Sunday, June 29, 2014

2. Mirrors, Upon Further Reflection

Henry S. Whitehead was an associate of H.P. Lovecraft and collaborated with him on several stories.   He began corresponding with Lovecraft in late 1930, not long before his death.  Of Whitehead, Lovecraft once said “He has nothing of the musty cleric about him; but dresses in sports clothes, swears like a he-man on occasion, and is an utter stranger to bigotry or priggishness of any sort.”  Whitehead’s novella Cassius (1931) was discussed in a recent post, (see Homunculus).  Whitehead wrote just over 40 stories, and more than half of them saw print in Weird Tales.  He did most of his writing between 1923 and 1932, when he died at the age of 50.  In the mid 1940s his work was published by Arkham House in two collections of short fiction. 

One source suggests that Whitehead was strongly influenced by the writing of Edward Lucas White and William Hope Hodgson.  Several of his stories were set in the West Indies, and often featured voodoo, ghosts, and related supernatural activity.  S.T. Joshi, in his biography of H.P. Lovecraft, comments that Whitehead’s “urbane and erudite weird fiction is one of the few literary high spots of Weird Tales, although its lack of intensity and the relative conventionality of its supernaturalism have not won it many followers in recent years.”  Until fairly recently, Whitehead’s stories were out of print, but Ash Tree Press published a collection called Passing of a God and Other Stories (2007).  More detail about this interesting author may be found at:

Henry S. Whitehead’s The Trap (1931) is a “secondary revision” by H.P. Lovecraft, defined by S.T. Joshi as one “in which Lovecraft merely touched up—albeit sometimes extensively—a preexisting draft.”  This is in contrast to the “primary revisions”, in which it is clear that Lovecraft did most of the writing.  According to Joshi, Lovecraft wrote most of the central section of The Trap.  This is according to comments Lovecraft made in a letter to R.H. Barlow.  However, in a later publication, Joshi estimates that the last three quarters of the story are Lovecraft’s contribution.  Alert readers can observe the shift from Whitehead’s urbane conversational style to Lovecraft’s denser, more verbose prose.

There are other differences between the two authors which make this collaboration disjointed and problematic.  When Lovecraft’s section begins, characters and dialogue vanish, to be replaced with pseudo-scientific theorizing and laborious historical back story.  Typically in a Lovecraft story, historical detail precedes the main action of the story, as a way to build up both the credibility and the sense of impending horror as events unfold.  In The Trap (1931), it is offered as explanation after the main conflict is resolved, almost as an afterthought.

The Trap (1931) is an example of a particular type of trans-dimensional portal, one involving a cursed or transmogrified mirror.  An old mirror of mysterious origin is set up in a school teacher’s quarters, where it attracts the attention of one of the students.  A boy is sucked through the mirror into the fourth dimension. He is able to communicate telepathically with his teacher when the latter is dreaming.  It is through these dreams that the narrator of the story is able to understand the nature of the boy’s predicament as well as perceive the strange world on the other side.  Rescue is potentially hazardous but fairly straightforward to accomplish, given assumptions about how the mirror operates. 

Rescue is delayed several pages by considerable speculation and explanation of the history of the mirror.  However, the story is interesting conceptually—a detailed account of what it might be like to enter the fourth dimension by way of an oddly fashioned reflective surface, and the impact of such an adventure afterwards.  When the boy is examined after his rescue, he is found to be left-handed instead of right-handed, and his internal organs are rearranged on opposite sides of his body—this trope shows up again in later science fiction concerning transport across dimensions.

It is interesting to compare Whitehead’s The Trap to A. Merritt’s Through the Dragon Glass (1917).  (See 3. Through a Gateway ).  The older story essentially relies on magic to explain the operation of the mirror, while in The Trap, an effort is made to enlist science in determining how it works.  Here, Whitehead’s and Lovecraft’s collaboration is a transitional work, marking a shift away from supernaturalism towards a more materialistic explanation of weird events.  (See also Lovecraft’s The Shunned House, written just a few years before.)  Science shows up, almost like a guest who arrives too early, and there is an awkward tension.  Lovecraft in the end falls back on using an occult origin to explain the mirror’s weird properties.

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