"Sin's Doorway" by Manly Wade Mellman: An Appreciation by Justin Howe
I first discovered Wellman's work when I lived in Jersey City. At that time I was rediscovering the joys of the slap-happy, weird genre fiction I loved in my teens. The moment I read the book flap a series of long-dormant time bombs went off inside my head.
Like all bookish boy geeks from New England, I had been indoctrinated into the Church of HP Lovecraft upon the onset of puberty. Ole' HP is the patron saint of every nerd north and east of Connecticut. (I'd placed my own private Ry'leh somewhere off the shore of Lynn/Marblehead, beyond the GE Power Plant. At any moment, Cthulhu might rise up to menace Revere Beach and wreak havoc upon the meat-headed goons that drove their muscle cars along the beach road. Afterwards Cthulhu would stop and have a clam roll at Kelly's Roast-beef, putting tartar sauce on his French fries.) From Lovecraft, I learned the word "Pulp" and associated all sorts of mystical references to those authors who toiled in those strange, heady, prehistoric days.
Now go forward a few years when the subtle joys of male puberty are in full bloom, I'd recently discovered a mail-order catalog of dubious reading material. Among the sordid accounts of serial killers, confessional junkie novels, and how-to-be-a-criminal manuals, is a nice, whopping chapter on the pulps. Names appear: Clark Ashton Smith, H. Warner Munn, Talbot Mundy, A. Merritt, and Manly Wade Wellman. Manly sticks in my head because not only is he writing pulp, but, pulp set in the Appalachian Mountains.
The Appalachian Mountains, I'd heard of them. They supposedly existed on the western side of my home state, out there beyond the suburbs and interstates. As anyone who's grown up outside of Boston knows, once you pass beyond the safe, urban belt of Route 128, you may as well have to show a passport. It's a different country.
So, there I am in the Jersey City Library, my brain full of suppressed Weird Tales time bombs, my antenna twitching. I read the copy and my antenna start to do the double twitch. I take the book home and start reading. I meet John the Balladeer and John Thunstone, men who fight against monsters with silver stringed guitars and sword canes. It's like I've tuned my television set to my own private channel, where the weird and the heroic runs twenty-four hours a day.
Wellman had it all: sad sack heroes who fought against evil, but were drifters. They faced forces of darkness more or less because they were honest men trying to find a meal.
That brings me to "Sin's Doorway." Who's this stranger that comes to town? He has no name and is just trying to avoid the law and get by. In my mind I cast a younger John the Balladeer, maybe after he's returned from some battlefield of World War Two. The voice is his. And Wellman puts in little bits of original weirdness, the familiar Parway and the Gardinel. Are there such things in Appalachian folklore: intelligent prehistoric critters and evil houses that sprout up from fungus? Is Wellman creating his own mythology and welding it to the backbone of some broader folklore that includes the notion of sin eating?
Rereading this story (and going through the rest of the archive) I was struck by the wealth of stories SCI FICTION published and brought back from oblivion.
Sure, I find Wellman's stark conflict of good vs. evil to be a bit uninteresting. I'd like to add a big splash of gray to his universe, but that's not the point. I'm indebted to him for that moment when all those tiny charges went off and knocked down the wall I'd set up between the stories I once loved and myself. He reintroduced me to old friends and set me on my way to find plenty of new ones. For that I'm thankful.
Link to story.