Birthday Reading: Manly Wade Wellman

Manly Wade Wellman was born, this day, May 21, in 1903 in Portuguese West Africa.  He was one of the greatest writers of horror and dark fantasy of the 20th Century, although he’s not as well known today as he should be.  His best known literary creation was John the Balladeer, and wandering minstrel of the Appalachian mountains.  Wellman began writing in the 1920s, and sold a number of stories to Weird Tales.  He was still writing in the 1970s and 1980s, and a number of his short stories were published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

In honor of his birthday, I’m going to look at two short stories.  Both were published in the pulps in the late 1930s.  I read both of them in Sin’s Doorway and Other Ominous Entrances, published by Night Shade Books in 2003.  It’s volume 4 of the 5 volume The Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman.

The first story is “For Fear of Little Men” from Strange Stories, June 1939.  It concerns David Return, a Sioux who has been commissioned to sculpt a memorial statue of Hiawatha.  His model is Stacey Brant, a Chippewa whose sister David had beaten in the competition to sculpt the statue.  The men quarrel, and Brant leaves David alone in his hut on the top of the hill where the statue will be erected.  David soon hears rustling in the undergrowth but doesn’t think anything of it.  He works on a clay model he will use to cast the finished statue for a few hours and then goes to bed.

When he wakes up, the model has been destroyed in the night.  The work is beyond repair, so he starts fresh and reconstructs it anew.  As he’s admiring his work, a small arrow suddenly appears in the chest of the clay figure.

David discovers a tiny humanoid figure behind his stove.  He tries to catch it and gets an arrow deeply embedded in his finger for his trouble.  The arrow is poisoned.  David has about passed out when Brant’s sister shows up to try and make peace between David and her brother.  She helps him down the hill to her car, then takes him home.  Her grandfather is a Chippewa medicine man, and he heals David.

I’m tempted to tell how David, Brant, his sister and grandfather defeat the little people, who are enemies of Hiawatha and don’t want the statue built.  I’ll refrain, in case anyone wants to hunt down a copy of the story.  Good luck.  The last time it was published was in 2003 in Sin’s Doorway.  It’s only other publications since its original appearance have been in Worse Things Waiting from Carcosa (1973) and Rivals of Weird Tales (1990), edited by Weinberg, et al.  The latter is available for under ten bucks.

“For Fear of Little Men” is a solid story, even if it isn’t quite as polished as Welllman’s later work.  He draws on folklore, something he would do throughout his career, most notably in his John the Balladeer stories and novels.

The next story I read was “When it was Moonlight”.  This one first appeared in the February 1940 issue of Unknown.  It’s been reprinted a number of times, so copies shouldn’t be hard to find.

This story concerns Edgar Allen Poe and is a fictitious account of how he got the idea for his short story “The Black Cat”.  In the story, Poe has heard a rumor from his mother-in-law about a woman who had been buried alive only to be disinterred when her husband visited the grave and heard her moving about.

Poe goes off to investigate and hopefully interview the woman for an article he is writing on premature burials.  He finds more than he’s bargaining for.  He thinks the house he had been told to visit is deserted, goes and dines with a friend, and then sees a light in the window as he passes back by the house on his way home.  When he knocks, a woman answers the door and invites him in.

I don’t normally think of Poe as a man of action or a hero, but Wellman pulls it off.  It probably helps that he structures the story so that Poe is the narrator.  “When It Was Moonlight” is a more polished story that “For Fear of Little Men”.  Both have aspects that are predictable, but I thought the way Poe defeats his adversary was especially clever, if a little unorthodox.  Wellman takes care to put all the pieces in place so that they come into play without any deus ex machina type of usage.

Wellman’s work is pretty much out of print, especially if you’re looking for collections of his short stories.  That’s a shame, because there’s a large body of work out there that really should be made available.  Maybe someone will take steps to change that sometime soon.

10 thoughts on “Birthday Reading: Manly Wade Wellman

  1. Manly Reading

    Its possible – just possible – that Night Shade Books will reprint in trade softcover the 5-volume hardcover collection of Selected Stories you cite.

    It wouldn’t hurt to send them an email about it – a bit of a push along to the process might help.

    I also think Stephen Haffner might someday do a complete Silver John and collect the various novels instead of just the short stories. His Complete Thunstone sold well, I believe.

    1. Keith West Post author

      I have a contact at Night Shade. I’ll drop her a line and make that suggestion. I’ll also ask Stephen what his plans are; I need to email him about another matter anyway.

  2. Matthew

    Gee, I really want to read the first story (I read the second in a vampire anthology) now. Going to have a tough time finding it.

    Wasn’t Return the last name of the detective in “A Star for a Warrior?” Though he used a fictional tribe not the Sioux in that one.

    1. Keith West Post author

      I haven’t read “A Star for a Warrior”. When I looked for it on the ISFDB, it didn’t show a listing. Are you sure that’s the exact title.

      My suggestion is you get a copy of RIVALS OF WEIRD TALES. I did a search, and several copies came up on ABE for under $10. There’s some good stuff in that anthology, so you wouldn’t be buying just a short story.

  3. Carrington Dixon

    Like many of the old time pulp wordsmiths, Wellman wrote in a variety of genres. I can remember back in junior high, I was reading a reprint of a stf novel from Startling Stories a fellow student was reading a historical adventure novel from the school library. Both were by Wellman. I should not be surprised to find a Western or two in his complete bibliography.

    1. Keith West Post author

      I know he wrote mysteries. I’ve seen one or two in anthologies over the years. I’ve not seen any westerns, but there are some folks who would know. I’ll ask them the next time I see them.

  4. Manly Reading

    Wellman’s alien invasion novel “The Beyonders” is a good read and available quite cheaply secondhand. Its also very Wellman, if that makes sense.

    1. Keith West Post author

      It makes sense. I think I have a copy of that around somewhere. I’ve not read it yet. I’ll try to dig it out sometime soon.

  5. Paul McNamee

    I am currently listening to the audiobook of THE OLD GODS WAKEN, the first John (the Balladeer) novel (as opposed to short stories.)

    It is excellent. Both the story and the reading of it.

    I am disappointed the other novels aren’t available in audio. This one was recorded a few years ago, so I don’t know if they plan to continue.

    Highly recommended.

    1. Keith West Post author

      Thanks for the heads-up. Copies of the novels are harder to come by than the short stories. I’ve not read the novels yet. Maybe I can fit one in by the end of the summer.


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