Dark Hearts & Brilliant Patches of Honor: A Tribute to Manly Wade Wellman
When Manly Wade Wellman died in 1986, he left behind a wealth of stories and novels that continue to resonate into the new century—the silver strings plucked by a master’s hand.
“Manly was first and foremost a storyteller,” said novelist David Drake, who was a friend of Wellman’s and is now the owner of his literary estate.
Wellman did not ride trends. Instead, he plumbed the depths of American folk culture for the brightest metal and darkest coal.
“I think he deserves more attention [because of] both the incredible quality of his voice and his contributions to the genre’s foundations,” said James L. Sutter, who is both a novelist and the Managing Editor at Paizo Publishing. “It’s important for us to recognize where modern fantasy comes from, and Wellman certainly had an impact on the field, even if (as I suspect) the average reader today has no idea who he is.”
From his Appalachian-inspired fantasies of John the Balladeer to the sword and sorcery of Hok the Mighty and even the Wild West cavalry soldiers of the forgotten outpost of the soon-to-be reprinted Fort Sun Dance, Wellman remains readable and relevant to contemporary audiences. His characters stand tall and face the challenges presented to them; they do not cower or whine, as David Drake points out below.
“Wellman’s folk tales of Silver John strike a universal chord that transcends category,” said award-winning science fiction writer Mike Resnick, who wrote the introduction to the recent Paizo release of Who Fears the Devil?.
Furthermore, Wellman’s work has that simultaneously familiar and strange, fresh and old, common and original quality of folktales and songs. It seems to be pulled from out collective past and shaped into something new and startling like traditional mountain music improvised on the spot.
“There is not a great deal of fantastic literature which draws mythic resonances from the American past,” said editor and writer Darrell Schweitzer. “I think of some of Washington Irving and Stephen Vincent Benet and even some of Lovecraft, and then I am left grasping. The picture we have of a typical Wellman story is probably from Who Fears the Devil?, a sympathetic and intelligent treatment of a part of our country’s past which most writers inevitably reduce to caricature.”
Below, eight fans of Manly Wade Wellman’s work—David Drake; John R. Fultz, fantasy novelist; Kenneth Hite, writer and game-designer; Samuel Montgomery-Blinn, editor and founder of the Manly Wade Wellman Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy; Mike Resnick; Darrell Schweitzer; James L. Sutter; and David Niall Wilson, novelist and founding CEO of Crossroads Press—talk about why Wellman’s fiction endures, what they admire about it, and how it has influenced them.
What do you admire about Wellman’s writing? And how has his writing influenced your own?
David Drake: I am continually delighted with Manly’s quiet, folksy characters. I don’t mean, “They speak in dialect,” though in some cases they do; but generally his viewpoint is that of an intelligent, opinionated close observer. He doesn’t attempt to be neutral, but he—the observer—will remain polite so long as the other party is polite. Manly’s world is one in which courtesy is the default option—and would that the real world were more that way.
As for influence on me . . . well, not really. I was always a storyteller, not a stylist, myself. Watching—reading—Manly confirmed my predilection but didn’t create it. Remember that Karl Wagner and I were Manly’s friends and peers when we met, not students. Manly was incomparably more senior than we were, but we’d actually been selling fantasy more recently than Manly had. He got back into the field after we became friends.
The one exception to the “no influence” statement is Old Nathan. Those stories were started as conscious homage to Manly immediately after his death. Old Nathan isn’t my version of John the Balladeer (Silver John if you must), but I was deliberately mining the same folk vein from which Manly had drawn his John stories.
John R. Fultz: Manly Wade Wellman’s work combines the deep flavor of Appalachian folklore with horror and fantasy in a completely unique way. Being a native of Kentucky—born and raised in the Bluegrass State, I became a California transplant in ‘98—these stories have a special resonance for me. As a young fantasy fan and writer in Kentucky, it was strange to discover a fantasy writer who embraced his local culture and setting instead of replacing it with entirely fictional ones. I mean Robert E. Howard lived in Texas all his life, but most of his fantasies are set in fantastic worlds like The Hyborian Age and the Pre-Cataclysmic Age.
In Wellman’s work, the sorcery, the magic, and even the horror, live and exist in the Mountains. His stories combine the best oral folktale traditions with the sensibilities of classic Weird Tales fiction. He found inspiration in actual Appalachian folklore, those enduring tales of haunted hollows, witches, devils, and nature magic.
His stories have a uniquely southern flair, in the best possible way, and they remain timeless pieces of weird fantasy/horror. John the Balladeer, or Silver John, as he’s also called, is such an amazingly cool idea: A wandering minstrel with a silver-stringed guitar who travels the mountains battling ancient evils, dispelling curses, and generally ridding the world of supernatural wickedness. He’s like Andy Griffith meets Gandalf.
