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Manly Wade Wellman (May 21, 1903 – April 5, 1986) was an American writer. While his science fiction and fantasy stories appeared in such pulps as Astounding Stories, Startling Stories, Unknown and Strange Stories, he is best remembered as one of the most popular contributors to the legendary Weird Tales, and for his fantasy and horror stories set in the Appalachian Mountains, which draw on the native folklore of that region. Wellman also wrote in a wide variety of other genres, including historical fiction, detective fiction, western fiction, juvenile fiction, and non-fiction. Karl Edward Wagner referred to him as "the dean of fantasy writers".[1]

Wellman was a long-time resident of North Carolina. He received many awards, including the World Fantasy Award and Edgar Allan Poe Award.

Three of Wellman's most famous reappearing protagonists are Silver John, aka John the Balladeer, the wandering backwoods minstrel with a silver-stringed guitar; the elderly 'occult detective' Judge Pursuivant; and John Thunstone, also an occult investigator.

Life and Work

Early years

Wellman was born in the village of Kamundongo in Portuguese West Africa (now Angola), where his father was stationed as a medical officer. He spoke the native dialect before he learned English, and became an adopted son of a powerful chief whose vision Dr Wellman restored. As a small child, Manly twice visited London, where the family stayed in Torrington Square (obliterated during the Battle of Britain).[2] When still a young boy, his family moved to the United States, where he attended school in Washington DC, prep school in Salt Lake City, college at Wichita Municipal University (now Wichita State University) in Kansas. After graduating from Wichita State with his BA in English in 1926, he went on to receive a Bachelor of Laws degree from Columbia University. A distinguished football player, he received little encouragement from either family or teachers with his plans to become a writer. An early story, "Back to the Beast", resulted in one teacher remarking "Your work is impossible!". Yet this same story became his first professional sale when editor Farnsworth Wright bought it and published it in Weird Tales (Nov 1927).[3]

He was of partial Native American ancestry.[4]

The 1920s and 1930's

His first story published, "The Lion Roared" (Thrilling Tales, 1927), was based on the stories told to him in his African childhood upbringing. Wellman's first science fiction novel was published in 1929 (The Invading Asteroid) but he would not work at full length again until 1941.

Around that time he started a friendship with Vance Randolf, an acclaimed folklorist and expert on Ozark mountain magic and traditions. Randolf took Wellman on trips through the Arkansas Ozarks, learning folk traditions and meeting the secluded people of the American back country. It was through Randolf that Wellman met folk music legend Obray Ramsey, whose music would have a profound affect on Wellman and his writing.

In the late 1920s, during the silent film era, Wellman wrote movie reviews for the Wichita Beacon and also worked for The Wichita Eagle as a court and crime reporter. He sold many stories in this period to Ozark Stories and Thrilling Tales. He married Frances Obrist "Garfield" (her pen name), who was a horror writer in her own right; she sold her first yarn to Weird Tales in 1939. During the depression,Wellman's newspaper work started to dwindle, so in 1934 he moved from Kansas to New York where he became Assistant Director of the WPA's New York Folklore Project.

Alfred Bester described meeting Wellman in about 1939: "Mort Weisinger introduced me to the informal luncheon gatherings of the working science fiction authors of the late thirties... The vivacious compère of those luncheons was Manley [sic] Wade Wellman, a professional Southerner full or regional anecdotes. It's my recollection that one of his hands was slightly shriveled, which may have been why he came on so strong for the Confederate cause. We were all very patient with that; after all, our side won the war. Wellman was quite the man-of-the-world for the innocent thirties; he always ordered wine with his lunch."[5]

Moving from New York to New Jersey in 1939, Wellman wrote countless stories for the new field of comics books as well as for the pulps. During the war he served in New Jersey as a first lieutenant.[6]

The 1940's: New York, Weird Tales, Occult Detectives and Comic Books

In the 30's and 40's, Wellman began selling to the bigger publications such as Weird Tales, Wonder Stories and Astounding Stories. At this time, when Wellman was living in New York, Weird Tales published numerous stories based on three of his most famous characters. Judge Keith Hilary Persuivant (writing under the pen name Gans T. Fields) is described as "a renowned scholar and retired judge, hero of World War I, and now hero of darker, more dangerous battles. Huge of frame, an epicure, an authority on the occult, Pursuivant strides forth from his reclusive home in West Virginia to confront evil wherever it appears".[7] John Thunstone is "a hulking Manhattanite playboy and dilettante, a serious student of the occult and a two-fisted brawler ready to take on any enemy. Armed with potent charms and a silver swordcane, Thunstone stalks supernatural perils in the posh night clubs and seedy hotels of New York, or in backwater towns lost in the countryside-- seeking out deadly sorcery as a hunter pursues a man-killer beast".[8] The lesser-known character Professor Natahn Enderby is a "slender savant and unassuming authority on the supernatural, aided by his sharp wits and his Chinese servant, Quong. His cabin in rural Pennsylviania is a retreat from the frenetic social life of New York City -- and a fortress against the powers of black magic.[9]

