One of the absolute delights of digging through the horror genre’s past is discovering stories and characters which pre-date and pre-figure contemporary stories and characters I’ve enjoyed. In The Philosophy of Horror, Noel Carroll posits that horror is one of the few literary genres which consistently builds upon its past, in that its practitioners not only consciously pay their respects to their history in the form of homages and pastiches, but they also attempt to create something new out of the old, in some cases reinventing a trope, subverting it, or, in the case of Paul Tremblay’s Head Full of Ghosts or Kristi DeMeester’s Beneath, reinventing, subverting, and paying homage all at once.
The effect this creates (in my opinion) is the sense that, as a horror writer and reader, we are all part of something much bigger than ourselves. In our attempts to either preserve horror history, reflect on it, pay homage to it, or add our own voice, we are simply adding our own unique stitch to a grand tapestry begun long before us, one which will continue long after, as readers and writers of the future add their unique voices.
I’ve experienced this discovery many times in the past ten years. One notable instance was my discovery of Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer. I first encountered John in Wellman’s story “Where Does She Wander?” in Whispers VI, edited by Stuart David Schiff. For me (still a young horror reader) it was a revelation. Here was “genre-blending” long before Harry Dresden. And because Wellman was tapping into myth, legend and folklore, his John the Balladeer stories offered the perfect blend of the fantastic, the supernatural, and the horrific.
John is a simple man wandering the countryside, eschewing complicated, “modern” and “sophisticated” life in pursuit of a quiet one. Full of self-taught arcane knowledge and a deep spirituality, John lives off the land and helps common folks as much as possible — while dispatching demons, spirits, gremlins, beasts of folklore and witches and wizards along the way, of course. More than one author has claimed him as an inspiration. Brian Keene being one, with his fan-favorite character, (and also my favorite) Amish mage Levi Stoltzfus, a delightful counterpart to John.
After encountering John in “Where Does She Wander?” I of course scurried off to Amazon to find more John the Balladeer stories. My next read was a collection of John short stories, Who Fears the Devil? What I really enjoy about this collection is its linked nature. All the stories proceed in order as John makes his way across the countryside. Each stop along the way, he encounters monsters, demons, witches, warlocks, and a handful of moderately Lovecraftian entities.
Next was After Dark, in which John faces off against a tribe of alien humanoids who are seeking to infiltrate the human race. They look like us, kind of act like us, but they practice strange alien magic, and wish to slowly “breed out” humanity. Here we see the casual flexibility of a John the Balladeer story. Not only does he fight demons, witches, warlocks, mages, and sprites, he fights aliens, too.
The Lost and the Lurking offers perhaps the most “horror-centric” story. In this novel, John (at the behest of the U. S. government), journeys to the small town of Wolver to investigate strange goings-on there. What he finds is a Satanic cult bent on world domination. It’s also the one novel in which John faces his greatest peril, as he fights against the supernatural charms of a powerful witch who offers his greatest opposition.
I also appreciate John’s principles. As I’ve said in previous columns, morally gray horror fiction can offer very powerful stories, because their complexity hits close to home, and provides an arena for stories which delve very deeply into the internal conflicts we all face. Unfortunately, nothing in this world is so simple as black and white. Horror stories which take place in that hazy gray area can strike chords deep inside of us.
That being said, there’s something refreshing (for me, anyway), about old-fashioned and idealistic characters readers WANT to root for. Folks who stand for something. John the Balladeer is one of those characters. He’s a principled character relying on simple truths, his faith, a sense of common goodness, and his knowledge of the arcane to battle against evil.
Also, these stories are so well-written. Rich, full of substance, but the prose is straightforward, and though there’s a touch of Appalachian dialect, it’s never unwieldy or hard to read. If genre-blending, wandering bards who battle the supernatural is your game, you’d do well to seek out one of the most iconic figures in that particular sub-genre.
Unfortunately, many of these books are hard to find affordably. But you never know what’s lurking affordably in dark and dusty used book stores.
Kevin Lucia’s short fiction has appeared in several anthologies, most recently with Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Bentley Little, Peter Straub and Robert McCammon. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014, Through A Mirror, Darkly, June 2015, and and his second short story collection, Things You Need, September 2018. His novella Mystery Road was published by Cemetery Dance Publications in May 2020. For three free ebooks, sign up for his monthly newsletter at www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com.