Monday, December 7, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Desrick on Yandro

The bard class first appeared in the June 1976 issue of The Strategic Review. Its creator, Doug Schwegman, explained that the class was intended as a "hodgepodge" of the Norse skald, the Celtic bard, and the southern European minstrel. I've never made a secret of the fact that I'm generally not a fan of the class, which, at least as its usually presented (and played), is a bit too twee for my tastes. That said, the one aspect of the class that I do like is its "lore" ability, which Schwegman explains "reflects the Bard's knowledge of legends, magic, etc." Being an inveterate creator of lore for my adventures and campaigns, an ability like that is my natural ally. The lack of something like it in other D&D classes almost makes me wish to set aside my reservations about the class – almost.

Another thing that give my reticence pause is whenever I read one of Manly Wade Wellman's Silver John stories, such as "The Desrick on Yandro," which first appeared in the June 1952 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Silver John, who first ambled into the world of pulp fantasy a year earlier, is a wandering Appalachian balladeer, who gets his name from the pure silver strings on his guitar. Like the bard class, John has knowledge of the history, legends, and folk ways of the people of Appalachia, knowledge that serves, at various times, as the catalyst and/or resolution of the strange things he encounters in the mountains of the eastern United States.

Indeed, "The Desrick on Yandro" begins with a demonstration of John's knowledge, as he sings "that song," an ominous turn of phrase that rather nicely situates all that follows. In exchange for lodging – he is, as I said, a man of no fixed address – John entertains the guests of a party, culminating in the singing of "the Yandro song."

I'll build me a desrick on Yandro's high hill,

Where the wild beasts can't reach me or hear my sad cry,

For he's gone, he's gone away, so stay a little while,

But he'll come back if he comes ten thousand miles.

A desrick, if, like me, you are unaware, is the Appalachian dialectical term for a roughly built but sturdy cabin. This particular desrick is found atop the peak of a mountain called Yandro, which John admits in conversation with the party guests is "not a usual name." One of the guests takes a special interest in "that song," as Yandro is his surname.

"I've never heard of that peak or valley, nor, I imagine, did my father before me. But my grandfather – Joris Yandro – came from the Southern mountains. He was young, with small education, but lots of energy and ambition." Mr. Yandro swelled up inside his fancy clothes. "He went to New York, then Chicago. His fortunes prospered. His son – my father – and then I, we contrived to make them prosper still more."

Though John is not one to suffer fools – or the pompous – gladly, he nevertheless acquiesces to Mr Yandro's request that he show him where "[his] grandfather might have come from." Yandro charters a plane and the two of them fly to a small airport near to where mountain is located. Unimpressed with the region, which he calls "a stinking country," much to John's dismay, Yandro is even more put out when he discovers that the road leading up the peak is too treacherous for travel by car. He and John have no choice but to set out on foot. 

Eventually, the pair come across the home of an aged woman named Miss Tully. She remembers John, whom she'd met before; he then introduces Yandro and she immediately becomes interested, muttering cryptically, "Funny … you coming along as the seventy-five years are up." When pressed, Miss Tully discloses that she remembers Joris Yandro from her childhood. Joris, she says, "courted Polly Wiltse, the witch girl." John reflects on her words.

Even the second time hearing it, I listened hard. It was like a many such tale at the start. Polly Wiltse was sure enough a witch, not just a study-witch like Miss Tully, and Polly Wiltse's beauty would melt the heart of nature and make a dumb man cry out, "Praise God Who made her!" But none dared court her save only Joris Yandro, who was handsome for a man like she was lovely for a girl. For it was his wish to get her to show him the gold on top of the mountain named for his folks, that only Polly Wiltse and her witching could find.

"Certain sure there's gold in these mountains," I answered Mr. Yandro's interrupting question. "Before ever the California rush started, folks mined and minted gold in these parts, the history-men say."

"Gold," he repeated, both respectful and greedy. "I was right to come." 

Miss Tully adds that Joris Yandro succeeded in coaxing Polly Wiltse to "bring down gold to him, and he carried it away and never came back." Abandoned by her feigned suitor, she "pined and mourned like a sick bird, and on Yandro's top she build her desrick." The song that John had sung at the party, it seems, was one Polly Wiltse had made and "it was part of a long spell and charm" intended to bring her lover back to her. Yandro is now convinced that Polly is still alive and waiting for him in her desrick atop the mountain named for his kin. He asks John to accompany him on his ascent, which he agrees to do, despite the warnings from Miss Tully about the many cursed creatures that haunt the mountain, like the Bammat, the Culverin, and the Behinder. Needless to say, the journey is eventful and what they find when they reach the desrick is memorable.

"The Desrick on Yandro" is an enjoyable story well told, a darkly humorous tale not dissimilar in many ways to those found in contemporary horror comics. What sets it apart, though, is Wellman's prose, which are those of a master folktale teller able to hold the attention of his audience as they huddle around the campfire on a shivery night. His ability to blend genuine Appalachian legends and lore with his own creations (and sly social commentary) elevate all the Silver John stories above much of what was written in the pages of the pulps. It's fun, powerful stuff – it would have to be to make me reconsider my stance on the bard!


  1. Such good, good yarns. Maybe it's time for a full reread.

  2. Wellman's Silver John stories are some of the most underappreciated "weird fiction" of its era, and are fairly difficult to get ahold of these days. Paizo (aka the Pathfinder folks) did a reprint volume of most of the short pieces about a decade back, but the novels have been OOP or relegated to small press volumes for at least twice as long.

    1. I don't believe I've ever read the novels, because of how hard they are to find.

  3. Oddly enough, I read the novels before any of the short stories, about forty years ago. The public library had them, and I thought they were great. It wasn't until many years later that I found the short stories, in a paperback collection called John The Balladeer. I now have the Paizo collection, but I wish I had the novels.

  4. And I now find that the first novel (The Old Gods Waken) is available as an audio book from Amazon, as is a collection of the stories called Owls Hoot In The Daytime.

  5. I presume you're familiar with the DCC adventure, "The Chained Coffin?" It's entirely based upon the Silver John stories. It is available in a great hardcover omnibus edition that combines a setting with several flavorful adventures. Would be a snap to convert to OSE or other OSR games.

  6. Reading Wellman makes you realize that creatures like the Cloaker, Entrapper, and Mimic aren't necessarily just things Gygax came up with to mess with players. I haven't been able to figure out if Wellman's creatures are his own creations or if they come from folklore, but my reading into Appalachian folklore has been limited so far.

    1. The "behinder" (which I've more often seen called the "hide-behind") is a real folklore creature.