In “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.