Henry St. Clair Whitehead was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on the 5th of March 1882. He was an American short horror story writer and a rector, a contemporary and friend of H. P. Lovecraft and a man well travelled.
Whitehead grew up with a diverse array of interests including sports, literature and religion. As a sportsman and athlete he partook in state-level gymnastics and excelled at football, playing on the Harvard school team from his arrival until his graduation in 1904. He graduated alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt. After having accomplished himself as a sportsman at Harvard he took on the role of editor at a democratic reformist newspaper in Port Chester, New York, while simultaneously acting as commissioner for the Amateur Athletics Association. In 1910 Whitehead wrote his first ever short story entitled Williamson which, though it is arguably one of his greatest, broadest and mostly critically well-received novels, was not published until after his death when it appeared as part of the posthumous collection West India Lights in 1946. It serves as an introduction to Gerald Canevin, the narrator who features in the majority of his stories, who is widely considered to represent Whitehead himself. Though E. F. Bleiler, an authority on horror and supernatural fiction, considered Whitehead’s ancestral name ‘Caernavon’ evidence of this narrative mask, it was with great pleasure that Whitehead corrected the rumour, demonstrating how Canevin was simply a portmanteau of the words ‘cane’ and ‘vin’, meaning ‘cane wine’, a popular West Indian export.
In 1912 Whitehead resigned from his post at the AAU in favour of entering the ministry, attending Berkeley Divinity School in Middletown, Connecticut, before achieving ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Church in 1912. He served his first year curating Trinity Church Torrington, in Connecticut, after which he toured round various other pastorates gaining experience of ministerial duties in different cultures. Among these was the position of Pastor of the Children at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York City, which he occupied from 1918 to 1919. One of the most important of his ministerial experiences was his service as Archdeacon of the Virgin Islands from 1921 to 1929, during which time he first encountered many of the details and principles of Voodoo practices and its associated cultural colour which would shape much of his horror writing. Indeed, the critic Stefan Dziemianowicz has described Whitehead's West Indian tales as "virtually unmatched for the vividness with which they convey the awe and mystery of their exotic locale”, indicating the importance of his time there to the accuracy and detail of his writing. He lived on the island of St. Croix.
His short story writing career began during this time with the 1924 publication of his first story, The Intarsia Box. He completed it in 1923 and, through correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft, his writing reached pulp magazines such as Adventure (in which The Intarsia Box was published), Black Mask, Strange Tales and Weird Tales. He would eventually come to be described as a member of the “serious Weird Tales school,” and stylistic aspects of his writing can be attributed to the work of other pulp writers such as Edward Lucas White and William Hope Hodgson. The first of his works to be published in Weird Tales was 1924’s The Door, and from then the majority of his work was carried by that magazine.
Though the occult and voodoo subject matter of much of his writing is utterly opposed to Christian doctrine, Whitehead had no problem separating it from his ministerial duties. Indeed, many of the spells and supernatural instances his characters face are overcome by their unfaltering Christian belief. For example in the story Black Terror (1931) a young black man is condemned to death by a voodoo curse. The young man is terrified, believing his fate sealed, until Whitehead’s narrator puts forth the question of belief as a cure:
Perhaps I could prevail upon the English Church Clergy to help. It was, when one came down the brass tacks of the situation, a question of belief. A similar ouanga ‘buried against’ me would have no effect whatever, because to me, such means of getting rid of a person was merely the height of absurdity . . .
Later an English priest, Farther Richardson, is in conversation with the young man who doesn't understand the efficacy of Christianity as a cure to his affliction. The Father tells him “God is intervening for you, my child, and God’s power is supreme over all things, visible and invisible.” Clearly Whitehead’s comfortable proximity to the subject matter of his stories is based on his faith, and his belief in that faith’s restorative and combative power over superstition and evil.
- P. Lovecraft once wrote of him “he has nothing of the musty cleric about him, but dresses in sports clothes, swears like a he-man on occasion, and is an utter stranger to bigotry or priggishness of any sort.” It is clear from this testimonial that his sensibilities were not restricted by his religion. An account by another of his friends, Robert Barlow, records how “in later life he could be prevailed upon… to startle social gatherings by tearing a pack of cards in tow and then quartering them”. Though Lovecraft describes a man unfettered by his religious duties, Barlow sheds light on the behaviour of a man who tended to shock. Whether the action of tearing up playing cards was motivated by a sense of moral duty as a prevention of sin, or merely as an action which would provoke response, it is clear that Whitehead was a very large character. His friends, though, were variously “ship’s surgeons” and “safecrackers”, indicating a class acceptance which must have accompanied a sweeping moral tolerance. Lovecraft wrote of the “charm and erudition of [Whitehead’s] writing - a pleasing relief from the dominant crudeness and illiterateness of popular magazine stuff”.
Whitehead spent the final years of his life living in Dunedin, Florida, where he acted as rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd and led a boys group, similar in nature to the scouts, in the area. In 1931 Lovecraft visited him for several weeks at his home in Dunedin where he found Whitehead continuing to shock in the same fashion he had known. On the 23rd of November 1932 Whitehead died or a chronic gastric ailment. It was a great loss to the American literary canon as it was widely agreed that he was still finding his stride as a writer. Lovecraft considered 1931’s The Passing of a God as “perhaps representing the peak of his creative genius”. This remark was made posthumously though, so how much higher the peak of his creative genius would have been had he lived a full enough life to realise it remains unknown.
It is believed that during his life he was not as prominent a writer amongst the pulp canon because his writing was not collected until after his death. The first of these anthologies was entitled Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales and was published in 1944 by Arkham House with a run of 1,559 copies. Barlow wrote the introduction, and the majority of its stories are those published in Adventure and Weird Tales. In a review for the New York Times the critic Eudora Welty described it as “gentle, matter-of-fact, rather fatherly stories which produce some of the most point-blank ghosts that have jumped at us anywhere”, concluding that “these little stories have charm - perhaps it is the gentleness of the author’s personality pervading their horrifying content that makes them piquant.” It was followed in 1946 by West India Lights, again published by Arkham House though this time with a run of 3,037 copies. His collected works bespeak a writer whose intimate and intricate knowledge of the customs and traditions of the West Indian people about whom he wrote served as a constant mirror for his own Christian faith, in which he reflected and considered the doctrines and teachings of Christianity and imagined their effect on other cultures and faiths. His death curtailed his steady ascension as a writer whose work was highly regarded by those authors now considered stalwarts of the genre, and is a great loss to the American literary canon and the horror genre.