Who Fears Manly Wade Wellman?
by Fletcher Vredenburgh
Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986) is one of the greatest pulp writers, leaving his mark on heroic fantasy, horror, regional writing, and even science fiction. He wrote mysteries, histories, and young adult adventures. He also wrote for the comics, of particular note for Captain Marvel and the Spirit when Will Eisner was drafted. As the Halloween season is upon us, it only seemed right to go back to some of his spookier tales.
While Wellman is best known for his rural Appalachian-set tales of John, roving balladeer and fighter-of-fokloric-evil, he also wrote about two urbane paranormal investigators as well as straight-up horror.
The first of his investigators is Judge Keith Hilary Pursuivant. He made his debut in the three-part novella, “The Hairy Ones Shall Dance.” It appeared in Weird Tales (Jan, Feb, March 1938) under one of Wellman’s numerous pseudonyms; Gans T Field. If the title doesn’t make it clear, it’s a werewolf story. He would go on to appear in three more solo adventures and make appearances in several other Wellman stories.
Pursuivant isn’t the main character here, not even showing up until at least half through. Instead, it’s the tale of Talbot Wills, a magician who’s abandoned the stage in order to dedicate his life to disproving claims of the supernatural. When he takes a trip to West Virginia to witness what he regular debating partner, Dr. Otto Zoberg insists will convince him once and for all of the supernatural’s existence.
Almost as soon as Wills and Zoberg sit down to a séance with the a beautiful medium and her father, things go horribly wrong.
Before and a little beyond her, something pale and cloudy was making itself visible. Even as I fixed my gaze upon it, I heard something that sounded like a gusty panting. It might have been a tired dog or other beast. The pallid mist was changing shape and substance, too, and growing darker. It shifted against the dim light from the windows, and I had a momentary impression of something erect but misshapen—misshapen in an animal way. Was that a head? And were those pointed eats, or part of a headdress? I told myself determinedly that this was a clever illusion, successful despite my precautions.
The medium’s father is killed, torn apart, and Wills is forced to flee the suspicious and bloodthirsty townsfolk. Only the timely arrival of Judge Pursuivant saves him. Soon, the judge – “a man of great height and girth, with a wide black hat’ and a voluminous gray ulster” – is hard at work, employing his great knowledge of the occult uncovering and solving the mystery. “The Hairy Ones Dance” isn’t very frightening, but it’s a terrific attempt at writing a somewhat scientific werewolf story.
Wellman’s next investigator is the debonair and wealthy John Thunstone. Equipped with a silver sword cane forged by St. Dunstan, across sixteen stories and two novels, he fought countless horrors. From his very first appearance in “Third Cry to Legba,” (Weird Tales, Nov. 1943), he also regularly faced Rowley Thorne, a mock-Aleister Crowley.
Instead of the woods of West Virginia, “Legba” is set in Manhattan, largely at the Club Samedi. Accompanied by the beautiful Lady Montesco, they take in a performance at the club of what’s reputed to be a real voodoo ceremony. Recognizing this is indeed the case, he soon finds himself at odds with Thorne in a race to stave off a great diabolical terror. Purists can argue Wellman’s depiction of voodoo, but “Legba” is a pulp adventure, not an anthropological study, and it’s a fun one.
One of my favorite of Wellman’s standalone tales of terror is the brilliant “Up Under the Roof,” (Weird Tales, Oct. 1938). A twelve-year-old boy lives a miserable, cramped life in a house where he’s “the youngest person in the house by more than a decade.” One summer night something is added to the normal sounds of creaking floorboards and rustling trees:
After a while, I am not sure exactly when, I began to hear something else.
Awareness of that sound grew upon me, first slowly and faintly, then with terrifying clarity, over a number of hot, wakeful nights. It was something up above, between the roof-peak and the ceiling, something big and clumsy and stealthy. I remember telling myself once that it was a rat, but the moment the thought came into my head I knew it for a silly lie. Rats skip and scamper, they are light and sure. This was huge and weighty, of a bulk that I judged was far more than my own; and it moved, I say, with a slow, unsure stealth that had sustained rhythm, of a sort. It did not drag or walk, but it moved.
As the thing up under the roof becomes increasingly bold, the boy realizes his fear is empowering it. Unless he can find the courage to venture up into the darkness, he knows whatever it is will come down.
It would flow to the floor, through my door and creep into bed with me. I would know how it looked, what color it was, and what it wanted with me.
Finally, and perhaps the most well-known of Wellman’s horror, there’s the delightful bit of wartime propaganda, “The Devil Is Not Mocked” (Unknown Worlds, June 1943). Suffice it to say, when the utterly despicable SS General von Grunn is stationed in Transylvania, things go very badly for him and his men. It was filmed for Rod Serling’s second anthology series, and one I much prefer to Twilight Zone, Night Gallery.
Wellman was one of the best, but I’m not sure how well his work is known or read outside of the small circle of devotees I’ve encountered, and it’s a terrible crime against weird fiction. If you don’t know his work, we live in great days, where many of his stories are available in Shadowridge Press’ fairly cheap reprints of two classic Wellman collections; Worse Things Waiting and Lonely Vigils.