Thursday, December 11, 2014

Time Travel and a Werewolf

Not all of Henry S. Whitehead’s stories are set on the islands of the West Indies, or deal with outbreaks of Voodoo threatening upper crust white society.  One of his odder tales, No Eye-Witnesses, takes place in New York City, in Brooklyn to be specific.  The story originally appeared in the August 1932 issue of Weird Tales, along with Clark Ashton Smith’s The Maker of Gargoyles, Robert E. Howard’s poem Arkham, and August Derleth and Mark Schorer’s The Lair of the Star-Spawn, among others.  Whitehead died in November of that year.  He published No Eye-Witnesses and five other stories, including his better known Mrs. Lorriquer, in that last year.  (See also Gerald Canevin and the Lorriquer Case.)

No Eye-Witnesses contains no Voodoo, although the narrator spends his winters in the West Indies.  (A travel writer, this is where he does his best work.)  But it is during his annual visit with his aging father in Brooklyn where he has a supernatural experience while riding the subway back from Manhattan.  As he walks away from the last train station towards his father’s apartment he is unaccountably transported back in time.  He finds himself on a forest path, where he observes a young, deerskin clad woodsman fighting with a large timber wolf, whom he shoots with an archaic pistol. 

The narrator watches in horror as the dying animal takes on the shape of a man.  Fleeing the scene he soon finds himself transported back to present day.  He later learns of the shooting of a gangster in a nearby Flatbush neighborhood.  The details of the crime are weirdly conflated with the vision he had in the forest.  A detail about the weapon used in the murder unites the two events.  As is typical in many Whitehead stories, the upper class protagonist is none the worse for wear after all this.  “And Everard Simon went on uptown to his club.”

This is not one of Whitehead’s better stories.  What actually happened?  Did Simon have a prophetic vision of some kind while on his way home from downtown?  Was it a dream?  There are loose ends that do not seem to cohere into a satisfying ending or a focused effect.  Perhaps it was the author’s intent to leave the matter ambiguous.  The recurrence of certain images in very different locales, (the old fashioned pistol), gives No Eye-Witnesses the weird unity of a dream—but not of a narrative.  The irony of the title also contributes to the dreamlike quality of the story.

Whitehead effectively creates seamless time travel between the modernity of a subway ride and the eye-witness of a forest struggle occurring a century earlier.  He does this through subtle manipulation of details.  His technique is the most interesting aspect of the work.

A few moment later he was walking, his mind still entirely occupied with his article, in the long-familiar direction of his father’s apartment…the first matter which reminded him of his surroundings was the contrast in his breathing after the somewhat stuffy air of the subway train…It seemed, as he noticed his environment with the edge of his mind, darker than usual…Possibly something was temporarily wrong with the lighting system…

The temporal transition seems to occur as part of a process involving both distraction and a gradual reawakening of the narrator’s awareness of his surroundings.  A similar effect is achieved by H.P. Lovecraft in several of his stories, especially The Silver Key (1929) and He (1926).  (See also 3. Randolph’s Mid Life Crisis and With Him, in New York City).  The latter story also takes place in New York, and both reflect Lovecraft’s desire to travel back in time to an idealized past.  Lovecraft and Whitehead were friends and correspondents who on occasion shared ideas about stories and writing.    


  1. Seems quite plausible. Additional evidence here...

  2. Yes--I saw David Haden's reference earlier. Thanks for stopping by.


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