Silver John is a fictional character from a series of fantasy stories (1963-84) by American author Manly Wade Wellman (1903–1986). 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 historical period is never explicitly indicated, but appears to be the middle 20th century.
John, whose last name is never revealed, is a wandering singer who carries a guitar strung with strings of pure silver. He is a veteran of the Korean War and served in the U.S. Army as a sharpshooter (in the novel After Dark, he mentions that his highest rank was PFC). In his travels, he frequently encounters creatures and superstitions from the folk tales and superstitions of the mountain people. Though John has no formal education, 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 (in the novel The Hanging Stones, he receives word that Flornoy College is awarding him an honorary doctorate for contributions to folklore and folk music). This knowledge has granted him competent use of white magic, which he has used on occasion to overcome enemies or obstacles, but it is primarily his courage, wit and essential goodness that always enables him to triumph over supernatural evils (although the silver strings of his guitar and his possession of a copy of The Long Lost Friend are also powerful tools in fighting evil magic), while basic Army training allows him to physically deal with human foes. 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 (see the novel The Lost and Lurking for full details).
In the short story "Nine Yards of Other Cloth", John rescues a girl named Evadare from the unwanted attentions of the evil Shull Cobart: "Small-made, yet you saw she was grown and you saw she was proud ... Her bright sun-colored hair was tied behind her neck with a blue ribbon ... I saw by the glow how pinky-soft her skin was, how young and pretty, and bigger, bluer eyes than Evadare's you couldn't call for."
After Shull Cobart is destroyed, Evadare asks to join John on his travels, but he refuses to make her a wanderer like himself; when he can't dissuade her, he flees from her but she follows him. When after following without complaint she reaches the end of her strength and endurance, he realizes that he loves her. In the following story "Trill Coster's Burden", after Evadare shows her faith and courage by taking a dead wicked woman's sins upon herself according to mountain custom (called "sin-eating": "Somebody dies after a bad life, and a friend or paid person agrees the sins will be his, not the dead one's") and watching out the night, she and John are married by Preacher Frank Ricks. Evadare is mentioned in the subsequent "Silver John" novels, but only actually appears in the novel The Hanging Stones.
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.
There are also a group of mini-stories or vignettes, consisting of about half a page, that were originally used as transitions from one major story to another in the collection Who Fears the Devil. These were later collected and made into two chapters in the later collections: "Wonder As I Wander" and "Further Down the Trail":
Manly Wade Wellman (May 21, 1903 – April 5, 1986) was an American writer.
While his science fiction and fantasy stories appeared in such pulps as Astounding Stories, Startling Stories, Unknown and Strange Stories, Wellman is best remembered as one of the most popular contributors to the legendary Weird Tales, and for his fantasy and horror stories set in the Appalachian Mountains, which draw on the native folklore of that region. Karl Edward Wagner referred to him as "the dean of fantasy writers." Wellman also wrote in a wide variety of other genres, including historical fiction, detective fiction, western fiction, juvenile fiction, and non-fiction.
Wellman was a long-time resident of North Carolina. He received many awards, including the World Fantasy Award and Edgar Allan Poe Award. In 2013, the North Carolina Speculative Fiction Foundation inaugurated an award named after him to honor other North Carolina authors of science fiction and fantasy.
Three of Wellman's most famous recurring protagonists are (1) John, a.k.a. John the Balladeer, a.k.a. "Silver John", a wandering backwoods minstrel with a silver-stringed guitar, (2) the elderly "occult detective" Judge Pursuivant, and (3) John Thunstone, also an occult investigator.