henry s whiteheads letters overview

I have just gotten hold of your magazine and, believe me, it’s a hummer! I read it from cover to cover the night I bought it, and my one plea is give us more stories by those masters of fiction, Robert E. Howard and Henry S. Whitehead.

– Charles Roe, Strange Tales, January 1933 (WGP 44)

The Reverend Henry St. Clair McMillan Whitehead (1882-1934) was an Episcopalian priest and pulpster, one of the regulars of Weird Tales and Strange Tales and a correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, E. Hoffmann Price, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Bernard Austin Dwyer, and R. H. Barlow.

Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Whitehead attended Harvard from 1901-1904, in the same class with future president Franklin D. Roosevelt, but did not take a degree. He sold his first story to Outdoors in 1905, and shortly after began working for the Daily Record in Port Chester, CT. In 1909, having worked his way up to assistant editor, he entered Berkeley Divinity School. Whitehead gained an M.A. in pedagogy from Ewing College in 1911 (through an extension course), graduated divinity school in 1912, and was advanced to the priesthood in 1913. (HSMW 1, LHSW 2)

From 1912 to 1913, Whitehead was priest at the Trinity Parish House in Torrington, CT, and from 1913 to 1917 he was appointed rector of Christ’s Church in Middletown, CT; ill-health prevented him from serving in the army or the navy during World War I, though he served on the local draft board and in various other roles. 1917-1919 Whitehead was the Children’s Pastor at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York City, and after that was Senior Assistant at the Church of the Advent in Boston. Along with these ecclesiastical duties, Whitehead busied himself with various other positions run concurrently: running summer camps; acting as chaplain for the Connecticut State Hospital for the Insane and the Churchman’s Club in Wesleyan University; practicing psychology, tutoring, and writing. (HSMW 4-6, LHSW 2)

Whitehead suffered from ill-health for many years, and from about 1920 to 1929, began spending his summers in the American Virgin Islands (purchased from the Danes in 1916), and was acting Archdeacon for the Virgin Islands between 1921 and 1929. During this time Whitehead served at the Church of the Advent (1919-1923), Trinity Church in Bridgeport, CT. (1923-1925), Holy Rood Parish in New York City (1926), St. Paul’s Church in Oswego, NY (1927), and St. Luke’s School for Boys in New Canaan, CT (1928), before finally applying for the position of rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Dunedin, Florida, which position he occupied from 1929 to his death.  (HSMW 4-6, LHSW 2, DN)

Much of what we know of Whitehead’s life comes from a letter published in the 10 November 1923 issue of Adventure, which included Whitehead’s story “The Intarsia Box.” It was the custom of the magazine to ask first-time writers for a brief autobiography, and Whitehead obliged with a few autobiographical details, as well as excerpts from a friend’s letter describing Whitehead in the Virgin Islands. One of the appreciative readers of this letter was a young Robert E. Howard, who would later quote sections of Whitehead’s letter to H. P. Lovecraft of 6 March 1933, notably a particular stunt involving a deck of cards:

He is the strongest man, physically, I ever saw. Soon after he came here to Santa Cruz, it was discovered that he took a great deal of exercise. One evening he was asked to do a ‘stunt’ for a large group of people who were having an old-fashioned Crucian jollification, and he called for a pack of cards. He tore them squarely in half, and then quartered them. I had heard of cards being torn in two, but never quartered. Incredulity was expressed. The people present thought it was a trick, and said so, though pleasantly and in a bantering way. Father Whitehead asked for another pack to destroy, and for two wire nails. He nailed the pack through at both ends, so that the cards could not be “beveled”, and then quartered that pack. He had to do this everywhere he went after that. Everybody wanted to see it done. One night Mrs. Scholten, the wife of our Danish Bank manager, gave him a small pack of brand new Danish cards. They were made of linen! He tore those in two.” […] As usual the people of Santa Cruz were most interest in what I didn’t go there to do—strongman stunts. The card thing I have practised since I was about seventeen. (CL3.23-24, AMTF 2.538-539)

