One of the subgenres of fiction that I’ve always been interested in is that of the “supernatural detective,” also sometimes known as “occult detective fiction.” Recent examples of the trope include the TV show The X-Files and the paranormal detective comic book character John Constantine, one of whose creators was Alan Moore. The stories in The Complete John Thunstone center around another character named John, one John Thunstone, a wealthy man-about-town occult detective created by fantasist and regional writer Manly Wade Wellman in the 1940’s.
John Thunstone made his first appearance in the November 1943 issue of Weird Tales with “The Third Cry to Legba,” a tale wherein Thunstone matches wits with a malevolent modern day “sorcerer” named Rowley Thorne (supposedly patterned after real-life famed mystic Aleister Crowley) while encountering Voodoo spirits and a beautiful heiress. Thunstone went on to star in fourteen other short stories in the 1940’s and one more in 1951 in Weird Tales magazine before Wellman turned his attention to other fantasy characters (most notably his John the Balladeer of Appalachia stories) and non-fiction works during the next three decades. Wellman returned to the character in the 1980’s with one more short story and two suspenseful novels.
The short stories have been collected before, most notably in the Carcosa Press volume Lonely Vigils (1981) and the Night Shade Press collection The Third Cry to Legba and other Invocations (2000) but this is the first time that all the short stories and the two novels have been collected together in one volume. The physical book itself is a work of art and quality binding, as is usually the case with Haffner Press products. Interior art is from the aforementioned long out of print Lonely Vigils collection and was done by George Evans. The dust jacket and end sheets artwork are done by Raymond Swanland, and the introduction is by horror and fantasy great Ramsey Campbell, who knew Wellman and considered him something of an inspiration, friend and mentor.
John Thunstone himself is something of a classic hero, in both the old pulp magazine as well as the occult detective sense. He is tall, well-built and something of a man-about-town. (A note here: it’s fairly obvious that Wellman was pretty much describing the character as a replica of his own build and looks. Check out the book’s artwork, then compare to the picture of Wellman that I’ve included here and see if you don’t agree.) While Thunstone doesn’t exactly hang out a shingle asking for business in the mode of Philip Marlowe, due to his reputation people seek him out when confronted with strange occurrences. He also seeks out situations where he believes he’ll expand his knowledge of the occult and/or help those he’s heard might have need of his assistance.
The initial stories take place in New York City, but as the series progressed, Wellman sent Thunstone to other regions of the eastern seaboard, particularly portions of Appalachia, where Wellman would later base his most famous character “Silver John” aka “John the Balladeer.”
While his style and type of fantasy are different, Wellman is similar to J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis in that his characters and their conflicts tend to be Manichean, that is, “Good versus Evil” with little in the way of ambiguity as to which side the main players are on. While I usually prefer some more shades of grey in my reading, Wellman’s writing is so well done, and Thunstone is so believable, while at the same time being “larger than life,” that I find myself going along with no complaints.
The villains are memorable as much as the main character, and in some ways steal the proverbial show in some of the stories. Besides the aforementioned Rowley Thorne, my favorites are the Shonokins, a race of creatures who appear human at first glance, but upon closer inspection aren’t, and who claim to have ruled the North American continent before the advent of human beings, and who firmly believe that they will eventually reclaim it. Thunstone combats these and other more typical supernatural creatures with his brain, his brawn, and his silver sword, which comes complete with its very own sword cane case. According to the stories, the weapon was given to Thunstone by one of Wellman’s other occult detectives, Judge Pursuivant, who starred in some Weird Tales stories of his own in the 1930’s. The good Judge gave the sword cane to his younger counterpart after he presumably got too old to chase after demons and other such critters.
Little narrative points and name dropping (of fictional, mythological and real life characters) like this are part of the reason I really enjoy the stories, completely aside from the fact that they are well wrought adventure tales of the old school variety. In the just the first few stories alone, Wellman (via Thunstone) throws out mention of Zora Neale Hurston and her research in Haiti, Saint Dunstan (a real life 10th century British Bishop who was widely believed to have outwitted the Devil), Jules de Grandin (a fictional occult detective created by Seabury Quinn who graced the WT issues in the 1930’s), and various and sundry other characters both literary and historical.
A point of disclosure and confession: I was given The Complete John Thunstone as a review copy with the only stipulation being that I provide an honest and timely review of it. I’ve compiled the former here, but the timeliness is open to question. My only excuse (other than my usual habit of procrastination) is that the stories demanded that they be savored, one or two at time, then digested and mused upon before returning (gladly) for more. The Complete John Thunstone is one of those books that I’ll keep and return to from time to time, the same way I do with some of my old friends from my younger days, enjoying the time spent together. I recommend it to anyone interested in the occult fiction sub-genre, the pulp magazine era, and fantasy adventure fiction in general. These stories are too good to not be read, even by the modern fantasy reader.
Edited by Stephen Haffner, Introduction by Ramsey Campbell
- The Third Cry to Legba Weird Tales Nov 1943
- The Golden Goblins Weird Tales Jan 1944
- Hoofs Weird Tales Mar 1944
- The Letters of Cold Fire Weird Tales May1944
- John Thunstone’s Inheritance Weird Tales Jul 1944
- Sorcery from Thule Weird Tales Sep 1944
- The Dead Man’s Hand Weird Tales Nov 1944
- Thorne on the Threshold Weird Tales Jan 1945
- The Shonokins Weird Tales Mar 1945
- Blood from a Stone Weird Tales May 1945
- The Dai Sword Weird Tales Jul 1945
- Twice Cursed Weird Tales Mar 1946
- Shonokin Town Weird Tales Jul 1946
- The Leonardo Rondache Weird Tales Mar 1948
- The Last Grave of Lill Warran Weird Tales May 1951
- Rouse Him Not Kadath Jul 1982
- What Dreams May Come, Doubleday 1983
- The School of Darkness, Doubleday 1985