as he was co-creating D&D, but I think there's much here to recommend. They're a great example of how to take real superstitions and folk beliefs as a foundation and a model for spinning some of one's own creation. Wellman's ability to seamlessly intertwine his own creations with those of backwoods Appalachia is remarkable to read and ought to be an inspiration to referees everywhere, whether or not they were to Gary Gygax.

8 comments:

  1. "If I had to hazard a guess, I'd suggest it was the short stories of Silver John of which Gygax was thinking."

    You're probably right, but I can't help but think of Wellman's sword & sorcery hero Kardios, last scion of lost Atlantis. To my knowledge, the Kardios tales have yet to be collected (hint-hint, Paizo!), but you can find some in Offutt's _Swords Against Darkness_ anthologies, and as I recall there's another in Asimov's Atlantis anthology. These stories are chock-full of D&D-esque goodness! While Kardios himself bears a passing resemblance to a certain Cimmerian, the tone and color of the yarns is much closer to Leiber and Vance. They're a high point in the genre of S&S IMO, and it's a travesty that they are not collected in a deluxe trade paperback edition available at a bookstore several blocks away from my house! A travesty I say!

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  2. I've loved the stories about John since I first encountered one in "Sorcerer's Apprentice," back in the days when a good gaming magazine could also be a great vehicle for excellent fiction. Multiple copies of all of the short stories and novels, from "The Old Gods Waken" to "The Valley So Low", are sitting on the shelf about three feet to my left. Pure bliss.

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  3. I'd totally forgotten about Kardios. I'll have to look into it and see in what forms those stories existed during Gygax's pre-D&D lifetime. From what I know of the stories -- I've never read them myself -- they seem a perfect for Gary, being, as you say, a terrific marriage of Howardian action with Vancian tone.

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  4. My impression is that "Straggler from Atlantis" was the first Kardios story published, in 1977. Maybe D&D helped create the renewed interest in heroic fantasy leading to that long-desired opportunity?

    You've identified reasons Gygax might have thought to recommend Wellman; the chance to read some top-notch fantasy might be enough!

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  5. I'm sure Gary read the Silver John stories, and I'm further sure that John's depiction by Wellman factored into the Bard class in almost all of its early incarnations.

    Planet Stories will be publishing this one in July, btw.

    We've looked into Kardios, but there do not appear to be enough stories to make a stand-alone book.

    Now, Wellman's caveman hero Hok, on the other hand....

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  6. That's terrific news. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Paizo is way ahead of the curve on this, but it makes me happy nonetheless.

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  7. Great piece on Manly Wade Wellman. His books were among the books I used to read all the time in middle and high school. Back in the 80s you could still borrow classic Arkham House books from the local library. He is one of the best writers of the Occult Detective genre IMHO.

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  8. I'm overjoyed to hear that Manly Wade Wellman's stories are being reprinted again - although I hope that Planet Stories will continue to print after the Silver John ones.

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