Time to jump back into my series of posts looking back at a ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales, which is available for all of us to read online. We’re making some headway here, moving from “The Rajah’s Gift” to “The Fireplace” by Henry S. Whitehead.
In Part 2 of this series, looking just at the first sentences of each story, I gave author Henry S. Whitehead some crap about starting his story from the point of view not of a character but…
When the Planter’s Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi, burned to the ground in the notable fire of 1922, the loss of that section of the South could not be measured in terms of that ancient hostelry’s former grandeur.
Is this from the point of view of a building? This story opens like a newspaper article and honestly, that’s not a good thing. To my tastes, this is the worst first sentence of the lot. Back to the drawing board, Henry S. Whitehead!
And reading on through the first long paragraph, the feeling that this begins, at least, more like a newspaper or magazine article about a tragic fire holds true. It’s a stylistic choice that no few authors have adopted, since—at least back in the olden times of newspapers and magazines—this could lend a certain air of realism to the proceedings. Presenting it as a news item makes it feel somehow more real, right?
Sure, maybe. Is this just a personal preference of mine getting in the way of my enjoyment of at least the first page of “The Fireplace”? That’s it, exactly. I have trouble with that device, and maybe it’s because I never really grew up reading the paper, or experiencing the world in that way. Of course I read non-fiction of all stripes, and have for the better part of my life, but I’ve compartmentalized those things on my brain maybe a bit too thoroughly: This is what a newspaper article sounds like. This is what fiction sounds like. And never the twain shall meet.
I’ll volunteer to be the first person to admit I need to stop with “never” in my intellectual life so okay, Henry, I’ll stick with you. And sorry about trying to send you back to the drawing board. Anyway, he can’t go back to the drawing board because he died eighty-six years ago last week (November 23, 1932), only seven years after this story was published.
Henry S. Whitehead, a Harvard classmate of Franklin Roosevelt’s, had a fairly short career in fiction, but like many pulp era authors, a rather prolific one. His first short story (“The Intarsia Box”) was published in 1923 and eight more short stories followed, most published in Weird Tales, until we get to “The Fireplace.” His stories have been collected into books starting with Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales in 1941 through to 2012’s Voodoo Tales: the Ghost Stories of Henry S. Whitehead. He’s another Lovecraft collaborator (“The Trap,” “Cassius,” and “Bothon”)—starting to see that trend in Weird Tales? I think so.
Back to the story:
Starting with the fire that claimed the lives of two prominent Southern gentlemen, which was thought to have started in the fireplace (ah ha—a callback to the title in paragraph two!) we pick up with what is clearly our POV character, “a certain Mr. James Callender,” arriving at the hotel ten years before the fire. He seems to be a nice enough guy, giving the “grinning negro porters” a generous tip. Whitehead also slips in a reference to “the festival season of Christmas” as a reason for the porters to expect a bigger than average tip—a clever way to say, “It’s Christmastime,” the significance of which calls back to the date of the fire and takes on even greater significance later in the story.
Our horror story reader’s ears prick up when Mr. Callender specifically asks for “the room with the large fireplace”—the room where the two men are killed. You know it’s going to be haunted. How is it not haunted? But then the fire happens ten years in Callender’s future, so…?
What is the significance of Callender curling up by the fire to read Arthur Machen’s “House of Souls”? I’m not sure. I haven’t read it, but we all can, for free, via Project Gutenberg. I’m going to bookmark that and read it later.
Anyway, Callender gets wrapped up in the book and is startled by a late-night knock on his door. I love the description of him reading—marking his place in the book to answer the door. There’s no reason to be surprised that a Harvard graduate from the first third of the 20th Century was a reader, but that fact is tangible here.
Ooh, spooky—he opens the door and there’s no one there. See? Told you that room was haunted. It has to be haunted. This story is in Weird Tales for God’s sake. But Mr. Callender doesn’t know that so he experiences what I discussed here a few weeks ago as the Persistence of the Logical:
He opened the door, and was surprized to find no one in the corridor. He stepped through the door, and glanced right and then left. There were, he observed, turns in both directions at short distances from his door, and Mr. Callender, whose mind was trained in the sifting of evidence, worked out an instantaneous explanation in his mind.
Way to stay enlightened, Mr. Callender! But seriously, this is exactly what I was talking about in that post, and it worked just as well decades later for Jeff VanderMeer.
I love the reveal that follows. This is precisely how to do it:
Mr. Callender, smiling at the whimsical idea of his, turned back into his room and shut the door behind him.
