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Introduction to the
Electronic Publication
of John the Balladeer

Manly Wade Wellman was one of the most successful fantasy and SF writers of the '30s and '40s. His SF was generally of a juvenile nature, popular at the time but of limited interest today. His fantasy, however, was thoroughly adult. While Lovecraft and Howard were writing, Manly was in the second rank of Weird Tales authors; after they died, he became one of the magazine's mainstays.

Despite the high quality of his earlier fantasies, Manly didn't really hit his stride in the field until in 1949 appeared The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—a digest magazine which would publish fantasy of the highest literary quality. For F&SF Manly created John the Balladeer, drawing on his existing knowledge of folk music and folklore and his growing love of the North Carolina mountains.

The stories of John the Balladeer are some of the best American fantasies ever written. They were powerful influences on me before I moved to North Carolina and met Manly; and it was in conscious and deliberate awareness of them that I wrote Old Nathan as my homage and memorial to my friend after his death.


Dave Drake




Manly in the Mountains


Music brought Manly to the North Carolina mountains.

Folk music—the old songs, real songs—had been an interest of Manly's since the 1920s when he tramped the Ozarks with Vance Randolph, the famed folklorist. He was drawn by the folk festival that he found when he moved with his family to Chapel Hill in 1951; became a friend of the organizer, Asheville native Bascom Lamar Lunsford; and traveled with Lunsford to meet "the best banjo player in the country."

That was Obray Ramsey of Madison County, high in the Smokies where they divide North Carolina from Tennessee. It was the start of a life-long friendship, and the genesis as well of this book: the tales of John the Balladeer, hiking the hills of North Carolina with his silver-strung guitar.

Manly and his wife Frances visited the mountains staying in the Ramseys' house when they were alone and in a tourist cabin father down on the French Broad River if they had their son or another friend with them. By the early '60s they had a little cabin of their own, next to the Ramseys and built in fits and starts over the years by them and their friends.

It wasn't fancy, but it was a place to sleep and eat; and a place to have friends in to pick and sing and pass around a bottle of liquor, tax-paid or otherwise. That was where they were when my wife and I visited the mountains with them and with Karl Wagner in the Fall of 1971.

The Ramseys' house is close by the road, Highway 25-70, which parallels the course of the French Broad River snaking through hard rock. The mountains lowered down behind the house, and the river dropped away sharply on the other side of the road.

One statistic will suffice to indicate the ruggedness of the terrain. There were seven attorneys in practice in Madison County when 25-70 was the direct route from Asheville to Knoxville. Shortly after Interstate 40 was completed, cutting off the business that had resulted from auto accidents on 25-70, six of the lawyers left.

The seventh was the District Attorney.

Manly's cabin was a little farther back from the road and a little higher up the mountain he called Yandro. The water system was elegant in its simplicity, a pipe that trailed miles from a high, clear spring to a faucet mounted four feet up above a floor drain in the cabin. There was a pressure-relief vent and settling pond partway down the mountainside. The vent could become blocked with debris, especially if the water hadn't been run for a time, The way you learned that it was plugged was—

"Let me fix you a drink, Dutch," Manly said to Karl as we settled into the cabin. He poured bourbon into a plastic cup, held it under the spigot, and just started to open the tap.

The water, with over a thousand feet of head, blew the cup out of his hand to shatter on the drain beneath.

Nobody said anything for a moment.

We stumbled up the Mountainside in the dark—there was a moon, but the pines and the valley's steep walls blocked most of its light as they did the sun in daytime. Manly went part way, but when Obray guided Karl and me off the road-cut, he decided he'd wait. Wisely: he was 68 even then, though that was hard to remember when you saw him.

He had fresh drinks waiting for those as used it when we got back—and fresh laughter as he always did, this time because Karl had slipped off the catwalk into one of Obray's trout ponds as we neared the cabin.

Manly was in his element that evening, watching the incredible fingerings of Obray and a neighbor while lamplight gleamed from the gilded metalwork of the banjo and guitar; pouring drinks; singing "Will the Circle be Unbroken" and "Birmingham Jail" and "Vandy, Vandy." . . .

Which brings up a last point about Manly and the mountains. I said he called the mountain Yandro, but I don't know you'd find that name on a map. Manly blended past reality with new creations in his life as well as his writing. Many of the songs he sang and quoted in this volume are very old; he once claimed to have written "Vandy, Vandy" himself.

And that may be part of the magic of these stories. They were written by a man who knew and loved the folkways he described so well that he became a part of them, weaving in his own strands and keeping the fabric alive instead of leaving it to be displayed behind the sterile glass of a museum.

May you read them with a delight as great as that of the man who wrote them.


Dave Drake
Chapel Hill, North Carolina




Just Call Me John


There are moments in literature—very rare and very marvelous—when a writer creates a unique character. One such moment occurred in 1951 when Manly Wade Wellman began to write stories about John the Balladeer.

He had no last name, no other name: he was known only as John. Some reviewers suggested that Wellman intended John to be a Christ figure. Manly firmly denied this, but be often hinted that there might exist some mystic link to John the Baptist (cf. Mark 1. 2-3).

