|Black Canaan, from WT June 1936|
Illustrated by Harold S. Daley
Robert's treatment of Southern black culture is discussed mostly from the point of view of "Pigeons From Hell" and "Black Canaan." Howard fans have a hard time defending the latter against post-modern critical interpretation. But viewed within the context of Robert's canon, it's hard to condemn the story outright, even as it's easy to judge or misjudge it. (Finn 100)While some critics have sought to place “Black Canaan” within the context of Howard’s fiction, few have sought to place it within the context of when and where it first appeared: Weird Tales. Issues of race and prejudice were no stranger to “The Unique Magazine,” which had published stories such as Eli Colter’s “The Last Horror” (WT Jan 1927) and numerous voodoo yarns by writers like Henry S. Whitehead, Arthur J. Burks, and Seabury Quinn which feature racial discrimination prominently. Yet one of the best stories to compare and contrast with “Black Canaan” is a story in the same setting, and dealing with the same subjects: voodoo, a conjure-man, & racism in the piney woods—Isabel Walker’s “Black Cunjer” (WT Jul-Aug 1923).
Probably the most picturesque figure in the Holly Springs country was Kelly the “conjer man”, who held sway among the black population in the ‘70s. Son of a Congo ju-ju man was Kelly, and he dwelt apart from his race in silent majesty on the river. He must have been a magnificent brute, tall and supple as a black tiger, and with a silent haughtiness of manner that included whites as well as blacks. He had little to say and was not given to idle conversation. He did no work, nor did he ever take a mater, living in mysterious solitude. He always wore a red shirt, and large brass ear-rings in his ears added to the color of his appearance. He lifted “conjers” and healed disease by incantation and nameless things made of herbs and ground snake-bones. The black people called him Doctor Kelly and his first business was healing Later he began to branch into darker practices. Niggers came to him to have spells removed, that enemies had places on them, and the manner of his removal must have been horrific, judging from the wild tales that circulated afterwards. Consumption was unknown there, almost, among whites, but negroes had it plentifully and Kelly professed to cure such victims by cutting open their arms and sifting in a powder made of ground snake-bones. At last negroes began to go insane from his practices; whether the cause was physical or mental is unknown to this day, but the black population came to fear him as they did not fear the Devil, and Kelly assumed more and more a brooding, satanic aspect of dark majesty and sinister power; when he began casting his brooding eyes on white folk as if their souls, too, were his to dandle in the hollow of his hand, he sealed his doom. There were desperate characters living in the riverlands, white folks little above the negro in civilization, and much more dangerous and aggressive. They began to fear the conjure man and one night he vanished. Nor is it difficult to picture what happened in that lonely cabin, shadowed by the pine forest—the crack of a shot in the night, the finishing stroke of a knife, then a sullen splash in the dusky waters of the Ouachita—and Kelly the conjure man vanished forever from the eyes of men. —Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Dec 1930, MF 1.109-110, CL 2.134Lovecraft’s response does not survive, but in the next letter it becomes apparent that the Yankee pulpster was encouraging his Texan peer to turn the anecdote into a full-fledged story. Howard would write in reply:
Kelly the conjure-man was quite a character, but I fear I could not do justice to such a theme as you describe. I hope you will carry out your idea in writing the story you mention, of a pre-negroid African priest reincarnated in a plantation negro. As for me handling this theme better than yourself, it is beyond the realms of possibility, regardless of any first-hand knowledge of background which I might possess. [...] I hope you will write this story some time, and if any of my anecdotes of pine land and negro lore can be used in any way, or give you any ideas, you are more than welcome to them.—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Jan 1931, MF 1.129-130, CL 2.157-158Lovecraft wrote back to Howard:
I don’t agree that you couldn’t do justice to Kelly, the Conjer-Man, and his Atlantean antecedents, in a story—and you will try it some day. I have a whole book full of idea-jottings which I could never write up if I lived to be a thousand [...]—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Jan 1931, MF 1.144Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book includes two entries along these lines, although they date from 1923:
108: “Educated mulatto seeks to displace personality of white man & occupy his body”Although he would never attempt either of these stories, the idea of mental possession and personality displacement would be prominent in several of Lovecraft’s later stories, especially "The Shadow Out of Time" (Astounding Jun 1936) and “The Thing on the Doorstep” (WT Jan 1937).
109: “Ancient negro voodoo wizard in cabin in swamp—possesses white man.”(CE 5.225)
Howard appears to have been inspired by Lovecraft to write up an article on the subject, titled “Kelly the Conjure-Man,” which he submitted to the Texaco Star (MF 1.114n7). The text is an expanded version of the anecdote in Howard’s original letter, adding more detail and atmosphere, and prefaced with a bit of verse: