This is the transcript of my first ever podcast for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s official podcast Radio CLP. It was fun to record (and should be posted soon). I wanted to talk about Manly Wade Wellman, a recent discovery for me. His stuff is really incredible. I hope you dig it.
Where I’ve been is places and what I’ve seen is things, and there’ve been times I’ve run off from seeing them, off to other places and things. I keep moving, me and this guitar with the silver strings to it, slung behind my shoulder. Sometimes I’ve got food with me and an extra shirt maybe, but most times just the guitar, and trust to God for what I need else.
I don’t claim much. John’s my name and about that I’ll only say I hope I’ve got some of the goodness of good men who’ve been named it. I’m no more than just a natural man; well, maybe taller than some. Sure enough, I fought in the war across the sea, but so does near about every man in war times. Now I go here and go there, and up and down, from place to place and from thing to thing, here in among the mountains.
Up these heights and down these hollows you’d best go expecting anything. Maybe everything. What’s long time ago left off happening outside still goes on here, and the tales the mountain folks tell sound truer here than outside. About what I tell, if you believe it you might could get some good thing out of it. If you don’t believe it, well, I don’t have a gun out to you to make you stop and hark at it. (Who Fears the Devil?, 1963)
With those words, Manly Wade Wellman introduces us to John—no last name, sometimes called “Silver John” or “John the Balladeer”. John, a Korean war veteran (resembling a young Johnny Cash according to Wellman) wanders Appalachia—the Smokies and Ozarks—collecting old songs to learn and play, stumbling upon the supernatural stuff of mountain folklore as he goes—sometimes even seeking it out. And through some combination of goodness, wits, and respect for the paranormal, John lives to tell his tales.
The writing of Manly Wade Wellman, John’s chronicler, is a somewhat new discovery for me. Belonging as he does to the pantheon of unsung American storytellers of the “weird fiction” tradition, Wellman’s work, disrespected by the literary elite of his day, was for the spinning rack, never the book store window.
Wellman first found marginal success in his later thirties, when he began getting published regularly in the science fiction and fantasy magazines of the day; ones with names such as Weird Tales and Strange Stories. Even then, “success” was something relative. Weird Tales, a blend of horror and sci-fi stories, was never accepted by the masses. While pulp magazines such as Doc Savage routinely sold hundreds of thousands of copies, the heady strangeness of Wellman and his peers sold, at best, 50,000 copies per issue. Even so, Wellman built a following as he honed his craft.
His friend in later life (and fellow fantasy author) David Drake has written that, “Manly Wade Wellman was one of the most successful fantasy and S(cience) F(iction) writers of the ’30s and ’40s. His S(cience) F(iction) was generally of a juvenile nature, popular at the time but of limited interest today. His fantasy, however, was thoroughly adult. While Lovecraft and Howard were writing, Manly was in the second rank of Weird Tales authors; after they died, he became one of the magazine’s mainstays.”
“Despite the high quality of his earlier fantasies, Manly didn’t really hit his stride in the field until in 1949 appeared The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—a digest magazine which would publish fantasy of the highest literary quality. For Fantasy & Science Fiction Manly created John the Balladeer, drawing on his existing knowledge of folk music and folklore and his growing love of the North Carolina mountains.”
The stories of John the Balladeer are incredible examples of American fantasy. Wellman’s contemporary Karl Edward Wagner has said, “Just as J. R. R. Tolkien brilliantly created a modern British myth cycle, so did Manly Wade Wellman give to us an imaginary world of purely American fact, fantasy, and song.”
Wellman’s characters (including the occult detective Judge Pursuivant, and playboy adventurer John Thunstone) are knowing guides, leading the reader through strange and eerie tales, but only “Silver John” in the mountains of North Carolina truly completes a sort of American folk story circuit. The strange and unexplained isn’t only for our European ancestors. Like a 20th century Washington Irving, Wellman taps into the old magic of our “new world”. Wellman reminds us that deep in the mountains, not so far from modern things, myth is fact and the unexplained isn’t so different from a Bible story.
Wellman creates mystery and myth out of existing folk songs and legends, allowing us to revel in our strange American history, stories, and traditions.
Furthermore, the “John the Balladeer” stories are an intoxicating read. Full of excitement, humanity, lessons, and frights. If you’re like me, you’ll treasure them for years to come.
Luckily, Wellman seems to be gaining in popularity 25 years after his death. Night Shade Books released The Selected Stories of Manly Wade Wellman in 2001. Just last year Planet Stories rereleased a collection of John stories entitled Who Fears the Devil? with a great pulpy illustration on the cover. And keep your eyes peeled for the upcoming Dark Horse comics Silver John graphic novel adaptation by Jim and Beck Beard, with art by Thomas Boatwright. Of course, you can order these books and more by Manly Wade Wellman from your local Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh location.