Sunday, November 30, 2014

An Insurrection, Emboldened by Voodoo

It is especially disturbing to read a story like Black Canaan these days.  Robert E. Howard’s nightmare about a black uprising in the deep south is unpleasant reading not so much for the horrible and violent events it depicts—which are typical of a “shudder pulp” circa the mid-1930s—as for the racist attitudes everywhere on display, and the realization that such attitudes are still ours today. 

Which attitudes are overtly expressed in the story:  the “N-word” is virtually the only word used to refer to African-Americans and their local community throughout Black Canaan.  Howard’s language and assumptions about African-Americans easily compete with H.P. Lovecraft’s and H.S. Whitehead’s at their most virulent—a disappointment for this reader.  The story appeared in Weird Tales in 1936.  Current readers may speculate:  how did the magazine’s editors view this story?  How was it experienced by the magazine’s readership at the time?  What fears was Howard trying to exploit in his fans?   

The contemporary erasure of this type of hate speech from public dialogue has not removed the racial fear and hatred it signifies.  I read Black Canaan just a few days after a grand jury decided not to indict a white police officer in Missouri accused of shooting to death an unarmed black teenager.  As a middle-class Caucasian I admit that my eyes lingered too briefly on the specter of racial injustice and police brutality; my eyes were soon drawn to scenes of rioters in Ferguson burning down numerous businesses in the wake of the court’s decision.  Though an expression of frustration and outrage, it looked more like a black uprising, a threat to order and safety and privilege.

This is the theme of Robert E. Howard’s Black Canaan, set somewhere in the lowlands of Louisiana near the end of the nineteenth century.  Kirby Buckner, the narrator, a son of the local gentry, is drawn back to his hometown of Grimesville.  The village is in a dark, isolated region called “Canaan”, an hour or so outside of New Orleans.  It is anything but a Promised Land.  The people struggle to make a living at farming in a poor swampy backwater that Howard intentionally depicts as a jungle, as in African jungle.  The white people live in Grimesville, a supposed outpost of civilization; the blacks live in Goshen, which lies deeper in the swamps and overgrowth.  The racial metaphor is clear, as skin color darkens, the land becomes more primitive and treacherous, more like Africa.

If there is any cleverness in this story, it is in the author’s choice of the two Biblically resonant names of Canaan and Goshen.  Canaan of course is the Promised Land, given to the wandering Israelites.  Goshen is the older location.  It was an agriculturally rich area of Egypt given to Joseph’s family, who were allowed by Pharaoh to migrate there to escape a terrible famine. In Black Canaan, Howard overturns these allusions and makes them terribly ironic.  Canaan becomes a vortex of evil, racial hatred and pagan idolatry, drawing its inhabitants into the dark waters, towards violence and primitiveness.

When Kirby Buckner arrives in Canaan, he discovers that people are fearful of yet another black uprising.  “The blacks had risen in 1845, and the red terror of that revolt was not forgotten...”  Terrified whites are fleeing their farms for the relative safety of Grimesville.  This time the trouble seems different in quality and potency.  There have been murders and disappearances, and talk of a visiting Voodoo priest named Saul Stark.  Buckner also has an encounter with a sorceress in league with Stark, who casts a spell on him—the “Lure of the Bride of Damballah”—drawing him against his will to attend the “Dance of the Skull”.  It is clear that the insurrection is powered by voodoo and black magic; Buckner’s enthrallment to the sorceress also invokes the supreme horror of miscegenation.

Using his knowledge of diabolical magic, Stark is able to “put people in the swamp”.  That is, through a series of tortures and invocations he is able to convert his opponents to grotesque frog-like servants who lay in wait in the dark waters of the swamp.  This may be Buckner’s fate unless the Dance of the Skull can be disrupted in time.  At this point, shadowy Canaan, the whites and blacks that live there, and the amphibious mayhem that is being unleashed are clearly figures in the realm of the unconscious, of unassimilated fears and barely repressed hatreds of ‘the other’.  Howard’s nightmare is that blacks may someday prevail in their struggles, and drag familiar white society into the dark waters of their strange beliefs and evil ways, and drown it there.  That there may some justice in this, or at least legitimate revenge for centuries of enslavement is not one of the author’s insights—other than unending fear of retribution by aggrieved blacks.

In 1936, when Black Canaan was published, there were still people alive who had witnessed the American Civil War or its immediate aftermath.  There were also people still around who had experienced slavery first hand or knew of the enslavement of family members.  Not much more than a human lifespan separated modern America from the horrors of slavery or the Civil War that ended it. It does not seem too far a stretch to see that early twentieth century weird fiction like Black Canaan was in some sense still processing the trauma of that experience.   Dark fantasies like Black Canaan, as well as the disturbing events just last week in Ferguson, remind us that we are still asleep, and that the nightmare continues.

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