Another great thing about these stories is the guitar itself, and the music John plays. I am also a guitar player, and the instrument plays a central role in a lot of “mountain culture”—as does music in general. I love how John’s magic is tied up with his music, and sometimes that silver-stringed guitar can become a holy weapon in his hands. Devils beware!
As for how Wellman has influenced my own writing? Well, he makes me want to incorporate my own culture into my fantasy writing, something I’ve been playing with recently. Most specifically, I wrote a story called “The Gnomes of Carrick County,” which follows a family of Irish immigrants coming into the Kentucky territory in about the year 1779, with a cameo by Daniel Boone himself. I really enjoyed this blending of actual history with fantasy, and I will come back to this in my work again.
Kenneth Hite: I think I most admire his devotion to taking the harder, but ultimately better, route into setting. He had to know the whole country before he showed it to us, and he knew just what to show us after he found it. Where Robert E. Howard, for example, delighted in making what we already knew seem fresh, Wellman provided chills, drilled deep wells of fantasy, from myths and folklore that we didn’t already know. It’s that combination of the wonderfully new and the age-old that all true fantasy aims for, and Wellman hit the gusher in West Virginia, not in Cimmeria or Mordor.
I don’t write a lot of fiction, but Wellman’s ability to find the strangeness and potential in American mythology has been a constant inspiration and lodestar in my nonfiction. “Suppressed Transmission” is essentially an attempt to prospect for productive wells across the worlds of folklore and fakelore alike. And by contrast, what Wellman could do with very familiar spirits indeed—with ghosts and Druids and Leonardo da Vinci—shows that nothing is over-used, it’s just not been used correctly.
Samuel Montgomery-Blinn: Wellman had a marvelous ability to inhabit varied, colorful, vivid characters and (or perhaps exemplified) to write with dialect without stumbling into an unreadable, stumbling mess. A very close second is his limitless stamina in producing so much work in so many genres for such a long time. He’s nonetheless influenced me in how I read short fiction and in kindling an interest in reading in varied genres and in developing a folklorist’s nose and appreciation for North Carolina writing.
Mike Resnick: I admire the feel of authenticity. I know these are original stories, not folk tales from the 19th Century, but they have an authentic feel about them, which means that a) Wellman was an artist, and b) he did his homework.
By graduating from the pulps to the kind of stories we remember him for, he showed that one could improve, and that you needn’t be a bottom-dweller forever. I began my career with Burroughs and Howard pastiches; Manly showed me, by example, that I could write my own stuff and make a living from it.
Darrell Schweitzer: I can’t say he has deeply influenced my own work. I do admire the way his first person narrators (like John) have an authentic narrative voice, and therefore present the fantastic as if it is part of life that is actually lived. It doesn’t feel made-up.
James L. Sutter: It’s his voice and sense of place. As soon as I read the first few sentences of “John’s My Name,” I was hooked. After reading through all the Silver John short stories, I felt not just like I’d been entertained, but that I’d learned something as well. Reading those stories gives you a feel for a very particular time and place in American history, both through the writing and through the uniquely southern mythology and superstitions he presents. How you boil down a people and a place to that sort of snapshot is beyond me, but I think it all starts in the voice—he’s not afraid to ride the fine line between authenticity and alienating the reader, and so far I’ve yet to see him fall. But I definitely come away from his work wanting to write in voices other than my own.
David Niall Wilson: I love the way he could bring the mountains of North Carolina to life. He peopled them with the ordinary, and the extraordinary—characters of great wisdom and power, dark, evil hearts, and brilliant patches of honesty and honor. He wrote modern fairy tales, and helped to keep the legends and folklore of our country intact.
Which genre(s) do you think Wellman did the best, and why?
David Drake: A couple of Manly’s mainstream novels of the ’50s—in particular Candle of the Wicked—are to my mind his best writing. That said, his early John the Balladeer stories are wonderful and unique; a strain of particularly American fantasy writing which has never been equaled.
His Young Adult novels are very good of their type, but they don’t attempt to rise above it.
His SF is handicapped by the fact that he didn’t understand science; his storytelling ability will often carry the reader nonetheless.
His earlier fantasies, many of them published in Weird Tales in the ’30s and ’40s, are very solid performers in the field but rarely rise much above it. Again, because he was such a good storyteller, these fantasies are regularly reprinted.
His non-fiction is well researched but here—to a degree I don’t see in his fiction—his adoration for Thomas Wolfe comes to the fore in a pretentious, inflated, fashion. I myself have difficulty piercing the style to get to the content.
John R. Fultz: I’m not as widely-read in Wellman as some. I’m mainly a Silver John fan. So that’s my favorite because these tales really “sing” for me (pun intended). Silver John is such a rarity in literature: A southerner who is not confined to some insulting archetype, who is not a font of ignorance and backward attitudes, but who carries a vast store of occult knowledge. A hero for the mountain folk, and a true American icon of weird fantasy.
