Friday, 12 October 2012

Voodoo Tales: The Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead, Wordsworth Editions

There is an issue I've long harboured against pulp Horror, as a sub-genre. While it exists to entice and play upon a reader's ignorance and prejudice, at the same time it too often reveals the writer's own. This latter occasionally turns the stomach in a way almost certainly unforeseen by the author.
  I'd like to say, that-was-then-but-this-is-now; that there's a clear, recognisable trajectory of progression from, say, the 19th century penny-dreadfuls to today, that's seen a market gradually mutate from rank bigotry to informed enlightenment. The written evidence shows otherwise.
  Considering 'Frankenstein' was penned in 1816 by an eighteen-year-old woman depicting the psychology of loneliness through a sympathetic monster created by a mad male protaganist; and Hoffmann's 'The Sand-Man' of the previous year, where the narrator becomes obsessed by his skewed preception of reality, we see how far the pulp sub-genre has singularly failed to travel.
  Of course, these are examples of literary horror; and this aspect of the genre has, fortunately, borne a history rather more progressive. By commercial necessity, pulp horror used a shorthand of social, sexual and racial reference points that we can only hope today's flash fiction and ebook exponents can further advance.
  So it is the less 'pulp-ish' tales in this interesting new collection of Henry Whitehead's original omnibuses, West India Lights, Jumbee & Other Voodoo Tales and The Black Beast & Other Voodoo Tales that are the winners.
  'The Ravel Pavanne' is a hidden gem. A woman classical pianist harbours a love for a fellow pianist whose playing unwittingly conjures a scene in her mind at which she discovers they are both present. It has a warm and subtle beauty.  'The Trap' finds a teacher's curious pupil sucked into an ancient cursed mirror from which there appears no exit. The description detailing the boy's world-in-reverse is both bizarre yet strangely convincing.
  While the last six uncollected tales, and 'The Moon Dial' in particular, also show Whitehead stretching his writerly ability.
Many of the rest are either clearly derivative of contemporaries such as F. Marion Crawford ('-In Case of Disaster Only') Hope Hodgson ('The Sea Tiger') or his friend, Lovecraft, who clearly fired him the most. (Lovecraft has much to answer for, in the breadth of his influence, here - in the 1920s' and 30s' pulps - as now). It might be unfair to accuse him of cribbing from Robert Howard though, since most of these West Indian Voodoo tales are slightly predating, while, according to D.S. Davies's Introduction, Whitehead actually lived in the region for a period, his point-of-view research displayed quite heavy-handedly at times.
  One tale feels beyond the pale today, as pernicious in its influences as it is blatant. I try to avoid giving away in detail story endings but 'The Chadbourne Episode' deserves no such
respect. Quite simply, a town's departing Persian family may,
in the view of the townsfolk and our protaganist, have left an
offspring of cannabalistic ghouls living beneath the local cemetery. Our hero, equipped with his gun, so sets out to blast away at everything in sight - and, indeed, out of it - so he can return home to cook a hearty breakfast for a local hick buddy.
  Unfortunately, by so doing, Whitehead also manages to blast away at any chance of a plot or character motive. It also leaves the very nasty taste in the mouth that assumes all people of colour are 'niggers' who prefer to scuttle underground and spawn in-bred mutations. It is a dumb and despicable piece of reactionary nonsense, even for its time, that would only have worked as a cruel piece of satire on the writer friend he's clearly aping.
  Despite his first-hand knowledge, he here falls in to the same pulp-ish prejudice as everyone else. What maintains the reader's interest are those aforementioned flashes of true originality that, in a writer of the first league, might have represented the majority.


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