Henry S. Whitehead died at age 50 in 1932. According to the isfdb, he began publishing in 1924.
In Unutterable Horrible, S. T. Joshi notes that Whitehead "at least could boast a prose style of admirable fluency and elegance, but who correspondingly had difficulty in summoning up the emotive intensity to create a powerful climax to his otherwise skilful narratives."
Joshi also quotes Lovecraft praising Whitehead's style for its "lightness, suavity, and humour." This is certainly true in my reading experience this week of a handful of Whitehead's Gerald Canevin stories.
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The People of Pan (1929)
"The People of Pan'' is a fascinating short story. It braids together a lost race surviving underground with concerns we might today term Eco-Horror. Whitehead excels here in matter-of-fact men taking up the colonialist burden with a fantasticated anti-indigenous romance of the Caribbean underworld.
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The Shut Room (1930) and The Napier Limousine (1933) are both crime stories in which narrator Gerald Canevin plays Dr. Petrie to his friend the Earl of Carruth's Nayland Smith.
In "The Shut Room" they unravel the theft of leather goods from guests at The Coach & Horses Inn on the Brighton Road. As readers familiar with UK popular fiction will suspect, the ghost of a betrayed highwayman plays a role.
Canevin and Rand get a ride in "The Napier Limousine" to save young Sir Harry Dacre from a blackmailer:
[....]There was a suggestion of richness about him, sartorial richness, an aura of something oriental which came into that Anglo-Saxon room with him. One could not put a finger on anything wrong in his really impeccable appearance. Bond Street was written upon his perfect morning coat; but I would have guessed, I think, almost instinctively, that his name was not really Goddard, even if no one had suggested that to me.
One name the blackmailer used while on the Kaiser's payroll, we learn, was Wertheimer. Henry S. Whitehead certainly checks all the interwar popular fiction boxes.
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Black Terror (1931)
"[....]Let this be a lesson to you to leave alone what God has put outside your knowledge.'
Gerald Canevin enlists the aid of local priest Father Richardson in battling a witch-doctor's curse.
The finest exorcist short story is probably "Father Meuron's Tale" (1907) by Robert Hugh Benson. "Black Terror" does not have its sharpness or poignancy, but the all-in-a-day's-work attitude of Father Richardson does recall Meuron.
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The Chadbourne Episode (1933)
"The Chadbourne Episode" is a rural New England horror story, well worth reading.
Narrator Gerald Canevin discusses the Chadbourne area of eastern Connecticut:
[....] nestling among the granite-bouldered ridges and dimpling hills of deep, rural, eastern Connecticut. In any such old New England town the older people talk much about all such affairs as Black Sabbaths, and Charmed Cattle, and Marked People.
[....]My father, Alexander Canevin, had bought up an abandoned farm on a Chadbourne ridge-top about the time of the Spanish War. In that high air, among those rugged hills and to the intoxicating summer scents of bayberry-blossoms and sweet-fern – which the Connecticut farmers name appropriately, 'hardhack' – I had sojourned summers since my early boyhood.
Canevin gets a call from from local doctor and founding family scion Tom Merritt:
'What's happened?' I inquired.
'It may be – ah – something in your line, so to speak,' said Doctor Merritt; 'something – well – out of the ordinary. Bring that Männlicher rifle of yours!'
'I'll be right down,' said I, snapped up the receiver, got the Männlicher out of my case in the hall where it is in with my shotguns, and raced out to the garage. Here, of a certainty, was something quite strange and new for Chadbourne, where the nearest thing to anything like excitement from year's end to year's end would be an altercation between a couple of robins over a simultaneously discovered worm!
'Bring your rifle!' On the way down to the village I did not try to imagine what could possibly lie behind such a summons – from conservative Tom Merritt. I concentrated upon my driving, down the winding country road from my rugged hilltop into town, speeding on the short stretches, easing around treacherous turns at great speed . . .
I dashed into Tom's house eight minutes after hanging up the receiver....
'I'm tied up – a confinement case. They'll be calling me now any minute. Listen to this, Gerald – this is probably a new one on you – what I've got to tell you – even in the face of all the queer things you know – your West Indian experiences; vodu ; all the rest of it; something I know, and – have always kept my mouth shut about! That is – if this is what I'm afraid it is. You'll have to take my word for it. I haven't lost my mind or anything of the sort – you'll probably think that if it turns out to be what I think it is – get this, now.
'Dan Curtiss's little boy, Truman, disappeared, late this afternoon, about sundown. Truman is five years old, a little fellow. He was last seen by some older kids coming back to town with berries from the Ridge, about suppertime. Little Truman, they said, was "with a lady", just outside the Old Cemetery.
'Two lambs and a calf have disappeared within the last week. Traced up there. A bone or two and a wisp of wool or so – the calf's ears, in different places, but both up there, and part of its tail; found 'em scattered around when they got up there to look.
'Some are saying "a cattymaount". Most of 'em say dogs.
