The Hanging Stones

Cover image from isfdb.org

The Hanging Stones by Manly Wade Wellman
Doubleday, 1982
Price I paid: nary a thing

Silver John, the wandering balladeer, is well respected among the back-country folk for his knowledge of woodcraft, the manly simplicity of his singing, and especially for his dealings with the dark mysteries that flourish amid a land untamed by modern civilization. So he is welcomed by the men and women working high in the Southern Mountains. The new Stonehenge they are helping reconstruct has been plagued by unaccountable happenings—nothing violent yet, but there lurks in the woods many a blinking eye. Their imaginations, agitated by the area’s history as a gathering place for devil worshipers, create a succession of wood-haunting ghouls, each more terrible than the last. Their employer Noel Kottler, millionaire industrialist, is unschooled in mountain lore and scoffs at what he considers childish fancy. Silver John doesn’t. Neither does Esdras Hogue, seventh son of a seventh son, whose communication with primordial cavemen proves a stronger defense against the evil forces unleashed upon them than all the latest ammunition Kottler can muster.

from the inside flap

I’d been meaning to revisit Manly Wade Wellman for a good long while, and so I figured that this week was as good as any to get around to doing that. You might remember that I last encountered him as the author of a Captain Future novel, and I was first introduced to him as the author of a story that got adapted into a Twilight Zone episode. After doing some research I learned that he was a member of the Weird Tales crew, which usually means I’ll appreciate the storytelling but balk at the, um, racial characterizations. But most important is that Wellman’s preferred settings, like Lovecraft’s New England and King’s Maine, are in my part of the world.

Or at least, pretty close. This particular book is a part of Wellman’s “Silver John” or “John the Balladeer” stories. The main character is never referred to by those names in the stories themselves, they’re just something that the publishers tacked on. In all of these stories, the protagonist is simply named John. John’s favorite haunts are in the Appalachian Mountains, and it’s an area he knows well. Wellman’s attention to detail on these matters gave me a wonderful thrill of recognition, although I’m certainly not any kind of woodsman like John is. My knowledge comes mainly through a little bit of osmosis and a few Foxfire books. Still, it was nice to see things I had at least a peripheral awareness of.

Still, John’s part of the world is different from my own, for several reasons. For one, he’s not in Tennessee like I am. John prefers the mountains of North Carolina. Asheville gets mentioned a lot, which is kind of funny to me because when I think of Asheville, I think hipsters and microbreweries and gentrification. But I don’t have much room to complain. My beloved Knoxville seems to be doing its level best to become the Great Value version of Asheville these days.

But this book was written in 1982, and I have no idea what Asheville was like in those days. Also, the book only mentions the city a few times, it’s not like it ever goes there.

There is one neat little connection, though, and it’s just a long geographical one. At one point in the book, John sings a song about the French Broad River, which flows through that area. It also flows through my area! In particular, the French Broad and the Holston meet up here in town to become the Tennessee River. Did you know that the French Broad might be one of the oldest rivers in the world? I just learned that, and that’s cool as heckfire.

John speaks a pretty strong eye dialect throughout the book. In fact, he also narrates it, so there’s a good deal of that. John’s Appalachian dialect is pretty different from the one I grew up with, which isn’t surprising. The South, and even the mountains, are not a linguistic monolith. I’m sure a real learned fella like Bill Landry or such could identify somebody’s particular holler based on how they pronounce “corn muffin.” For my part, I can tell you that the difference in speech between where I grew up on the Cumberland Plateau versus where I live now in the Tennessee Valley is pretty noticeable, and that’s just a matter of an hour or so’s drive up I-75.

John’s particular thing that I wasn’t familiar with was that he renders a fair number of words as “air.” As in “airbody knows” or “Whatair’s that thing?” Most of the time it was a replacement for “ever,” and by extension “every” but I don’t know if it was always. Plus there’s the derivation “nair.” I had to spend a few pages figuring those out. A bit more in keeping with my experience was the formulation a+verb, such as a-walking or a-knowing. Perhaps noteworthy is that there was no terminal-g clippin’.

What I don’t know is how much of several things is going on with John’s speech. How much of it is that part of the mountains, how much is old-timey, and how much of it is from the author, who might just be making a lot of it up? I don’t know. What I do know is that it was consistent. It took me a few pages to get used to, but once I had, it was perfectly readable. Pleasant, in fact.

And yes, it did result in me a-thinking in the style this book was written for quite a while. This isn’t unique to this book, and I’m surprised I don’t think I’ve commented on it before. Several times I’ve caught something of a bleedover from a book’s style to my own line of thinking, and perhaps even how I end up writing a review of it. This time I’m a-playing it up, to be sure. And I’m sure it’ll fade soon enough, at least until the next time I talk to my mother (she’s from northeastern Alabama, which is a whole ‘nother level of accent-having).