While the Edmond Hamilton-led pulp Captain Future was a going concern, Wellman wrote one novel for it, The Solar Invasion. When Captain Future was cancelled due to wartime paper shortages, the novel was instead published in Startling Stories (Fall of 1946).

Following a similar path to such pulp writers as Frank Belknap Long, Wellman also wrote for various comic books (what he called "squinkies") and wrote the first issue of Captain Marvel Adventures for Fawcett Publishers. Later he would be called into court to testify against Fawcett in a lawsuit by National (D.C. Comics) about plagiarism of Superman by the creators of Captain Marvel. Wellman testified that his editors had encouraged their writers to use Superman as the model for Captain Marvel. Though it took three years, National won their case. He also contributed to the writing of the comic book The Spirit while the franchise's creator, Will Eisner, was serving in the US military during World War II. Wellman also wrote for the comic Blackhawk.

Wellman made a return to novel-writing in the 1940s, publishing two science fiction full-length works, Sojarr of Titan and The Devil's Asteroid. (He had not embarked on a full-length work since 1929's The Invading Asteroid). In this decade he published several mystery novels, one a film tie-in.

Amongst Wellman's writer friends during the Weird Tales years were Malcolm Jameson, Seabury Quinn, Henry Kuttner, and Otto Binder. Wellman used to meet with these writers in a German restaurant in Times Square on a regular basis. He described these friendships as being "like a brotherhood".[10]

In 1946 Wellman won the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Award over William Faulkner for his Native American detective tale "A Star For A Warrior". Apparently Faulkner was quite upset to be placed as second fiddle to a science fiction and horror writer. Faulkner indignantly wrote to the editors of the magazine, proclaiming that he was the father of the French literary movement and the most important American writer in Europe. Wellman's nonfiction work Rebel Boast was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.[11]

The 1950's: North Carolina, Juveniles, Science Fiction and NonFiction

After serving as a lieutenant in WW II, in 1951 Wellman moved his family to Pinebluff, North Carolina, population 300, to be closer to the folksy backwoods people he was starting to write about. There he immersed himself in American southern mountain folklore and history, becoming an expert on the Civil War and the historic regions and peoples of the Old South. Later in 1951, he made his final move to the college town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he lived out his days writing and teaching fiction. Wellman built a vacation cabin on what he called Yandro Mountain in the Smokies, next to his friend Obray Ramsey's place, where they would invite friends for a taste of mountain music, food, fun and a good lick of blockade whiskey.

Wellman worked at many jobs to support himself while he wrote, though he sold many stories and books. His jobs included working on farms, in cotton gins, and working as a bouncer in a dance hall.[12]

Wellman's best-known biographical work, Giant in Gray (1949), was based on his namesake, Confederate General Wade Hampton. Wellman wrote and published significant nonfiction works about the Old South, including county histories, throughout the 1950s and would continue to do so through to the 1970s.

Most of Wellman's work in the 1950s was devoted to young adult stories and science fiction novels. He produced no fewer than five sf novels in this decade, though one was a version of a long story previously published in the pulps. Two of his short stories were filmed in this decade for the television show Lights Out. He also wrote a western novel, Fort Sun Dance (1955), apparently his only venture into that genre.

The 1960's: Science Fiction and Silver John

Wellman wrote two science fiction novels in the sixties - Island in the Sky and Candle of the Wicked. His Captain Future novel The Solar Invasion was reprinted in paperback. However his best-known series dates from this period and comprises stories featuring the Appalachian woodsman and minstrel hero known as "John". These were first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The first stories of John were collected in Who Fears the Devil? (1963), based on the personal enthusiasm of August Derleth. Although Wellman only ever called the character "John" or "John the guitar picker", his later publishers Doubleday and Dell labelled the series Silver John as they felt the name was a better way of marketing the books.

