Nearly all of us have experienced the annoyance of an advertising jingle or song lyric that replays itself incessantly between our ears, a literal “earworm” or “brainworm”, as some have called the phenomena. Research has shown that the optimal duration for implanting a melodic earworm is just under 30 seconds, which parallels the short term storage capacity of human auditory memory.
Interestingly, women are slightly more prone to affliction by earworms then men, and people diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder or “O.C.D.” are similarly more vulnerable. Recurrent earworms can be combated with the same medications that are effective in managing O.C.D.—Lexapro, Zoloft, and Celexa, among others. This would indicate a neurochemical basis for this nearly universal experience.
Human susceptibility to earworms has long been a boon to advertisers and ambitious politicians, among other molders of public opinion and behavior. A short but effective message, paired with a catchy rhythm and simple melody, can work wonders for a sales campaign or an election. Humans are naturally wired to respond to music, whatever the intent of the tune. And this is the disturbing aspect of earworms and other subliminal communications. Aren’t we free agents, in control of our own decisions, aware of our surroundings and the consequences of our actions?
This is the premise of Henry S. Whitehead’s short story Hill Drums, one of his later stories and also one of his finest. The tale originally appeared in the June-July issue of Weird Tales in 1931. To put this work in the context of other contemporary horror and fantasy fiction, Hill Drums shared the issue with Clark Ashton Smith’s novelette, The Venus of Azombeii, Frank Belknap Long’s The Abominable Snow Men, and H.P. Lovecraft’s classic, The Outsider.
Whitehead was at his most productive in 1931; 7 short stories and one collection saw print that year. During much of his career he produced about 2 to 4 salable stories a year. Similarly, his friend and correspondent H.P. Lovecraft published 3 or fewer stories a year during the same period—neither men were especially prolific. (Compare this to Robert E. Howard, who during that time published an average of 7 stories a year in various genres, with ever increasing productivity beginning in the early 1930s.) Whitehead died about a year after Hill Drums was published, in the fall of 1932, at age 50.
Hill Drums is deceptively light in tone. Mr. William Palgrave, the British consul-general on the island of St. Thomas, is graciously tolerated, but not liked by colonial high society, nor the native population of color. Whitehead makes Palgrave a caricature of an uptight, Victorian gentleman. Palgrave is a renowned travel writer, and has recently published an article that unfavorably compared the island’s capitol city to Trebizond in Armenia, his previous post.
In his interactions with people at all levels of island society he has made it clear that he dislikes the local culture and climate, and especially “Charlotte Amalia”—the old colonial name for the capitol. Whitehead anthropomorphizes the city as a “coquette of a town, a slender brunette of black eyes and very red lips and cheeks; a Latin brunette of the smoldering, garish type…” A woman unwisely scorned by Palgrave.
The Caucasian ruling class is dismayed, but too restrained to confront Palgrave on the matter.
He had said certain things, used certain terms, which were—inadvisable. The way he used the word “native,” society agreed, was bad diplomacy, to put it mildly. Society continued, because he was a Caucasian and because of his official position, to invite him to its dinners, its routs, its afternoon teas, its swizzle parties. Government House took no notice of his ineptitudes, his comparisons.
It falls to “Quashee”—the archaic term for West Indians of African descent—to respond to the insult. They “put a song” on Palgrave, a taunting jingle that questions the legitimacy of his birth, puts him in his place, and suggests that he leave. “Weelum Palgrave is a Cha-Cha, b’la-hoo…” it begins. Whitehead waxes anthropologically here and goes into some detail about the structure and function of such native songs—even providing his readers the melody in music notation.
But the song is more than a taunt. It is implanted in Palgrave’s mind through the collective efforts of the servants, carriage drivers and passersby. People of color softly hum or whistle the song within earshot of Palgrave, or beat out its rhythm with pots, pans and cooking implements down in the kitchen.
In one effective scene, Palgrave attends a soiree at the Governor’s reception. From a fellow member of the upper class he learns that others in their company—heavens!—have had songs put on them by the natives. In another room, a mostly Negro orchestra tunes up their instruments, and just before they are about to play standards from classical European music, the oboist plays the opening notes of the song.
Palgrave cannot get the ditty out of his head. He hears it everywhere, like a “top ten hit”, and it even affects his dreams. More disturbingly, he begins to have lapses of consciousness, when he completes tasks and then has no subsequent memory of having done them. So much depends on a letter he may have written, but cannot find. This is the most unsettling aspect of the story: that Palgrave’s mind and behavior could be influenced and controlled without his awareness, as part of a collective effort. Who is really in control here?
A subtle horror lies in the feasibility of using natively generated earworms to subvert the colonial powers on the island, a kind of subliminal rebellion. Whitehead only lightly suggests this possibility—he is not opposed to the status quo—but his affection and interest in the unique culture of the West Indies elevates this story above his typical Voodoo tales. An unspoken moral of the story may be that the oppressed of the world are not powerless if they have solidarity, a focus, and a weapon, however subtle…
In 1935, Wallace West wrote The Phantom Dictator, an interesting story about visual subliminal messaging in movie cartoons, an emerging media technology at the time. (See also Let’s All Go to the Lobby…)