'But – it isn't dogs, Gerald. "Sheep-killers" tear up their victims on the spot. They don't drag 'em three miles up a steep hill before they eat 'em. They run in a pack, too. Everybody knows that. Nothing like that has been seen – no pack, no evidences of a pack. Those lost animals have all disappeared singly – more evidence that it isn't "dogs". They've been taken up and, presumably, eaten, up on top of the Cemetery Ridge. Sheep-killing dogs don't take calves, either, and there's that calf to be accounted for. You see – I've been thinking it all out, pretty carefully. As for the catamount, well, catamounts don't, commonly, live – and eat – out in the open. A catamount would drag off a stolen animal far into the deep woods.'
'I've heard something about animals disappearing; only the way I heard it was that it's been going on for quite a long time, and somewhat more intensively during the past month or so.'
Tom Merritt nodded at that. 'Right,' said he. 'It's been going on ever since those Persians left, Gerald. All the time they were here – six months it was – they always bought their house supply of meat and poultry alive, "on the hoof". Presumably they preferred to kill and dress their meat themselves. I don't know, for a fact, of course. Anyhow, that was one of the peculiarities of the "foreigners up at the Canevin Place", and it got plenty of comment in the town, as you may well imagine. And – since they left – it hasn't been only lambs and calves. I know of at least four dogs. Cats, maybe, too! Nobody would keep much account of lost cats in Chadbourne.'
Like the Yezidis and Kurds Lovecraft maligns in "The Horror at Red Hook," Persian outsiders to Chadbourne who rent, stay to themselves, then depart, come in for blame. Them, and the somethings they left behind.
Tom Merritt continues:
'It all fitted together as soon as I really put my mind on it. Those Rustum Dadhs and their unaccountable reticence – the live animals that went up to that house of yours all winter – what I'd heard, and even seen a glimpse of – out there in Kut and Shiraz – that grim-jawed, tight-lipped chauffeur of theirs, with the wife that nobody ever got a glimpse of – finally that story of little Abby Chandler – '
And the incredible remainder of what Doctor Thomas Merritt had to tell me was said literally in my ear, in a tense whisper, as though the teller were actually reluctant that the walls and chairs and books of that mellow old New England library should overhear the utterly monstrous thing he had to tell . . .
I was shaken when he had finished. I looked long into my lifelong friend Tom Merritt's honest eyes as he stood before me when he had finished, his two firm, capable hands resting on my two shoulders. There was conviction, certainty, in his look. There was no slightest doubt in my mind but that he believed what he had been telling me. But – could he, or anyone, by any possible chance, be right on the facts? Here, in Chadbourne, of all places on top of the globe!
'I've read about – them – in the Arabian Nights ,' I managed to murmur.
Tom Merritt nodded decisively. 'I've seen – two,' he said, quietly. 'Get going, Gerald,' he added; 'it's action from now on.'
I stepped over to the table and picked up my rifle.
'And remember,' he added, as we walked across the room to the door, 'what I've told you about them. Shoot them down. Shoot to kill – if you see them. Don't hesitate. Don't wait. Don't – er – talk! No hesitation. That's the rule – in Persia. And remember how to prove it – remember the marks ! You may have to prove it – to anybody who may be up there still, hunting for poor little Truman Curtiss.'
"The Chadbourne Episode" culminates with what Whitehead goes to lengths to show is a justifiable bloodbath. It's a strong, compelling story, perhaps stronger stuff for readers today than in 1933.
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[....]It was a long time afterwards, a year or more, before Williamson talked of his family affairs with me. When he did begin it, it came with a rush, as though he had wanted to speak about it to a close friend for a long time and had been keeping away from the topic for decency's sake. I gathered from what he said that his mother was in no way to blame. This was not merely 'chivalry' on Williamson's part. He spoke reticently, but with a strong conviction. His father, it seemed, had always, as long as he could remember, been rather 'mean' to the kindest, most generous and whole-souled lady God had ever made. The attitude of Morley senior, as I gathered it, without, of course, hearing that gentleman's side of the affair, had always been distant and somewhat sarcastic, not only to Mrs Morley but to Williamson as well. It was, Williamson said, as though his father had disliked him from birth, thought of him as a kind of inferior being! This had been shown, uniformly, by a general attitude of contemptuous indifference to both mother and son as far back as Williamson's recollection of his father took him.
It was, according to him, the more offensive and unjust on his father's part, because, not long before his own birth, his mother had undergone a more than ordinarily harrowing experience, which, Williamson and I agreed, should have made any man that called himself a man considerate to half the woman Mrs Morley was, for the rest of his natural life!
The couple had, it appeared, been married about five years at the time, were as yet childless, and were living on the Island of Barbados in the Lower Caribbean. Their house was an estate-house, 'in the country', but quite close-in to the capital town, Bridgetown. Quite nearby, in the very next estate-house, in fact, was an eccentric old fellow, who was a retired animal collector. Mr Burgess, the neighbor, had been in the employ for many years before his retirement due to a bad clawing he had received in the wilds of Nepaul, of the Hagenbecks and Wombwells.
