The American School
Other Early Twentieth-Century Masters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
It would perhaps be misleading to suggest that American writers were less assiduous than their British or European counterparts in probing the weird; but, as I have stated earlier, it appears that a substantial number of Americans chose to publish in the pulp magazines in the 1920s, or their antecedents in the Munsey magazines dating back to the later nineteenth century. However, a number of mainstream magazines like Cosmopolitan and Collier’s were open to weird contributions, and several American short-story writers filled their pages, and their story collections, with interesting supernatural matter.
O. Henry (the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter, 1862—1910) wrote nearly 300 short stories in little more than a decade (1898—1910), attaining spectacular popularity. Only a few of O. Henry’s stories can be said to be supernatural. The Four Million (1906) contains what many believe are his two best tales, the sentimental fantasy “The Gift of the Magi” (1905) and “The Furnished Room” (1904). In the latter, a man seeking a lost lover comes to stay in a boarding-house in the lower West Side of Manhattan. A whiff of perfume convinces him that his lover had been there, but the landlady denies it. In despair, he commits suicide. We later learn that the woman had in fact stayed there, having committed suicide herself. Roads of Destiny (1909) contains the historical fantasy “Roads of Destiny” (1903), suggesting three widely divergent fates depending upon the road a man chooses to follow, and “The Enchanted Kiss” (1904), set in San Antonio and revealing a man who claims that eating the flesh of young women is the secret to eternal life. In this tale, as in “A Ghost of a Chance” (1903; in Sixes and Sevens ), the supernatural is explained away as hoax or hallucination. The same appears to be the case in “The Door of Unrest” (1904; in Sixes and Sevens), in which the editor of a small-town newspaper meets a man claiming to be the Wandering Jew; but O. Henry here leaves open the possibility that the man really is what he says he is. O. Henry’s reputation has been dogged by accusations that his writing is facile, shallow, and meretriciously clever, his very popularity seen as confirmation of the poor literary taste of the general reading public.
Irvin S. Cobb (1876—1944) specialized in humorous short stories but wrote a small number of supernatural tales over the course of a long career. At one time, in fact, Cobb considered assembling his tales of horror, the supernatural, and the grotesque into a volume, but never did so; the volume, however, would have included several tales of mystery, suspense, and psychological terror that have nothing to do with the supernatural. Perhaps only three stories can qualify as supernatural, the best of them being the celebrated “Fishhead” (1913; in The Escape of Mr. Trimm ), involving a man named Fishhead who lives near a lake at the Tennessee-Kentucky border, and who not only physically resembles a catfish but seems to have an uncanny rapport with the catfish that lurk in unusual numbers in the lake. It is one of many stories in which Cobb etches with unsparing realism the crudeness and half-barbaric savagery of the poor whites of the South. “The Unbroken Chain” (1923; in On an Island That Cost $24 ) is a tale of atavistic memory: a Frenchman with a small admixture of negroid blood is struck by a train and utters African cries identical to those spoken by a distant ancestor who had died when attacked by a hippopotamus. Atmospherically powerful, the story is marred by ugly racism. “The Second Coming of a First Husband” (in Snake Doctor and Other Stories ) is a humorous tale of the ghost of a deceased first husband who upbraids his erstwhile wife for distorting the truth of their tumultuous marriage.
Cobb was able to simulate the supernatural effectively in several tales. In “The Gallowsmith” (in From Place to Place ) a phlegmatic-seeming hangman, Tobias Dramm, is disturbed by the curses of a man he has just hanged and thinks he sees the shadow of a man thrashing on the gallows on the wall of his bedroom (in fact, it is the shadow of a rat he had killed earlier). “Snake Doctor” (1922; in Snake Doctor and Other Stories) tells of a man who dies when he thinks he has been bitten by a poisonous snake; in fact, the snake was a toy. The influence of Ambrose Bierce’s “The Man and the Snake” is evident here.
Cobb’s tales reveal considerable fertility of invention and psychological insight, but aside from the tautly written “Fishhead” they seem subject to suspicions of prolixity. It is evident that horror and the supernatural were never far from his temperament, although he chose to express them in only a random group of stories.
Gouverneur Morris (1876—1953) published widely in popular magazines of the first three decades of the twentieth century. His first collection, The Footprint and Other Stories (1908), contains three grim tales: the title story, a novelette about five white men who steal a ruby-encrusted box from a group of Chinese people in California and die hideously as a result; “The Execution,” a rather contrived tale about a blind man who unwittingly kills his own son (who, facing execution, had escaped from prison and come home); and “The Crocodile,” in which an incantation uttered over the body of a tiny crocodile appears to resurrect a man’s long-dead wife. But Morris’s best-known horror tale is the much-reprinted “Back There in the Grass” (1911; in It and Other Stories ), where we encounter an entire colony of foot-high people found on a Polynesian island. These people turn out to be a kind of snake, with poison sacs attached to fangs in their mouths. As in his other tales, Morris’s clipped yet lyrical prose makes this tale a potent atmospheric vignette. An uncollected tale, “Derrick’s Return” (Cosmopolitan, December 1923), is an allegory about a soul’s adventures in the afterlife. It is a pity that Morris did not broach the weird in more of his tales, as he could easily have become a master of the form.
