Fiction Review: The Old Gods Waken by Manly Wade Wellman

Cover from Goodreads.com
I was recently flipping through Goodman Games' "The Chained Coffin" adventure. Author Michael Curtis refers to his primary inspiration being Manly Wade Wellman's "Silver John" stories. Manly Wade Wellman appears in the original Dungeon Master's Guide "Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading". I decided to do a quick ebook search and much to my disappointment there wasn't an ebook to be found. I did order a few used books and discovered his first "Silver John" novel, The Old Gods Waken, available on audible.com. Most people seem to have a preference for Wellman's short stories but I figured "why not" and purchased the audiobook. It's a well done narration by Stefan Rudnicki.

There's two things to discuss. First, what the book is about and second, what it feels like. In this case the feel is more important aspect but I'll discuss both.

The "Silver John" stories (as far as I can tell, Wellman never referred to them as such) takes place in the 1950s in the Appalachian region of North Carolina. This time was contemporary when Wellman first began these stories but the novels were written in the late 70s and early 80s while the tales remained set in the 1950s.

They are about a wandering minstrel named John - no last name is ever given. John is a friendly fellow who knows a ton of people, gets along with nearly everyone, and seems to know a little bit about most everything and if he doesn't know something, he'll know someone who does.

In this story Wellman becomes involved in a dispute between two neighbors on Wolter Mountain. The Forshay family has new neighbors, two Englishmen who star causing trouble, making a claim for land that has been with the Forshays since before the American Revolution. John is a guest of the Forshays and decides to help smooth things over. Without giving away the whole story, John becomes involved in a conflict involving druidic magic, Native American magic, folklore, and ancient civilizations predating modern humanity.

Tonewise, the book is a delight to read. As a New Englander I imagine I view the people of the southern Appalachians through a certain stereotyped lens. Wellman makes this region into a magical place. Creed Forshay is a self-reliant man, not formally educated but his time in the navy during World War I gave him the knowledge to provide his house with electricity and plumbing. Despite his lack of education he is proud of his son Luke's college degree. Creed and Luke are both open-minded towards the magic they encounter in the course of the novel. John is with the Forshay's as Luke's guest. Over the course of the novel John enlists the help of Molly Christopher, an anthropological expert, and Ruben Manco, a highly educated Cherokee. Manco is great fun to read - when he doesn't like someone or just meets them he can be very standoffish and will talk like a Native American caricature and then when he warms up to someone he takes on the role of a highly educated social scientist. (Wellman uses the term "Indian" to refer to Manco - it's not so much political correctness that has me using "Native American" as the fact that as an engineer I work with many people from the Indian subcontinent which is what I think of by default when I use the term "Indian".)

Wellman captures what I assume to be accurate regional speech patterns. He was a long-time resident of North Carolina and the speech patterns feel very natural. He also effortlessly transfers you to a world where magic is right behind the nearest rock if you just look for it and believe. I love the Appalachians that pass through my part of the United States - when I was in my twenties and early thirties I made many trips to the White Mountains of New Hampshire (and as I try to return to some semblance of my younger fitness, I'm hoping to return). There's nothing quite like the view you earn from climbing a four thousand footer with your own two feet, nor is there a feeling like it, with the unbelievably fresh air and cleansing breeze. (And then a thunderstorm hits and stays with you the long hike down - glad I always packed my rain gear...) I can tell Wellman had a similar love for his Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina. I often thought about having a fantasy RPG campaign set in some analogue of the White Mountains and it was a delight to find an author who gracefully tapped folklore and legends to do something just along those lines.

While on the topic of fantasy RPGs I can definitely see what Wellman was doing in Appendix N. John is clearly an inspiration for the D&D bard class. I don't know if druidic magic played a role in earlier Wellman works (as this book came to late to be an inspiration for the druid class), but it is also a fine example of druidic magic and lore in a fantasy setting.

I mentioned earlier that Wellman's works are tough to get a hold of in digital (or even printed) form. Below is a listing of his "Silver John" works and how best to obtain them.

  • Silver John Short Stories - probably the easiest to obtain. 
  • The Old Gods Waken (1979) - This is where things start getting more difficult. It's out of print but it wasn't difficult to find used copies at a reasonable price. Also, Audible carries this as an audiobook as well, though not the rest of the novels.
  • Later novels. The following are the remaining Silver John novels. They seem to get more difficult to obtain as the series goes on.
    • After Dark (1980)
    • The Lost and Lurking (1981)
    • The Hanging Stones (1982)
    • Voice of the Mountain (1984)
Final note. Manly Wade Wellman is a wicked cool name.

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