Monday, June 14, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: One Other

Manly Wade Wellman is one of those authors whose name appears in Appendix N without any specific titles attached to it. One can interpret this fact in several different ways, but I simply assume it's because Gary Gygax thought so highly of all of Wellman's output that he found it difficult to choose just a few of them as representative. No less a luminary than Karl Edward Wagner called Wellman "the dean of fantasy writers," which suggests that Gygax was not alone in his esteem for him.

At the same time, I also assume that Wellman's stories of the Appalachian balladeer Silver John are among those most immediately influential on Dungeons & Dragons. When I say this, some assume, reasonably but mistakenly, that it's because the aforementioned John is a possible literary antecedent for the bard class. I don't discount the possibility, even likelihood, that Silver John played a role in the conception of the bard class, only that this is why the stories might have been in the back of Gygax's mind when he included Wellman in Appendix N. After all, it was Doug Schwegman, not Gygax, who first presented a version of the bard class in the pages of Strategic Review and, in any event, I'm not at all certain Gygax had any special affection for the class (which he relegated to an appendix in the AD&D Players Handbook).

What the Silver John stories all have in common is the deft re-purposing of folklore and local legends. Wellman, like Gygax, never missed an opportunity to put a new spin on an old idea; his Appalachian yarns are rooted in regional myth but many, if not most, go way beyond their origins, presenting the ancient fears of American mountain folk in a new light. Another point of connection with Gygax is the way that Wellman, who had written many science fiction stories, would often work science and scientific speculation, into his tales of fantasy. This is evident in the subject of today's post, "One Other," which first appeared in the August 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. 

The story begins evocatively, with John climbing a mountain on his own.

Up on Hark Mountain, I climbed all alone, by a trail like a ladder. Under my old brogans was sometimes mud, sometimes rock, sometimes rolling gravel. I laid hold on laurel and oak scrub and sourwood and dogwood to help me up the steepest places. Sweat soaked the back of my hickory shirt and under the band of my old hat. Even my silver-strung guitar, bouncing behind me, felt weighty as an anvil. Hark Mountain's not the highest in the South, but it's one of the steepest.

I reckoned I was close to the top, for I heard a murmuring voice up there, a young-sounding woman's voice. All at once she like to yelled out a name, and it was my name.

Surprised by this, John makes an effort to reach the top of the mountain quickly. Doing so, he found a pool "where no pool could by nature be expected." It was "a clear blue pool, bright but not exactly sweet-looking." Near the pool was a young woman who, by her dress, John took to be a "town girl." She was seated near a fire, where she was engaged in some sort of incantation – burning leaves, melting wax, pouring libations, all the while invoking the names of both John and One Other. 

John speaks to the girl, asking her "Why were you witch-spelling me? What did I ever do to you?" She reveals that, a month before, John had ignored her at a party hosted by Old Major Enderby. John is astounded. "Ignored? I never notice such a thing," he says, to which the girl replies, "I do. I don't often look at a man twice, and usually they look at me at least once. I don't forgive being ignored." She then explains that she had hoped, by means of a charm said three times "beside Bottomless Pool on Hark Mountain," she could cause John to fall in love with her. 

John denies that the charm has worked, but she, whose name we learn is Annalinda, doubts him, pointing out that he climbed Hark Mountain. Why else would he do it, unless it was to find her? Not long thereafter a third person appears, Mr Howsen, from whom Annalinda claims to have learned the spell that brought John to her. She wishes to repay him for his aid, but Howsen corrects her, "No, you pay One Other." John, of course, has no idea who – or what – One Other is, but he has no interest in finding out. He begs Annalinda to leave Hark Mountain with him. Unfortunately, she's too frightened by Mr Howsen's claim that, if either of them leave before One Other appears, "it would be worse for you than if fire burned you behind and before, inside and out."

The meat of "One Other" lies in what happens next, as Silver John and Annalinda await the One Other. As they prepare for that fateful encounter – which is quite memorable in itself – they two converse about themselves, their lives, and their outlooks. In the course of this conversation, John speaks of a "science man" he once heard, who compared existence to a soap bubble and had

said our whole life, what he called our universe, was swelling and stretching out, so that suns and moons and stars pull farther apart all the time. He said our world and all other worlds are inside that stretching skin of suds that makes the bubble. We can't study out what's outside the bubble, or either inside, just the suds part. It sounds crazyish, but when he talked it sounded true."

"It's not a new idea, John. James Jeans wrote a book, The Expanding Universe. But where does the soap bubble come from?"

"I reckon Whoever made things must have blown it from a bubble pipe too big for us to figure about."

She snickered … "You believe in a God Who blew only one lone soap bubble."

This metaphor of the soap bubble recurs throughout "One Other" and it's put to good, even chilling, effect. I think it helps set the story apart from others in the Silver John series and even brings it closer to some of Gygax's more outré speculations about the planes of existence in D&D. Even if you disagree with that last point, it's well worth reading.

15 comments:

  1. Nice mood for a Monday. Thank James.

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  2. I've never read anything by Wellman but now I want to. Thanks.

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    1. The Silver John stories are well worth the read. They're an excellent blend of folklore, almost Lovecraftian horror, and dark humor, with occasional forays into the science fictional. They're also very engagingly written.

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    2. I can't second James' recommendation enough. Wellman's body of work is consistently excellent, and the Silver John stories are some of his very best.

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    3. That sounds like a great story and I love the description of the expanding universe. (Sounds more like standard physics to me, though, rather than D&D multiverse).

      Any recommendations for where to start with Silver John, anthology or novel-wise?

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    4. @Bonnacon Paizo (the company that makes the Pathfinder RPG) did a trade paperback reprint of the collected short stories a few years back. It seems to be OOP now, but if you search for Who Fears the Devil? you can doubtless find it used. That was a good starting point, I gave copies to several friends.

      There were five novels, with no particular reading order to them. They're all very short by the bloated standards of 2021, probably none even reached 300 pages in mass market paperback format.

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  3. A recommendation for anyone looking for something with a similar feel to the John the Balladeer stories, see if you can find a copy of the Mad Amos anthology by Alan Dean Foster. It's got more of a Western feel than Appalachian and the titular Amos is nowhere near as fundamentally nice a guy as John is, but the theme of a savvy protag dealing with supernatural threats derived from (mostly) North American folklore is the same. Foster's writing isn't quite as elegant as Wellman's but he's certainly capable of telling a good story and his odd bits of humor are pretty effective.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Amos

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  4. I had no idea Wellman wrote fantasy. I have only run into him in the mystery pulps....

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  5. You might also like Old Nathan by David Drake, a sci-fi and fatasy author who knew Wellman and was directly inspired by his works.

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    1. Another very good read, like most everything Drake's written. Interesting to see him doing something without the strong military themes his work usually displays, and doing it well.

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  6. Found a copy. There's a lot going on in that little story. Can you recommend any other Silver Johns?

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    1. All of them are good, but I'd recommend "O Ugly Bird" and "Desrick on Yandro."

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    2. Thanks! Love the writing style.

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  7. Can't recommend Manly Wade Wellman enough. His occult mysteries are great too. You're right about his style, Etrimyn.

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  8. Thanks. Will check those out too.

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