We never knew a lot about John's past. He was born in Moore County, North Carolina, and Manly said he sort of pictured John as a young Johnny Cash. He also told us that John was a veteran of the Korean War, and that he could hold up his end of things in a barroom brawl. John had a profound knowledge of Southern folklore and folksongs—as did Manly. John had a guitar strung with silver strings, a considerable knowledge of the occult, and his native wit. He needed all three as he wandered along the haunted ridges and valleys of the Southern Appalachians—sometimes encountering supernatural evil, sometimes seeking it out.

John first appeared in the December 1951 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but Wellman had given us foreshadowings. He sometimes liked to claim that two stories from Weird Tales, "Sin's Doorway" (January 1946) and "Frogfather" (November 1946), were stories about John before he got his silver-strung guitar, but usually he grouped them instead with his other regional fantasies. Not coincidentally, following his move from New Jersey to Moore County, North Carolina after the War, Wellman began to make use of Southern legends and locales in his stories. When he moved to Chapel Hill in 1951, his subsequent acquaintance with folk musicians of the Carolina mountains combined with Manly's lifelong interest in folklore to generate the stories of John. The transition can be seen in Wellman's abandonment of his then-popular series character, John Thunstone, an urbane occult detective who worked the New York night-club set. Thunstone's final appearance in Weird Tales ("The Last Grave of Lill Warran" in the May 1951 issue) finds him in hiking gear and stomping through the Sand Hills in search of a backwoods vampire. Seven months later John the Balladeer made his first appearance in "O Ugly Bird!" The difference was the mountains-and the music.

There hadn't been anything like the John stories at that time, and there hasn't been since. No one but Manly Wade Wellman could have written these stories. Here his vivid imagination merged with authentic Southern folklore and a heartfelt love of the South and its people. Just as J. R. R. Tolkien brilliantly created a modern British myth cycle, so did Manly Wade Wellman give to us an imaginary world of purely American fact, fantasy, and song.

Between 1951 and 1962 Wellman wrote eleven stories about John, in addition to a grouping of seven short vignettes. These were collected in the 1963 Arkham House volume, Who Fears the Devil?. The original magazine versions were somewhat revised (Manly grumbled that this was done to give the collection some semblance of a novel), and four new vignettes were added. When I first met Manly in the summer of 1963, he gave me the grim news that he was all through writing about John. Fortunately, this wasn't to be true. Manly loved his character too much.

John would next appear on film, with folksinger Hedge Capers miscast as John. The film was partially shot in Madison County, North Carolina (the general setting for the John stories) in October 1971. Despite a surprisingly good supporting cast and the incorporation of two of the best stories "O Ugly Bird!" and "The Desrick on Yandro"), the film was an embarrassment-largely due to its shoestring budget and stultifying script. It was released in 1972 as Who Fears the Devil and flopped at the box office. It was then re-edited and re-released the following year as The Legend of Hillbilly John, with equal success. Sometimes it turns up on videocassette.

But it would take more than a bad film to finish off John. Renewed interest in his earlier fantasy work coupled with summer trips to his cabin in Madison County soon had Wellman writing about the mountains again. John returned—this time in a series of novels.

In 1979 Doubleday published The Old Gods Waken, the first of five John novels. This was followed by After Dark (1980), The Lost and the Lurking (1981), The Hanging Stones (1982), and The Voice of the Mountain (1984). A sixth John novel, The Valley So Low, was planned but never started due to Wellman's final illness; instead it was published by Doubleday in 1987 as a collection of Wellman's recent mountain stories.

But there was more to be heard from John. Wellman always maintained that he preferred to write about John in short-story form rather than in novel length. And to prove he could still do both, Manly wrote six new John stories in between work on his novels. Shortly after completing his final novel for Doubleday (Cahena, 1986), Manly wrote a new John story, "Where Did She Wander?". This was to be his final story. A few days after completing it, Wellman suffered a crippling fall, shattering his shoulder and elbow. Despite the weakness and pain, he managed to revise and polish the final draft of "Where Did She Wander?"

Five years before Manly would have been back at his desk before the plaster cast hardened, but at age 82 complication followed complication. Death came on April 5, 1986, a few weeks short of his 83rd birthday.

John will live on, as long as there are readers who love good stories—and good storytelling.

John the Balladeer is the complete collection of all of the short stories of John. All of the stories in this book are Manly Wade Wellman's original versions, reprinted from their initial magazine or anthology appearances. To approximate as closely as possible the order in which they were written, I have arranged these stories according to date of original publication. I regret a certain awkwardness in the clustering of the vignettes between two stories which are directly connected (albeit having been written twenty-one years apart). Think of this as an interlude, perhaps, between the old and the new.

While the John stories can be read in any order one wishes, I chose this method of presentation deliberately. John is one of the most significant characters in all of fantasy literature. For thirty-five years John lived in the marvelous imagination of Manly Wade Wellman, one of fantasy's foremost authors. As such it is desirable to provide a definitive, orderly text so that we may consider the growth and development of both character and creator over those three-and-one-half decades.

On the other hand, if you're simply looking for a good read, you're holding one of the best. Dip into it anywhere. These stories are chilling and enchanting, magical and down-to-earth, full of wonder and humanity. They are fun. They are like nothing else you've ever read before.

Savor this book. Treasure it to reread in years to come.

I wish you the joy and wonder I have found here.


Karl Edward Wagner
Chapel Hill, North Carolina


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