Manly Wade Wellman is the literary equivalent of a favorite corner bar. The regulars all know the place and sing its praises to the heavens, but somehow the restaurant critics and Saturday night crowds never seem to find the place. And we, as patrons, are secretly relieved that we still have it all to ourselves. That way, when we pass other patrons, we can give each other secret little smiles because, well, we know something the rest of you don’t. That, however, may be changing, at least in the case of the late Mr. Wellman, and it’s about damn time. Night Shade Books is putting together a six volume collection of Wellman’s works, and this is cause for much rejoicing among fans of good writing everywhere.
The first volume in the series is The Third Cry to Legba and Other Invocations, and it’s a doozy. Fans familiar only with the Silver John stories, however, are in for a shock. There’s not a single story featuring John the Balladeer here, though a few of the tales do wander into territory where you might expect to find him.
Instead, the book is devoted to two of Wellman’s other “psychic detectives” whose fame hasn’t weathered the years quite as well as John’s has. The bulk of the volume consists of stories of square-jawed investigator John Thunstone. Thunstone is unremittingly heroic and very much a pulp creation, and seems to be positively dedicated to stamping out evil occult activity in a way that leaves no time for a day job. Indeed. Thunstone is so heroic and irretrievably competent that readers may find themselves wishing, at least initially, that the forces of evil offered a little more of a challenge. Even the genuine suspense of stories like “The Golden Goblins” and “The Dead Man’s Hand” wrap up too quickly.
That changes, however, halfway through the set with “Shonokins.” The story first brings Thunstone into contact with the not-quite-human shonokins, who ruled the world once and seem to have ideas about getting it back. They acquire a special hatred for Thunstone and dog him through several stories, even as they were to dog other Wellman protagonists. Perhaps Wellman sensed that Thunstone was getting a bit formulaic; here’s where the gloves come off and the enemies get deadly. It’s also when we see a few more shades of grey enter Thunstone’s world; the sad obsessive of “The Last Grave of Lill Warren” is not someone an earlier Thunstone would have had much sympathy for.
The back end of the book is reserved for Lee Cobbett, and introduces a few of Wellman’s other players in stories like Chastel. The Cobbett stories are longer, more complex and in many cases sadder, and Cobbett himself seems much less assured of victory than Thunstone does. We first meet him in “The Dakwa,” and right off the bat we get to see him doing something profoundly dangerous with inadequate information. Cobbett has rough edges to him, the evidence of near-misses and close calls, and as a result his tales are more satisfying than Thunstone’s. Thunstone is more of a hero, but Lee Cobbett is more of a man, and that makes a significant difference. He’s got some cockiness to him, as demonstrated in “A Witch For All Seasons,” and that tale shows off some cruelty as well. But Cobbett also allows for an unexpected tenderness, as in “Chastel,” which sketches a portrait of a love that, like one of its participants, should have gone to its grave long ago. But saying that Cobbett is better than Thunstone is like saying that 25-year- old scotch is better than 18 — they’re both excellent once you’ve acquired the taste. The Third Cry to Legba is a remarkable collection, and a welcome one for those of us who’ve been scrabbling through anthologies and eBay auctions to get our Wellman fixes. But the rest of you, well, you don‚Äôt have any excuses any more. Find the book, read, and wonder.
(Night Shade Press, 2000)