Sunday, July 28, 2019

“Black Canaan” vs. “Black Cunjer” by Bobby Derie

Black Canaan, from WT June 1936
Illustrated by Harold S. Daley
Robert E. Howard’s “Black Canaan” has almost become the go-to reference to the writer’s racism. Paul Shovlin describes the story as “the most contentious example of racial stereotype in the Howard corpus” (Pridas 95). Timothy Jones wrote: “There is no describing the crude racism of the tale.” (Jones 92). Even Howard biographer Mark Finn describes the story as “blatantly offensive” and adds:
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).

No other story in Weird Tales is associated with Isabel Walker, though she has a handful of contributions to other pulps; “Black Cunjer” might have been her first and last sale, or perhaps it was a pen-name for another writer. Whatever the case, the story has some peculiar similarities to Howard’s tale, in terms of language and setting. Given the date, there is even the chance that Robert E. Howard may have read “Black Cunjer” on its first and only publication; though in his letters Howard makes no reference to the magazine, and beyond that the background of “Black Canaan” is better-attested than most Howard tales. It began with a letter to H. P. Lovecraft:
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 2.134
Lovecraft’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 2.157-158
Lovecraft 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 1.144
Lovecraft’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”
109: “Ancient negro voodoo wizard in cabin in swamp—possesses white man.”(CE 5.225)
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).

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:

There are strange tales told when the full moon shines
Of voodoo nights when the ghost-things ran—
But the strangest figure among the pines
Was Kelly the conjure-man. (HS 376)
After this rejection, the idea appears to have been shelved. At some point Robert E. Howard reworked the basic idea and reworked and expanded it into a 12,400 word novella. Kelly the Conjure-man is the archetype for the conjer-man Saul Stark—but instead of a simple anecdote of a conjer-man living alone in the piney woods who disappears, Howard makes Stark the focus of a cult, in league with an unnamed mixed-race woman, who threatens an uprising in the racially divided Canaan. Opposing him is Kirby Buckner, a white man who aims to stop the uprising before it starts—and is weirdly attracted to Stark’s partner. The combination of racial tensions and voodoo culminate in a violent end.

In September 1934, he submitted “Black Canaan” to his agent Otis Adelbert Kline. Two months later, the story was rewritten, but rejected by publishers (IMH 367). As was common with Howard, he saved paper by writing the drafts of stories on the back side of pages, so when he sent a manuscript to fan Emil Petaja in early 1935, Howard later had to explain:
The yarn on the back of the pages is — if I remember correctly — a weird story called “Black Canaan” based on a real life character with a realistic background (though the latter considerably altered) the region actually known as “Canaan” in southwestern Arkansas, between Tulip Creek and the Ouachita River, not far from the ancestral home of the Howards. The story hasn’t found a market so far —Robert E. Howard to Emil Petaja, 6 March 1935, CL 3.304
WT June 1936
Weird Tales accepted the story for publication in August 1935 (IMH 367). Two versions of “Black Canaan” are thus known: what is believed to be the earlier version, and the revised version which features more supernatural elements (and thus a better fit for Weird Tales). Howard would comment on the latter:
Ignore my forthcoming “Black Canaan”. It started out as a good yarn, laid in the real Canaan, which lies between Tulip Creek and the Ouachita River in southwestern Arkansas, the homeland of the Howards, but I cut so much of the guts out of it, in response to editorial requirements, that in its published form it won’t much resemble the original theme, woven about the mysterious figure of Kelly the Conjurman, who was a real character, back in the seventies — an ebon giant with copper rings in his ears and a gift of magic who came from nowhere and vanished into nowhere one dark night when the owls hooted in the cypresses and the wind moaned among the nigger cabins.—Robert E. Howard to August Derleth, 9 May 1936, CL 3.437-438
The degree to which the early draft and the final published version differ can be seen by comparing one of the first paragraphs in the early version:
Understood? How could any man raised between Tularoosa and Black River fail to understand that tense mumble? To such a man it could have but one meaning—old hates seething again in the jungle-deeps of the swamplands, dark shadows slipping through the cypress, and massacre and rape stalking like monstrous phantoms out of the black, mysterious village that broods on the moss-festooned shore of sullen Tularoosa. (BCE 1)
To the equivalent paragraph in the final version:
Understood? How could any Black RIver man fail to understand that warning? It could have but one meaning—old hates seething again in the jungle-deeps of the swamplands, dark shadows slipping through the cypress, and massacre stalking out of the black, mysterious village that broods on the moss-festooned shore of sullen Tularoosa. (HS 379)
Later changes would be more extensive, but in general, the edits are designed to make the prose tighter, to play down some of the histories of racial strife and tension which underlie the whole story, and especially to tone down suggestions of sex, though it was not absent from the final draft.

