Gerald Canevin is a character who appears in many of H.S. Whitehead’s stories. Canevin resembles William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki, the psychic detective, but he does not work nearly as hard as the Englishman. Being a wealthy white American landowner in the West Indies circa the early1930s, he does not need to. With little to do beyond daily dinner parties, siestas and games of bridge, he has ample leisure to investigate local occult phenomena. Of which there is a great deal on the islands as a result of transplanted supernatural traditions from the “Slave Coast” of western Africa.
Canevin is also Whitehead’s fictional alter ego, in the same sense that Randolph Carter serves that function for H.P. Lovecraft. (Nearly all of Lovecraft’s protagonists tend to be versions of the author himself.) Canevin is often smug and bemused as he surveys the exotic supernaturalism of his island home—Santa Cruz, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands—and he is rarely in the path of any direct harm during his adventures. Near the end of his narratives he frequently enjoys explaining the nature of the supernatural phenomena encountered. However, he is not nearly as overbearing or longwinded as Carnacki often is.
H.S. Whitehead’s Mrs. Lorriquer (1932) is one of his better stories involving Mr. Canevin. It is a tale of psychic possession and subsequent exorcism that contains some disturbingly weird graphic imagery. Unlike many of Whitehead’s “Jumbee” tales, Mrs. Lorriquer is almost completely devoid of voodoo and the casual racism that tend to mar his other work. The story was originally published in the April 1932 issue of Weird Tales. Also in that issue was Clark Ashton Smith’s The Gorgon, Edmond Hamilton’s The Earth-Brain, and H.P. Lovecraft’s In The Vault.
H.P. Lovecraft collaborated on numerous short stories with various lesser lights, but he only did so perhaps two or three times with his close friend Whitehead. These stories include The Trap in 1931 and—indirectly—Cassius, also in 1931. L. Sprague de Camp quotes Lovecraft as making the following remarks regarding his unwillingness to collaborate with Whitehead:
“…because of inability to do justice to the West Indian locale he has seen fit to choose. I am the sworn enemy of armchair exoticism, & believe in writing about things one personally knows—except of course in the case of Dunsanian phantasy or cosmic infinity.”
It also seems likely that Whitehead did not need the extensive revision and rewriting that Lovecraft’s other collaborators did. S.T. Joshi describes Whitehead’s writing as “urbanely conversational” and “erudite”, though he criticizes the author’s fiction for lacking intensity and depicting supernatural events in a conventional fashion.
Contemporary readers may find the slow leisurely pace of Mrs. Lorriquer exasperating, with its preoccupation with the minutia of clothing, card games, food, furniture and the like. Yet the pace seems consistent with the lifestyle depicted and the rhythms of island life for the idle rich. Whitehead provides an interesting depiction of upper middle class life in the West Indies during the early twentieth century, with subtle and quaint details about gender, class relations and insular Victorian life.
Mrs. Lorriquer is one of Whitehead’s longer stories. The version that I have is from an interesting collection published by Wildside Press in 2009, Tales of the Jumbee and Other Wonders of the West Indies. In the story, Gerald Canevin befriends an elderly gentlewoman and is soon joining her and her family for games of bridge. Everyone notices that the woman’s mood changes markedly whenever she plays cards. She mutters in colloquial French, a language she does not know, and her voice deepens and coarsens—but only when she plays cards.
Whitehead effectively uses several scenes to contrast the placid and self-deprecating character of Mrs. Lorriquer with that of the other personality. Canevin begins to apply himself to the study of the woman’s mysterious behavior, as well as her family’s history and their connection with the previous home of a notorious gambler, a Frenchman named Simon LeGrand. Canevin makes Mrs. Lorriquer his “case”. A chance encounter with the psychic entity during a house fire leads to a visually creepy exorcism involving dismemberment and incineration. The description of the manifestation is weirdly suggestive in ways the author perhaps did not intend—I will leave it at that.
Being a story of psychic possession—the overpowering of one personality by another—the level of characterization requires that the two personalities be sufficiently described for the reader to distinguish them. Whitehead was much more successful at this than Lovecraft. It is interesting to compare Mrs. Lorriquer to similar stories by H.P. Lovecraft, such as The Thing on the Doorstep (1937) and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941), though these are much darker, denser and more ambitious tales.
The R’lyeh Tribune has featured several discussions of H.S. Whitehead’s work over the past year. Whitehead is important for his use of horror narratives to depict American anxiety about racial and cultural interactions just 70 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. He is also interesting because of his relationship with H.P. Lovecraft and other pulp fiction writers of the time. Interested readers may want to look at these earlier posts:
1. Homunculus (Cassius)
2. Mirrors, Upon Further Reflection (The Trap, with H.P. Lovecraft)
3. Ghosts as Dream Imagery (Across the Gulf)
4. Case Study: Homunculi Redux (Passing of a God)
Jumbee: Gradations of Racism (Jumbee)
Hauntings as Superimposed Images (The Shadows)
Island Memories (Black Tancrède)
Stand By Your Man (Sweet Grass)