By Manly Wade Wellman
So, in my continued effort to not have to try anything new, I recently picked up The Old Gods Waken by Manly Wade Wellman, a favorite author of mine in high school. His main protagonist is ‘Silver John,’ a nomadic folk singer who travels throughout the Appalachian area, picking up old songs and stories and tackling the odd supernatural force along the way. (He’s called ‘Silver John’ because his guitar strings are silver.) The cover advertises The Old Gods Waken as Wellman’s first Silver John novel, but he had several books of short stories previously published.
As a teenager, I had been fascinated with the descriptions of the very rural characters and settings, it being unlike anything I’d ever experienced so far, growing up in suburbs of Boston and Austin. It felt so authentic, so…earthy! There was a purity to the simple country lifestyle and I loved it. Even the supernatural elements seemed more realistic somehow, since they were often the product of old folklore.
Today, it reads quite romantic, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. It feels a bit contrived, like the Romantic Period, with all those paintings of pretty, fresh-faced shepherdesses tending flocks of bright white, fluffy sheep. (The first time I saw sheep in real life—a field trip in college—I was appalled at how dirty and kind of mean looking they are.) Wellman’s characters are all perhaps a little too folksy, his settings a little too pastoral, and his dialogue a little too colloquial; the whole thing comes off a bit manipulative and twee.
In a discussion with Rebecca, however, I wondered if perhaps I wouldn’t have felt all of this so strongly in a pre-Palin world, where I hadn’t been inundated with “you betcha’s” for a year or so. Perhaps it is not just me, but that the whole world is getting too cynical for a true appreciation of simplified life in nature. Or perhaps I’m just crabby because it is so damn hot.
You lost me at “nomadic folk singer,” largely because it reminds me of all those awful Hobbit songs in the Lord of the Rings books.
Yeah, there are snippets of songs, too, but I follow Hannah’s lead and just scan over those. I bet Hannah could read LOTR in an afternoon!
I’m inclined to think that I read this years ago, didn’t care for it, and allowed the memory to vanish into the mists. But I still really like the book of short stories of Silver John’s adventures, Who Fears the Devil?
I think the novels may bog down a bit in folksiness while the short stories are more streamlined to introduce characters and plot quickly and thus keep my attention and interest.
You know, I think you are right, so I’m not sure why I own The Old Gods Waken but not Who Fears the Devil?, when it is significantly better. I’ll have to revisit the short stories.