Retro Review: “Hoofs” by Manly Wade Wellman

Weird Tales, March 1944“Hoofs” is a horror short story in the John Thunstone series by Manly Wade Wellman. It was first published in the March 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

John Thunstone is an occult detective created by Manly Wade Wellman who appeared in fifteen stories in Weird Tales between 1943 and 1951 as well as one further short story and two novels in the 1980s. Six of the John Thunstone stories appeared in 1944 alone, that’s a third of the entire series excluding the novels, so the character and series were clearly popular. Steve J. Wright reviewed all six of the 1944 John Thunstone stories on his blog.

However, “Hoofs” does not begin with John Thunstone himself, but with his love interest, Sharon Countess Monteseco, a recurring character in the series. In spite of her Italian surname, the Countess is American, a woman named Sharon Hill who married an Italian Count who – so the first paragraph informs us – “was a rank bad man, and the world and the Countess were better off for his death”.

But is the Count truly dead? A plump little man named Hengist who visits the Countess in her hotel suite claims that the Count is not in fact dead, but alive in another body. Hengist also insists that the Count loves his wife, which Sharon vehemently denies. Hengist also drops a name, Rowley Thorne. It’s a name Sharon – and the reader – knows, because Thorne appeared in the very first John Thunstone story “The Third Cry to Legba” in the November 1943 issue of Weird Tales and was a recurring antagonist of Thunstone.

The Countess is not impressed, especially since Hengist not just drops Thorne’s name, but also hits on her. And so she slaps him and throws him out. Hengist, on the other hand, is quite satisfied with the meeting. He calls Thorne and informs him that he carried out his instructions and that the Countess believes.

Sharon indeed believes, if only because being the girlfriend of an occult detective means experiencing a lot of otherwise inexplicable phenomena. And so Sharon has personally witnessed Rowley Thorne raise evil spirits, a description which certainly fits her late husband.

It quickly occurs to Sharon that John Thunstone might be able to help her. But unfortunately, they had a quarrel. Therefore, Sharon blows him off with the old “I have a headache” line, when he calls her to apologise. Barely a second later, she curses herself for not confiding in John Thunstone. But Sharon has bigger problems, for Rowley Thorne comes calling.

The description of Rowley Thorne that Wellman gives us – tall, hawklike, bald, gunmetal eyes – match a familiar occultist of our own world, namely Aleister Crowley, whose nonfiction work The Book of Thoth: A Short Essay on the Tarot of the Egyptians is eligible for the 1944 Retro Hugos in the Best Related Work category, by the way. Even the names Rowley and Crowley are similar. Like Crowley, Thorne has a huge ego. “Some day,” he informs the Countess, “the world will know me by a name of own choosing, a name of mastery.” Thorne also assure Sharon that world domination is not what he’s after, because that’s a flat and outworn idea. I’m sure the world and its citizens will be very relieved.

In her first confrontation with Thorne, Sharon certainly holds her own. She tells Thorne that she’s not afraid of him, for “Fear is folly, for people like you to feed on.” She also accuses Thorne of lying about her husband. “If I lie, come and prove it,” Thorne counters and so Sharon goes with him.

Thorne takes Sharon to an apartment where Hengist is already waiting. The apartment is empty except for a table on which there is a single object, a glowing glass horse. Thorne insists that the horse contains the spirit of the late Count. Sharon is understandably sceptical, but when she touches the glass, it feels warm. The glass horse also seems to nod in response to Thorne’s questions. And when Thorne invites Sharon to ask the spirit a question that only the late Count could answer, the horse once more knows the answer.

Thorne’s plan is to transfer the Count’s spirit to Hengist and use the resurrected Count to subdue Sharon to get control of her money and also piss off John Thunstone in the bargain. Of course, Thorne assumes that Sharon will remain true to her marriage vows, even if the spirit of her husband – a husband she clearly despised – now resides in another body. It would certainly make an interesting court case to determine if a marriage is still valid, if one partner’s spirit resides in a different body.

Meanwhile, Hengist – whose name is almost identical to “Hengst”, the German word for “stallion” – isn’t too keen on becoming a vessel for a dead Italian Count. And so he proposes to Sharon to throw away the potion he is supposed to drink and just fake that the transfer was successful. For certainly, a relationship with Hengist is preferable to having the Count back and being a slave to Rowley Thorne, he slimily proposes.

