Monday, May 24, 2010

The Legend of Hillbilly John

So, as you can see from the picture to the right under "What I'm Reading," I'm enjoying Paizo's recent collection of all of Manly Wade Wellman's "Silver John" short stories, about which I posted briefly a year and a half ago. They're frankly among the best fantasies I've read in a long time, so much so that I'll probably be discussing several of the tales at length in upcoming installments of my "Pulp Fantasy Library" series. Wellman was a superb stylist and his gift for realistic, natural dialog is matched by very few authors. Combined with his knowledge of the history and folklore of the Appalachians, his Silver John stories make for great reading.

Anyway, the Paizo collection includes two introductions, a new one by Mike Resnick and a reprint of an older one by Karl Edward Wagner. Both of them make reference to something I didn't know existed -- a movie based on the Silver John stories. Here's what Resnick says about it:
And now that I've praised the stories and touted you onto the novels, let me tout you off something. Hollywood made a film version of the Silver John stories, done with Hollywood's usual taste and respect for the material. It is called The Legend of Hillbilly John, and the change from Silver John to Hillbilly John pretty much says it all.
Wagner provides some more details:
John would next appear on film, with folksinger Hedge Capers miscast as John. The film was partially shot in Madison County, North Carolina (the general setting of the John stories) in October 1971. Despite a surprisingly good supporting cast and the incorporation of two of the best stories ("O Ugly Bird!" and "The Desrick on Yandro"), the film was an embarrassment -- largely due to its shoestring budget and stultifying script. It was released in 1972 as Who Fears the Devil and flopped at the box office. It was the re-edited and re-released the following year as The Legend of Hillbilly John, with equal success. Sometimes it turns up on videocassette.
What's sad is that I think the stories of Silver John would make for great cinema, either on the big or small screens. The stories are well written and focused, with superb characterization and dialog and mixing horror with a deep love for the people and traditions of the mountains in which they take place. I imagine very few people in Hollywood these days have any interest in these things -- more's the pity.

Even so, is it wrong of me to want to hunt down this movie and watch it?

13 comments:

  1. I don't think it is any more wrong to hunt this down than it is to hunt down the Dunwich Horror film -- which I own...

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  2. Just a note if you continue on by reading the Silver John novels (they are out of print but not difficult to find); The Silver John novels, while interesting, are vastly inferior to the short stories.

    But yes, Wellman was an incredible fantasy writer as well as a first rate folklorist.

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  3. Having lived in North Carolina for the vast majority of my life the stories of Silver John have always resonated with me. Wellman was a master, and I have just recently began rereading these stories again. I agree, Silver John would transfer to the silver screen very well. If the proper respect was paid to the source material that is...

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  4. Hmm...I haven't ready any of Wagner's stuff besides his "Kane" stories...but I sure do dig those. I'll have to check out his "John" stories. Thanks for the tip.

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  5. They used to have it here at SUSPECT VIDEO in Toronto.

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  6. I've seen the film. It isn't very good--which is probably generous, but if you're a Silver John fan, you're probably kind of obligated, if its not too hard to come by.

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  7. I'm thinking the Coen Bros. could probably give this the proper Hollywood treatment. Make it a little Lovecraft, a little O Brother Where Art Thou?

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  8. Wow, I haven't read any Manly Wade Wellman stories since High School... I'm definitely grabbing a copy.

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  9. "Hmm...I haven't ready any of Wagner's stuff besides his "Kane" stories...but I sure do dig those. I'll have to check out his "John" stories. Thanks for the tip."

    Wagner didn't write the Silver John stories, Manly Wade Wellman did. However, they were very close friends, and Wellmen's death was said to be one of the factors that accelerated Wagner's descent into alcoholism and eventually death.

    But off topic, Wagner's non-Kane horror stuff is well worth searching out. Very much influenced by his mentor Wellman and other pulp writers, and extremely Cthulhian in tone. "In a Lonely Place" and "Why Not You and I?" are difficult collections to find, at best, but well worth the hunt...

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  10. I've got this copy from Paizo as well. I'm reading a few stories at a time, here and there between and during other books. I love 'em. While I've never been to the south, having grown up (and currently living) in rural Utah, there's something satisfyingly familiar about the down to earth/folksy writing of the tales. While we can't claim to have hill-folks here, we do have a lot of people that are generous, giving, and a little superstitious. Such a fun read.

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  11. Of course, the perfect person to have played Silver John in a film would have been the young Johnny Cash.

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  12. Silver John is a favorite of mine - excellent to hear that others find M.W. Wellman's writings as awesome as I do.

    Any thoughts to a Silver John game supplement? Even an internet one?

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  13. The film is one of my favorites of all time. Hedge does a wonderfully awful acting job. The special effects are among the worst of all time. The film is perfect in every way. DO seek it out.
    It is priceless.
    I have watched it at least 50 times and it gets better every time.

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