Monday, February 06, 2012

What Dreams May Come

Occult investigator John Thunstone is Manly Wade Wellman's second most popular character after John the Balladeer, and while the other John ultimately appeared in more adventures, Thunstone's career was longer, starting with the Third Cry to Legba in the November 1943 issue of Weird Tales and ending with the novel The School of Darkness in 1985. Forty two years is a good run for a fictional character.
I had read School of Darkness a couple of years back, but only got around to the other Thunstone novel, What Dreams May Come, this weekend. Read it more or less in a sitting. In this book, Thunstone's curiosity almost gets him killed when he travels to the small British hamlet of Claines to have a look at the two stone age relics the town boasts, one a giant outline of a mysterious figure on a hillside (based, one assumes on the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset) and the other a toppled stone monolith. The figure is called Old Thunder and the monolith is know as The Dream Stone but no one knows why. Every year at midnight on July 4th, the villagers turn the monolith over, and no one knows why they do that either. It's been done as long as anyone can remember.
Thunstone, in England for research purposes, hears about the town and its odd ritual and decides to check it out. On his first night there he has a strange vision where the walls of his hotel room vanish and he finds himself in the open air, looking at what surely must be Claines long before the town was built. But Old Thunder is already there, glowing on the hillside. Soon Thunstone meets a young woman, a self proclaimed white witch, who tells him that what happened to him wasn't a vision, but that he was actually in the stone age past, and that she too has made the trip. For a few nights each year as the turning of the Dream Stone approaches, those with some psychic ability can actually travel to the past in the dark of night.
Thunstone begins to investigate the monolith and Old Thunder, bringing him into conflict with the mysterious Mr. Ensley, who owns most of the town and who seems very interested in making sure that this year's turning of the stone goes off as planned. Thunstone makes another trip into the past as an experiment and is almost killed by three stone age warriors. After that, things really get weird, as Ensley's real plans and the nature of Old Thunder and the Dream Stone are revealed.
This was a short book, only 175 pages in hardback, and it shows Manly Wade Wellman still working at the top of his game well into his eighties. In fact, Wellman would pass away a year after this novel was published. His writing is just as smooth and well crafted as ever, and the slow build to the reveal of the nature of the evil in Claines kept me turning pages until I was done with the book. Wellman's horror fiction is rarely graphic (though he's not above the gross out) but more of the kind that leaves you a little disturbed rather than terrified. What Dreams may Come is a fine example of this.
We also get a little background information on Thunstone. Originally created for Weird Tales as a sort of playboy who fought supernatural menaces in New York City, in this book it's revealed that Thunstone was born in the South. It's interesting to note that as Wellman's love for the mountains of the Southern US grew, all his characters gravitated to the South. In Thunstone's final appearance in Weird Tales, (The Last Grave of Lil Warren, 1951) he left New York to trail a vampire into the Southern hills. A little while after than, Wellman's first John the Balladeer story appeared, set in the Appalachian Mountains of the Carolinas. Thunstone wouldn't appear again until the 1980s. Wellman himself eventually settled down in Chapel Hill NC where he lived out the last half of his life. Seems he took his characters with him.
Anyway, I enjoyed What Dreams may Come a good deal, and will probably do a reread of The School of Darkness soon. I've also been accumulating the John the Balladeer novels and now have three of the five. Looking forward to them.


Paul R. McNamee said...

Like Henry Kuttner, Wellman is an author I want to read more of this year. I just figured out that there were Silver John novels as well as short stories. Added 'em to my wishlist (all out-of-print, so its really a hunt-list.)

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Paul, yeah I've read the short stories over and over, but I've really just started reading the novels. The hardest John the Balladeer book to get cheap is The Voice of the Mountains. The other four are pretty easy to find at a reasonable price.