Monday, September 8, 2014

Hauntings as Superimposed Images

Though it contains a ghost and a monster, Henry S. Whitehead’s The Shadows (1927) is not a particularly scary or suspenseful story.  It may have been the author’s intent to keep the tone light, for the supernatural aspects of the story seem almost an afterthought.  This is a relatively “chatty” story compared to other fiction by Whitehead—he seems primarily interested in the interactions of various characters on his beloved Santa Cruz Island, as well as the details of their clothing, family history and living quarters.  The Shadows is an entertaining monologue by a narrator who seems completely unaffected by the supernatural weirdness occurring every night in his new residence.

For his fans, past and present, there are references to Algernon Blackwood’s character of John Silence, a “psychic detective”, and William Hope Hodgson, whom Whitehead refers to as a “professional occult investigator”, though he may have been thinking of Hodgson’s character of Carnacki the Ghost-Finder.  In fact, Whitehead’s narrator Mr. Stewart seems modelled on Hodgson’s Carnacki, and shares a similar temperament.  Stewart also at one point attempts to explain the weird phenomena in his room as something that reminds one “…of those fourth-dimensional tales which are so popular nowadays…”  Since this story was published in Weird Tales; it would be interesting to know which “fourth-dimensional tales” Whitehead was referring to.

And there is the appearance of a “fish-headed thing”, a small hand sized figurine carved of “anciently-polished volcanic stone”.  It is the image of a “fish-jumbee”, an aboriginal house-hold god worshipped and feared by the original inhabitants of the island, a half man, half-fish monstrosity.  (The actual model for the figurine shows up later in the story.)  Whitehead’s mention of such an item surely recalls similar entities dreamed up by his close friend, H.P. Lovecraft.  Whitehead alludes to the appearance of the fish god in various cultures around the world, just as Lovecraft does for the members of his pantheon of Old Ones.

Whitehead also shares Lovecraft’s aversion to alcohol, though he is not the teetotaler that Lovecraft was.  Trying to account for the strange visual effects that occur after dark in his room, the narrator rules out excessive drinking:

“No—in my case it was not the effects of strong liquors, for barring an occasional sociable swizzle I retained here in my West Indian residence my American conviction that moderation in such matters was a reasonable virtue.”

Elsewhere he takes up the theme of moderation again, when an associate offers him some rare old rum—rare because “…Uncle Sam turned his prohibition laws loose on us in 1922.”  Whitehead has his narrator opine:

“…not that I care especially for ‘old rum’ except a spoonful in a cup of tea, or in pudding sauce, perhaps…”

No one on the island will tell Stewart the details of how the previous owner of his house, “Old Morris”, died.  Both Mr. Bonesteel and Mr. Despard are tight lipped about what was apparently a sordid and gruesome matter.  However, an eccentric old Creole woman named Mrs. Heidenklang provides helpful back story and some anthropological commentary.  Her remarks suggest the survival of ancient occult practices which Old Morris may have become entangled with.  Much of the story involves Stewart’s investigations—he wants a rational explanation for the bizarre and recurring images that frequent his room each night as he tries to go asleep.

And this is the most interesting part of the story.  Whitehead’s character of Mr. Stewart is an interesting amalgamation of materialist philosophy and traditional Calvinist faith.  He applies reason to what he observes, which is the gradual superimposition of an image of Old Morris’ furnishings over that of his own.  He makes nightly notes and sketches as the vision becomes clearer and more detailed.  In some sense, Stewart energizes the strange optical effect simply by attending to it.  It is not clear why Stewart is singled out for the ability to do this every time the lights are turned out.  But he is unafraid of the phenomena, at least until the very end, because:

“…if it were the evil work of some discarnate spirit, or something of the sort, well every Sunday since my childhood, in church, I had recited the Creed, and so admitted, along with the clergy and the rest of the congregation, that God our Father had created all things—visible and invisible!  If it were this part of His creation at work, for any purpose, then He was stronger than they.”

Admittedly, this approach will not work in all such situations.  Sometimes it is better just to run away.
But such a view is unsurprising—readers may know that Whitehead was an Episcopal Deacon who at one time served a congregation in the Caribbean, as well as in Florida, where he once hosted his fellow author, H.P. Lovecraft.  It would be interesting to know what they talked about.  Perhaps some of their letters are still available.  The two men held markedly different world views.

Stewart ‘keeps calm and carries on’, using his powers of reason to solve the mystery of what he has discovered while at the same time reminding himself of the omnipotence of God when things begin to get a bit dicey.  Which they soon do. When the heretofore static image of Old Morris’ room finally crystalizes in Stewart’s view, something begins to move by the bed…

The Shadows was originally published in the November 1927 issue of Weird Tales, along with Frank Belknap Long’s The White People, Edmond Hamilton’s The Time-Raider, Part 2 and Manly Wade Wellman’s Back to the Beast.  The personality of Henry S. Whitehead seems to be everywhere present, at least an idealized version of it, and the story is interesting to read in the context of work created by his contemporaries, some of whom are mentioned or referenced in the text.

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