Monday, August 15, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: Vandy, Vandy

In the years since I first started writing this series, I've developed a great deal of affection for certain writers, some of whom are not very well known today. Among their number is Manly Wade Wellman. Though included in Appendix N, Gary Gygax didn't specify which of Wellman's stories, books, or series he felt had had the most "immediate influence" upon him. That's too bad, because it makes it much more difficult, I think, for those interested in tracing the creative genealogy of Dungeons & Dragons to home in on writers and tales of particular significance. 

Though Wellman had a very long and prolific career as a writer – primarily of short fiction – if I had to hazard a guess as to which of his many creations might have had a strong influence over Gary Gygax's imagination, I'd certainly select John the Balladeer, sometimes called Silver John, after the silver strings of the guitar he carries with him everywhere. John is a traveling singer, who wanders the Appalachian Mountains, where he encounters all manner of supernatural beings and witchcraft drawn from the legends of the region. Wellman's stories of John are generally short in length but long in staying power. They read like genuine folktales of rural America and they never disappoint.

"Vandy, Vandy" is a perfect example of what I mean. First appearing in the March 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (where much of Wellman's work appeared during the '50s), the story concerns John's visit to "that valley [that] hadn't any name" where "no lumberman had ever cut the thick, big old trees." Near sunset, John comes a family playing music and dancing outside their secluded cabin. Naturally, their somewhat suspicious of the unexpected arrival of a stranger, even one as seemingly friendly as John. He asks for a place to sleep and the eldest of them, "a long-bearded old man with one suspender and no shoes" suggests that he go elsewhere to find a place "to stretch out."

John tries another approach.

"I heard you all playing first part of Fire in the Mountains."

"Is they two parts?" That was the boy, before anyone could silence him.

"Sure enough, son," I said, "Let me show you the second part."

The old man opened his beard, likely to say wait till I was asked, but I strummed my own guitar into second part, best I knew how. Then I played the first part through, and, "You sure God can pick that," said the short-bearded one. "Do it again."

This wins the family over and the old man, who identifies himself as Tewk Millen, invites John to have a dinner of "smoke meat and beans" with his family, which consists of his son, his daughter-in-law, and their son, along with his own wife and daughter. The daughter, who had "her hair like yellow corn silk and … eyes like purple violets" is named Vandy. Her name attracts John's attention.

"Vandy?" I said after her father.

Shy, she dimpled at me. "I know it's a scarce name, Mr. John, I never heard it anywhere but among my kinfolks."

"I have," I said, "and it's what brought me here."

Mr. Tewk Millen looked funny above his whiskers. "Thought you said you was a young stranger man."

"I heard the name outside in a song, sir. Somebody allowed the song's known here. I'm a singer. I go after a good song."

The song tells the story of a rich man who comes to court a young woman named Vandy. He promises her "gold and silver," "a house and land," and "a world of pleasure," but she nevertheless rejects him, saying she already has a sweetheart, "a man who's in the army" and has been away for "seven long year." The Millens claim the song is a very old one, passed down in their family from generation to generation. They perform it for John, who observes that 

the notes were put together strangely, in what schooled folks call minors. But other folks, better schooled yet, say such tunes sound strange and lonesome because in old times folks had another note scale from out do-re-mi-fa today.

The performance is interrupted by the sudden appearance of another man, one who bears a gold-headed black cane. 

He was built spry and slim, with a long coat buttoned to his pointed chin, and brown pants tucked into elastic-sided boots, like what your grandsire had. His hands on the cane looked slim and strong. His face, bar its crooked smile, might be handsome. His dark brown hair curled like buffalo wool, and his eyes were the shiny pale gray of a new knife. Their gaze crawled all over the Millens and he laughed a slow, soft laugh.

The family treats the man, whom we learn is called Mr. Loden, with respect born out of fear and offer him a place to sit, as well as an offer to stay for dinner. Mr. Loden plays the part of a gracious guest, but it's clear the family is uncomfortable around him, "nervous as a boy stealing apples." He brings gifts for everyone present – except John, whom he is surprised to see – including a necklace for Vandy, whom he begs to "let it rest on your heart, that I may envy it."

Mr. Loden doesn't like John, though he behaves politely toward him. For his part, John is skeptical of Mr. Loden and his interest in Vandy. He also sees the effect his presence has had on the Millens.

The menfolks sat outside and said nothing. They might have been nailed down, with stones in their mouths. I studied about what could make a proud, honorable mountain family so scared of a guest I knew it was only the one thing. And that one thing wouldn't just be a natural thing. It would be a thing beyond nature or the world. 

John is right, of course, as he usually is and the remainder of the short story deals with the revelation of Mr. Loden's true identity and intentions. Fortunately for the Millens, John has learned a thing or two about dealing with things "beyond nature or the world" in his travels. He's a great example of how a bard might work in Dungeons & Dragons – a wandering entertainer who recognizes how much wisdom and knowledge are hidden in ancient traditions and folklore and uses them to good ends. John the Balladeer is a terrific character and all of his adventures are worth a read, but "Vandy. Vandy" is an especially good one in my opinion. Seek it out, if you can.

4 comments:

  1. I love the Silver John stories. I agree that he's a good model for a good-aligned bard.

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  2. Worth mentioning that "Vandy, Vandy" is a very real song (and a very rare name) that Wellman encountered in North Carolina and that without him and his story it might very well be lost to time entirely. More info at link:

    http://bluegrassmessengers.com/1vandy-vandy--manly-wade-wellman-nc-c1946.aspx

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  3. You can also read the story yourself online in several places, including here:

    https://www.freesfonline.net/authors/Manly%20Wade_Wellman.html

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  4. If you search for "Mountain Magic" by David Drake and others on Amazon, the kindle version replaces the stories of Henry Kuttner with the Manly Wade Wellman stories. They are very enjoyable.

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