1923 was the beginning of Whitehead’s career as a pulpster proper, breaking into not only Adventure but Hutchinson’s Adventure-Story Magazine (“Christabel”) and People’s Story Magazine (“The Wonderphone”). The following year he splashed Weird Tales with a January letter in “The Eyrie” and the short stories “Tea Leaves” (May/Jun/Jul) and “The Door” (Nov). 1925 saw another story in Adventure (“The Cunning of the Serpent”), Whitehead splashing The Black Mask (“The Gladstone Bag”), and four stories in Weird Tales—”The Fireplace” (Jan), “Sea Change” (Feb), “The Thin Match” (Mar), and “The Wonderful Thing” (Jul)—the last of which also shared an issue with the first publication of Robert E. Howard in those pages, “Spear and Fang.”

At the present time, so far as the writer is aware, there is only one market in the English-speaking world for the occult short story. That is Weird Tales, which specializes in this branch of literature. (SWF 25)

Weird Tales provided a market for Whitehead’s stories, which were marked by his first-hand knowledge of the Caribbean and his collection of native folklore. Whitehead was neither the first or the last pulpster to write voodoo tales, which would eventually explode in popularity with the publication of William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929). Whitehead even wrote Farnsworth Wright from Fredericksted, St. Croix on 18 November 1925 to offer several corrections and general notes on Obeah, Voodoo, and Haiti (spelled ‘Hayti’ in his letter) in response to errors in stories published in Weird Tales. (LHSW 5-6) Robert E. Howard himself would dabble in voodoo stories with “Pigeons From Hell” (Weird Tales, May 1938). In his essay “The Occult Story,” published in The Free-Lance Writer’s Handbook (1926), Whitehead noted:

I have been doing a series this winter of occult stories for Weird Tales, of West Indian type,-Jumbee stories. I have done a good many for that magazine in the past, and reasonably expect to do a good many in the future. I find that here where I am writing,—in the West Indies—people of all classes “Eat up” my stories; not that mine are especially interesting, but because they are occult. Of course I write a good many other kinds. If I did not, I should have to choose between living on what Weird Tales pays me for a fairly steady output limited by once-a-month publication, and doing something else for a living. (SWF 26)

1926 saw the publication of three Whitehead stories in Weird Tales: “Across the Gulf” (May), “Jumbee” (Sep), and “The Projection of Armand Dubois” (Oct). This last tale introduced Gerald Canevin, a literary alter-ego for Whitehead would would go on to be the protagonist of a number of stories, slowly becoming an occult detective along the lines of Seabury Quinn’s Jules de Grandin, who had premiered in Weird Tales the previous year; Canevin can be loosely seen as the equivalent to Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter or Howard’s Steve Harrison, though Whitehead’s creation owes more to John Silence and Thomas Carnacki.

Whitehead also landed “Gahd Laff!” with The Black Mask (Jun), and began a correspondence with another aspiring pulpster, E. Hoffmann Price. (LHSW 7-9) These letters show that Whitehead, like Price and Howard, was attempting to become a professional pulpster, with the usual testing of different markets and frustration with the capriciousness of Farnsworth Wright:

Wright has three of my stories bought, one of them for a year and a half. He’s looking over another right now. The three boughten are “Carib Gold,” “The Left Eye,” and “The Shadows.” The one he’s looking over is called “A Door into the Unknown” and is an (acknowledged in text) swipe from Well’s story about the guy who went flooie in the lamps— was in London and “saw” the Antipodes. (LHSW 8)