Mr Burgess's outstanding eccentricity was his devotion to 'Billy', a full-grown orang-utan which, like the fellow in Kipling's horrible story, Bimi , he treated like a man, had it at the table with him, had taught the creature to smoke – all that sort of thing. The negroes for miles around were in a state of sustained terror, Williamson said.
In fact, the Bimi story was nearly reënacted there in Barbados, only with a somewhat different slant. We boys at school read Kipling, and Sherlock Holmes , and Alfred Henry Lewis's Wolfville series those days, and Bimi was invoked as familiar to us both when Williamson told me what had happened.
It seems that the orang-utan and Mrs Morley were great friends. Old Burgess didn't like that very well, and Douglas Morley, Williamson's father, made a terrific to-do about it. He finally absolutely forbade his wife to go within a hundred yards of Burgess's place unless for the purpose of driving past!
Mrs Morley was a sensible woman. She listened to her husband's warnings about the treachery of the great apes, and the danger she subjected herself to in such matters as handing the orang-utan a cigarette, and willingly enough agreed to keep entirely away from their neighbor's place so long as the beast was maintained there at large and not, as Mr Morley formally demanded of Burgess, shut up in an adequate cage. Mr Morley even appealed to the law for the restraint of a dangerous wild beast, but could not, it appeared, secure the permanent caging of Burgess's strange pet.
It was a long time afterwards, a year or more, before Williamson talked of his family affairs with me. When he did begin it, it came with a rush, as though he had wanted to speak about it to a close friend for a long time and had been keeping away from the topic for decency's sake. I gathered from what he said that his mother was in no way to blame. This was not merely 'chivalry' on Williamson's part. He spoke reticently, but with a strong conviction. His father, it seemed, had always, as long as he could remember, been rather 'mean' to the kindest, most generous and whole-souled lady God had ever made. The attitude of Morley senior, as I gathered it, without, of course, hearing that gentleman's side of the affair, had always been distant and somewhat sarcastic, not only to Mrs Morley but to Williamson as well. It was, Williamson said, as though his father had disliked him from birth, thought of him as a kind of inferior being! This had been shown, uniformly, by a general attitude of contemptuous indifference to both mother and son as far back as Williamson's recollection of his father took him.
Then, one night, coming home late from a Gentlemen's Party somewhere on the island, Mr Morley had walked into his house and discovered his wife unconscious, lying on the floor of the dining-room, most of her clothing torn off her, and great weals and bruises all over her where the orang-utan had attacked her, sitting alone in a small living-room next the dining-room.
Mrs Morley, hovering between life and death for days on end with a bad case of physiological shock, could give no account of what had occurred, beyond the startling apparition of 'Billy' in the open doorway, and his leap towards her. She had mercifully lost consciousness, and it was a couple of weeks before she was able to do so much as speak....
Make no mistake, "Williamson" is a beautifully executed shocker. We know the shock will come at the end, and as Whitehead salts his clues along the way, we suspect exactly what the sting in the tale will be. Still, "the nicely managed crescendo" seems beyond Whitehead's skill and ambition. He is satisfied instead to try for time-on-target: the rhetorical bombshell arriving with the end of the story.
"Williamson" is happily not "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family." Williamson does not set himself on fire; his upper class aplomb and sense of humor has seen him through the disgust of a father and a wife who abominated him. Happily for himself and the reader, he has a true friend in narrator Gerald Canevin.
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The Ravel Pavane (1946)
"The Ravel Pavane" is not a voodoo or ghost story. Instead, it reports on encounters of artists and their coterie with the titular musical composition, and their various physical and emotional reactions on hearing it. The story is modest, and very modern in tone. Whitehead's prose here is notably free of the pulp fustian.
Marie Boutácheff said that one movement of this composition – the final movement which follows the Grave Assai , the suspended pause occuring on page six of the standard Schirmer edition – she had never, really, heard with what might be called her outward ears. When that movement began, that is, with anybody else playing the Pavane , and she listening, she 'passed out,' and, instead of hearing anything, got instead the mental sensation of seeing a picture . Near the conclusion of this particular movement, this 'picture' would disappear out of her consciousness, and she would again 'hear' the very end of the composition in a perfectly ordinary and normal manner.
She knew what were the musical sounds involved in this portion of the Pavane . She had played it herself many times and had studied it intensively. She always 'heard' every note clearly not when she played it herself. So far in her career she had only practiced it. She had never included the Ravel Pavane in any of her own programs.
She knew, mentally, when hearing it played by somebody else, the precise sequence of the notes and chords, but, even when playing it herself, despite being able to hear every note, she nevertheless in some curious fashion 'passed out' in the same place and 'came to' in the same place.
Also – and here I could perceive the really strange element in the phenomenon – the seeing impression was a growing and an increasing one .
Ravel's pavane can be heard here.
Themes and subjects that engage Whitehead clearly spur his prose to levels above everyday banality. This is worth appreciating.
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23 February 2022