The impression that the book stores and libraries and reading lists and talk and comment and news stories give you is that the pulp era only produced a handful of grandmasters: Tolkien, Lovecraft, Howard on one hand and Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke on the other. The reality is that there were scads of forgotten writers that produced top quality stuff. The gap between the canonized giants and these other guys wasn’t as great as you’ve been lead to believe. In fact, for people that were fans of fantasy and science fiction back in the sixties and seventies, it’s the writers we consider to be grandmasters today that were liable to be considered second rate back then!
This wouldn’t matter, but it becomes a serious problem when people try to criticize the work of rpg designers that was produced in the seventies. We look at it and project our view of fantasy back onto them when they were in fact very much different from us in their tastes and assumptions. It’s nearly impossible for some people to imagine, but Poul Anderson and Michael Moorcock loomed far larger in their imaginations than they do in ours! And just as we saw with something as insignificant as an oddball monster from the Fiend Folio… it was possible for creators to produce things without a notion or care for the things we think of as being iconic or otherwise defining an era.
A lot of people will smugly look back on these people and dismiss them as being a product of their time. What we don’t realize is the extent to which we are a product of ours! So my recommendation is to go back an look at the writers that narrowly missed the cut for achieving grandmaster status. You may well find a kindred spirit that will blow your mind in ways you never anticipated. And Manly Wade Wellman just might be “that guy” for you.
RETROSPECTIVE: Battle in the Dawn by Manly Wade Wellman
Grognardia — “I have little doubt that the idea of a fantasy tale starring a prehistoric man seems strange to a lot of people, even uninteresting. The truth is that Wellman is a terrific writer, superb not only at creating compelling characters but at weaving history, folklore, and imagination into a delightful pulp adventure, just as he did with his stories of Silver John the Balladeer. Wellman isn’t as widely known an author as he ought to be, though Gary Gygax lists him in Appendix N as having had an influence over AD&D and Karl Edward Wagner (creator of Kane) was also a great admirer of his work.”
Tor.com — “While he’s a better writer, on a technical level, than either Howard or Lovecraft – Wellman has a masterful command of language and syntax, and shows a Mark Twain-esque facility with diction and vernacular, when he needs it – and while Wellman is amazingly deft mashing together the weirdness of the regional mythology with semi-cosmic horror and swashbuckling heroes, his stories just aren’t incredibly compelling. They are fascinating, and endearingly well-written. And that might be enough to compel you to read until the end of any story you dive into, but where Tolkien has the grand heroism and Howard has the fleshy savagery and Lovecraft has the encroaching dread, Wellman has…well, he has the eye of an anthropologist and the storytelling gift of a likable teacher. It’s still kind of distant though. Not dry, exactly, but the stories are a bit sterile compared to some of Wellman’s contemporaries who have risen to the top ranks of fantasy-writers-your-aunt-has-heard-of.”
Kata. the ….. — “Although the introductory story was not as good as the rest of the stories, the latter stories make up for it. I actually think the first story has aged poorly due to different morals and ethics now. There are footnotes throughout the stories. They generally reflect the anthropology of the time including one commenting on Piltdown man before it was discovered to be a forgery.”
Manly Reading — “This is, actually, pretty good stuff, and containing hints at a broader mythos that explains Atlantis, an advanced civilisation swept away by the (meditterranean) sea. Hok is surprisingly engaging for a guy who wears animals pelts and initially thinks the way to a woman’s heart is to steal her away from her family and friends, and Wellman hints that many of the labours of Hercules are much-garbled retellings of Hok’s early exploits.”
Black Gate — “Wellman may have become a master of folky spook tales with his Silver John stories, but here he’s a master of pure, pulpy action and adventure. Caveman fights giant wolves? Check! Caveman fights giant pig-monster? Check! Caveman fights flying horrors? Check! Plus a village in the treetops and endless miles of mammoth ivory? Yeah, this is an example of how the best pulp stories can deliver thrilling adventure even when they’re seventy years old.”
Rage Machine Books — “The conflict is humans versus Neanderthals (known as Gnorrls) and considering recent genetic evidence that humans and Neanderthals did not merge into one race but remained separate, Wellman’s tale of war could be fairly accurate.”