“Black Cunjer” opens much more slowly than “Black Canaan,” having more in common with Howard’s original anecdote of Kelly the “conjer-man”:
Black Cunjer’s cabin was in the thick of the pine woods where the saw-mill had been located for a month. It had proved difficult to find any negroes in that vicinity willing to work there; money was no object when they feared Black Cunjer’s wrath.
They believed he exercised a sort of proprietorship over the forest—a claim much stronger than that of the actual property owners, a corporation which knew nothing and cared less about local superstition. Certain it is that from time immemorial Black Cunjer had lived in the heart of the woods, where the pines grew closest and the shadows made twilight of midday. There, it was whispered, within a semi-circle of tall trees he worshipped his god, and burned fire before him on black nights.
It was a mystery how the ancient negro managed to subsist, for there was no garden, nor cultivated acres about his dilapidated cabin. It was rumored that he ate bats and moles and that this repulsive fare gave him “night eyes,” so he could see in the dark. His eyes did have a curiously blank expression, imparting to his wizened face an unearthly aspect.
No one knew Black Cunjer’s age; the negroes thought he came straight from Africa two hundred years ago. Judge Blake said he remembered when the old man had been a boy on his father’s plantation, and that he clung to the cabin in the pine woods now, because his young wife had died there years ago and was buried in the semi-circular space of trees. Because they guarded her rest, and witnessed his religious rites for her soul, he had grown to regard the pins as sacred. (WT Jul-Aug 1923, 46)
From WT Jul-Aug. 1923
Black Cunjer’s peace is invaded by Hock Oberman, white foreman of a crew of black loggers. The strip the forest bare—but none of the the crew will cut down the trees around Black Cunjer’s cabin, and when they try accidents begin to befall them.
Well, Hock Oberman would show then—he’d give these niggers a lesson they’d never forget! (WT Jul-Aug 1923, 47)
Oberman murders Black Cunjer in a fit of anger...but dies himself soon after, boot welling up with blood where he touched the old man’s body. Nor would the trees around his cabin ever be cut down.

The two stories share common elements: while “Black Cunjer” has no specifics as to what state or region it is set in, the references to plantation, slavery, and the piney woods all place it in roughly the same Southern milieu as “Black Canaan,” both in terms of geography and culture. The racial tensions in “Black Cunjer” are less pronounced but still very much the core of the narrative. Stereotypes of Southern black culture are shared as well: black people are presented as superstitious, often ignorant, always speaking in a local dialect; Africa is presented as a place of mystery and dark menace, its affiliation with black people strong even for those who have never been there. Racial epithets are in common parlance, not even remarked upon by characters in the story.

What has changed from 1923 to 1936 is not the essential racism that underlies both tales. The black conjure-man is a figure of fear to white men for their power: refusal to submit to a white man is considered a challenge of his authority, a dangerous precedent which is met with violence and death. Reader sympathies may shift because Saul Stark is openly villainous while Black Cunjer is the victim, but the same tensions and attitudes are consistent across the decade-plus from when “Black Cunjer” was published and “Black Canaan” was submitted for publication.

The major difference between how these stories approach these attitudes is that Robert E. Howard’s narrative in “Black Canaan” places the racial conflict and its long and ugly history very much upfront and as the crux of the story. In contrast to “Black Cunjer,” the plot in “Black Canaan” is more complex and takes longer to work out—but the very focus and attention that Howard gives to the racial dynamics in the story, both internal to Kirby Buckner and external to how the peoples of Canaan are divided and react to one another—set the tales apart.

