Old Nathan

It was near Halloween, and I usually like to read something suitable to the season, so inspired by the autumnal cover (which doesn’t really have anything to do with anything in the book), I pulled this one off the shelf.

Review: Old Nathan, David Drake, 1991.

Cover by Larry Elmore

This is a collection of five stories, presented in chronological order, with two being reprints.

Old Nathan is an old man. But he’s a feared old man with a reputation for working magic that his neighbors in the Appalachians sometimes seek out. Nathan’s not a man to turn down a challenge, whether issued by a mere man or something else.

He’s spent his whole life in those hills. He never got further than King’s Mountain where, in a battle in the Revolutionary War, he got his testicles shot off.

That seems to be where he picked up the ability to work magic. Unfortunately, Drake never really gives us his origin story or why he considers himself the Master of the Devil.

Besides a self-imposed celibacy, he can talk to animals – which proves useful in gathering intelligence, but it also means he only eats fish and plants. He also can, when needed, pull a jacknife from another dimension.

The Bull” actually involves two bulls, Nathan’s own beloved Spanish King and a ghost bull that seems to be preventing a field from being plowed. It’s a tale of sacrifice to keep a promise.

The Gold” has Nathan getting involved in a family feud between two brothers, one of them being dead. It’s a wry commentary on how greed is the road to Hell. 

Not all the stories are horrific or grim. “The Bullhead”, like the first story, features Bully Ransden, son of the woman Nathan once intended to marry. His attractive wife Ellie asks for Nathan to help with would be philandering ways with a new woman from New Orleans who has shown up in the area. It’s not only light hearted in its ending, but for the conversations Nathan overhears between animals. Use is also made of the old ballad “Matty Groves”.

Nathan is not real fond of how a local family of sorcerers has been exploiting the locals but also the genial and innocent Eldon Bowsmith, a retarded man Nathan likes. His efforts to help “The Fool” lead to some very unexpected results.

The Box” startlingly changes Nathan’s life in its conclusion. The woman he was once to marry, Sarah Ransden, Bully’s mother, gives us the back story to her former husband. It seems he wasn’t a bad man but “the divil rode him”. And, it seems that, according to Ellie, the devil is now riding his son too.

I found the book a pleasant diversion, the book more memorable for the character than the individual stories.

The books is dedicated Drake’s friend Manly Wade Wellman, and I suspect it’s something of an homage and that I may have liked it better if I had read more than a couple of Wellman stories.

The link at the title takes you to Drake’s blog entry on the book which I looked at after writing this post. I completely missed the fact the stories are “Appalachian versions of classic English folk tales”.

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