While Hengist is hitting on Sharon, Thorne is preparing his ritual, when he is interrupted by none other than John Thunstone himself. Thunstone had come to visit Sharon to make up with her, when he saw Hengist leaving. Recognising Hengist, Thunstone followed him to the apartment building, let himself in and hid behind the drapes, while Thorne explained his grand plan.

Once Hengist took Sharon away, Thunstone emerges to stop Thorne’s ritual. In the resulting fight, Thorne grabs a swordcane and draws the blade – which is interesting, because a swordcane with a blade of silver inscribed with “Thus perish all your enemies” in Latin is John Thunstone’s signature weapon. Alas, Thunstone did not bring his own swordcane, though he does manage to disarm Thorne. The glass horse also shatters during the fight.

“Do you realise what this means?” Thorne exclaims.

Thunstone calmly informs Thorne that the reincarnation of the late Count has been called off, because there is nowhere else for the trapped spirit to go. Thorne points out that he had already began the ritual and pointed the spirit at Hengist. Whereupon Thunstone replies that if Hengist isn’t prepared, that’s his misfortune and also Thorne’s, because the results will be quite embarrassing.

Meanwhile, Hengist is still oozing slime all over Sharon who keeps insisting that there’s someone or rather something outside the door. Hengist tries to draw her attention back to himself, when cloud of glowing vapour passes through the door, takes the shape of a horse and attacks Hengist. It’s the spirit of the Count, looking for a new body, but finding no entrance, because Hengist hasn’t taken the potion he was supposed to take. Sharon flees and stumbles right into the arms of John Thunstone who takes her home.

Thunstone and Sharon never discuss the incident directly, but the next day at lunch, Thunstone tells Sharon that the papers are reporting that a dead body was found in an empty apartment, seemingly trampled to death by horses, although there were no horses anywhere in the vicinity.

The Complete John ThunstoneThis was my first encounter with Manly Wade Wellman’s occult detective John Thunstone. Based on this story, I certainly wouldn’t mind learning more about the character. Because “Hoofs” doesn’t give us much of a chance to get to know John Thunstone. The story is short, only seven pages long, and Thunstone himself only appears on the second-to-last page after a brief appearance of a only few paragraphs earlier. Instead, the bulk of the story is given over to Sharon, Countess Monteseco. As a result, we also learn a lot more about Sharon – that she is American, that her marriage was ill-advised and unhappy, that she is brave and used to solving her problems on her own, what she looks like (“compactly, blondely handsome, neither doll nor siren”) – then we ever learn about John Thunstone himself.

Stories with female protagonists were rare during the golden age. So far I have reviewed only two stories with female protagonists for the Retro Reviews project, “Undersea Guardians” by Ray Bradbury and “The Gothic Window” by Dorothy Quick. “Hoofs” is the third story with a female protagonist, even though John Thunstone is nominally the hero of the series.

The shortness of the story also makes it difficult to get an idea of what the relationship between John Thunstone and Sharon is like. We learn that they’ve quarrelled, “a disagreement over trifles which wound up a quarrel”, and that they are both proud and are having a hard time apologising to each other. In a move that’s probably uncommon for the 1940s, John Thunstone takes the first step, though he does begin what he hopes will be their reconciliation with “Aren’t we being childish?”, which does feel condescending, particularly viewed from a 2020 point of view.

The brief phone conversation early in the story is the only time that John and Sharon actually talk, so these two certainly have a communication problem. And indeed, I had hoped for a somewhat more romantic reunion of the pair than just Sharon stumbling into John’s arms during her flight from the ghostly horse and he taking her home in silence. But then the briefness of the story doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for romantic interludes. In fact, if there is one complaint I have about “Hoofs”, it’s that the story is too short.

Rowley Thorne makes a suitably sneerworthy antagonist and his henchman Hengist is sufficiently slimy that I at least did not feel the slightest bit sorry that he got trampled to death by a ghost horse. The supernatural threat du jour in the form of an evil occultist and his slimy henchman, the risen spirit of someone the characters would very much prefer to stay dead and finally a murderous ghost horse is certainly menacing enough.

