Wellman's stories of Silver John are like snatches of a familiar song: you find them in the most fascinating places, but good luck finding the whole tune in one place when you want to. While the Silver John tales are relentlessly anthologized (at least, by anthology editors with good taste), finding the actual novels and collections of stories featuring Wellman's wandering guitarist are rarer than hen's teeth. Finding a Silver John novel, like After Dark, is cause for a discerning reader to rejoice. Alas that such causes for rejoicing are few and far between these days.
But enough general rumination; consider instead After Dark. The novel is a slim little thing, clocking in at under 200 pages (at least in the hardcover edition). The story concerns itself with Wellman's omnipresent balladeer, Silver John, who wanders Appalachia with a silver-stringed guitar, looking for songs to learn, but more often finding supernatural unpleasantness that takes more than mere music to unravel.
In this case, John stumbles across a plot by the mysterious, not-quite human Shonokins to do, well, something unpleasant. John and his compatriots suspect that the Shonokins' plans involve raising the dead, and taking over the country, and maybe even turning John into a Shonokin himself (the Shonokins' leader, Brooke Altic, makes the offer on more than one occasion), but that's pretty much all there is to go on. John and his allies stand up to the Shonokins, complications ensue, and inevitably the pillars of heaven shake when it comes time for the final showdown.
But what are the Shonokins? We're never really quite sure. We learn a little about what they live like, and a little more about what they look like (slitted cats' eyes, too-long fingers), and even that they have a fear of their own dead, but really all we end up knowing is that they are other. They are alien, and inhuman, and perhaps all the worse for the fact that they can inflict their brand of inhumanity on those willing to join them.
In the end, though, detail isn't what Silver John is about. Instead, this is a sketch of a novel, drawn with bold strokes and subtle shadings. We learn enough about the Shonokins to fear them, and to fear for those who stand against them, and that fear is all the more compelling for the fact that it is so very formless. We learn to admire Silver John and his companions for having the spine to resist the fear that Wellman works so hard to inculcate in us.
More than that, well, there's not much. After Dark is brief. It's a fast read, and even those who find the dialect in which much of the story is written troublesome will move through it at a rapid pace. Wellman's simple, clean narrative carries the reader along at a rapid clip. There are no wasteful subplots here; in truth there are no subplots at all.
Everyone in the book is tied up in the Shonokins' manipulations somehow, either for or against, and much of the book is merely the matter of settling out who stands where. Be warned, the novel does end abruptly, and while that ending isn't unexpected, the character responsible for saving the day does come across as a rather unlikely source for such heroics. Still, these are minor quibbles, and they fade into insignificance at the frisson of fear a line like "After dark, the Shonokins" produces.
Find the book if you can. Settle in for an eminently enjoyable evening of reading. And when you finish, and you can see the moon shining in through your windows, remember that "After dark, the Shonokins."
NB: there is a new website called The Voice of the Mountains, dedicated exclusively to Appalachian folk and fantasy writer Manly Wade Wellman. It's billed as the only comprehensive site on the web which looks at his writings, his life, a bestiary, and extensive bibliography. You can find it here.