Book: The Valley so Low: Southern Mountain Stories
Author: Manly Wade Wellman; compiled by Karl Edward Wagner
Publisher Information: New York, NY: Doubleday, c1987
Genre: Fantasy fiction
Fantasy fiction feeds off a certain collection of well-defined settings and tropes. Sure, some level of diversity has always existed, but by and large, most fantasy is cut from the medieval template developed and codified by such luminaries as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: kings and queens in high castles, a feudal economic and social system, and heroes clad in armor and wielding swords or spell books. But every once in a while an author shakes up the paradigm by adding different cultures and inspirations into the mold. Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986), born in Portuguese West Africa and raised in North Carolina, is perhaps not as well known in fantasy circles as the above two dignitaries, but he held a commanding place in the pulp fantasy publishing world of the 60s and 70s. He bucked the usual trend by infusing his stories with the folk culture and customs of the southern Appalachian environment in which he was raised. Over many decades, he created a number of memorable heroes: Judge Pursuivant, a former judge and scholar of the occult; John Thunstone, supernatural detective and playboy, who smites evil with a silver sword-cane; and his most famous creation, a wandering bard with a silver-stringed guitar known as John the Balladeer, Silver John, or simply, John. This slim volume, compiled by author Karl Edward Wagner, contains a varied collection of stories made by the writer in his last fifteen years of life. Though often predictable and somewhat formulaic, Wellman has a magic touch for old-fashioned spooks, shifting from old-fashioned campfire tales to almost Lovecraftian levels of creepiness, and dedicated fans will definitely enjoy these last glimmers from an old master’s twilight.
The stories are arranged in an orderly fashion, based on who the headliner is. Silver John takes the fore, of course, being central to the first five tales and beating out the other contenders for percentage of the total volume. This was my first encounter with the mysterious bard, and I must admit that I can easily see the appeal of the character. John is a humble, plain spoken fellow, but don’t let that fool you; he has a brilliant mind, and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of the folklore and deadly supernatural threats that haunt his land. Though a vet of the Korean War and hence trained for combat, he’s more of a backwoods Dr. Who than an action hero, relying on his wits, his vast knowledge, and the occasional white magic spell usually channeled through his songs and strings to vanquish his otherworldly foes. And speaking of his adversaries, the varied beings John and his compatriots face are a curious blend of folk myths and cosmic horror; though many are familiar creatures, like vampires ("Chastel"), witches (The Witch for All Seasons"), and good ole’ fashioned haunts, many others feature terrifying specters of another world running roughshod over the good folks of this slice of Appalachia.
But this is still Lovecraft Lite, for no matter how alien the nemesis or its power, our heroes always prevail. This is both a blessing and a curse for the anthology, for while the element of wish fulfillment remains intact, the stories are very predictable if headlined by one of Wellman’s protagonists. If there’s a good, virginal, innocent girl, expect her to live through the book, and maybe even become a love interest. If there’s a “bad” (read: not sexually-repressed) girl, or a crook, or anyone with the slightest bit of taint on their souls, expect them to be the villain - or at least, meet a bad end by the conclusion. The blatant morality play can get tedious, and when the stories are led by Lee Cobbett or Hal Stryker — newish protagonists who feel more like knockoffs of Wellman’s more established figures than characters in their own rights – the tedium climbs to staggering heights. This is mitigated a bit in the last couple of stories; the morality play is still there, for sure, but the main characters are now a varied collection of one-offs who may or may not live through to the end depending on their moral alignment. While still predictable, the eerie, Lovecraftian karma seep gives these tales the impact of a well-told campfire yarn. Wellman understands that the scariest entities are the ones built up only to be left unexamined, and while throwaway explanations are given in stories like “The Petey Car” and the unnervingly creepy “Rock, Rock” and "Along About Sundown," they do little to make the entities encountered any more understandable - or less frightening.
If you’ve been a Wellman fan for years, this collection may seem like a let-down, though a poignant one, as they reflect the very last of the great writer’s works. If this is your first encounter, then it’s recommended that you take a gander at his earlier stories, especially the Silver John tales. If you’re looking for homegrown American fantasy with a touch of horror, you can do much worse than Wellman and his backwoods clashes between heroes and the dark forces of the world.