Perhaps Edward Lucas White (1866—1934) would be irked if he knew that, amidst the mass of his literary productions spanning more than three decades, virtually the only works that are remembered are his tales of supernatural horror. His early training in Latin, Greek, and ancient history were put to good use in such historical novels as The Unwilling Vestal (1918) and Andivius Hedulio (1921); but his literary reputation will continue to rest on his two weird collections, The Song of the Sirens and Other Stories (1919) and Lukundoo and Other Stories (1927). Several of the tales in these collections were written very early in the twentieth century but failed to find lodgment in magazines despite repeated submissions. “The Flambeau Bracket,” for example, was written in January 1906 but was rejected by 75 magazines over a 51-month period, finally landing in Young’s Magazine (the date of publication is uncertain; it probably appeared in late 1910 or early 1911). The story is a remarkable testament to Edgar Allan Poe’s influence on White. He had been a devotee of Poe since his early teenage years, and late in life he made the confession that “I have had to banish from my home every scrap of [Poe’s] printed writings, else I should waste my time and fuddle myself and reread him when I should be doing other things” (quoted in Wetzel [I], p. 98). He also confessed that he destroyed nearly every scrap of his work that was influenced by Poe, but “The Flambeau Bracket” survived: although based upon a dream, White admits that the dream itself was largely triggered by “The Cask of Amontillado.” It is White’s solitary excursion into non-supernatural horror.
It is difficult to convey in small compass the distinctive qualities of White’s weird tales. Aside from their inspiration from dreams, their most salient feature is perhaps the sheer bizarrerie of their weird manifestations. Rarely do we find the conventional ghost in White’s work; instead, we come upon the female ghoul in “Amina,” the hideous growth that plagues the protagonist in “Lukundoo,” the monster that is Hengist Eversleigh in “The Snout,” and so many others. Even when a ghost is present—as perhaps is the case in “The Message on the Slate”—it exhibits itself in a piquant and novel way. White admitted that he had renounced all religious belief as early as the age of fourteen, and this very lack of belief may have contributed to the effectiveness of his tales. It is this sentiment that lends a poignancy to the charlatan clairvoyant’s confession, in “The Message on the Slate,” that the supernatural phenomenon he has just experienced “has demolished the entire structure of my spiritual existence” (198).
There is perhaps a reason to complain that White’s development of his narratives is at times a bit slow and drawn-out. Indeed, it would appear that several of his lengthier tales were rejected largely on the grounds of length; “The Song of the Sirens” was first published only in a heavily abridged form. But in most instances, White’s leisurely narration is designed to build up an insidious atmosphere of horror by the slow accretion of bizarre details, and in the end we find that few of his tales are open to the charge of prolixity. He had learned well from his early idol Poe, and adhered fully to Poe’s conceptions of the “unity of effect.”
White was able to mingle his love of classical antiquity and his love of the weird only in “The Song of the Sirens”; but his tales feature other interesting bits of autobiography. The ship Medorus that is the setting for “The Song of the Sirens” is a clear reflection of the Cordorus, on which he sailed in 1885. “Sorcery Island”—a weird and ambiguously supernatural tale that uncannily foreshadows the “Prisoner” television series—may also owe something to White’s travels. “The House of the Nightmare” evokes the rural setting of his early years in New York state.
White’s most famous story, “Lukundoo,” is worth considering in some detail. He makes the interesting comment that, although the story was based on a dream, he would never have had that dream if he had not read H. G. Wells’s “Pollock and the Porroh Man.” That story is, as we saw in the previous volume, a powerful tale of the revenge of a “Porroh man” upon an imprudent Englishman, but there is no need to resort to a supernatural explanation to account for its various incidents; indeed, at the end Wells suggests that the entire scenario is largely a series of hallucinations brought on by Pollock’s fear of the Porroh man’s supposed powers. In “Lukundoo” White has duplicated only the barest outline of the plot of Wells’s tale—the curse inflicted upon a white man by an African sorcerer. “Lukundoo” is, however, manifestly supernatural, and is still more terrifying in that the curse actually invades the explorer Ralph Stone’s body, resulting in hideous small heads emerging on his chest and elsewhere—heads that actually speak to Stone. And yet, both tales are fundamentally tales of revenge, and in both tales we find the victims overcome by remorse at their mistreatment of African natives and inexorably losing their very will to live.
It is not surprising that H. P. Lovecraft and others enjoyed “Lukundoo,” for it foreshadows the explicit horror and novel supernatural premises that formed the core of their own work, as will be detailed in later chapters.