Manly Wade Wellman, the author with many occupations and many genres

April 16, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, writers, writing.

Many authors, if not most, have a second or third job that produces income and helps support themselves and their families while they are writing. Few authors, however, can claim as many different jobs and professions over as long a period of time as Manly Wade Wellman.

During his 83-year life, Wellman was a harvest hand, cowboy, roadhouse bouncer, and newspaperman for The Beacon and The Wichita Eagle newspapers. When the Great Depression hit, Wellman’s newspaper work dwindled, so he moved to New York where he became Assistant Director of the WPA’s New York Folklore Project. During the war he served in New Jersey as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Throughout his many careers, Wellman wrote in a variety of genres and ultimately published about 500 articles and short stories and as many as 80 novels. His range of writing was almost unbelievable covering fantasy and science fiction as well as non-fiction and stage plays.

He married Frances Obrist “Garfield” (her pen name), who was a noted and well-published horror writer. She sold her first yarn to Weird Tales magazine in 1939. Wellman’s brother, Paul Wellman, was also an acclaimed author.

Wellman was born in Angola, then Portuguese West Africa, in 1903. His family moved to London for a time and then to America. He attended school in Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City, Utah, and eventually graduated from Wichita State University in 1926. He then gained a law degree from Columbia University Law School in New York City.

Wellman wrote for science fiction and fantasy magazines, always tailoring his work to the needs of the editors. He became interested in his own ancestry and claimed both Native American blood and relationships to Southern Confederates. Among his non-fiction works are biographies of Wade Hampton and Robert E. Lee.

After World War II, Wellman became fascinated by the Appalachian Mountains and the stories that were told among its inhabitants. He traveled widely through the mountains, listening to those tales—especially those of magic and ghosts—and adapting many of them to his own writing.

Wellman even wrote county histories after his move to North Carolina in the early 1950s.

His standing among readers of fantasy and science fiction was such that in 1980 he received the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Wellman developed several distinctive characters that he used in his fiction and then became favorites of his readers. One of those was John Thunstone, who was always ready to undertake some mystery or adventure that his creator had in store for him. According to the description in one of his books, Thunstone was “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 sword cane, Thunstone stalks supernatural perils in the posh nightclubs 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.”

Weldman’s work was popular among the readers who knew about him, but he never gained a large following beyond the genres in which he wrote. One of his fiction pieces, however, did manage to raise the ire of literary icon William Faulkner. In 1946 the Ellery Queen mystery magazine award went to Wellman for one of his Native American detective stories. Faulkner had also written a story that was entered into that competition, and he did not appreciate the fact that he had come in second place to someone who wrote science fiction and horror. He fired off an angry letter to the magazine saying that he was the father of the French literary movement and the most important American writer in Europe. The magazine, of course, did not rescind the award.

In 1985, Wellman, then age 82, suffered a serious fall and became an invalid. He developed a case of gangrene in his legs and died at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1986.

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