Manly Wade Wellman was an American writer of horror fiction, much of it set in the Appalachian Mountains, as well as science fiction, mystery, adventure, juvenile fiction, biography, history, and true crime. He was an accomplished historian of the Civil War and the South and an expert on mountain folklore and music. His output numbered some 500 stories and 80 books.
Manly Wade Hampton Wellman was born on May 21, 1903, in Kamundongo, Portuguese West Africa (now Angola). His father, Dr. Frederick Creighton Wellman, was a physician at a British medical outpost, a writer, and an artist. Wellman had three siblings: Frederick, Paul, and Alice, all of whom became writers. While living in Africa, he became fascinated by tales of magic and the spirit world, a fascination that would stay with him throughout his life.
The family later moved to the United States. Wellman attended grade school in Washington, D.C., and high school in Salt Lake City. He attended Wichita (Kansas) University on a football scholarship, where he received a B.A. in English in 1926. He went to Columbia University and earned a degree in Literature in 1927.
After Columbia, Wellman returned to Wichita and worked as a reporter for two newspapers, The Beacon and The Wichita Eagle. During this time, he met and married Frances Obrist Garfield, who was also a horror writer, publishing stories in Weird Tales, Fantasy Tales, and Whispers.
During his youth, Wellman traveled extensively — by car, by horseback, on foot, by hopping freight trains. He worked a variety of jobs during the summer breaks of his school years, including farm hand, house painter, soda bottler, cowboy, and bouncer in a Prohibition roadhouse. These varied experiences provided fodder for his later writing.
While in college, he struck up a friendship with Vance Randolph, an expert on folklore and Ozark mountain magic and traditions. Wellman accompanied Randolph on trips through the Ozarks, where he learned folk traditions and chatted with secluded country residents. Wellman met the legendary folk musician Obray Ramsey, whose music influenced Wellman and his writing.
Wellman’s first published story was “When the Lion Roared” (Thrilling Tales, May 1927), which was based on the stories told to him during his childhood in Africa. He was a regular contributor to Weird Tales, and many of those stories featured his three most famous characters: John the Balladeer, John Thunstone, and Judge Keith Hilary Pursuivant (the Pursuivant stories were written under the pseudonym Gans T. Fields). Other magazines he wrote for included Ozark Stories, Unknown, Amazing, Strange Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Whispers, and others. He also wrote for comic books (which he called “squinkies”) and penned the first issue of Captain Marvel Adventures.
During the depression, Wellman’s newspaper work dwindled, and he moved to New York City, where he became Assistant Director of the New York Folklore Project for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). During World War II, he served as a lieutenant.
After the war, he moved to Pine Bluff, North Carolina, to be closer to the country folk about whom he was writing. He studied Southern mountain folklore and history and became an expert on the Civil War and Southern history. In 1951, he moved to Chapel Hill to take advantage of the resources of the University of North Carolina. There he spent the rest of his days writing in an office above a drugstore and teaching creative writing at UNC. He built a cabin in the Smoky Mountains near Obray Ramsey’s place, where he would invite friends for mountain music, food, and whiskey.
Wellman denied being influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, but many of his stories have a Lovecraftian feel, such as weird monsters, lost races, and forbidden magic. Unlike Lovecraft, however, Wellman’s monsters were easy to picture and had pronounceable names, such as the Skim, which is sort of a living Frisbee; the Bammat, a wooly mammoth; and the Flat, an evil carpet. Difficult to image, though, was the Behinder, which always hides behind its victims.
His most famous character, John the Balladeer, also known as Silver John, is a tall, lanky hero who wanders the North Carolina mountains with his silver-strung guitar, thwarting supernatural threats. These stories are told in the first person using mountain dialect, and John often has an old folk song to sing as he strums his guitar. The novels are The Old Gods Waken (1979), After Dark (1980), The Lost and the Lurking (1981), The Hanging Stones (1982), and The Voice of the Mountain (1984). The short stories are collected in Who Fears the Devil (1963), which was expanded and updated in 1988 as John the Balladeer.
Another John, John Thunstone, is a brawling New York playboy, student of the occult, and psychic detective who fights evil in New York City and the countryside. The Thunstone novels are What Dreams May Come (1983) and The School of Darkness (1985). The short stories are collected in Lonely Vigils (1981), which also includes tales of Judge Pursuivant, a retired West Virginia judge and authority on the occult who battles evil.
Wellman’s last works were the novel Cahena: A Dream of the Past (1986), about an African warrior princess (inspiration for Xena?), and the John the Balladeer short story “Where Did She Wander” (Whispers, October 1987).
In 1946, Wellman won the first Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award, for his short story “A Star for a Warrior.” In winning this award, he beat William Faulkner, who had to settle for second place, much to his indignation at losing to a horror writer. Among Wellman’s other awards are the 1956 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime for Dead and Gone, the 1975 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection for Worse Things Waiting, the 1978 North Carolina Award for Literature, the 1980 World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award, and the 1985 British Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement. His non-fiction Civil War book Rebel Boast: First at Bethel, Last at Appomattox was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1956.
In 1985, Wellman fell and broke his elbow. Though the fracture was fixed and he recovered from that injury, he refused to move during his convalescence and developed bed sores, which spread over the next ten months and proved fatal. He died on April 5, 1986, in Chapel Hill.
Night Shade Books has recently published a five-volume collection of Wellman’s short stories. In addition, it is publishing a series of Wellman’s pulp novellas, two to a volume; Giants from Eternity (including The Timeless Tomorrow) and Strangers on the Heights (including Nuisance Value) have been published to date.
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