1970's and 1980's: Resurgence and Twilight Years

The 1970s and 1980s marked a resurgence in Wellman's output and an increased attention to his legacy. Much of his best short general fantasy work over the years was collected by Karl Edward Wagner in Worse Things Waiting (1973), which won Wellman a World Fantasy Award and revived interest in his work. His 1975 novel Sherlock Holmes' War of the Worlds was collected from a series of Sherlock Holmes pastiches stories co-written with his son Wade Wellman and originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

Between 1979 and 1984 Wellman wrote five new novels featuring Silver John and in roughly the same period produced two full length novels featuring his character John Thunstone, as well as seeing Thunstone's short adventures, and those of characters such as Judge Pursuivant, collected from the pulps in Lonely Vigils (1981). A movie based on the Silver John stories, The Legend of Hillbilly John, was released in 1973.

In 1980 Wellman received the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Wellman was Guest of Honour (with Gene Wolfe and Rowena Merrill) at the World Fantasy Convention 1983 in Chicago.

At age 82, Wellman suffered a serious fall on June 15, 1985 and sustained severe fractures of his left elbow and shoulder which made him an invalid.[13] A benefit auction for the ailing author was held in London at the annual Christmas Party of the British Fantasy Society and the funds raised sent to Wellman and his wife in a Christmas card. Due to the onset of gangrene in his legs following double amputation, Wellman's health failed further and he died at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina on April 5, 1986.[14] Before passing on he had been able to finish his historical novel Cahena, about an African warrior princess (see Kahina)(published in 1986), and the final John the Balladeer short story "Where Did She Wander".

The agent for his literary estate was his friend, the writer and editor Karl Edward Wagner, who edited the posthumous collections Valley So Low: Southern Mountain Stories and John the Balladeer. A benefit auction was held for Wellman's widow Frances, arranged by Southern fans Beth Gwinn and Sheri Morton, which raised $28,300 in funds. Harlan Ellison was the auctioneer. Included in the auction were such items as a mug owned by both H.P. Lovecraft and Fritz Leiber, a coin from Mel Brooks and the shirt which Ellison wore while writing his story "Maggie Money-Eyes".[15]

Wellman once estimated his output of stories and articles at about 500, of which about 80 were in the fantasy & science fiction genre.[16]

Frances Wellman died on May 7, 2000. She was cremated and her ashes spread on the lawn of their home at Dogwood Acres in Chapel Hill, NC.



Science fiction and fantasy

  1. The Third Cry to Legba and Other Invocations (2000) (John Thunstone and Lee Cobbett stories)
  2. The Devil is Not Mocked and Other Warnings (2001)
  3. Fearful Rock and Other Precarious Locales (2001) (Judge Pursuivant and Sergeant Jaeger stories)
  4. Sin’s Doorway and Other Ominous Entrances (2003)
  5. Owls Hoot in the Daytime and Other Omens (2003) (John the Balladeer stories)

Silver John collections and novels

John Thunstone collections and novels

Young Adult stories

Other Novels


Whom He May Devour. Written in the 1930s. Published in Whispers, 11/12 (1978).






The Silver John stories were the inspiration for "Who Fears the Devil", a 1994 recording by Joe Bethancourt that featured both traditional Appalachian folk songs that Silver John would have known, and Wellman's original lyrics that were in many of the Silver John stories, set to the traditional melodies that Wellman used as models.

Additionally, the progressive bluegrass band, The Dixie Bee-Liners, recorded an original song inspired by the Silver John stories titled "Yellow-Haired Girl" on their 2008 album "RIPE."

Much of the following information is taken from Mark Cannon's bibliography of Wellman.

Larroes Catch Meddlers:
Adapted for television for Lights Out as “The Meddlers”, aired 7 July 1951
Director: Unknown
Screenwriter: Douglas Wood Gibson, Richard E Davis
Starring: John Carradine, E G Marshall, Dan Morgan

School for the Unspeakable:
Adapted for television for Lights Out as “The School for the Unspeakable”, aired 7 January 1952
Director: Unknown
Screenwriter: Richard E Davis
Starring: Donald Buka, Don Hanmer, Leon Tokatyan, Dick Kallman, Maurice Kenney, Jason Jonson, John Gerstad, Harold Webster