Whitehead continued at the pulp game. In 1927 he published “West India Lights” in the April Mystery Stories, and “The Left Eye” (Jun) and “The Shadows” (Nov) published in Weird Tales, along with letters, including one in the May issue praising H. P. Lovecraft’s “The White Ship,” Lovecraft would return the favor by praising “The Shadows” in the Jan 1928 “Eyrie.” (HPLE 22, 27) 1928 was a relatively weak year, with an article in Mystery Stories (“Dark Magic of the Caribbean Peoples,” Oct) and a sole story in Weird Tales (“The Cult of the Skull,” Dec). 1929 was a better year for Whitehead, with “The Return of Milt Drannan” in the January Mystery Stories, and four stories in Weird Tales: “The People of Pan” (Mar), “Black Tancrede” (Jun), “Sweet Grass” (Jul), and “The Lips” (Sep).

1930 saw Whitehead well-ensconced in Dunedin, FL, and he had two stories in Weird Tales, “The Tabernacle” (Jan) and “The Shut Room” (Apr), but more importantly began a correspondence with Bernard Austin Dwyer, and through him got in touch with the prolific pen-pal H. P. Lovecraft, who had that same year also begun a correspondence with Robert E. Howard. (SL4.116) Whitehead and Lovecraft’s friendship developed to the point that Lovecraft visited “Canevin” (as Lovecraft nicknamed him, just as Robert E. Howard was “Brother Conan”) in Florida from 21 May to 10 June 1931. On returning from this trip, Lovecraft wrote to Howard of his trip, including a postcard with notes by both HPL and HSW which marks the beginning of correspondence between Howard and Whitehead. (CL2.210, AMTF 1.171) From this point on, notes on Whitehead formed a part on Lovecraft and Howard’s letters.

1931 saw the publication in Weird Tales of Whitehead’s “Passing of a God” (Jan), “The Tree-Man” (Feb/Mar), “Hill Drums” (Jun/Jul), and “Black Terror” (Oct), as well as “The Black Beast” in the July Adventure, which earned praise from Robert E. Howard: “I read Whitehead’s ‘Black Beast’ and wrote him my appreciation of the tale.” (CL2.240, AMTF 1.202), and Whitehead likewise praised “Red Blades of Black Cathay” (Feb 1931) in the April letters column of Oriental Stories. (cf. CL3.37, AMTF 2.549) Howard and Whitehead both benefited from another development in 1931:

Another factor affected Whitehead’s late work: The opening of a second and lucrative market for his stories. In 1931 the magazine Strange Tales of Mystery and Horror appeared; it lasted seven issues, the last being dated January 1933, and carried a Whitehead story in each except the first. (ASF 70)

Whitehead’s first offering for Strange Tales in November 1931 was “Cassius,” based in part on an idea in Lovecraft’s commonplace book. (SL5.33-35) Robert E. Howard splashed Strange Tales with “People of the Dark” (Jun 1932) and “The Cairn on the Headland” (Jan 1933), and both men were praised in “The Cauldron”:

Give us more stories by Robert E. Howard, that master of Weird Fiction, and by Henry S. Whitehead, another crackerjack writer, and I won’t bother you any more; but if you don’t give us a story each issue by these two writers, you will hear from me!

– J. McConnell, Strange Tales, January 1933 (WGP 44)

1932 was one of the best years for Whitehead, or at least the most well-attested in his surviving fiction. In Strange Tales he landed “The Moon Dial” (Jan), “The Trap” (Mar, an uncredited collaboration with H. P. Lovecraft), “The Great Circle” (Jun), and “Sea Tiger” (Oct); Weird Tales published “Mrs. Lorriquer” (Apr) and “No Eye-Witnesses” (Aug); Adventure “Seven Turns in a Hangman’s Rope” (Jul, partially cannibalized from “The Intarsia Box”) and splashing Popular Fiction Magazine with “Machiavelli—Salesman” (Mar). This shift in markets occasioned a change in style:

Since Strange Tales paid four times the word-rate of Weird Tales, Whitehead was understandably willing to slant his work for this new market which, like Adventure magazine, demanded dramatic action and lively story line rather than leisurely and introspective discussion. (ASF 70)

