Thursday, July 3, 2014

3. Ghosts as Dream Imagery

Henry S. Whitehead’s Across the Gulf, (1926), is a fairly conventional, even sentimental ghost story—in some respects.  It contains interesting autobiographical elements, as well as a section worth studying by aspiring writers of horror or thriller fiction.  The story was originally published in the May 1926 issue of Weird Tales, along with Seabury Quin’s The Dead Hand, and August Derleth’s Bat’s Belfry.

Alan Carrington, the narrator of Across the Gulf, begins the story by relating a maternal superstition carried down the generations from his family’s origin in Scotland:  when a deceased mother appears in the dreams of her children, it is a sign of imminent disaster.  During the year following his own mother’s death, Carrington is fearful of just such a nocturnal visitation, but none ever occurs. Several years then pass, but the reader will not forget this introductory comment; he or she is now primed for some later prophetic appearance of Carrington’s parent.  (Evidently the appearance of a deceased father in a dream is of no consequence.)

The suspense of the story does not lie so much in the recurring image of the mother, who is otherwise a symbol of love and benevolence.  The reader’s trepidation lies in the nature of the future catastrophe that is paired with this appearance.  What terrible thing is going to happen?  This is the framework of Across the Gulf.

Time goes by and Carrington, though a successful lawyer, succumbs to the pressure and exhaustion of his work.  Is a cardiac event in view?   His doctor urges him to rest and recuperate his “overworked mind and under-exercised body.” Fortuitously, a cousin requests his help in running a summer camp for boys in the Adirondack Mountains.  The cousin is a

“…middle-aged, retired clergyman, whom an imminent decline had removed eight or ten years before from a brilliant, if underpaid, career in his own profession.  After a few years sojourn in the Adirondacks he had emerged cured, and with an already growing reputation as a writer…”

Henry S. Whitehead was an ordained Episcopal deacon himself, who later in life was a rector and leader of a boys program at Church of the Good Shepherd in Dunedin, Florida.  It was in Dunedin that Whitehead hosted H.P. Lovecraft during one of the latter’s visits to Florida.  He took up writing relatively late in life and was beginning to achieve success when he died.   It seems reasonable to assume that Across the Gulf may contain an expression of the author’s feelings about his earlier career.

The narrator’s cousin has little business sense, and this is where Carrington can be of service.  He soon recovers his strength and energy working at the Adirondack campground, and applies himself vigorously to his cousin’s affairs.   However, about a month after arriving at the camp, he has a vivid dream of his mother, attending to him at bedside.  He explains the phenomena in realistic terms, and provides a snippet of dream psychology, circa the 1920s.

The most suspenseful part of the story is the episode that follows, which cannot be described in detail here without ruining the effect.  The author skillfully uses everyday materials and interactions to create the anticipation of doom—which readers can immediately see, while the narrator remains oblivious.  So much depends on common kitchen ingredients!  Would-be writers of suspense or horror may find it valuable to analyze the passage to see how the author accomplishes the effect.

Is there any truth to the superstition introduced at the beginning of the story?  The author never claims that there is; he just presents the facts.  (“Coincidence?  You decide.”)  He is also careful to portray the appearance of the mother as a dream image—not as an entity separate from the operations of Carrington’s mind.  In this way Whitehead keeps the story well away from toppling over the brink into supernaturalism. 

Even near the end, when there is a second visitation, it is clear that this is most likely a strong tactile memory of his mother’s protection and support, not a visual appearance of a ghost.  Strikingly, Whitehead the clergyman gives no strong credence to spirits, benevolent or otherwise.  His main character utters a prayer of gratitude, not to God, but to the generic “Powers above”.  Did Whitehead’s theology change with his career?    

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