Mon
Oct 21 2013 2:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: Manly Wade Wellman

Weird TalesIn “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax's favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you're up for it, even more.

This week, it’s all about Manly Wade Wellman, as Tim looks at some stories of ancient evils, malicious geniuses, terrifying monsters, and even some guitar playing.

I didn’t know anything about Manly Wade Wellman before Mordicai and I embarked on this project. I had never heard of the author, outside of the mention of his name in Appendix N. But even then, Gary Gygax didn’t link him to any stories or novels. He was just a floating name. A general reference. But Wellman has a unique pedigree as a writer of weird pulp fantasy.

Part American Indian, born in Portuguese West Africa, European travels as a boy, moving back to America with his family, becoming a star football player, then attending Columbia Law School. That’s like the contrived origin story of the lead character on some network television secret agent show. Oh, and this character is also an expert folklorist who travelled the Ozarks learning about unrecorded American mythology, and ended up as Assistant Director of New York’s Folklore Project for President Roosevelt’s WPA. That’s the kind of guy who you want as your protagonist – he’s got the brains, the brawn, the multiculturalism, the global experience, and if one of the writers on the show suggested that this hero also ghost-wrote The Spirit while Will Eisner was in the army, or had one of his nonfiction books nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, or one of his mystery stories beat out a William Faulkner effort for an Ellery Queen award, that’s just something the writer’s room would shoot down. It’s too much. The hero can’t be that amazing or he’d be unbelievable.

But that’s the true-as-I-can-tell origin story of Manly Wade Wellman. He really did all of that stuff, and over the course of his career wrote hundreds of stories for Weird Tales, Astounding  Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and dozens of other places. Plus, he wrote about two dozen novels and works of nonfiction, along with some young adult fiction, and at least one published play.

So why isn’t Manly Wade Wellman a bigger deal? His biography positions him as an almost-too-good-to-be-true pillar of fantasy and sci-fi, but he’s mostly forgotten by the general public. Why don’t we all talk about Wellman all the time, the way we talk about Tolkien or Howard or Lovecraft?

Well, I think the answer is this: while he’s a better writer, on a technical level, than either Howard or Lovecraft – Wellman has a masterful command of language and syntax, and shows a Mark Twain-esque facility with diction and vernacular, when he needs it – and while Wellman is amazingly deft mashing together the weirdness of the regional mythology with semi-cosmic horror and swashbuckling heroes, his stories just aren’t incredibly compelling. They are fascinating, and endearingly well-written. And that might be enough to compel you to read until the end of any story you dive into, but where Tolkien has the grand heroism and Howard has the fleshy savagery and Lovecraft has the encroaching dread, Wellman has…well, he has the eye of an anthropologist and the storytelling gift of a likable teacher. It’s still kind of distant though. Not dry, exactly, but the stories are a bit sterile compared to some of Wellman’s contemporaries who have risen to the top ranks of fantasy-writers-your-aunt-has-heard-of.

I enjoyed reading some of the Wellman stories. I was excited by how smart they were – particularly compared to some of the second-rate work that passes for Appendix N “recommendations.” But after reading each Wellman tale, I never felt like I needed to read more by this guy. Well, actually I did, but only because I kept thinking, “what’s not clicking for me?” So I bounced from a Captain Future novel he wrote, called The Solar Invasion, to his Silver John stories collected in Who Fears the Devil, to The Complete John Thunstone. I felt like I had to read more because something was not quite working, but I couldn’t tell if it was the genre or the characters or what. So I tried his different genre work and his other characters.

The problem remained the same, no matter if it was Captain Future and supercrew battling against a Martian wizard (which was, admittedly, the kind of concept that sounds perfect for me), or Silver John the Balladeer traipsing around the Appalachian mountains playing his guitar against demonic forces like a trickster-hillbilly-bard, or the suave John Thunstone with his high society New York parties, his sword-cane, and his knowledge of the occult. And the problem seems to be this: the lead characters never evolved beyond their high-concepts and seemed nothing more than avenues through which Wellman could tell the same kinds of stories again and again. Captain Future had his own things going on – he was an Edmund Hamilton character Wellman was just doing a straight-ahead version of – but both Silver John and John Thunstone are Wellman originals, and though they do appear to be great characters at first, they are basically flat. Almost every Silver John story reads like an episode of Scooby-Doo starring Elvis Presley, except the monsters are usually real. Almost every John Thunstone story reads like an installment of ­X-Files: 1945 with Fox Mulder played by a mustachioed Joel McCrae. In each case, there’s a mystery, an investigation that mostly consists of going straight toward the mystery, and a quick climax and resolution, and then a song or a quip or a cocktail party to wrap it all up.

