The Old Gods Waken
Manly Wade Wellman | Berkley Books | 1984 (first published 1979) | 186 pages
Appalachian farmer Creed Forshay is drawn into conflict with his mysterious new neighbors after they attempt to build a fence across his property line. He enlists the help of John, a wandering minstrel with a silver-stringed guitar, who has befriended his son, Luke.
Forshay’s easy embrace of John runs contrary to the expected real-world reaction towards a transient balladeer, which would arguably be summarized as, “Get the **** off my property, BARD!” (followed by the pump of a shotgun).
At Forshay’s request, John climbs the mountain path to the property owned by the Voth brothers. He immediately senses something wrong with the brothers, noting a large wicker figure they have constructed. In addition, he glimpses something watching from the large oak tree in front of their farmhouse. Returning to the Forshay house, John feels a dark, watchful presence just out of sight.
John takes his suspicions to Reuben Manco, an old friend and Cherokee medicine man. Before you have time to yell, “DRUIDS!”, the pair have figured out that the Voth brothers are Druid cultists attempting to apply Old World magick in order to raise ancient New World gods from their slumber.
The set-up unfolds very quickly, and after Luke and a female companion are kidnapped, John and Reuben set out to rescue the pair from probable human sacrifice and defeat the Voth brothers. The narrative is structured around seven challenges the pair must face, ranging from a giant boar to magical boundaries of water and fire.
Overcoming each challenge leads to Manco explaining the history and lore of druidism, and the related mysticism of indigenous American peoples. These convenient information dumps are primarily static, interrupting other passages that could have easily been lifted from action-adventure serials. A lengthy climb up a sheer mountain cliff provides thrills unrelated to any gods, spirits or magic spells.
For all his hinted experience, John seems, at first, to bring little to the fight against the Voths, relying on the expertise of those he enlists to aid him. As the seven challenges progress, however, he comes into his own and proves to be an unflappable adventurer. Both he and Reuben show remarkable calm when confronted with their ultimate adversaries, mythical creatures with the vague shape of a human form, but with fleshy wings stretching from hand to foot.
The Appalachian setting provides an atmospheric background, although the text’s repeated use of regional colloquialisms, both in speech and description,occasionally threatens to descend into cloying. But Old Gods also takes a few steps to subvert the expected stereotypes. Luke is not just another hick local boy, but has graduated from college, valuably adding to the group’s discussion of the history of global folklore. Reuben employs the monosyllabic grunt of a racist’s conception of “Indian” language to the Voths, hiding his advanced knowledge and tricking the brothers into dismissing him as a threat.
Old Gods Waken is a quick and engaging read, filled with a regional atmosphere. Perhaps the mystical revelations are too front-loaded to build much suspense, and the folkloric information comes as an occasional block of exposition, but readers will ultimately be invested in seeing John’s (albeit brief) journey to the end.
Fortunately, the pace provides John with little time to plunk his guitar and unleash too many folksy ballads.