Funny how a story sticks with you.
My fourth grade teacher read the class a story about a musician who travels through Appalachia and takes on a man who is intimidating a whole community through black magic. This man commands a strange bird, who strikes terror in everyone. The musician defeats the bird when he smashes his guitar on its head. The guitar is strung with silver strings, silver being a metal that evil can’t tolerate.
That was all I remembered of the story. When the internet came around, I tried to find it. After years of trying different combination of key words, I finally found it: “O Ugly Bird!” by Manly Wade Wellman, the first of his stories set in the North Carolina mountains about the wandering musician who goes only by the name of John and battles black magic with Christian symbols.
Mr. Wellman wrote many short stories, and I’ve read many of his other fantasies, but none captured my imagination like the John stories. First, he wrote these in first-person, which I prefer, and second, he wrote in the rhythms and words of Appalachia, where both sides of my family comes from. Also I haven’t read many stories where the hero consistently uses Christian symbols to defeat supernatural evil.
I include the John stories this month because almost all the stories are centered around a song. In “O Ugly Bird!”, John makes up songs to goad the witch-man. In others, he searches for unusual songs to sing. Sometimes the songs have power over people, like leading a greedy man to his doom in “The Desrick of Yandro”. Other songs, like “Vandy, Vandy”, relate a story that tells John something about the enemy he’s locked horns with. In one of my favorites, “Nobody Ever Goes There”, a young couple end up on an island in a river that no one in town visits after dark. As dark shapes begin to close in on them, John stands on the bridge to the island and sings a version of “Do Lord”. That song may be the most upbeat gospel song ever written. No wonder the evil creatures have to back off. There’s even a Christmas story, “On the Hills and Everywhere.”
Mr. Wellman wrote five novels featuring John, but I tried one and didn’t like it. Some people put these stories under “horror” or “dark fantasy”. They were written between 1951 to 1987, so they aren’t graphic or explicit. I couldn’t read them if they were.
Another bonus for me are all the wonderful names of the characters. “John” is the only boring one in the bunch. For women, we have Vandy Millen, Tilda Fleming, Craye Sawtelle, and Donie Carawan. For men, there’s Joris Yandro, Tewk Millen, Shull Cobart, and Forney Meecham.
A very good collection of all the John stories with a great introduction is Owls Hoot in the Daytime and Other Omens. You can’t buy it, but I’ve been able to get a copy through my library.
Mr. Wellman also wrote a story featuring Sherlock Holmes during World War II. You can find it in the anthology, The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories. Its title sums up the Holmes legend perfectly, “But Our Hero Was Not Dead.”