Manly Wade Wellman was a folklorist and worked on a project to collect local American folklore for the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. His knowledge of folklore certainly shines through in his stories, more so in the later Silver John a.k.a. John the Balladeer stories than in the John Thunstone stories

Stories about occult detectives were a popular hybrid genre in the first half of the twentieth century and go back to Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence and William Hope Hodgson’s Thomas Carnacki, the Ghost-Finder. In the US, occult detectives quickly found a home in Weird Tales, which published the adventures of Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin (who is eligible for Best Series for the 1945 Retro Hugos), Manly Wade Wellman’s Judge Pursuivant and of course John Thunstone himself. Indeed, there are plenty of hints that the adventures of Jules de Grandin, Judge Pursuivant, John Thunstone and Wellman’s later character Silver John a.k.a. John the Balladeer take place in the same universe and that the characters all know each other. Indeed, Judge Pursuivant is namechecked in “Hoofs”, when Thunstone mentions that he is planning to get on a plane with Judge Pursuivant for some investigation far away, before he cancels his plans, once he realises Thorne is in town.

These characters are the ancestors of today’s urban fantasy heroes. Their literary descendants include John Constantine, Harry Dresden, John Taylor (John is certainly a popular first name for occult detectives), Jack Winter, the Leandros brothers, the Winchester brothers and many others. And while Sharon, Countess Monteseco had to content herself with being the hero’s love interest, today’s occult detectives not just have formidable romantic partners like John Taylor’s girlfriend/bride Suzie Shooter (nomen est omen) – no, there are also plenty of female occult detectives such as Anita Blake, Kate Daniels, Mercy Thompson, Rachel Morgan, Dante Valentine and others.

But while today’s occult detectives usually narrate their adventures in the first person in hardboiled/noir mode, older characters like John Silence, Carnacki, Jules de Grandin or Judge Pursuivant are closer to Sherlock Holmes than to Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. John Thunstone is a bit of a transitional character here. He is a younger and more physically active hero than the likes of Jules de Grandin and Judge Pursuivant, a wealthy playboy with a penchant for fighting evil who is also reminiscent of Richard Wentworth a.k.a. The Spider and Bruce Wayne a.k.a. Batman

However, the character that John Thunstone most reminds me of – at least based on this story – is Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician. For Mandrake is also a handsome moustachioed playboy who fights supernatural as well as false supernatural enemies with the help of his plucky aristocratic girlfriend Narda (and best friend Lothar, who has no equivalent in the John Thunstone stories). And indeed, it’s interesting that all of these characters were operating at the same time.

Furthermore, the John Thunstone stories also show how the occult detective genre has changed and developed over the past seventy-five years. Early occult detectives mainly appeared in short fiction – the two John Thunstone novels only appeared in the 1980s, some forty years after the bulk of the series – whereas their modern brethren mainly appear in novels. The adventures of early occult detectives are also more episodic. Characters may reappear, see recurring antagonist Rowley Thorne, but there is little in the way of internal continuity and the stories can often be read in any order. Meanwhile, modern series, whether it’s the Dresden Files, the Nightside series, the Leandros Brothers, Kate Daniels or Mercy Thompson series, have a definite series arc.

Finally, modern series place way more emphasis on the occult detective’s social and romantic life and the occult detective is usually surrounded by a network of friends, family and loved ones, often assembled across several books. Meanwhile, the occult detectives of the golden age tended to be loners with few connections aside from the occasional faithful Watson figure such as Jules de Grandin’s friend/partner (and maybe more, since several folks claim to have detected homoerotic vibes between the two) Dr. Trowbridge. John Thunstone is actually something of an exception here, because he has a friend/mentor in Judge Pursuivant and a recurring love interest in Sharon Countess Monteseco. Nonetheless, their relationship takes a backseat to the supernatural mystery of the month, which is probably why the romance aspects of “Hoofs” feel a little unsatisfying from a modern POV.

That probably sounds more critical than it should, because I enjoyed “Hoofs” quite a bit and would certainly like to read more about John Thunstone’s adventures. And if I had a nice print collection of the Thunstone stories rather than being forced to read them in scanned copies of vintage issues of Weird Tales on archive.org, I might well have ended up reading the whole series, which is what happened last year when I planned to reread just the one Retro Hugo nominated Fafhrd and Gray Mouser story and wound up rereading the entire series.

“Hoofs” is a neat occult detective tale in a series I would certainly like to read more of.

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