Saturday, May 16, 2009

Manly Wade Wellman's Sergeant Jaeger Stories

Sergeant Jaeger stories in Fearful Rock and Other Precarious Locales: Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman Volume 3 (San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2001.)

I've included this review here, and those folks who are familiar with Wellman's weird fiction might think that an odd choice. However, for these stories, the western category works.

Contrary to how the Black Mask style as practiced by Dashiell Hammett and his hard-boiled confreres seemed to influence so pervasively popular fiction writing in the United States — Hammett's staccato, fast-moving style became common in the hero pulps, among some western and science fiction writers, and nearly the de facto style of Gold Medal authors and others during the paperback original novel boom — the horror tale and weird tale typically kept a more lush style because of the Weird Tales genre's reliance on atmosphere and building up of sensation. Robert E. Howard's sword and sorcery tales were something of a hybrid; but by the time Karl Edward Wagner was writing his Kane stories he had a style that was recognizably influenced by the hard-boiled and mainstream fiction styles.

In reading what editor John Pelan calls the Sergeant Jaeger stories — "Fearful Rock" (Weird Tales issues for February, March, and April 1939); "Coven" (Weird Tales July 1942); and "Toad's Foot" (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction April 1979) — Manly Wade Wellman clearly did not follow the laconic Black Mask style. If anything, Wellman's southern-influenced storytelling here almost seems leisurely, if I can go so far, and the horrific details he relates are all the more frightening because of the controlled manner he uses to relate these tales.

Joel Lane, a horror writer and a member of the Yahoo email group All_Hallows, which focuses on ghost stories and supernatural fiction (and is an e-mail offshoot of All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society), captured Wellman's style nicely with the word "quiet." He did so in this passage, part of a July 19, 2006 posting to the group:

" . . . the real centre of gravity of pulp supernatural horror belongs to the American writers of the 40s and 50s: Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, mid-period Bloch, Manly Wade Wellman, Joseph Payne Brennan, August Derleth and others. This was a quieter, more down-to-earth weird fiction than that of the earlier pulp writers. It was often regional, and had strong links to the crime genre as well as to the traditional ghost story."

Quiet and down-to-earth, oral-rooted storytelling is Wellman's mode of telling these tales. This mode fits, since these are historical fictions rather than contemporary narratives. All three have their beginnings during the U.S. Civil War, during which Jaeger served as a sergeant in a Union Army troop. The umbrella title of "Sergeant Jaeger stories" comes from Jaeger's participation in each tale.

"Fearful Rock" relates the weird happenings in the community of that name in "a great, trough-like valley just south of the Missouri-Arkansas border" when a Union troop skirmishes with Quantrille's guerilla raiders. The incident involves an abandoned house; two odd men — a father, Persil Mandifer, and his son, Larue — who would seem to fit better in the Garden District of New Orleans than on the western frontier; and Enid Mandifer, ostensibly raised as Persil's daughter, but who learns at the story's opening she was adopted for the purpose of marriage (read sacrifice) to some unnamed elder god or demon (which weakly links the tale to the Cthulu Mythos, one might argue) so that Persil and Larue's power and seeming agelessness may continue uninterrupted.

Coincidentally enough, the night of the skirmish turns out to be the night of Enid's marriage, so Persil's plans go awry — several troops on both sides are killed, along with Persil and Larue; the abandoned house is consumed by some bizarre blue flame; and Enid escapes her fate.

After the war, Kane Lanark — who had commanded the Union troops at the skirmish — returns to Fearful Rock to find Enid living alone and nearly destitute on the strangely barren Mandifer homeplace. He also finds his former sergeant, Jaegar, already returned to the community and set up as a preacher. Lanark finds Jaeger's reliance on folklore and other, seeming non-canonical methods of warding off evil — charms and odd books of wisdom — a bit disconcerting, and is not entirely trusting of his former comrade in arms. But he is willing to join Jaeger's efforts to put an end to the curse under which the community — and particularly Enid — dwell. This resolution is followed with a battle against dead men — men Lanark recognizes as rebel troops he killed during the war — and two figures Lanark recognizes as Persil and Larue, even though Jaeger discovers their discarded skins in the opened trench where Quantrille's dead troops were buried after the skirmish. The remains of the abandoned house and its contents again come into play, and Lanark and Jaeger end the demon's influence in the community. The story ends with the suggestion that Lanark and Enid will eventually be married.

"Coven" also opens during the Civil War, when Sergeant Jaeger relies on the help of a virginal youth — captured Confederate Infantry Private Cole Wickett — to track down the residing place of a vampire in a cemetery. After the war, Wickett coincidentally encounters Jaeger again, in Fearful Rock. Jaeger again uses Wickett, this time against a coven of witches, under the assumption that Wickett's wartime encounter with the supernatural provided him a sort of immunization against the effects of evil forces. During the course of the tale, the witches use an innocent young woman — Susan Dole — as bait for a trap against Jaeger; at story's end, Wellman again suggests that a marriage ceremony for Wickett and Dole will eventually take place.

The third of these stories — "Toad's Foot" — was written many years later, but Wellman maintains the mode of telling his tale of quiet horror that marked the earlier two. This story is something like a flashback to the first days Jaeger moved to Fearful Rock to set up preaching. Here, Jaeger must do battle with a witch, who exerts great influence in the community and who intends to remove Jaeger and any efforts to decrease her sway. Again Jaeger relies on his folkloric arcane knowledge and a drawn charm to defeat his enemy. Contrary to the denouements for the previous two Jaeger tales, there is no budding romance in this story, but the convention for such had become unnecessary by the time "Toad's Foot" was published in 1979. Further, Wellman depends on atmosphere rather than violence and action to carry this story — the witch's fate takes place off stage — and his descriptions of setting and landscape are very effective; the verisimilitude his details build removes the weight of unlikelihood that the story's fantastic elements would otherwise impose on the reader.

Other contemporaries of Wellman from the Weird Tales stable have had greater popular success and mainstream popularity; but Wellman typically crafted a story with atmosphere, with horror, in a quiet manner that didn't offer a lot of fireworks. His stories could be very effective and entertaining in a way that's far from the Shock Value Genre that began to mark a lot of horror writing in the 1970s and afterward. A reader can lose oneself in Wellman's storytelling as though the author is sitting nearby relating a tale aloud — and that's a good mark of a fine writer.

You can learn more about Wellman at The Voice Of The Mountains web site, which is devoted to Wellman and his works.

The Wikipedia entry for Wellman has some interesting info. Did you know that Wellman wrote stories about The Spirit while Will Eisner was in the Army?

You can purchase Fearful Rock and Other Precarious Locales: Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman Volume 3 at Amazon.

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