The Valley Was Still:
Adapted for television for The Twilight Zone as “Still Valley," aired 24 November 1961
Director: James Sheldon
Screenwriter: Rod Serling
Starring: Gary Merrill (Paradine), Vaughn Taylor (Old Man), Ben Cooper (Dauger), Addison Myers (Sentry); Mark Tapscott (Lieutenant), Jack Mann (Mallory)

The Devil is Not Mocked:
Adapted for television for Night Gallery, aired 27 October 1971
Director: Gene Kearney
Screenwriter: Gene Kearney
Starring: Helmut Dantine (General), Francis Lederer (Master), Hank Brandt (Kranz)

Rouse Him Not:
Adapted for TV for Monsters, aired December 1988
Director: Mark Shostrom
Writer: Michael Parry
Starring: Laraine Newman, Terrance Evans and Alex Cord as John Thunstone.

Who Fears The Devil?
1972 feature film, edited and re-released in 1973 as The Legend of Hillbilly John
Producer: Barney Rosenzweig
Director: John Newland
Screenwriter: Melvin Levy
Starring: Hedge Capers (John), Susan Strasberg (Poly Wiltse), Denver Pyle (Grandpappy John), Severn Darden (Mr Marduke), Percy Rodriguez (Capt Lojoie H Desplain IV), R G Armstrong (Bristowe); Sharon Henesy (Lily); Sidney Clute (Charles); William Traynor (Rev. Millen); Harris Yulin (Zebulon Yandro); Alfred Ryder (O J Onselm); Chester Jones (Uncle Anansi); Val Avery (Cobart); “White Lightnin’” (themselves); “Honor Hound” (himself).

Film based on the character of Silver John. Two segments of the film were based on the stories O Ugly Bird and The Desrick on Yandro.

School for the Unspeakable
(on audiotape with Unfortunate Obsession by Matthew Costello)
Brilliance Corp 1997

Up Under the Roof
2010 short film (35mm, 20 minutes)
Producer: Danielle Stallings & Darin Read
Director: Darin Read
Screenwriter: Danielle Stallings & Darin Read
Starring: Jonathan Milliken, Shawnna Youngquist, Geoff Elliot, Jill Hill, Vince Froio, Alice Taylor and voice of Greg Finley

based on Wellman's short story entitled "Up Under the Roof"


  1. ^ Stephen Jones, "Better Things Waiting: An Interview with Manly Wade Wellman", Fantasy Media, 2, No 2 (May/June 1980), pp 14-16
  2. ^ Karl Edward Wagner, "Manly Wade Wellman: A Biography", The Horror Show (Spring 1987), 29-31.
  3. ^ Stephen Jones, "Better Things Waiting: An Interview with Manly wade Wellman", Fantasy Media, 2, No 2 (May/June 1980), pp 14-16
  4. ^ See the interview with Wellman in Fantasy Voices: Interviews with American Fantasy Writers by Jeffrey M. Elliot. Borgo Press, 1982 .
  5. ^ Bester, Alfred (1976). "My Affair with Science Fiction". Star Light, Star Bright: The Great Short Fiction of Alfred Bester, Volume II. New York: Berkley. p. 225.
  6. ^ Author bio, rear jacket, Manly Wade Wellman, Lonely Vigils, Carcosa, 1981.
  7. ^ Jacket flap, Manly Wade Wellman, Lonely Vigils, Carcosa, 1981
  8. ^ Jacket flap, Manly Wade Wellman, Lonely Vigils, Carcosa, 1981
  9. ^ Jacket flap, Manly Wade Wellman, Lonely Vigils, Carcosa, 1981
  10. ^ Stephen Jones, "Better Things Waiting: An Interview with Manly Wade Wellman", Fantasy Media, 2, No 2 (May/June 1980), pp 14-16
  11. ^ Stephen Jones, "Better Things Waiting: An Interview with Manly Wade Wellman", Fantasy Media, 2, No 2 (May/June 1980), pp 14-16
  12. ^ Stephen Jones, "Better Things Waiting: An Interview with Manly Wade Wellman", Fantasy Media, 2, No 2 (May/June 1980), pp 14-16
  13. ^ Locus No 295 (Aug 1985)
  14. ^ Obituary, Manly Wade Wellman by Karl Edward Wagner, Locus, No 304 (May 1986), p. 54
  15. ^ Locus, No 309 (Oct 1986) and No 310 (Nov 1986)
  16. ^ Stephen Jones, "Better Things Waiting: An Interview with Manly Wade Wellman", Fantasy Media, 2, No 2 (May/June 1980), pp 14-16

Further reading