Just the idea of a traveling, guitar-playing wizard who knows the secrets of the ancient land is enough to get me interested. And when you read the actual tales, you feel the presence of a master storyteller at work.
Kenneth Hite: I haven’t remotely read enough Wellman to know the answer to that. He wrote a prodigious amount of history I haven’t read, for one thing. But I do know that his fantastic horror is some of the finest anyone has ever produced, while his science fiction is mostly just pretty good. But even then, his Thirtieth Century yarns can easily compare with Piper or Blish or even lesser Jack Vance.
Why is his fantastic horror so good? I think, again, it’s because of his mastery of setting. In their own ways, Lovecraft and King have demonstrated that horror that truly gets inside you has to start in a place, a place that’s as real as possible. Poe can transcend that requirement; so can Ligotti. But most horrorists aren’t Poe or Ligotti.
Samuel Montgomery-Blinn: If I can cheat, I’ll pick: short fiction. His historical, non-fiction, crime, mystery, science fiction, and fantasy novels and comic scripts do indeed spread out backwards and into the cosmos(es), but he was also able to tell a great many great stories in a handful of pages and that’s a rare thing.
Mike Resnick: I confess to only reading his fantasy and science fiction, but when I did the intro to the recent reprint of Who Fears the Devil? I learned, while researching him, that he was nominated for a Pulitzer for his history, so I’d have to think he probably did that as well as his Silver John stories.
Darrell Schweitzer: And I have not read all of them. He wrote a lot of historical fiction, and historical fiction for younger readers (a series about the Civil War, from the Southern viewpoint) which have not survived, not because they are not as good, but because, particularly in the US, most readers aren’t much interested in history. Fantasy survives better. That is where the market for Wellman fiction is.
The one piece of his science fiction which has had considerable longevity is Twice in Time, although I have recommended this book to people and gotten back the response, “I didn’t know Wellman ever wrote science fiction.” Yes, he did, but mostly for a short period. He allegedly had a falling out with John W. Campbell over that one. Campbell wanted to meddle, Manly said no, and he sold it to Startling Stories instead, where it appeared in the March 1940 issue.
I cannot imagine, though, that Campbell could have published Twice in Time at this time, though, because it is too similar to de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall (Unknown December, 1939). The difference is that in the Wellman version, the man from our present becomes a famous person in our own past, while in de Camp’s he does not, and branches off into an alternate history. But both books have many of the same virtues.
So the honest answer is that I cannot really say in which genre Manly wrote best. I have never read his mystery fiction, for instance. Did you know he once beat out William Faulkner in a story contest in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine? All I can tell you is that the fantasy has survived better, and that may be as much a result of the market and of American culture is it is a reflection of the excellence of Manly’s fantasy vs. his work in other genres.
James L. Sutter: My experience is primarily with his Silver John material, which I’d classify as somewhere between fantasy and Americana, and I feel like the latter aspect must give it an edge (it’s like a whole class in Appalachian folklore!). But I look forward to reading further, and potentially being proven wrong!
David Niall Wilson: His magical fantasies are my personal favorites. I know he wrote a lot of science fiction, but it never hit me the way his folklore-based fantasy did. I also love his young adult novels. Though formulaic, he has way of telling a story that engages the minds of young readers, even though the settings and characters are from our past.
In whom do you see yourself, Silver John, Hok the Mighty, or another of Wellman’s characters?
David Drake: Good God Almighty! I don’t see myself in any of Manly’s characters. Manly and I have organized our lives—certainly our working lives—in remarkably similar ways, but we are/were different men.
Though . . . Manly’s heroes always faced problems instead of whining or running, just as Manly himself did. I try to be that sort of man myself.
John R. Fultz: Oh, definitely Silver John. I’ve made magic on my guitar for decades, but I wish I could cast the kinds of spells that ring out from John’s silver strings.
Kenneth Hite: On my very best days, I’m a knockoff of John Thunstone. Occultist, layabout, bon vivant, and always up for stabbing a werewolf. But Wellman’s characters by and large seem almost prodigiously good-hearted and self-possessed; even Thunstone seems like he’s just pretending to be a playboy. Like Batman.
Samuel Montgomery-Blinn: In the end it’s John the Balladeer. I’m an Indiana farmer’s son, and looking around my office I see a guitar, scattered singer-songwriter sheet music, and a great many books. If only I had any of the talent or magic or half the brains and courage and heart . . .
Mike Resnick: I see myself doing what Manly did—telling the tales of more interesting characters than myself. Probably not the answer you’re looking for, but it’s an honest one.
Darrell Schweitzer: I suppose all artistic types may fancy a little of themselves in John the Balladeer—not “Silver John”—but to be honest, no, I do not identify with any of Manly’s characters.
