"Can These Bones Live?" by Manly Wade Wellman: An Appreciation by Jason S. Ridler
By Jason S. Ridler, MA
The map of anyone's reading life is a unique treasure. For some, the trail to Oz, Narnia, and Middle Earth was discovered as children (how I envy those with such maps!). Others spent their teenage years taking monthly sojourns to Gotham City, Metropolis, or the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters. As adults, our maps expand exponentially, with differing routes, short cuts, and forbidden passages emerging as we listen to the advice of friends, our favorite authors, and an assortment of other influences. These influences smack up against our own tastes and produce more rich and diverse maps. If we keep searching for engaging authors, that is.
The path on my map that leads to the legendary sf/western/horror/crime/young adult/weird fiction writer Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986) starts in a blasphemous comic book, detours to New Hampshire, and ends on SCI FICTION's on-line archive. In honour of the site's passing, I thought I would share my journey to this outstanding author, and shed light on the strange paths our reading life can take.
After finishing my Masters, I got a job that paid enough for me to indulge in more than the bare essentials of life. On a whim, I bought a copy of the Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon graphic novel PREACHER. It was violent, insulting on just about every level, and very, very funny. I devoured the series, but that first collection will stick in my mind forever because Joe R. Lansdale wrote the introduction.
I'd never heard of him before and certainly hadn't read him at all. But that introduction got me hooked on Lansdale's storytelling voice. After finishing PREACHER, I became a Joe R. junkie, rabidly reading his wild mix of southern storytelling cadence, brutal and emotional story content, and absolutely free imagination.
Flash forward to 2005, and I'm at Jeanne Cavelos' Odyssey Writing Workshop in Manchester, New Hampshire, taking a break from the grueling schedule with my roommates Scott Andrews and Justin Howe (go read Justin's own gonzo appreciation of Wellman and come back). I bring up Lansdale's name a few times, since I consider him a big influence in my own work (in intent if not substance), and Justin asks if I've heard of Manly Wade Wellman.
"Nope. He a wrestler?"
If you've read Justin's tribute, you know the map of his reading life is pretty damn wild, and I've come to appreciate his advice on things off the beaten track. Justin said Wellman was also a free-range writer of supernatural and other stories. "I think of him as the missing link between Lovecraft and Lansdale."
Good enough for me. After surviving the incredible Odyssey experience, I began to hunt for Wellman's work. I read his biography online and was astonished at his output and longevity. Here is a man who could have shaken hands with both Robert E. Howard and Clive Barker, who stalked the same twilight worlds as Bradbury, Bloch, and Leiber, and who put his own distinct stamp on "Weird Tales" until his passing in 1986. Truly an inspiration to young, weird writers like myself. But where to grab the lifetime of stories? So many of the collections Wellman was in are out of my reach or price range, and the library services in my town are not that hot for things on the fringe of fiction. And as a TV brat, I wanted to read Wellman NOW! NOW! NOW!
Justin, ever on the prowl in his reading life, cut out the middle man and said SCI FICTION had a few Wellman stories archived. And so I read, for the first time, "Can These Bones Live?" I've been grinning ever since.
Reading the story was like remembering the words to a favorite song that had almost slipped away from me. It was a unique storytelling voice, one whose influence has permeated the work of many of my heroes. In "Can These Bones Live?" John, the wandering musician in a modern yet supernatural southern US, armed only with unique knowledge and a six string, confronts a creature of legend in a battle of brawn versus art. As each sentence passed, the smile on my face hitched higher. Rough characters in a raw landscape, where religion and myth can both save and curse you, fight for survival with wit and charm. Here was a pulp master of pacing, writing a southern gothic with fringe SF and folk elements, at the height of his powers near the end of his days. And like all pulp masters, Wellman did not leave me satisfied. He left me wanting more.
After reading "Can These Bones Live?" I'd extend Justin's assessment a tad. Manly Wade Wellman is the bridge between the lost worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, and the modern dark landscapes of Neal Barrett, Jr. and Joe R. Lansdale. Ellen Datlow's courageous decision to include such lost masters of weird fiction as Wellman has provided readers with a glimpse of talent that has shone bright against the dark for generations. Huzzah to her for championing a writer whose imagination knew few bounds, and whose name, thanks to SCI FICTION, will now
and forever be etched on the map of my own reading life. Thanks again, SCI FICTION. Your efforts will be missed, but not forgotten.
Link to story.