Long Looks at Short Fiction: “Seven Turns in a Hangman’s Rope” by Henry S. Whitehead

Voodoo TalesVoodoo Tales The Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead
Wordsworth Editions
704 p., ebook, $3.99

It is my opinion that had he lived, the Rev. Henry S. Whitehead would have be better remembered today. He was a prolific and popular writer for Weird Tales in the 1920s and early 1930s and a personal friend of H. P. Lovecraft.

Most of his work consisted of short stories, but there were a few novelettes and novellas. “Seven Turns in a Hangman’s Rope” is one of his best. In addition to the intriguing title, the story also has pirates, voodoo, and a painting that bleeds. How cool is that?

The story begins with a narrator examining a painting his butler found stored in a house he as just purchased. It consists of a wide view of the harbor of St. Thomas, painted from a ship anchored in the harbor. It shows the hanging of an infamous pirate along with two of his crew. The painting is quite detailed, with individual persons clearly distinguishable. It’s as if the painter painted from life rather than memory or imagination.

The narrator sticks a tack in the arm of one of the crew when he hangs it on his wall, then retires to bed. When he arises in the morning, the pirate has a look of agony on his face and there is a trickle of what appears to be blood where the tack penetrates the hanged man’s arm.

Much of the rest of the story consists of what the narrator learned about the scene. On of the prominent families in St. Thomas was the Macartney family. When a notorious pirate named Fawcett captures a ship captained by young Saul Macartney, the captain joins the pirates, killing one of the mates in the process.

A few months later, young Macartney sails hope with Fawcett, wines and dines his friends and family, and tries to do the same with his cousin, the lovely Camilla Macartney. She’s adored him since they were children and has been waiting for Saul to ask her to marry him. Saul knows this, of course, so he’s put proposing off so he can have his fun with the ladies.

What he doesn’t know is that Camilla has made voodoo one of the central focuses of her life. She’s done this in secret and has become the most accomplished and feared practitioner of all aspects of voodoo on the island. The entire black population of the island will do anything for her.

Young Saul is about to find out that his luck and charm can only carry him so far…

I’ll let you read the rest. Whitehead wrote in a style that was more formal than most modern writers use, but unlike some of the other authors who appeared in Weird Tales, his prose is never purple. In fact I found it quite readable.

whitehead-photo

Henry S. Whitehead

Another thing that stood out to me was how Whitehead handled race. Some of his terminology would be offensive today. But when he was writing, it would have been considered the politest way to say some of the things he says.

Whitehead spent time in the Caribbean, and it shows in work. He had a deep respect for the people of the islands and an extensive knowledge of their beliefs and cultures.  As a result, his stories contain a verisimilitude missing from similar stories by other authors.

I recommend this one highly. For more on this book, Doug Draa has a synopsis here at Weird Tales. There was an extensive conversation on the book at Black Gate recently.

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