“Black Cunjer” is crude racism; crude in the sense that the background is, for the most part, understood and remains unspoken, aside from casual use of the N-word. There is no deep psychology to Hock Oberman’s hatred or overbearing attitude toward and derision of the black men who labor under his command. With the exception of Black Cunjer himself, the black characters in Walker’s story are little more than stereotypes, with only one given a name or any hint of personality:
Tom, a strapping, light-colored negro, who the foreman said was the only one with a spoonful of brains, spoke in a vibrant undertone that sent an electric tenseness through the group: 
“Dyah he now,” Tom said—”dyah ole Black Cunjer comin’ up de road straight to’ard dis camp! Lordy, lordy, he gwine truck as all...he say nobody cyant cross his threshold—he gwine cross ourn now”—his voice died in a sort of wail. (WT Jul-Aug 1923, 46)
This is the context in which Howard’s “Black Canaan” should be understood, if not appreciated. The subject matter is unpleasant, today as it was when it was first published in 1936. Yet the racial attitudes laid bare in “Black Canaan” are not hidden or ignored; they drive the characters, white, black, and mixed-race. Through Howard’s narrative, the race-conflict is presented starkly, at both an individual and a group level. Many of the unspoken thoughts and ideas present in “Black Cunjer” are spoken outright in “Black Canaan.”

More than “Black Cunjer,” “Black Canaan” crosses the line between realistic portrayal of the bone-deep racism of the post-Reconstruction South into racial fantasy. Neither story portrays a simple picture of race where members of one race are “good” and another “bad,” but in “Black Cunjer” there is no effort to take racism beyond simply prejudice. The story is isolated, plays into no larger fears—the only thing at stake is a lumber contract. By contrast, the fear in “Black Canaan” is “uprising” before all else—the fear that haunted plantations before the war, that lay behind Jim Crow laws and segregation—and the often unspoken sexual appeal of breaking the taboo against miscegenation. Paul Shovlin argues:
[...] "Black Canaan" offers a parallel that might be read as a fantasy version of the reality that surrounded Howard, the murky life and race relations after the imagined certainties of the frontier were gone and settlement led to decay rather than the development of truly "civil" society. (Prida 99)
Kirby Buckner, "Black Canaan
Illustrated by Greg Staples
In this fantasy, Kirby Buckner is no literal white knight riding in to the rescue. Canaan is a moral swamp as much as a physical one, and the characters live in that world of degrees of separation between white and black—and brown—and “swamp niggers” versus “town niggers.” A place where extralegal violence is common and expected. The pine woods of “Black Cunjer” are not much different; the racism is simply more implicit than explicit.

The fantasy of “Black Canaan” is marked by the realism of the racism that Howard portrays. The depths to which every character in the story seems to know and accept and live the reality of it, which is most offensive—but in that, how is it different from “Black Cunjer”? Where Howard crosses the line is, perhaps, when “Black Canaan” hints at the outright supernatural:
Sick with horror, I watched her whirl reelingly into the mazes of a dance that was ancient when the ocean drowned the black kings of Atlantis. (BCE  33)
Readers of Howard might see a call back here to the Solomon Kane story “The Moon of Skulls” (WT Jun-Jul 1930) It is the African connection, touched on so very briefly by Isabel Walker, which Howard develops just a little more to suggest something older and unnatural, to hint at something that goes beyond the history of slavery and the Civil War and Reconstruction in the US. It is the touch of outsideness which Lovecraft would praise when he wrote of the story, shortly before hearing of the death of Robert E. Howard:
His “Black Canaan” is likewise magnificent in a more realistic way—reflecting a genuine regional background & giving a clutchingly powerful picture of the horror that stalks through the moss-hung, shadow-cursed, serpent-ridden swamps of the far south.—H. P. Lovecraft to Henry Kuttner, 15 Jun 1936, LCM 245
So when readers and critics consider “Black Canaan” in the context of Weird Tales—it is well to remember “Black Cunjer” as well. Racism and prejudice in all its forms were not foreign to the pulps, but it was a rare pulp writer could delve into the psychology of race in the Deep South and take that somewhere new. The subject is horrific, but it is portrayed as horrific. Howard makes it as horrific as he can. Which may be why “Black Canaan” is still remembered and republished, while “Black Cunjer” lies mostly neglected and forgotten—Howard comes to grips with his subject that remains vital to life today.

BCE       Black Canaan Early Version
CE         H. P. Lovecraft: Collected Essays (5 vols.)
CL         The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index & Addenda)
HS         The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard
IMH      The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard
LCM      Letters to C. L. Moore and Others
MF        A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H P. Lovecraft & Robert E. Howard (2 vols.)

Other Works Cited
Finn, Mark (2013). Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard. The Robert E. Howard Foundation Press.
Jones, Timothy (2015). The Gothic and the Grotesque in American Culture. Cardiff, Wales, UK: University of Wales Press.
Prida, Jonas, ed. (2013). Conan Meets the Academy: Multidisciplinary Essays on the Enduring Barbarian. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.

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