And while I would love to see Elvis Presley Scooby-Doo adventures and Joel McCrae 1940’s X-Files episodes – who wouldn’t? – the Wellman stories are like mini-novelizations instead of the real deal. I know they are the real deal, but they feel distant and underdeveloped. The raw material is there, and, more than that, it’s been polished into something shiny and beautiful on the surface, but it’s been miniaturized in the process. The stories don’t quite work, but I could see how they could inspire Gary Gygax. There are gems beneath the surface here, and each of the surfaces are structured like brief excursions into the unknown. The stories are like single-session D&D solo adventures, with a single challenge to overcome, and a mystery to be explored.

But with Manly Wade Wellman, a guy who quotes from both Zora Neale Hurston and William Shakespeare with authority, I wanted to see more than that. I wanted to see something that would lead me to champion his works across the land. To refer everyone back to this week’s Advanced Readings in D&D and say, “have you read Wellman? You must read Wellman!” Sadly, no. He’s just merely good with the promise of so much more. Which, sometimes, might be enough.


Tim Callahan wonders if Mordicai Knode appreciates the Zora Neale Hurston Hurston and William Shakespeare references. He's probably too busy rereading The Lord of the Rings for the five hundredth time to notice.

14 comments
Colin Bell
1. SchuylerH
Elvis Presley? Surely you mean Johnny Cash.
Ray Radlein
2. RayRadlein
Wellman is one of my favorites. You should try his Silver John novels, like The Lost and the Lurking, instead of the short stories.

He also wrote, with his son, a wonderful Sherlock Holmes novel, Sherlock Holmes' War of the Worlds, which placed Holmes and Watson (and Professer Challenger!) in the middle of the Martian invasion. The annoyingly litigious Doyle estate kept it from being reprinted for decades until just recently.
Alan Brown
3. AlanBrown
I always enjoyed Wellman, but like others, he never really grabbed me, although I can't put my finger on exactly why.
But I am going to have to seek out that Holmes and Challenger pastiche. Challenger is one of my favorite characters of all time, and I would be interested to see him teaming with Holmes to fight Martian invaders.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
5. hoopmanjh
He did also write some stories that might be more closely tied to D&D except that I'm pretty certain Gygax wouldn't have encountered them -- the Hok the Mighty stories, which are about a Neanderthal who may or may not have been the inspiration for Hercules. They started in Amazing Stories back in the 1930s but weren't collected until Battle in the Dawn, part of Paizo's much-lamented (by me, at least) Planet Stories line a few years back. Not so much sword-and-sorcery as pointy-stick and sorcery ...
JohnnyMac
6. JohnnyMac
Once again we see demonstrated the simple truth: "There is no accounting for taste."

You read Wellman and are left with a feeling of "Meh."

I read Wellman (as I have done for 40+ years) and go "Yes! I want more!". At his best he has a distinct and compelling voice. Among the most treasured items on my book shelves is a fragile and tattered paperback edition of "Who Fears the Devil?" (Ballantine Books, 1963). I love John as a character for his down to earth simplicity. He has no super powers; just a practical knowledge of country magic, a humble heart and a clear eyed lack of fear. The title, by the way, comes from this verse:

" 'Who fears the Devil?' says James unto Jim,
" 'Who fears the Devil?' says Jim unto Joan,
" 'Who fears the Devil?' says Joan unto John--
" 'Not I! Not I!' says John all alone."

(From the book, where it is described as "--from a game song, once popular with Southern children.")

Some further notes:

Wellman, to the best of my knowledge, never used the names "Silver John" or "John the Balladeer" for his character (if anyone knows of any examples of his doing so, I would be very interested to see a reference). As I understand it, these names were invented by publishers as a marketing gimick.

Personally, I prefer the orginal short stories of John to the later novels (though I do enjoy the novels as well).

Anyone who is interested in learning more about Manly Wade Wellman will find some valuable essays about him on David Drake's website (david-drake.com). Drake knew Wellman and published an excellent collection of his stories: "Worse Things Waiting".
Pamela Adams
7. Pam Adams
I read Wellman (as I have done for 40+ years) and go "Yes! I want more!". At his best he has a distinct and compelling voice.

