Henry S. Whitehead is known for his voodoo tales and other stories set in the West Indies. He was a prolific contributor to the pulp magazines in the 1920s and 1930s, especially Weird Tales.
Henry St. Clair Whitehead was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on March 5, 1882, and he lived mostly in New England. He attended Harvard University, in the same class as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and graduated in 1904. He later attended Berkeley Divinity School of Middletown, Connecticut. He was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church in 1912 and was later sent to the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands), where he lived from 1921 through 1929. While there, he gathered the material he would use in his tales of the supernatural. In 1930, he established a rectory in Dunedin, Florida.
In late 1930, Whitehead started a correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft. In May 1931, Lovecraft visited Whitehead at his home in Dunedin. During or shortly after this visit, the two writers collaborated on a story, “The Trap” (1931), in which an unusual mirror, the portal to a dreamlike realm of immortality, draws in a schoolboy, and the boy’s teacher tries to rescue him. It is believed Lovecraft also assisted with, but did not actually write any of, two other stories: “Cassius” (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, 1931) and “Bothon” (Amazing Stories, 1946) (though some believe the latter may have actually been written by August Derleth based on a synopsis found among Whitehead’s papers).
Whitehead’s first story was “Williamson,” which he wrote in 1910 but wasn’t published until 1946 (West India Lights). His first published stories were “Tea Leaves,” which appeared in the expanded May/June/July 1924 issue of Weird Tales, and “The Door,” which appeared in the November 1924 number of that magazine. Altogether, he published about 25 stories in Weird Tales, from 1924 to 1933.
According to E.F. Bleiler in The Guide to Supernatural Fiction, Whitehead’s stories were “often sensational” but “the treatment is restrained, smooth, and sophisticated, with much local color and with an attempt at social realism.” Many of his stories have a common narrator, Gerald Canevin, which Bleiler says is “a mask for the author, whose ancestral name was Caernavon.”
In H.P. Lovecraft: A Life, S.T. Joshi states, “Whitehead’s urbane, erudite weird fiction is one of the few literary high spots of Weird Tales, although its lack of intensity and the relative conventionality of its supernaturalism have not won it many followers in recent years.”
Whitehead died on November 23, 1932, of a chronic gastric ailment, just as he was hitting his stride as a writer. In the opinion of some, this was the reason he was not as well known as his pulp-era contemporaries, especially since his stories were not collected until well after his death. The first such collection was Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales, published by Arkham House in 1944 (partially reprinted in 1976 in mass market paperback as The Black Beast and Other Voodoo Tales). This was followed by West India Lights in 1946, also by Arkham House.
Among the stories in Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales are the following:
“Jumbee” (Weird Tales, September 1926) tells of unusual West Indies figures: a jumbee is a corpse-like spirit that hovers in the air, and a sheen is an old woman who turns into a were-bitch. The protagonist of the story encounters three jumbees on his way to the house of a recently deceased friend, and he is attacked by a sheen on the way home.
Another unusual creature appears in “Cassius.” A creature that looks like a gigantic frog terrorizes a neighborhood, and it turns out to be a partly absorbed Siamese twin which had taken on a life of its own after being surgically removed.
Many of the stories in the collection deal with hauntings by spirits of people killed long ago. The ghost in “The Shadows” (Weird Tales, November 1927) is of a man who was killed while seeking eternal life. In “Black Tancrède” (Weird Tales, June 1929), the hand of an executed slave looks for revenge. The soul of a man is trapped in a bull during a voodoo ceremony in “The Black Beast” (Adventure, 1931). A pirate is trapped in a painting in “Seven Turns in a Hangman’s Rope” (Adventure, 1932) when a former lover paints his soul into the picture in an act of revenge. The spirit of a vicious gambler possesses “Mrs. Lorriquer” (Weird Tales, April 1932), turning a kind, courteous woman hostile and unpleasant when she plays cards. “The Fireplace” (Weird Tales, January 1925) is the only story in the collection that takes place outside the islands. The ghost of a murdered man appears in a hotel in Mississippi and persuades someone to tell the circumstances of his death.
A witch’s curse figures in “Sweet Grass” (Weird Tales, July 1929), which Bleiler considers the best story in the collection. Another voodoo story is “Passing of a God” (Weird Tales, January 1931), in which a voodoo god enters and animates a man’s tumor, causing the natives to worship him.
West India Lights includes the following stories:
The voodoo tale “Black Terror” (Weird Tales, October 1931) is about a native cursed by a papaloi, an Obeah priest, who has to be saved from Damballah, a voodoo spirit.
Among the ghost stories are “West India Lights” (Mystery Magazine, 1927), which is similar to “Seven Turns in a Hangman’s Rope”; “The Shut Room” (Weird Tales, April 1930), about the haunting of an old English coaching inn; and “The Napier Limousine” (Strange Tales, 1932), which also takes place in England.
The other stories include “The Trap”; two Atlantis tales: “Scar Tissue” (Amazing Stories, 1946) and “Bothon”; and a story set in the New England village of Chadbourne, which is Whitehead’s version of Arkham: “The Chadbourne Episode” (Weird Tales, February 1933), which tells of ghouls who eat little children.
Until recently, Whitehead’s collections have been out of print. In October 2007, Ash Tree Press rectified the situation by publishing the first of three books in a complete collection of Whitehead’s short stories: Passing of a God and Other Stories. This first volumes contains eight weird tales, four “non-weird” stories, and seven stories of the adventures of Gerald Canevin.