John is an excellent character and I love him. He comes close to a few of the more pernicious stereotypes about wise backwoods characters, but manages to avoid most of them. He’s very knowledgeable about folklore, nature, and music, and also has a good deal of what I guess we can call horse sense. But Wellman avoided a lot of the tropes about that kind of character. John isn’t some kind of “aw shucks I don’t know nothin’ about such as high falutin’ concepts” bumpkin like certain US Representatives from the State of Tennessee try to make us all look like.

YEAH I’M TALKING TO YOU I KNOW YOU DON’T READ MY BLOG BUT I DON’T CARE, JERK. GOD I CAN’T WAIT UNTIL 2023.

John is, in fact, both worldly-wise and deeply intelligent. He can tell you where to find useful herbs and flowers, and he can quote Percy Shelley. He can identify werewolves and tell you what to do about them, and he knows what the word “neolithic” means. What he lacks in any kind of formal education (if you can indeed call it a lack), he makes up for in deep and abiding curiosity about the entire world, not just his own little patch of it. He states several times that there has never been a book in his sight that he didn’t itch to read and learn from. He doesn’t resent scholarly folks. He admires them and longs to learn from them, and most often it turns out that the feeling is mutual. Near the middle of this book, John is awarded an honorary degree from Portnoy College. He seems quite happy about that. Also quite notable is that he is very keen on citing his sources, at least several of which exist in real life. In particular, I’m delighted to now know about a piece of literature from the Pennsylvania Dutch called The Long Lost Friend.

Plus he plays a guitar with silver strings. Would that sound any good? I don’t know.

John’s situation in this book is that some guy has decided to build a replica Stonehenge on a mountain in North Carolina. I don’t know if Teatray Mountain is real but I can’t find any reference to it on the Internet. John just kinda wanders up to check it out and then gets wrapped up in a spooky tale.

For one, there are some folks around and about who are not at all happy about the fact that this monument is going up. Some of them are hostile and mysterious and it takes most of the book to figure it out, but another fella is friendly and mysterious. He is named Esdras Hogue, and that’s a damned good Weird Tales-esque name! Nothing like pulling a first name from Hebrew Apocrypha. Excellent.

It’s not long before John figures out who the hostile people are. Esdras explains some, but John knows what to do about it. See, it turns out that they’re werewolves. These particular werewolves aren’t the Hollywood full-moon awoooo sort. They’re folks who, through black magic and such, are able to intentionally gain wolf-like traits. The concept of ectoplasm comes up a few times.

There are a lot of other characters hanging out at the New Stonehenge site. John is friendly to all of them as a rule, even the ones he doesn’t rightly agree with. The main guy at the site, for example, is a Mr. Kottler, who is extremely full of himself, barks orders at everybody whether they work for him or not (and assumes everyone works for him), and tries to solve every single problem with money. His only concern is the acquisition of capital for his own boss, some multimillionaire who is shooting for billionaire status.

It makes for an interesting path for this book to have to tread. The werewolves are trying to run off the New Stonehenge guys because they think that this is their land. And they’re probably right. But it wouldn’t be right to just let the workers and employees get slaughtered. They’re largely innocents in this, just trying to make a living. And it’s unlikely that even John will be able to convince everybody to pack up and leave, so he doesn’t try. He just tries to make sure that there’s not a bloodbath. Also it’s made clear that anybody who would turn themselves into a werewolf through witchcraft is inherently evil.

About halfway through the book, John’s wife Evadare shows up on the site, along with a professor-type guy named Judge Pursuivant. I had to look up how to pronounce that name! Anyway, he’s an established authority on “supernatural antiquities.” Whereas a lesser book would have set him up as a sort of anti-John, the result is that they recognize each others’ authority and knowledge and work together. It’s great. Also, Judge Pursuivant has a silver sword-cane that was forged by St. Dunstan a thousand years ago. Awesome.

Now, you’d think that a silver sword-cane would be super useful against werewolves, right? Silver bullets and all that? Well, this book makes it clear that this is not the case. John establishes that the werewolves will, in their lycanthropic incantations, probably invoke spells that make them resistant to metal weapons. In fact, if I have a problem with this book, it’s that John repeats this over and over and over again until everybody gets the idea. Like, I get it, he has to tell several people over the course of the book because they don’t know yet, but it gets old. In fact, at one point he repeats it twice in as many pages. It really leapt out at me.

John prefers to use his fists.

The thing about these werewolves is that their spell can be, uh, dispelled in a couple of ways. One way is to shout their true name at them, but that won’t work here because nobody knows it. The other way is to just hit the werewolf really hard. The ectoplasmic entity created by magical means is fragile, so a good boop on the snoot will make it fade and reveal the normal human underneath.

We don’t get to see enough of that, though! See, there’s another little plot going on here, and it has to do with Esdras Hogue and his own antipathy toward this New Stonehenge. See, he’s rather learned in the ways and means of the builders of Old Stonehenge. In fact, he’s found a way to, uh, bring them back? For some reason? I dunno. I mean, it’s cool. I think it started with him just being able to talk to him, and maybe they convinced him that it would be cool if, by certain methods, he could bring them back into the world.

