Saturday, October 31, 2015

“The Männlicher is a Weapon of Precision…”

Henry S. Whitehead was a close associate of H.P. Lovecraft, and the two authors share a number of similarities.  They occasionally collaborated, though it is doubtful Lovecraft had to contribute as much to Whitehead’s work as he did with less able writers.  One of these joint efforts was the 1931 story Cassius, one of Whitehead’s better known tales.  (See also 1. Homunculus). 

S.T. Joshi notes that Lovecraft was aware of three of Whitehead’s stories set in the fictional Connecticut town of Chadbourne, of which The Chadbourne Episode (1933) was one.  It is likely that the town of Chadbourne was inspired by Lovecraft’s Arkham, and seems to have been an equally hazardous locale.  Regrettably, the two other Chadbourne stories have not been found.

The Chadbourne Episode was published a few months after Whitehead’s death, and represents a late career work.   Twenty-five of his stories appeared in Weird Tales, beginning in 1924, and several of his writings appeared posthumously in the late 1930s and 1940s. Whitehead, who served as an Episcopalian clergyman in the U.S. Virgin islands, was known for his incorporation of West Indies folklore and Vodou into distinctive horror fiction.  In a tribute to the author, Joshi quotes a reminiscence of Lovecraft’s:

“…As I glance at my curio shelf I see a long mottled snake in a jar, & reflect how good old Canevin caught & killed it with his own hands—thinking I might like a sample of Dunedin’s lurking horrors. [Whitehead later lived in Florida, where Lovecraft once visited him.]  He was not afraid of the devil himself, & the seizure of that noxious wriggler was highly typical of him.  The astonishing versatility & multiplicity of attractive qualities which he possessed sound almost fabulous to one who did not know him in person.”

The Chadbourne Episode is by far one of Gerald Canevin’s darker, more gruesome adventures.  Canevin is Whitehead’s alter ego, in the same sense that Randolph Carter was H.P. Lovecraft’s.  This story is not set in some sunny corner of the U.S. Virgin Islands, but in rural Connecticut, and while it is high summer, there is a definite chill in the air.  Cats, dogs and farm animals have begun to go missing in the vicinity of Canevin’s rental property, which is initially blamed on “cattymounts”, a southerner’s term for mountain lions.  Wrong species!—the offending organism may be more porcine than feline.  When a young boy vanishes, the people of Chadbourne turn to Canevin for help.

The story opens incongruously: a girl’s blueberry picking expedition serves to foreshadow later horrific events.  The Chadbourne Episode, a relatively short story, is one of those worth re-reading, especially to appreciate Whitehead’s foreshadowing and his careful creation of the setting and principle characters.  The arrangement has an interesting symmetry.  There are two upper class families represented, the Canevins, who own an historic old farm, and their close friends, the Merrits, whose mausoleum, like the farm, have been infested and defiled by a foreign presence.  There are also two boys, one doomed, the other courageous at the scene of a final conflagration between good and evil, which is also between native and immigrant.  “The old yeoman stock had not run down appreciably in young Jed.”  Whitehead gives inordinate attention to both boys, who seem to represent American wholesomeness and possibly racial purity. 

(As a sideline, Whitehead also wrote adventure stories for boys including Baseball and Pelicans from 1926 and Pinkie at Camp Cherokee from 1931.  There is interesting commentary about Whitehead at the Wormwoodiana blog at

The author’s Gerald Canevin stories tend to have a bright, chatty, bon vivant tone that contrasts powerfully with the terrors that are revealed, serving to amplify them.  In The Chadbourne Episode, this tone is more subdued, though Canevin still shows an aristocratic bemusement at the locals, his social inferiors.  This time the supernatural investigator does not have to do any research, or apply his worldly, encyclopedic knowledge to the unfolding horror.  His peer, a physician named Tom Merritt, informs him of the threat, and essentially asks Canevin to exterminate it.  “Bring that Männlicher rifle of yours,” Merritt says, a weapon that Canevin repeatedly describes as “a weapon of precision”. 

As in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, horror—on earth at least—often has a foreign origin, or at least foreign assistance.  Could the young boy's disappearance have anything to do with the Persian immigrants who are renting the Canevin farmhouse?  Reading The Chadbourne Episode now, many decades after the trauma of World War II—and with racial and ethnic strife still a feature of current wars and political unrest—one gets a chill that goes beyond the frightening elements inside the story.  The Chadbourne Episode is much more than a tale about shooting down some local monsters.  The nightmare that Whitehead transcribed in the 1930s is still dreamed all over the world.   

As is the case with Lovecraft’s work, Whitehead almost never includes any women in his stories.  If women appear at all, they are indistinguishable from background details, as parts of the setting, as a kind of wallpaper.  And when there is a substantial female character, “she” is not actually a woman, strictly speaking.  Whitehead’s Mrs. Lorriquer, in the 1932 story of the same name, spends much of the story as a physical shell inhabited by the spirit of a profane Frenchman. 

The only women of note to appear in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction are the asexual ogress Keziah Mason, in The Dreams in the Witch-House (1933), and Asenath Waite, the weird woman in The Thing on the Doorstep (1937).  Asenath is also a shell inhabited by the spirit of her sorcerer father, and later on by that of her doomed husband, Edward Pickman Derby.  Any femininity that Keziah or Asenath may have once possessed has long fled by the time they appear in these two Lovecraft stories.  (See also A Lovecraftian Gender-Bender)  In The Chadbourne Episode there is a shocking and grotesque parody of a woman, “the dam and nine whelps”, which appears near the end.  What is going on here?     

Compare the women—what few there are in the fiction of Whitehouse and Lovecraft—with female characters in the work of Clark Ashton Smith and even Robert E. Howard.  Or with the creepy Mrs. LeNormand in the recently republished 1937 novel by William Sloane, To Walk the Night (strongly recommended). 

The Chadbourne Episode will remind Lovecraft readers of similar ghoul stories like The Lurking Fear (1923) and Pickman’s Model (1927), which also depict old families that devolve over time, as well as nightmarish visions of racial and ethnic difference and fears of miscegenation.  Like these two stories, Whitehead’s tale is unresolved at the end, with a strong intimation that communities of such creatures are now thriving in American locations, far from their Asian origin.  The story is remarkably graphic and violent for its time, perhaps indicating that these fears were intensifying in the minds of many.


Happy Halloween from The R’lyeh Tribune!

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