dr_hermes (dr_hermes) wrote,

Any Shonokins here tonight?

From 1980, this is part of a series of interconnected stories by Manly Wade Wellman that started in WEIRD TALES back in the 1940s (the John Thunstone and Judge Pursuivant tales), and then in THE MAGAZINE OF FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION in the 1950s (John, sometimes called Silver John or John the Balladeer).

Just speaking personally, I liked the original short stories better than the final novels Wellman did toward the end of his career (THE OLD GODS WAKEN, THE HANGING STONES ). He was still a fine wordsmith, still gifted with a knack for natural-sounding rustic dialect, still able to turn out a suspenseful book like AFTER DARK. But the sense of poetry and whimsey was much stronger in the original stories-- they weren't all horror stories and the short form gave them the effect of a good joke with a strong punchline. I came unsuspcting on a paperback called WHO FEARS THE DEVIL? at an age when my imagination was rampaging. That book is still one of my absolute favorites.

AFTER DARK isn't quite up to the standards of that collection of little tales and vignettes, but it is definitely enjoyable and rewarding. It's a book you can read straight through and never quite be sure what direction it's going to take, or what the characters are going to do. The narrator is still the wandering balladeer who calls himself simply John, rambling through the North Carolina Mountains with not much more than what he's wearing and his silver-stringed guitar. John loves to learn and sing the classic folk songs, as well as make up a few of his own, but by this time he also has gathered a reputation as a "witch master"-- in the sense of a "ghost buster".

Part of the appeal of the early stories was John's relative innocence, trusting in his faith and in human nature as he struggled against the bizarre critters and enchantments he encountered. The image of the simple guitar strung with silver strings, dispelling dark magic with beautiful clear music is a powerful one, and I'm a little disappointed to see John set his guitar aside in the desperate sieges in this story. Perhaps inevitably, he's learned a few counter-spells using 'white magic' over the years but it makes him seem too much like a sorceror himself.

The most interesting thing about AFTER DARK is its race of villains, the Shonokins. They first appeared in a WEIRD TALES story by Wellman back in 1945, in several others after that, and they are definitely intriguing. The Shonokins are a near-human race who lived in this country before the true humans came down across the Bering Strait ("They're similar but they're distinct."). After long and bitter warfare, the Indians nearly annihilated these nocturnal folks but some still survive, living apart in clannish villages and scheming for the day when they can take back their former lands. The Shonokins can be distinguished because of their catlike pupils and because their third finger is longer than their index finger. These creatures are all male (they breed by abducting or persuading human women, best not to dwell on that) and although they have witchlike powers, they also have strange weaknesses.

So Wellman has created a new type of monster, more subtle than the worn-out vampires and werewolves of so many stories. His Shonokins are a bit reminiscent of the pre-human people Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft sometimes featured in their own stories. And their backstory is oddly sympathetic. Just as they were displaced and nearly wiped out by the Indian tribes, the same thing happened to their conquerers in turn. And although the Shonokins are creepy and eerie, with their Gardinels and gardens of unknown plants and their command of black magic, they have an
understandable motive.

There is a moment when a worried John is thinking back of all the strange enemies he's fought and he mentions the Behinder-- a gruesome beast you can never see because it's always behind you. John is one of the few living men to have seen a Behinder and he refuses to describe it. ("Shoo, the Behinder. I wish to my soul I'd nair had a glimpse of that, to give me the shivers from time to time all the years since.") At first, the concept sounds funny, but the more you think about it.....

There is one point Wellman makes that is worth noting. The disappointing movie made from his stories (THE LEGEND OF HILLBILLY JOHN, reviewed on my Video Wilderness page) closes with a scene of John marching resolutely toward the Capitol building. Sheesh. Maybe this seemed plausible or appropriate in that year but it sure rang a false note. Here, one of the Shonokins is flattering the ballad singer, "You seem to be able to influence people. You might even influence the United States Government." And John flatly replies, "Nair in my life have I thought I could do such a thing." So I guess we can tell what Manly Wade Wellman thought of THAT scene.

And this is getting REAL obscure, but I visualize John as looking much like John Hartford, on the cover of his 1960s album, GENTLE ON MY MIND...tall, lanky, guitar strung over his back, plaid shirt and worn jeans. Sometimes an image will get linked in my head to a fictional character.
Tags: manly wade wellman
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