Where Nightshade’s epic five-volume set gathered together all of Manly Wade Wellman’s extant short fiction, The Complete John Thunstone instead focuses on all of the appearances of that singular character. While not as well known as Wellman’s signature character John the Balladeer, Thunstone actually predates him; his appearance in “The Third Cry to Legba” dates back to 1943, nearly a full decade before the first Silver John story. In many ways, Thunstone lays the ground for John. It’s in these tales that the mythology of Wellman’s mysterious Shonokins first appears, and the fascination with and respect for folklore that marked Wellman’s later work is already apparent.
As for Thunstone himself, he’s a familiar character with a few unique twists. A psychic detective in the old-school style, he’s wealthy, well-built, and as quick with his fists or his saint-forged swordcane as he is with his wits. Erudite, charming and nattily attired, he tangles repeatedly with the nefarious, seemingly unkillable sorcerer Rowley Thorne, a nemesis seeming cloned from bits of Aleister Crowley and Professor Moriarty. Where Thorne strives to unleash darkness on the world (and win the affections of the Countess Sharon Montesco by fair means or foul), Thunstone and his allies fight to hold the shadows at bay. As such, he fits comfortably within the psychic detective tradition; it’s Wellman’s skill at characterization that makes him stand out.
And stand out he does, as Haffner’s lovingly collected and illustrated volume demonstrates. 16 short stories and two complete novels, plus a deeply respectful introduction from Ramsey Campbell, make up the book’s contents, and they are a feast for lovers of pulp and weird fiction.
The bulk of the stories come from the 40’s; 14 of the 16 stories were originally published in a fertile half-decade between 1943 and 1948 (including an incredible streak of 11 in 22 months). One more, “The Last Grave of Lill Warran”, just sneaks into the 1950s, and then there are three decades of silence (and Silver John, true crime, and the other fruits of Wellman’s vast talents) until 1982’s “Rouse Him Not”. The two novels, What Dreams May Come (not related to the execrable Robin Williams movie of the same name) and The School of Darkness, come from the same period, and demonstrate Wellman’s increased mastery of his craft with one of his oldest creations.
All of which does a reasonable job of describing the contents of the book, lovingly compiled by Haffner Press and gorgeously illustrated by Raymond Swanland (cover) and George Evans (interiors). What remains, then, is discussion of what the book actually is, and that can best be summed up in one word: Marvelous.
Why that word? Because the book is indeed full of marvels: Wellman’s deft, graceful prose, where a single line of description – say, the “coffin-like” phone booth Thunstone squeezes himself into – evokes more than a paragraph of exposition might. Or because the impressionistic description of the mysterious, pre-human Shonokins felt so real that it inspired readers from across the country to write to the author claiming that, no, they were real. Or the way in which Wellman wove low-culture folklore into the stories of his theoretically upper-crust protagonist in a way that was neither condescending nor crude; witness the nod to North Carolina’s own Devil’s Tramping Ground in “Rouse Him Not”. Spanning nearly a half-century, the stories remain fresh and vital, clearly connected without disconnect of character or concept.
As for the stories, there’s not a weak one there. “Lill Warran” is gently moving, a backwoods vampire tale with a heart. “Hoofs”, with its conceit of a lost soul trapped inside a glass horse by the cunning Mr. Thorne – hides its sharp edges inside a seemingly straightforward story. “Twice Cursed” moves Thunstone to a side role, with the narrator being the magically afflicted young man he must rescue from the menacing Spoorn. “Shonokin” and “Shonokin Town” create and flesh out, respectively, the eerie, off-kilter mythology of those strange almost-human creatures, laying formal groundwork for so many of the Silver John stories. “Sorcery From Thule” and “The Golden Goblins” call out Wellman’s progressive multiculturalism; for all the Thunstone bragged of his sword being crafted by St. Dunstan, there’s an impressive amount of respect for other culture here as well. And on it goes, every story eminently readable.
The novels live up to the standards of the short pieces, though in different ways. What Dreams May Come takes Wellman – and by extension, Thunstone – out of his comfort zone and across the ocean to rural England. Separated from the American settings and folklore that are so key to his prior tales, face to face with a enemy who is not so much evil as driven, and immersed in the old pagan ways of chalk giants and the local white witch, Thunstone still manages to thrive. The contrast of the setting to his usual haunts brings out the best in the character, expanding the boundaries of Thunstone’s world in a way that suggests there’s more to him than the reader could have guessed.
Where Dreams looked outward, The School of Darkness, on the other hand, offers closure and resolution. Diving back into the small-town, backwoods arcana of his classic works, Wellman brings together all of the signature elements of a Thunstone story for one last epic throwdown. Thorne is here, as is the Countess, and the final struggle between the two men at a school that suggests nothing so much as Miskatonic-as-founded-by-Sidney-Lanier. it’s a fitting ending to the character’s arc and to the collection, summing up without slamming the door.
Fans of Wellman’s work – and considering his body of work there should be more – likely have some or most of these pieces already. But to have them collected so lovingly, and to be able to re-read the evolution of the character in context is a rare treat. Newcomers to Wellman’s work – or to this particular aspect of it – will find it accessible and enjoyable, a sly, subtle, superior take on the supernatural detective that the decades have not rendered irrelevant.
You can purchase the book at Haffner Press.