Whitehead was successful in this switch, which Robert E. Howard himself noted to Tevis Clyde Smith:

His current yarn in Strange Tales has a surprizing amount of sword-heaving. I wonder if he’s showing the effect of my blood-letting. Price told me frankly that he intended to go in more and more for my sort of axe-swinging. (CL2.338-339)

None of the letters between Robert E. Howard and Henry S. Whitehead survive, but there are some references to their correspondence in Howard’s other letters. In early 1932, Howard wrote:

An agency wrote me wanting to handle my stuff for a year or so. They bragged on what they’d done for Whitehead; I wrote Whitehead and he replied cryptically that he considered himself heap damn fortunate to have gotten out of their talons as soon as he did. (CL2.368)

I just received the Whitehead letter. Thanks very much for forwarding it to me. I don’t know how I managed to be so careless as to neglect to give Mr. Whitehead my address. I’d already decided not to make any contract with the agent in question, and had written him to that effect. Mr. Whitehead’s letter certainly clinches the matter. (CL2.366-367, AMTF 1.302)

It isn’t clear who this agent or agency is; Whitehead is said to have been a member of the Author’s Guild of America (DN), and had mentioned the Author’s League of America in a letter to August Derleth (AMOH 155); Robert E. Howard himself had joined the American Fiction Guild earlier the same year (CL2.337) and mentioned being approached to sign a contract by a Charlie Cox (CL2.317), so perhaps Cox (or whatever agency Cox represented) had once worked with Whitehead. In any event, the correspondence between Howard and Whitehead was apparently slight, with the Texan noting:

I had no regular correspondence with Whitehead, beyond a few brief notes exchanged in a business way. (CL3.47)

Although Howard continued to hear of Whitehead through his friends and correspondents E. Hoffmann Price (CL2.338-339) and H. P. Lovecraft (CL2.369). Aside from sharing certain markets and admirers, Howard and Whitehead shared a particular thorn in the backside:

Lovecraft tells me that Olson bombards Whitehead regularly with his ravings, and urges all the sages of the world to gang up and summon the cryptic “vectors” to aid them in foiling the plot of the diabolic “C-Space” to destroy the material universe. (CL2.369)

Olson (sometimes given as “Olsen”) being a particularly deranged and insistent weird fiction fan from Iowa who wrote to Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard, among probably many others.

Like Howard, Whitehead balanced practicality (“Whitehead readily conceded that there was rarely a story which wouldn’t be improved by cutting.” BOD 156) with wanting to do more than just sell, as he wrote in a letter to Adventure published in March 1932:

I’ve written with a certain ideal in mind, I think, always. That is to turn out stuff that is not hackneyed, and that is worked out into good form. I am, at least partly, indebted to the expressed ideals of Gouverneur Morris for the last. I like to write stories that are not only somewhat different from the usual types, but also to preserve a certain difference among those I manage to produce. (ASF 71)

Henry S. Whitehead died of injuries suffered at a fall in his home on 23 Nov 1932. Lovecraft spread the news through his circle of correspondents, and wrote the “In Memoriam” for Whitehead in the March issue of Weird Tales, with Farnsworth Wright serving as temporary literary executor of Whitehead’s unpublished stories, which included “The Chadbourne Episode” (Feb Weird Tales). (OFF 44) Whitehead’s other stories published posthumously in ‘33 were “The Napier Limousine” (Jan Strange Tales) and “Ruby the Kid” (Apr Nickel Western). Howard expressed his condolences to Lovecraft:

As I said on my card, I am extremely sorry to hear of Whitehead’s untimely demise. He was a writer of real ability, and, from all accounts, a brave and honest gentleman. Rest to his soul wherever it lies. (CL2.518, AMTF 1.510)