Anyway, he does that just in the nick of time, and it runs the werewolves off at least twice. The second time is in the midst of a final climactic battle between the werewolves and John and crew. That’s the end of the book, which vaguely disappointed me. I mean, I guess the story about the valiant crew just holding out until the cavalry shows up is well established, but in this case it didn’t feel all that earned, I guess? I dunno.

At least the Old Stonehenge guys, who I don’t think are ever called druids or anything, go about toppling this New Stonehenge. It’s an abomination in their sight, most particularly because it’s being built as a money-making venture. In a final effort to get them to stop, Mr. Kottler charges them and is found dead the next morning, which is where the book ends.

I feel like I didn’t do a very good job of summarizing this one. It was a pretty simple story, is part of it, and it’s hard for me to get across just how well-told it was. Sure, there were a few flaws here and there, but on the whole, this was such a damned readable and enjoyable novel! I want to track down all of the other stories and novels and read those, too. I loved it so much!

If I have to complain about anything, it’s going to be about how John’s wife, Evadare, shows up midway through the book just so she can get kidnapped by the werewolves and be in distress for a little while. We’re told that she’s a competent and capable woman several times, but in this book we don’t see that happen. Maybe it does in other stories.

I mentioned earlier about how the narrative would also get a little repetitive at times. I don’t know if that was intentional or maybe our author just forgot that things were mentioned already and editors decided to leave it in, or what. Certain facts were brought up several times, with John disclosing the same information multiple times to multiple characters individually. And at least once, we were there when he learned the thing. It was a bit tedious.

Uh, also I think everybody in the story was white. I don’t remember being told otherwise. I guess that means that there wasn’t a chance for any unfortunate racial stuff, but that doesn’t make it any better.

I spent a lot of this tale being dreadful scared that John would turn out to be a Confederate sympathizer. This may well happen in one of the other stories, but I don’t think it came up in this one. The closest we get is that Esdras Hogue wears a long grey coat, and John compares it to a Confederate officer’s coat. I think it was just a neutral observation, though.

But yes, I liked this book, and I can’t wait to read more Wellman all the way around. This was one of his later books, and seeing as how he had a 50+ year writing career, there’s a lot for me to seek out. This was the penultimate Silver John novel. I think I’ll jump back to the early stories and novels next to see how they evolved. I only nabbed this one because it was available at my local library. I can’t wait to see what else is out there waiting for me.

6 thoughts on “The Hanging Stones

  1. It sounds like a cool book. I really enjoyed that you get to “air” out your take on local accents. The Okie accent I grew up with was realtively uniform, so it is hard to visualize (audialize?) having different ones for every hump and holler.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Read it, bookmarked it, and added it to what I’ve learned. I have been fascinated by dialects since the people in Michigan couldn’t understand a word I said when I went there for college. Like you, I dread finding dialog in dialect used in fiction as a cultural club. One novel that used it with respect and apparent accuracy was Andrew Greeley’s The Bishop and the Three Kings. Who knew?

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand John’s accent is Appalachian mountain accent from the Tennessee/North Carolina border area where Wellman spent the last 20-30 years of his life. As most all the Silver John stories are told in first person (like John was sitting across from you with his silver-strung guitar sharing a jug of blockade), any audiobook DEMANDS to be read “in John’s voice” with the appropriate/correct dialect and accent.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. “You ask me what my name is,
    And what I’m a-doing here;
    They call me John the Wanderer
    Or John the Balladeer…”

    Though completely forgotten today, Manly Wade Wellman was a name to conjure with in the world of pulp fiction – fantasy, SF, horror, mystery, occult detective, contemporary supernatural/paranormal – from his first publication in 1925 to his death in 1986 SIXTY YEAR CAREER.

    Some years ago, a friend in Pennsylvania who’s into pulp (and PA Dutch lore) turned me on to Wellman — John Thunstone, his NYC occult detective who wielded the St Dunstan sword cane when Judge Pursuviant became too old for such adventuring; the Judge himself; Lee Cobbet and Hal Stryker, when Wellman’s settings shifted from New Yawk to Appalachia; Pastor Jaeger, a Civil War veteran (Union) battling witchcraft in the Ozarks — and a certain “John” with a silver-strung guitar.

    Hanging Stones is one of the few John the Balladeer (others called him “Silver John”, but he never used that name himself) stories I haven’t read. I’ve got the Who Fears the Devil short story collection and After Dark (where John took on Thunstone’s recurring nemeses, the not-quite-human Shonokin). Ten years ago I even assisted on a fanfic novel — a Silver John/My Little Pony crossover canonical to both sources and played absolutely straight as serious fantasy.

    “Somewhere the sun’s a-risin’ up
    A-sheddin’ its foggy light;
    And on time goes and no one knows
    Where I’m likely to be tonight…”

    Liked by 2 people

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