Silver John is a fictional character from a series of fantasy stories by Manly Wade Wellman. Though fans refer to him as Silver John or as John the Balladeer, the stories call him simply John. He is an example of the loner hero.
The stories are set in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. The time is never explicitly given but seems to be the middle of the twentieth century. John; who resembles a young Johnny Cash, is a wandering singer who carries a guitar with silver strings. He is a veteran of the Korean War, and served in the U.S. Army as a sharpshooter. He frequently encounters creatures and superstitions from the folk tales and superstitions of the mountain people. Though John has no special skills or weapons (other than basic Army training), he is self-taught, highly intelligent, and widely read. It is implied that his knowledge of occult and folk legendarium is of Ph.D level. This knowledge has granted him competent use of magic; which he has used on occasion to overcome enemies or obstacles, but it is primarily his courage, wit and essential goodness always allow him to triumph over supernatural evils. He has an implied mystic link of some sort to John the Baptist, and much of his personal philosophy can be traced to a "primitive", Gospel-based, Christianity. On one occasion he is "employed" by the State Department to investigate on their behalf a possible instance of Satanism.
The stories are rich in the customs and lore of the region and many of the folk songs John sings are authentic as well. Wellman did introduce some original songs and legends but his creations blend seamlessly with the traditional material. Whereas Tolkien integrated Northern mythology into his mythos, and C.S. Lewis the European Fairy Tales of yore, Wellman’s stories are drenched in the folktales and songs of old Americana; the haunting stories of the slaves and the tall tales of the Revolution, strange beasts, witch-women, and dark apparitions. As famed author Karl Edward Wagner wrote: “These stories are chilling and enchanting, magical and down-to-earth, full of wonder and humanity. They are fun. They are like nothing else you’ve read before.”
The short stories of John have been collected four times, as Who Fears the Devil? (1963), John the Balladeer (1988), Owls Hoot in Daytime and Other Omens (2003), and Who Fears the Devil? (2010). In addition, there are five novels about John. Wellman was planning an additional novel, to be titled The Valley So Low, but died before writing it. The title would be used for a collection of his stories, instead.
Silver John novels:
- The Old Gods Waken (1979)
- After Dark (1980)
- The Lost and Lurking (1981)
- The Hanging Stones (1982)
- Voice of the Mountain (1984)
The Legend of Hillbilly John, a low-budget movie about John, was released in 1973. The novel Old Nathan by David Drake, a friend of Wellman's, was inspired by the Silver John stories.
In popular culture
- Hammer's Slammers CD - The Baen ebook CD that came with David Drake's novel The Far Side of the Stars contains the Baen edition of John the Balladeer.
- Who Fears The Devil?: The Songs of Silver John, a CD by Joe Bethancourt featuring his own performances of the songs used in the books, set to the probable original traditional melodies that Mr. Wellman had in mind.