Sunday, March 15, 2015

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.

Friday, March 13, 2015

A Whole New Civilization Over the Valley

Tull from "The Gunslinger" by Stephen King;
Art by Michael Whelan
Games like Dungeon Crawl Classics make the suggestion that one should strive for a smaller scale world - a world where the way to find out what is in the next valley is to go to that next valley. Maybe there's travelers who can give you some hints of what is out there if you're lucky, but if you want to be sure, you need to go there.

I'm a big fan of works like A Song of Ice and Fire which deals with large nation-states, battles for the throne, long distance travel, worldwide threats and organizations. That's pretty far in the opposite direction.

I got to thinking what are some examples of works that focus on a smaller world. Worlds where when you go into a new village it feels different, with a whole new set of traditions. It's been a while since I read Jack Vance's Dying Earth series but that is one inspiration that came to mind quickly. It's also something you see in his science fiction - the novel/collection Ports of Call is a great example of of this, where every place the characters visit is greatly different from the last one.

A more modern example that came to mind was Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Though it is in many ways an epic fantasy with multiple worlds, the main setting is a world that has "moved on". Time is funny, the great civilizations have fallen. However, people live on. Throughout the protagonist Roland's journeys, we see a variety of settlements, all distinct from one another. From memory, I can think of several:

  • Gilead - Seen only in flashbacks, once a shining beacon of civilization, now just ruins.
  • Tull - In The Gunslinger, a stereotypical "Old West" town, with a honkytonk bar and a revivalist preacher.
  • Great Western Woods - seen in The Waste Lands. We don't see any civilization here but we do see remnants of one, a rather primitive one.
  • River Crossing - Also in The Waste Lands, inhabited solely by old men and women who give the heroes a well needed rest and provide them with some idea as to where they are headed and what transpired here.
  • Lud - A great ruined city in The Waste Lands, it is nearly abandoned, with rival tribes eking out a living and making sacrifices to a PA system which occasionally plays ZZ Top.
  • Hambry - Capital of Mejis, the main location for the flashbacks in Wizard and Glass. Roland and his companions are sent here, primarily for their own safety, only to uncover a plot against Gilead. Mejis has the feeling of a southwestern American or northern Mexican town, with its large cattle ranches. It is also home to numerous ruins of the world before (the Citgo) and a creature/location where reality breaks down (the Thinny).
  • Calla Bryn Sturgis - The main location of Wolves of the Calla, a friendly settlement with the unusual trait that nearly all births are twins. Like other settlements, it has remnants of the world before, including a robot that provides occasionally useful information.
Each of these is a distinct setting. If one were running a game set in this world, most of them would be able to support a fairly lengthy campaign. As I've gained in experience in the DM-ing front, I've finally begun learning one doesn't need to create everything. It's a tough habit to break, as world-building is a fun activity. However, overdoing it runs the risk of creating things which never get used and worse, needlessly constrain yourself in the future.