The attention Whitehead’s death attracted in Weird Tales was part of the establishment of a fan identity among readers, and set the stage for the profuse outpouring of grief that would accompany the death of Robert E. Howard a few years later, with H. P. Lovecraft recounting to many “it forms weird fiction’s worst blow since the passing of good old Whitehead[.]” (SL5.271)

Perhaps it was Whitehead’s recent death that prompted Howard to dig up his 1923 letter from Adventure, to support a part of his ongoing argument in letters with Lovecraft about physical versus mental development, with Howard ending:

If Mr. Whitehead had not felt a certain pride in his muscles, it’s not likely he’d have included the above remarks in a letter intended for publication in a magazine. It is not to be supposed that he was unduly conceited about his strength, or that he “glorified the physical above the mental”, or that his whole life was wrapped up in tearing cards. (CL3.23-24, AMTF 2.538-539)

To which Lovecraft replied:

Whitehead has a right to take satisfaction in his original physical strength (thanks, by the way, for the transcript from his Adventure letter, which I had not seen before), and nobody I know of (except Long, who thought it just a bit juvenile for a man of his high development in superior lines) ever criticised him for that satisfaction. But of course it was a well-proportioned pride, and did not for a moment make him fancy that his physical strength and athletic skill were the really important things about him. When long illness took away his strength, he bore the deprivation with good-humour and equanimity …. but surely you realise that he would not have been equally complacent about a decline in his keen intellect and sensitively developed taste. The strength was an interesting, amusing, and potentially useful possession—but the intellect and taste were Henry St. Clair Whitehead himself. (AMTF 2.555, cf. SL4.180)

The matter quickly moved past Whitehead. Around the same time in early 1933, Lovecraft’s correspondent R. H. Barlow of Deland, FL conceived the project of publishing a selection of Henry S. Whitehead’s letters in a limited edition. (OFF 56, 59, 85) Barlow wrote to solicit letters from Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith (SLCAS 215) and Robert E. Howard, who both sent what they had, with the Texan noting:

The enclosed missile is the nearest thing to a regular letter I ever got from him, and I doubt if you can use it for your purpose. However, I’m sending it along; you may return it at your convenience; no hurry. (CL3.47)

Barlow’s project never came off; he had typeset the first eight pages, but abandoned the project by 1942, when he handed it off to Paul Freehafer of the Fantasy Amateur Press Association, and it was published as a small stapled leaflet. (LHSW 1) The majority of Whitehead’s letters, including those to Robert E. Howard, are believed to be lost.

Works Cited

AMOH         Arkham’s Masters of Horror (Arkham House, 2000)

AMTF          A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard (2 vols., Hippocampus Press, 2011)

ASF              “Fantasy and Outre Themes in the Short Fiction of Edward Lucas White and Henry S. Whitehead” by A. Langley Searles in American Supernatural Fiction (Garland, 1996)

BOD              Book of the Dead (Arkham House, 2001)

CL                  Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (3 vols. + Index and Addenda, Robert E. Howard Foundation Press, 2007-2015)

DN                  “H. S. Whitehead, 50 is Dead in Florida” The Virgin Islands Daily News, 2 Dec 1932. Retrieved from: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=757&dat=19321202&id=SC0wAAAAIBAJ&sjid=k0MDAAAAIBAJ&pg=5674,6543307&hl=en

HPLE              H. P. Lovecraft in “The Eyrie” (Necronomicon Press, 1979)

HSMW            Henry St. Clair McMillan Whitehead (The Strange Press, 1975)

LHSW             The Letters of Henry S. Whitehead (FAPA, 1942)

OFF                 O Fortunate Floridian: H. P. Lovecraft’s Letters to R. H. Barlow (University of Tampa Press, 2007)

SL                    Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (5 vols., Arkham House, 1964-1976)

SLCAS            Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith (Arkham House, 2003)

SWF                Studies in Weird Fiction #6 (Necronomicon Press, 1989)

WGP               Robert E. Howard: World’s Greatest Pulpster (McHaney, 2011)

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