Yes, this, exactly. One problem that I think you're having with these readings is that you've done things in reverse order. You started with Scooby-Doo and the X-Files, and then feel that Wellman, et al are derivative. It's really the other way around. Were it not for Wellman, De Camp, Vance, etc., we wouldn't have the stories derived from them, and you'd be feeling that same sensawunda that strikes those of us who encountered the earlier work first.
JohnnyMac
8. wizard clip
@6: You are correct. Wellman never uses the name Silver John or the Balladeer. And I agree that the short stories are generally more entertaining than the later novels. Mike Mignola has acknowledged Wellman as on of the major influences on his storytelling. The Richard Corben-illustrated Hellboy series "The Crooked Man" from a few years back is his homage to Wellman.
JohnnyMac
9. Zenspinner
Oh, I love love love the Silver John stories...but I love them because I love the character(s) and the setting, and the evil critters, and when he mentions Byard Ray and Bascom Lamar Lunsford I actually know who he's talking about. I do so love those things. But when it comes to storytelling, they all seem a bit pat...loose ends more neatly wound up than in an average Doctor Who episode, until it's time for the next bad guy to pop up, whom John will beat in exactly the same way.

This does bring to mind some of the issues I had with the stories - and I also understand why I've been writing Silver John & Doctor fanfiction in my head for ages now. I can imagine a rogue TARDIS up in the mountains being responsible for the legend of the Gardinel (cozy little cabin that eats people), or John and the Doctor going ballad-hunting with Cecil Sharp....there's so much there!

Really, if you've ever spent a night out in the Appalachians away from the tourists and Dollywood and all that crap, you can see how that setting inspired stories like this. And remembering my times down there in the woods, not even very far away from civilization, gives me an extra bit of happy-fear tingle when I read the stories. So many of these tiny little towns didn't even have roads, in the time when John would have been doing his wandering. If they were lucky they had a somewhat dry creek bed - and if the creek was high, they were cut off completely. Not hard to see where legends could come from - and why a friendly face and a silver-stringed guitar could be so welcome.*

*In my mental eye, John sounds and looks just like Townes van Zandt. I don't think I could ever be happy with any lesser portrayal.
JohnnyMac
10. JohnnyMac
By the way, for anyone who enjoys Wellman's stories of John and the strange things he encounters while rambling on the backroads and byways of the Appalachian hill country, I would also recommend his novel "The Beyonders" (1977). It covers the same sort of country though with more of a science fiction slant to the story.

While I am recommending things, I cannot resist mentioning one of my very favorite of Wellman's stories: "Up Under the Roof". It is a deceptively short and simple piece but its final scene of a boy clutching a rusty hatchet as he climbs the ladder to a dark attic at twilight will surely give you a grue. Don't read it when you are home alone.

Pam Adams @7, thank you for making a point better than I could.

wizard clip @8, thanks for confirming what I said about the terms "Silver John/John the Balladeer" being marketers' inventions. I dislike them but at the same time I have to admit that it is awkward to discuss the series without the use of some such tag.
Colin Bell
11. SchuylerH
@5: I've got that collection too. Additionally, there is Drake's novel Old Nathan, which is straight-up Wellman pastiche. And available for free!

@7: Or, as they say on TvTropes, "Seinfield Is Unfunny".

@9: I think of Wellman as more of a spinner of tall tales than a writer of conventional short stories.
JohnnyMac
12. Raskos
@ Zenspinner 9:

Yes, well put - I always thought that Wellman's Silver John stories had tremendous senses of place. I read them long before I lived in the Appalachians, but once I got there, I could see how he'd caught something timeless about them. The essay sells him short in this regard.
JohnnyMac
13. Wizard Clip
@11 SchuylerH: Yes, Old Nathan! I'd almost forgotten about those stories. @9 Zenspinner: I know what you mean. You really do need to fully immerse yourself in the atmosphere Wellman evokes to appreciate the stories. I grew up in West Virginia, and the landscape he describes really strikes a chord with me. And he's so good with the speech patterns. A lot of writer's would just go for a generic southern dialect, but Wellman has an ear for what makes Appalachian speech unique.
JohnnyMac
14. Kirth Girthsome
One of my favorite Wellman short stories is "Parthenope", which has a really nice twist ending.

Wellman also traveled with folklorist Vance Randolph, whose "Pissing in the Snow" is a great collection of bawdy Ozark tales.
JohnnyMac
15. Marc Rikmenspoel
M.W. Wellman's brother was Paul I. Wellman, who was a novelist and historian. His histories were some of the first to examine Native American Indian wars with a mixture of sympathy and even-handedness.

I was in first grade when I discovered P.I. Wellman's childrens' books Indian Wars and Warriors East and Indian Wars and Warriors West. The latter was a condensed version of his two-volume adult history Death on the Plains and Death in the Desert (sometimes published together as The Indian Wars of the West). These have become outdated insofar as new source material has become available, but are still worthwhile reads (as are the childrens' books).

I always regretted that P.I. Wellman never wrote an in-depth adult treatment of the Eastern Indian wars.

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