Monday, May 31, 2010

Pulp Fantasy Library: O Ugly Bird!

I wrote about Manly Wade Wellman's character of Silver John -- known simply as John in the stories in which he appears -- a year and a half ago. At that time, I hadn't read a Silver John story in a very long time, probably two decades and was going on my memories of reading from the old Arkham House anthology I found at a local library when I was a teenager. Back then, I liked the stories well enough, but I can't say that they really "spoke" to me, in the way that many other stories did. Thanks to Paizo's recent re-release of all the short stories under a single cover, I've had the chance to re-acquaint myself with Wellman and Silver John and I'm glad I did. These are some of the most excellent fantasy tales I've read in a long time. I have little doubt that I'll be talking more about them in the weeks to come.

First appearing in the December 1951 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, "O Ugly Bird!" marks the introduction of the wandering Appalachian balladeer known as John. It's also got one of the best opening paragraphs of any work of fantasy I've ever read:
I swear I'm licked before I start, trying to tell you all what Mr. Onselm looked like. Words give out -- for instance, you're frozen to death for fit words to tell the favor of the girl you love. And Mr. Onselm and I pure poison hated each other. That's how love and hate are alike.
The story just gets better from there.

While wandering "up these heights and down these hollows," John finds himself in a secluded town whose inhabitants are terrorized by one of the townsfolk, the aforementioned Mr. Onselm. Everyone in town is afraid of him and does what he says or else.
"One Old Jim Desbro refused him a chicken. Mr. Onselm pointed his finger at Old Jim's mules, they was plowing. Them mules couldn't move ary foot, not till Mr. Onselm had the chicken. Another time, Miss Tilly Parmer hid a cake when she seen him come. He pointed a finger and dumbed her. She never spoke one mumbling word from that day to when she died. Could hear and understand, but when she tried to talk she could just wheeze."
John, well-versed in the lore of the mountains (and much else, it's implied), recognizes that Mr. Onselm is "a hoodoo man ... which means the law can't do anything." He then resolves to look into his activities and deal with him, if possible. The problem is that Mr. Onselm has an accomplice, the Ugly Bird of the story's title.
It must have hung over us, high and quiet, and now it dropped into the yard like a fish hawk into a pond. First out I saw it was dark, heavy-winged, bigger than a buzzard. Then I saw the shiny gray-black of the body, like wet slate, and how it seemed to have feathers only on its wide wings. Then I made out the thing snaky neck, the bulgy head and long stork beak, the eyes set in front of its head -- man-fashion in front, not to each other.
None of the townsfolk are willing to stand up to Mr. Onselm and his Ugly Bird and so it takes the outsider John to do what they cannot, resulting in a terrific tale very well told.

Silver John is no mere bumpkin despite his rustic ways. As I noted above, he knows the lore of the mountains, as well as that of other parts of the world. It's hinted that, in his travels, he's learned much occult knowledge and it's his knowledge, along with his purity of heart, that enables him to face down many a supernatural threat. John's a very compelling character, simultaneously mysterious and familiar, the archetypal Cunning Wanderer come to life. He makes a great model for a re-imagined bard class, something I might attempt in the future.

Many pulp fantasies, being written in the past, can be difficult to get into. Their style and presentation can be off-putting to readers more accustomed to contemporary fiction. But "O Ugly Bird!" (or any of the Silver John stories) isn't like that at all. The first person narration is very effective and, while John and his interlocutors, use Appalachian, it comes across naturally and is surprisingly easy to understand -- certainly easier than, say, Lovecraft's attempts to convey backwoodsy speech in his own stories. That's because Wellman clearly loved and respected the people and traditions of Appalachia, whereas HPL likely didn't think much of the rural New Englanders he often portrays in his stories. Wellman has a great affinity for his characters and it results in superb fiction that everyone ought to sample, if not drink deeply from.


  1. Wellman's inclusion in Appendix N always perplexed me. Appreciate your reviews, must check the local second hand bookstores to see if they have any of Wellman's writings.

  2. I read "The Desrick on Yandro" as a teenager and it's not just the title that stuck. Great use of some of the backwoods beasts I'd already come across in Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings. And is it me or did one of the critters in that story inpire the Trapper?

  3. Holy cow, didn't know that Paizo put all of them under one cover.
    Thanks for the link!

  4. Paizo isn't the first to put all the Silver John stories under one cover.

    My exposure to John (and Wellman) is from the collection published in 1988 by Baen, titled "John the Balladeer". I purchased it in either late 88 or early 89, and it had a real impact on me.
    I still have that book, and I still read it every few years. Fantastic stuff.

  5. I read this Silver John story as a grade school kid, it really stuck with me as the first fantasy I'd ever read that was set in the hillbilly culture I'd grown up around. Sadly, I was still too young and stupid and lacking resources to have looked for more of the same - I'll be seeking out the compilation. Thanks!