Stephen Haffner and his Haffner Press continue to do some impressive heavy lifting in the field of preserving, annotating, and reinvigorating the ancestors of today’s fantastika. The pioneers of our favorite kind of literature receive, in these massive, gorgeous collections, both the honor they deserve for their groundbreaking writings that catalyzed and crystallized our contemporary fiction, and also a chance to entertain whole new generations of readers. For, make no mistake, these classic pulp stories are not of mere scholarly interest, but maintain full measures of narrative drama and fascination, comparable to the newest products off the presses.
Today’s author in the Haffner spotlight is Manly Wade Wellman, one of those solid, hardworking, midlist genre writers who never got rich or heavily laurelled (a Lifetime Achievement World Fantasy Award did deservedly alight on his shoulders), but who wrote a respectable number of notable canonical pieces, as well as a larger amount of solidly constructed entertainments. You can swot up on his interesting life at The Science Fiction Encyclopedia and Wikipedia. Able to work in practically any genre (SF, horror, fantasy, Westerns, YA, detective), Wellman had a long career whose duplicate would be hard to achieve in today’s troubled marketplace. Night Shade Press has already gathered up several volumes of his stories, and now comes The Complete John Thunstone, which assembles all the fiction—including two entire novels—devoted to one of Wellman’s occult detectives.
Before delving into these fine stories, I should mention that evocative illustrations by Raymond Swanland (endpapers and cover) and George Evans (interiors), as well as a perceptive introduction by Ramsey Campbell, further enhance the package.
In the very first tale, “The Third Cry to Legba,” Wellman handily sets up his infinitely mutable scenario and personalities. Thunstone, and his antagonist Rowley Thorne (modeled on Aleister Crowley), and the woman they contend over, Countess Sharon Montesco, appear in vivid yet spare descriptions. (Mystic Sabine Loel provides glamour in alternate stories.) The occult threat is introduced—spookily and with some hidden aspects—in restrained yet menacing manner. Investigations and antagonistic pushback create suspense. And the climax and denouement is not belabored. (No Vargo Statten-style penny-a-word padding mars Wellman’s artistic integrity.) This is the pattern all the stories will follow, and yet the clever and ever-shifting supernatural MacGuffins make each tale seem novel and fresh.
Wellman’s prose is crisp, colorful and capable of evoking true menace and strangeness. Consider the passage in “The Letters of Cold Fire,” where the damaged mage Cavet Leslie describes the Deep School, where he was immured in darkness for seven years of study. It matches in shudders that great scene in Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, where the reader learns that a starving abomination in a dungeon has been imprisoned not for days or weeks but for centuries. Incidentally, Thunstone’s citation of the Necronomicon puts the stories solidly in Mythos territory. And Thunstone is always writing letters to Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin as well!
And so it goes for a total of sixteen adventures, each one bringing Thunstone unpredictably face to face with subtle yet potentially fatal horrors. Wellman seldom repeats any phrasing, even in his description of Thunstone’s majestic appearance, and he strives for inventiveness of telling with true professionalism and craftsmanship. For instance, “The Dead Man’s Hand” takes place on two parallel tracks that converge, while “Twice Cursed” is told in first-person, from the viewpoint of the magical victim.
Perhaps Wellman’s best invention is that of an ancient race called the Shonokins. “The Shonokins were, or said they were, a people who had been fortuitously displaced as rulers of America by the red Indians. A legend that they insisted upon was that ordinary human evolution was one thing and Shonokin evolution another. They hinted here and there at tokens of long-vanished culture and power, and at a day soon to come when their birthright would return to them.” (“The Shonokins”) These eerie figures plague Thunstone at intervals, combining human menace with eldritch forces.
We never learn much about Thunstone, his backstory or motivations. But that’s fine, because his essence is that of superhero or avenger, a Batman or Shadow figure. Nonetheless, he comes across as believably human and fallible (with an eye for the ladies, even), his victories hardfought and far from guaranteed.
Wellman, a Southerner, became famous later for his regionally based fiction with the John the Balladeer stories. His Thunstone tales also seem a particularly American brand of fantasy (Shonokins especially), so it’s startling to find the occult PI in England in the first novel, What Dreams May Come. Wellman’s story-telling skills and general prose in these two novels, by the way, is forty years advanced from his Weird Tales days, and even more capable.
Wellman quickly and deftly conjures up the village of Claines and its quirky bunch of inhabitants. He gives Thunstone a good antagonist in the form of Gram Ensley, and some neat supernatural MacGuffins with a Dream Stone and a chalk giant called Old Thunder. Toss in some choice timeslip bits; a little more insight into Thunstone’s past; and some mortal peril, and you’ve got a winning expansion of the series.
In The School of Darkness, Wellman brings back Rowley Thorne for a final confrontation with Thunstone, and he does it in a charmingly uncommon setting, with some of the atmosphere of a Fritz Leiber novel. Buford State University is a small school founded centuries ago in an act of witchcraft, and it’s been hospitable to the “supernormal” ever since. There resides the witch Grizel Fian (a name surely worthy of Jack Vance’s genius). She becomes Thorne’s aide-de-camp in the plot to harm Thunstone and the Countess Montesco. But Thunstone finds allies as well: Father Mark Bundren, Chief Reuben Manco, and Professor Tashiro Shimada. This multicultural trio (for Wellman was ahead of his time in his deference to non-Anglo traditions) stage a final battle in a lecture hall, of all places, bringing Thunstone’s admirable, entertaining career to a satisfying climax.