Sunday, July 6, 2014

4. Case Study: Homunculi Redux

H.P. Lovecraft viewed Henry S. Whitehead’s Passing of a God (1931) as “perhaps representing the peak of his creative genius.”  The story features a number of themes that preoccupied Whitehead, namely the encounter with the supernatural beliefs of a different culture, namely Vodou, commonly called Voodoo.  Whitehead published six stories in 1931, nearly all of them concerning some application Vodou practices.  Passing of a God was published in the January issue of Weird Tales.  He finished the year with Cassius appearing in the November issue of Strange Tales.  The latter was discussed in the first post of this series; see 1. Homunculus.

Passing of a God and Cassius are very similar in that both involve evil homunculi.  However, the mode of their creation is very different.  In Cassius, the homunculus is a tiny conjoined twin who seeks revenge on his brother after he has been surgically removed by local doctors.  (A similar motive can be found in the plot of the 1982 horror film Basket Case.)   As grotesque and disquieting as the story is, there is some distance for the reader, some safety:  Cassius is only after his brother, who received all of his parents’ nurturing at his expense. 

Surgery is also performed in Passing of a God –by the same physician!—but what is removed from an ailing character is much deeper and more profoundly disturbing.  Passing of a God is by far the more unsettling and effective of the two stories.  This is because it deals with a more general, universal concern.

Gerald Canevin is again the narrator, as he is in many of Whitehead’s stories.  He occupies a position in some ways analogous to H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘Randolph Carter’, Clark Ashton Smith’s ‘John Hastane’, and any of the ‘Johns’ (Kirowan, Conrad or O’Donnel) in some of Robert E. Howard’s horror stories.  Essentially he is an interested bystander, “connecting the dots” for the reader, and often observing the horrifying events that have been building to a conclusion.  (One source has it that ‘Canevin’ is derived from ‘Caernavon’, the ancestral name of Whitehead’s family.)

Most of Passing of a God is a conversation between Canevin and his friend, Doctor Pelletier, “of the U.S. Navy Medical Corps, now stationed here in the Virgin Islands.”  But what a conversation!  As in Cassius, Canevin must repeatedly encourage his friend to tell the whole story, as he and presumably the reader are impatient and curious to hear more.  But Pelletier is strangely hesitant.  In calm, clinical terms, the doctor begins to describe what he found during a recent surgery performed on a gentleman named Carswell.  It is the author's juxtaposition of this rational case discussion with the unfolding bizarreness of the tale that amplifies the horror.

The purpose of the surgery—lovingly described in queasy, graphic detail—was to remove a large, apparently benign tumor from the gentleman’s abdomen.  Pelletier prefaces this with some theorizing about the nature of cancer:

“…there is…a somewhat ‘wild’ theory that somebody put forward several years ago, about the origin of malignant tumors…It is that there are certain nuclei, certain masses, so to speak, of the bodily material which have persisted—not generally, you understand, but in certain cases—among certain persons, the kind who are ‘susceptible’ to this horrible disease, which in the pre-natal state, did not develop fully or normally—little places in the bodily structure, that is—if I make myself clear?—which remain undeveloped…”

There is also an additional detail.  Caswell, who lived and conducted his business in Haiti, had become over time very knowledgeable of a local branch of Voudon, one involved with snake worship.   But in a remark that betrays racial fear and American chauvinism in the late 1920s, Caswell remarks:
“I’m an American, like yourself, as you can probably see, and, even after seven years of it, out there, duck-hunting, mostly, with virtually no White-man’s doings for a pretty long time, I haven’t “gone native” or anything of the sort.  I wouldn’t want you to think I’m one of those wasters.”

Except that Caswell has indeed “gone native”—a recurring anxiety among the representatives of colonial or imperialist powers living and interacting with native peoples.  He had become a familiar figure and popular among the inhabitants, especially after a strange incident in which he collapses unconscious in front of his house.  He awakes to find himself bedecked in rings and necklaces, an object of veneration in some kind of religious ritual that is incomprehensible to him.  Even more disturbing, an abdominal growth—diagnosed seven years earlier as cancer—has begun to grow again, though it does not cause him any discomfort. 

In view here is some kind of terrible birth, by caesarian section no less—a product of a white man’s fraternization with the culture of transplanted West Africans.  Passing of a God is a metaphor about the hazards of cultural and racial integration, of which there must have been many in this time period.  (See also Robert E. Howard’s The Shadow of the Beast, discussed in A Racist Nightmare).  It is a striking image:  a white man essentially impregnated with a symbol of the religious beliefs of another culture.  More than that, his disease, carried within him for many years, which might otherwise have killed him in time, is transformed into something alive and growing and separate.  Change can be terrifying, even more so when it develops from deep within us.

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