Monday, October 25, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Can These Bones Live?

With Halloween less than a week away, I found my thoughts drifting toward "spooky" stories I could discuss in this week's installment of Pulp Fantasy Library. There were a lot of good candidates – some of which might appear in the coming weeks – but the one that most excited me was Manly Wade Wellman's "Can These Bones Live?," a short story featuring the Appalachian balladeer, Silver John. 

Now, I'm a huge fan of Wellman's fiction in general and the stories of John in particular, but what was the deciding factor in my decision was the publication where it first appeared: Sorcerer's Apprentice (issue #11/summer 1981, to be precise). For those unfamiliar with this periodical, Sorcerer's Apprentice was published by Flying Buffalo in support of its fantasy roleplaying game, Tunnels & Trolls. Original fiction by established fantasy and science fiction authors was a common feature of many gaming magazines in the 1970s and '80s and Sorcerer's Apprentice was no different. 

While traveling, John encounters "eight men in rough country clothes" carrying "a big chest of new-sawed planks" that measured "nine feet long and three feet wide and another three high." One of the men, Embro Hallcott by name, approaches John and asks him his name and business.

"Well, mostly I study things. This morning, back yonder at that settlement, I heard tell about a big skeleton that turned up on a Chaw Hollow farm."

"You a government man?" the grizzled one inquired of me.

"You mean, look for blockade stills?" I shook my head. "Not me. Call me a truth seeker, somebody who wonders himself about riddles in this life."

John's a character about which Wellman tells us little. Like most good pulp fantasy protagonists, his origins and history are largely unimportant. All that matters is that he's here, where something interesting is about to occur. In this case, that something interesting is the burial of the aforementioned big skeleton. John helps the eight men carry the chest holding it half a mile to Stumber Creek Church. 

The preacher, Travis Melick, is a gaunt man "in a jimswinger coat, a-carrying a book covered with black leather." Though he's never met John, he knows him by reputation, having "heard of good things [he'd] done." The approbation of the preacher reassures Hallcott and his fellows, he were still somewhat suspicious of the guitar-toting stranger. 

The men heave the chest – a massive coffin really – toward the graveyard, where a fresh grave has already been made for it. Before burying it, one of the men, called Oat, asks that it be opened first, since that is "the true old way." John then peers inside.

The bones inside were loose from one another and half-wrapped in a Turkey Track quilt, but I saw they were laid out in order. They were big, the way Hallcott had said, big enough for an almighty big bear. I had a notion that the arms were right long; maybe all the bones were long. Thick, too. The skull at the head of the coffin was like a big gourd, with caves of eyeholes and two rows of big, lean teeth, Hallcott banged the lid shut and hooked it again.

With that out of the way, Melick begins the burial rite for "the remains of a poor lost creature," a rite that involves quoting from the Book of Ezekiel (from which the title of the short story comes). Afterwards, the men lower the coffin into the grave and they depart. Melick asks John if he'll be his guest for the night, but he puts him off, saying he wants to "wait here a spell." 

Hallcott takes notice of this fact and asks John why he wishes to stay at the gravesite rather than leave like everyone else. John doesn't offer a solid explanation. Instead, he talks about the Book of Ezekiel and the many oddities in it – living bones, flying wheels, and the like. Hallcott agrees there are "strange doings in Ezekiel" and the two men settle down for a nighttime vigil together. They pass the time eating sandwiches and pondering the big skeleton they buried.

"I reckon you'll agree with me, them bones we buried were right curious. Great big ones, and long arms, like on an ape."

"Or maybe on Sasquatch," I said. "Or Bigfoot."

"You believe in them tales?"

"I always wonder myself if there's not truth in air tale. And as for bones – I recollect something the Indians called Kalu, off in a place named Hosea's Hollow. Bones a-rattling 'round, and sure death to a natural man."

"You believe that, too?"

"Believe it? I saw it happen one time. Only Kalu got somebody else, not me."

"Can these bones live?" Hallcott repeated the text.

I trust it won't come as a surprise to anyone to reveal that, yes, these bones can live and the remainder of the yarn is spent the consequences of that. Like most of Wellman's Silver John stories, this one is charmingly told in a folksy, understated way that evokes the tension of a good ghost story. The reader won't be frightened down to his bones, but he might well be transported to the woods, hunkered down around the campfire to hold off the chilly night air, while shadows dance and strange sounds echo. "Can These Bones Live?" is thus a genuinely effective short story and a reminder of why Wellman is rightly considered one of the masters of pulp fantasy.


  1. I bought every issue of SA I could find back in the day, but this one I missed. The story made it into print as part of a paperback compilation pretty quickly after this printing, I first read it in 1984. Good stuff - never read a John the Balladeer story I didn't like.

    For anyone unfamiliar, a "jimswinger" (sometimes just "jimswing") was a long-tailed men's frock coat. My deceased grandfather used to use the term, which I've never run into outside of books otherwise.

  2. I am impressed you have a direct link to someone who used the word. Archaic language seems to only show up in books and scotland now...

    1. Gramps was "Greatest Generation" and an old-ish example of it at that. I'm barely over the line into Gen X myself and frequently get accused of being a Boomer, to my intense annoyance. My parents let a great aunt raise my sister and I till we were well into our teens, and we've both got uncommonly old-fashioned vocabularies for our age because of it. Add a history degree, eclectic reading tastes and an abiding love of the English language and I'll be keeping my share of old and odd words alive till I drop myself.

      Maybe I'll get something archaic and snarky on my gravestone to confuse the future, assuming I'm not eaten by cannibals in the coming apocalypse. :)

  3. Hoping this hints at a Grognardia run of Sorcerer's Apprentice.

  4. Is there a good, in-print, collection of the Silver John stories?

    1. I'm not certain. Paizo produced one some years ago and I know there's a two-volume hardcover collection coming out from a small press soon. Other than that, I don't actually know.

  5. The folks at Flying Buffalo were quite remarkable with some of the writers and works they were able to obtain for their magazine, SA. While a lot were reprints, two made their original appearance in SA. One, mentioned above, and the other was Karl Edward Wagner's "Misericorde," a story of Kane, that appeared in the last issue of SA. Quite remarkable, indeed.