James L. Sutter: As a musician myself, it’s hard not to love Silver John. Even though fantasy RPGs have had the “bard” class for a long time, it’s still rare to see someone take the magical musician idea and really make it work. John’s a shaman with a guitar, exorcising spirits with his silver strings. What more can you ask for?
David Niall Wilson: I’ve won awards for poetry, and I’ve played guitar for over thirty years. I love the idea of Silver John—his integrity, his courage. I am not Silver John, of course, but he is the man I would be if had that magic . . . Music is like that, and I’ve written a lot about musicians myself—and about North Carolina, for that matter. So I will say that Silver John is the character I identify with . . .
Why has Manly Wade Wellman’s fiction endured?
John R. Fultz: I suppose there are two reasons. One, because of Wellman’s superb imagination, his sheer storytelling skill, and the iconic nature of his creations. Two, because writers and editors over the decades have made sure that people don’t forget Manly Wade Wellman. Various editions of his Silver John stories have been assembled, most recently the Planet Stories collection of Who Fears the Devil?
My own treasured, time-worn copy of Wellman tales is called John the Balladeer and it was published by Baen back in 1988. I’m so glad Planet has repackaged these stories for a modern audience—and they’ve given it a terrific new cover painting. The one I have features a Steve Hickman painting of John playing guitar by the fireside while a bat-winged succubus looks over his shoulder. My ‘88 edition also has a nice foreword by the great David Drake. David is certainly one of the reasons the Wellman stories have not been forgotten.
Kenneth Hite: Plain and simply—because it’s vastly better than that of his peers. His stories are gripping without being overly melodramatic; his settings are lively without overwhelming the tale; his characters are heroic and human. And his prose, the rhythm and the words of it, simply work. Even his most formulaic stories manage to pose some interesting problem, or present an arresting event, on their way to the conclusion. All that keeps Wellman’s work alive and interesting where Nictzyn Dyalhis or even Seabury Quinn are mere historical curiosities.
Samuel Montgomery-Blinn: Wellman wrote well and sharply, widely and prolifically, in short fiction and at length, and did so at a time (and for a long time) when his work could pick up from those who had come before (particularly Edgar Rice Burroughs) and form a core part of the emerging canon of the emerging genres.
Also, with his stomping grounds in North Carolina and its surrounds being such fertile ground for writers and readers, he was able to directly influence a generation of writers in those genres and lengths; those students, fans, and friends would go on to write directly (e.g. Dave Drake’s Old Nathan, Mike Mignola’s The Crooked Man) and indirectly (Warren Rochelle, Andy Duncan, C.S. Fuqua) influenced fiction, and so on, and here we are still talking about Wellman and his stories and will likely be for many years to come.
At some point, a writer’s body of work becomes a self-fulfilling force for its own endurance—I know more about Wellman’s work through the shadows it casts than from direct contact with the source material.
Darrell Schweitzer: It’s not enough to say “because it was good,” since any number of good writers have fallen into oblivion. That he was associated with Weird Tales in its great age is not the answer either, because more and more readers of his work have never laid eyes on a copy of WT from the ’30s. The answer has to be that it retains his charm, and that it still fills a need. I think the great strength of his work (other than its technical excellence) is that it is distinctly American, his John the Balladeer and John Thunstone stuff at least.
Incidentally, it is always “John the Balladeer” and never “Silver John.” This latter appellation was invented by the publisher, and Manly did not approve of it. Also, one never uses the term “hillbilly.” Manly explained to me that if you go up in the hills and use that term, the hearer may feel “it is his bound duty to remove your neck from your body.” Unsurprisingly, then, he did not much care for the film The Legend of Hillbilly John and congratulated me on not having seen it.
The best of Wellman’s fiction of this sort is literate, elegant, and authentic where very little else by other writers is. I tell you this as a former editor of Weird Tales, who has seen plenty of fake hillbilly stuff in the slushpile, always from people who do not live in, and I suspect have never even visited, the Southern Appalachian area.
James L. Sutter: Unfortunately, I don’t think [Wellman’s fiction] has endured in the public eye—or rather, nowhere near as well as it deserves. I know that before I started working on Planet Stories, I had never heard of him before, which is a bit mind-boggling considering how many awards he’s won and how many popular authors cite him as an influence.
David Niall Wilson: It has endured with fans of his work because it is sincere and simple, at once magical and very believable. Silver John, as an example, is the man we all wish we could be, the hero, but not in a Superman sense—in a real sense. Manly wrote a lot of different things in a lot of different genres. His young adult novels are amazingly accessible, and his work in comics has lingered—though not so many are aware of it.
For instance, I wonder how many know that—when asked to recreate Superman for a rival comic book company, he created Captain Marvel—and when he wrote the first script, he managed to use the letters of his name as the first letters in the words in a way he could come back to it in court, if asked, and prove that he created it. He was an amazingly talented man.