Monday, March 14, 2011

Pulp Fantasy Library: Frogfather

No, I never liked frogs' legs very much, not even before what happened. And I wouldn't eat them now if I was starving. This is why.
So begins Manly Wade Wellman's "Frogfather," which first appeared in the November 1946 issue of Weird Tales. Like all the tales in his Appalachian cycle, "Frogfather" is told in the first person, from the perspective of the wandering minstrel known only as Silver John, and draws on American folklore for its plot. In this case, Silver John is remembering an event from his childhood, when his maiden aunt, who raised him, turned him over to an unpleasant man named Ranson Cuff to settle a debt she owed. Cuff, is described in very unflattering terms.
His face was as round as a lemon, and as yellow and sour, and his eyes couldn't have been closer together without mixing into each other, and his little nose was the only bony thing about him.
Furthermore,
Ranson Cuff was the sort of man who shoved himself into your mind, like a snake crawling into a gopher hole. I defy anyone to find anyone else who liked Ranson Cuff -- maybe his wife liked him, but she didn't live with him for more than three weeks. Nobody around the Swamps liked him, though he was the best off in money. He ran a string of hunting camps for strangers from up north, who came to hunt deer or fish for bass, once in a while to chase bear with dogs. He did his end of that job well, and if he was rude the strangers figured for a picturesque character. I've heard them call him that. The Swamps people called him other things to his face, if he didn't have mortgages on their houseboats, cabins, and trapping outfits.
John tells us that Cuff loves frogs' legs, especially those he'd gotten for himself by hunting frogs in the Swamps. So it was that, on one night, John accompanies Cuff and "an old, old Indian whose name I never knew" on a frog hunting expedition "in a really beautiful boat [Cuff had] taken from a bad debt." Unfortunately for Cuff, there seem to be no frogs to be found -- that is, until he hears the sound of frogs singing along a bank to the northeast, a move the old Indian urges him against.
"I'm speaking for your good, Mr. Cuff," said the old Indian. "That's no place to stick frogs."

"I can hear them singing!" Cuff said. "Listen, there must be a whole nation of them."

"They're there because they're safe," said the old Indian.

"Khaa!" Cuff spit into the water, "Safe! That's what they think. We're going in there to stick a double mess."
Aficionados of weird tales don't need to be told how the story will unfold after this point, once Cuff ignores the old Indian's warning and orders the young Silver John to paddle up the river to where he hears those frogs singing. Despite the relative lack of suspense, Wellman nevertheless manages to hold one's attention. His gifts as a storyteller and his love of the legends of Appalachia both come through powerfully and, together, they carry the reader along to the inevitable conclusion.

That's probably what I found most remarkable about this story: despite the telegraphing of its end, I still wanted to read it. Wellman is simply a joy to read. Silver John's voice rings true. Though his words initially come across as simple and "folksy," there's unexpected insight and sophistication in them. There's also a rhythm to them, a poetry that becomes more apparent when you read the story aloud. Wellman is one of those rare authors whose work demands to be spoken; mere reading doesn't do it justice. I wonder if there are any audio recordings of the Silver John stories, because I'd love to hear them read by someone, preferably someone with a Southern Appalachian accent.

Regardless, "Frogfather" is an enjoyable short story that nicely showcases Manly Wade Wellman's talents as a writer. It's a pity he's not more widely known, even within pulp fantasy circles; he certainly deserves more accolades than he's received.

12 comments:

  1. "...I'd love to hear them read by someone, preferably someone with a Southern Appalachian accent."

    I never knew there were regional variations in Appalachian accents.

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  2. Wellman is great and the Silver John stories are wonderful! I love Paizo's Complete Silver John. http://paizo.com/planetStories/v5748btpy85jz
    I'm currently reading their collection of his Hok the Might stories and enjoying them as well.

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  3. I'd love to hear what James thinks about Hok the Mighty. Quite different than Silver John, but a little closer to the S&S vein.

    --Erik

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  4. Karl Edward Wagner favored Manly Wade Wellman's work, even dedicating one of his own novels to him.

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  5. I read that tale in a collection called something like "little critter stories". Frogfather certainly telegraphs but it is a good tale to read.

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  6. Frog Father is an informal honorific title used among the military frogmen.

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  7. Fans of Wellman may find this interesting:

    This is a tale of John the Balladeer before John became a balladeer. When I didn't recognize this story in what is supposed to be a complete collection of short stories featuring Wellman's character, I found this in the Introduction to the collection:

    "John first appeared in the December 1951 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction but Wellman had given us foreshadowings. He sometimes liked to claim that two stories from Weird Tales, 'Sin's Doorway' (January 1946) and 'Frogfather' (November 1946), were stories about John before he got his silver-strung guitar. ..."

    After Wellman moved to North Carolina and became acquainted with the folk musicians of the area, the character John acquired his guitar and the rest, as they say, is history. Nineteen short stories would follow, cementing John the Balladeer as a unique character in fantasy, battling the supernatural with silver--not silver bullets, but rather the music that flowed from his silver guitar strings.

    The quote is from John the Balladeer Baen Books, 1988.

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  8. Yeah, I'll second that recommendation of Paizo's complete Silver John stories from upthread. I picked it up and quite enjoyed it, and I'm the type of MWW fan who got the hardbound collections that Night Shade books did a while back. (Absolutely lovely, but not the sort of thing to carry around.)

    I'll also note that the John the Balladeer collection is available free online as part of Baen Books' electronic library at http://www.library.beau.org/lib/ebooks/baen/03/John%20the%20Balladeer/index.htm . I've... got that collection too. :)

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  9. Both this John, and his other John (Thunstone), spend some time battling against the Shonokins. They are wonderfully timeless characters that lend themselves to playful tales.

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  10. I'd love to hear what James thinks about Hok the Mighty.

    Me too! :)

    Actually, I didn't realize the collection was out yet, so I'll have to give it a look when finances permit.

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  11. This is a tale of John the Balladeer before John became a balladeer.

    That's a little detail I should have realized, if I'd have paid attention to the publication dates.

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  12. Great to be reminded of Silver John! I haven't read "The Desrick on Yandro" since I was about 12 - and that's a while back - so I followed John Fiala's link to the Baen site. Didn't get much work done thereafter...

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