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Wellman, Manly Wade. Dead and Gone: Classic Crimes of North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press, 1954, 1980.
Apologies for this being so late in the day. As some of you may have noticed, the site has been down since last night. Basically, it was a case of WordPress and my service provider not talking to each other, an issue that crops up now and again. Anyhoo, it’s fixed now.
So, what to say about this book? Let’s start with the easy stuff. Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986) was a reasonably famous and successful Pulp writer during most of his lifetime, about the level of contemporary Seabury Quinn. He was best known for his story collection Who Fears the Devil? (1963) about a recurring wandering protagonist known as Silver John the Balladeer.
Wellman was celebrated in his day, winning two Edgars, two World Fantasy and Locus Awards each, and a British Fantasy Award. He was also nominated for several others, including a Hugo. He was inducted into the North Carolina Writers’ Network Literary Hall of Fame in 1996.
He was friends with noted Mythos writer Karl Edward Wagner and, it appears, Harlan Ellison (who knew him well enough that Ellison had an unpublished story from him after he died in 1986; Ellison also acted as the auctioneer for his literary estate). His fiction tended to pastiche and crossovers for characters from such writers as Lovecraft and Conan Doyle. That’s okay. A lot of us have done that.
Dead and Gone won him a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award in 1956, in the category of Best Fact Crime Story. Despite what I’m about to say down-review, it probably deserved it, especially in 1956. It’s well-written in the Pulp style of the day and has been greatly influential on the subsequent folklore for the ten stories he covers in nine chapters. There’s even a ghost story postscript to one (the Reverend George Washington Carawan, convicted murderer and possible serial killer of the Bluebeard variety, who shot himself in court in 1853). It was an important tick off my list.
This true crime collection is likely his best-known book now. At any rate, it’s the one you can most easily buy at the bookstore here in North Carolina (though born in Angola to missionary parents, Wellman died in Chapel Hill after many years in NC). Though there seems to be a bit of a revival of interest in his stuff (at least about a decade ago), along with the general resurgence of interest in Pulp and Golden Age weird fiction, he has largely fallen into obscurity outside NC.
Wellman loved his adopted state and that comes through in the prose in this book. He writes with a clear and easy style, for the most part – pulpy and engaging. The book is pretty well organized (though thematically rather than chronologically, which can be confusing). Wellman’s conceit was that he didn’t do any stories from after 1900 to avoid embarrassing the living. He didn’t do any before 1800, either – perhaps because he didn’t feel there would be enough concrete evidence from which to tell the tale.
Not that facts ever stopped Wellman from telling a good story. His considerable embellishments and frequent failure to cite any credible sources are rather the least of my concerns with this book. But you’ll see in a minute why I felt a need to mention them first.
You see, this book also makes it abundantly, painfully, scarily clear that Manly Wade Wellman, beloved (if somewhat forgotten) Pulp fantasy writer, was an unapologetic and vigorous fanboy of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yes, you heard me right. There is nothing subtextual about it, either. Not only does Wellman go into a long-ish explanation in the book about how he despises the 20th century revivals of the KKK, but thinks the Reconstruction era Klan was a heroic band of outlaws dispensing vigilante justice to miscreant rivals (who are always described in not-so-vaguely homophobic terms), but he tells two stories in this collection about these vigilante murders. Namely, the lynchings of William Parker and John “Chicken” Stephens. And they are rhapsodic in their praise of … the murderers. It’s ugly.
The Ku Klux Klan of Reconstruction times was operating in North Carolina. This order, not to be confused with the twentieth-century disturbers of peace who filched the name and the sheeted regalia, was seen riding in the gloom of Yanceyville evenings – “‘those here to day gone tomorrow ‘ gentlemen with flowing white robes, those speechless spirits,” they were described by A.J. Stedman, the Danbury editor. Dead and Gone, p. 142-3.
When looking at this sort of thing, especially in the current political atmosphere, it’s useful to consider two things. First, is this attitude racist? I would say, well, yes. Second, is it a dog whistle? Sadly, I’m inclined to think that Wellman was freely using the dog whistles of the Lost Cause here. In 1956 (another racially inflammatory time), that was, at the absolute best, dangerously irresponsible.
What’s astonishing is how little this is discussed even now. One 2013 Tor retrospective refers to him as “multicultural” due to his missionary background and claim to be part Native American. Um … no. Not even close. African Americans barely appear as more than scenery in this collection and when they do, they are thoroughly stereotypical.
That hasn’t dated well. But the Klan adoration society thing … that is so far over the line of “okay” that it Superman-flies over that line, lobs a nuclear grenade back onto it, pours on a little plasma from a neutron star, and then sets it on fire. There is no excuse or justification for this. Even “for the times,” it was pretty bad.
What is truly shocking is not his racism. Lots of Pulp writers were racist. Just look at Lovecraft.
It’s that people who, even at the time, claimed to be racially progressive (you know, like Ellison, who aggressively turned his political progressiveness into a huge part of his writing persona) either completely blanked Wellman’s clearly-stated bigotry or excused it with “Oh, tee-hee, that Manly, such a Southern gentleman. What a card.” Some of them are even still doing it. Even though he was espousing this attitude, in a book, during a time when the Klan was actively murdering people who just wanted to be able to live their lives in peace. And vote.
I shouldn’t leave out the fact that Wellman is downright vicious about the female murderers in his stories – notably Ida Bell Warren and poor Frankie Silver (who was most likely a victim of domestic violence and her dead husband’s vindictive family). No apologia for these gals. It’s okay if white women stay in their place, silent and demure, but God forbid they have sexual desires or just plain want to avoid being beaten to death. And it’s not like Wellman is any kinder to murder victims “Poor ‘Omi” or Laura Foster, who get slut-shamed even in the grave.
The thing is that this book is still in print. You can get it on Kindle. It’s charming and engaging in the storytelling, and it continues to influence how some perceive the ten crimes outlined in its pages. Wellman said he didn’t want to cause harm to anyone living when he chose crimes with no living participants. But I don’t think he tried hard enough.
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