Don’t you think a man always recognizes a woman he has loved?– Judge Keith Hilary Pursuivant
A man of great height and greater girth, Judge Keith Hilary Pursuivant devoted his golden years to investigating the occult in the works of North Carolina author, Manly Wade Wellman.
Pursuivant, with his broad bulbous nose and protruding, warm eyes, was one of a half-dozen occult investigators created by Wellman over the course of his career, though the Judge has the distinction of being the first, and, in many ways, the most important of the lot.
Pursuivant made his first appearance in Weird Tales in 1938, in the story, “The Hairy Ones Shall Dance”, wherein he tackled a werewolf. He made three more appearances in Weird Tales between 1938 to 1941, facing off with a vampiric Lord Byron in “The Black Drama”, demon-rabbits in “The Dreadful Rabbits”, and ghosts in “The Half-Haunted”.
All of these stories have been anthologized on a number of occasions, and have been collected in the 2001 Nightshade Books collection Fearful Rock and Other Precarious Locales as well as the recent reprint of Wellman’s 1981 collection, Lonely Vigils, by Shadowridge Press.
Besides the aforementioned four tales, Pursuivant appeared as a supporting character in a number of Wellman’s other stories and novels, including The Hanging Stones, where he aids John the Balladeer in combating a tribe of inbred, druidic werewolves.
And even if he doesn’t appear, Pursuivant is likely mentioned; indeed, the Judge looms over Wellman’s other occult investigators like a guardian angel, wielding knowledge, wit and wisdom in support of humanity’s more active defenders.
Born in 1891, he was a decorated intelligence agent in World War I. Pursuivant returned to the States and became a judge, then an author and finally an investigator of occult matters, upon which he also wrote.
Independently wealthy, he lives in a quiet town five hours drive from Washington D.C., though he travels extensively despite his advanced age. The acclaimed author of the seminal tome, Vampiricon, Pursuivant is an acknowledged expert in matters of the supernatural, though, as seen in “The Dreadful Rabbits”, there are some things even he has no answer for.
Regardless of the dangers he faces, Pursuivant conducts himself with old fashioned Southern charm. Courteous and calm, he is a grandfatherly figure to those characters that interact with him, exuding a sense of safety and wisdom that sets even the most panicked individual at ease. And when the situation calls for it, he does not hesitate to dispatch monsters and devils like a man twenty years his junior.
Frequent mentions of his age and the associated aggravations serve to ground the larger-than-life Judge, and enable him to slip unobtrusively into the background of a given story without wholly surrendering the limelight. It’s a useful trait, given his later status as a mentor-figure to Wellman’s other characters.
He even bequeaths his most formidable tool – a silver sword cane forged by Saint Dunstan himself – to fellow fighter of evil, John Thunstone. Despite this, it is another of Wellman’s characters, Lee Cobbett, who is the Judge’s chosen heir. Pursuivant appears or is mentioned in all of the Cobbett stories, and it is to the Judge whom Cobbett turns when things get too hairy, as in the creepy, Blackwood-esque “Willow He Walk”.
Indeed, in many ways, Pursuivant is the glue which holds Wellman’s diverse stories together as a cohesive whole. It is through him that these lonely devil-hunters and ghost-breakers know one another and can call upon one another for aid, thus enabling them to succeed together where one might fail.
In the end, it is because of this stern old Judge that humanity’s enemies are sentenced back to the depths from which they sprang.
*Author’s Note: This essay originally appeared in 2011, at Black Gate Magazine.*