A gentleman was sitting in the place he had vacated. Mr. Callender stopped short and stared at this intruder…
See how simple that is? Mr. Callender is fine, the world is as it should be.
The unexpected thing is just there. Henry S. Whitehead didn’t feel the need to point that out with something like:
Though it was completely impossible and so therefor had to be the result of some supernatural force, the ghost of a man was sitting in his chair—a ghost, I tell you!
Well, you know what I mean. How do you write a “jump scare” in prose horror? Just drop the unexpected thing right in there, as simply stated as possible. The guy is just there. Boom.
Despite that, Callender calms down quickly and stays in the logical. He doesn’t go right to “this is a ghost.” Somehow this guy got into his room, and though startled, Callender takes the man at face value, dropping hints to us that something’s weird about this guy by describing the older fashion of his suit.
This goes to the heart of suspense. In most cases suspense comes from an imbalance of information. One character knows something the others do not, and/or your readers know something the POV character does not. In this case, we know there will be a fire in that room that kills two men ten years from now, but then this guy seems to be fifteen years in the past, or twenty-five years ahead of the fire? Callender doesn’t know any of this, though, so now we’re nervous for him. When is he going to get that something really creepy is going on? That question right there equals “suspense.”
I like the way the ghost (though admittedly, I don’t actually know this is a ghost yet, do I?) disarms Callender by being really chill and reasonable.
Here’s a question: Is the overly formal way both men speak to each other actually a relic of the time—meaning that real gentlemen of the 20s would talk like that—or is this an author struggling with making characters talk to each other like people actually talk to each other? That’s a tough question to answer, so I’ll just leave it out there and maybe circle back to that in a post of its own. Anyway, it got me thinking—and that’s exactly why we (all writers) need to read, and read a lot, because what other writers are doing (or have done, however long ago) can get us thinking about how we’re writing ourselves.
The “ghost” gives his name as Charles Bellinger—not one of the two men killed in the fire in the opening paragraph. Hm. Interesting. My expectations have been subverted. I have been surprised. And then I’m immediately surprised again when Mr. Bellinger says, “I may as well add to this, since it explains several matters, though in itself sounding somewhat odd, that actually I am dead.” Surprises coming at a nice clip. I like that.
Clearly, December 23 matters—it’s the same day the fire happens in the future. Remember that reference to the porters’ tip at the beginning?
So then, sixteen years ago, Bellinger was here in this room with the two victims of the future fire, who are still alive in Callender’s present day. Weirdness!
The story now goes into the ghost of Mr. Bellinger telling Mr. Callender a long story. I struggle to forgive that. I get it, and though having a ghost tell the back-story is better than an “omniscient” narrator just info dumping it, it’s only one click better. It would be a fun and, I bet, enlightening exercise to brainstorm ways to make this story of Bellinger’s feel as though it’s happening “in the now” so Callender experiences it in a more visceral, emotionally involved way. Feel free to do that exercise, it will build a skill you’ll want to use next time you start a scene in which two characters sit in comfy chairs and tell each other a story when they should be experiencing a story!
I do like Bellinger’s creepy description of the moment of his own death, but again, showing that rather than telling that would have been better!
Okay then, so here’s the source of the haunting. After accusing one of the other men of cheating at cards, Bellinger is stabbed and killed. The other prominent Southern gentlemen (including the two victims of the fire that will eventually destroy the hotel) decide to cover up the murder, so they’re all guilty of the crime. Got it!
Whitehead dances around the gory stuff a bit as the men cut Bellinger’s body up and burn him, piece by piece, in the huge fireplace, thereby disposing if the body. O, Murder Most Foul!
This word choice here struck me as… folksy:
My not inconsiderable winnings, as well as the coin and currency which had been in my possession, were then cold-bloodedly divided among these four rascals, for such I had for some time now recognized them as becoming.
Rascals? Dude, they just murdered you, chopped up your body, burned it, and stole all your money. Rascals?
If you say so.
Bellinger then goes into the details of the rascals’ only big mistake, which is their idea to hide his other belongings rather than disposing of them in the river or at some other remote locale.
The strange limits to Bellinger’s abilities once “materialized” add a little worldbuilding to the proceedings, as we start to learn at least a little of the limits of how ghosts work—but this will give me trouble at the very end of the story. Rules have now been established for how ghosts work, or, at least, how this ghost works. Those rules now need to be followed, right? More later.
Bellinger knows, somehow, that Callender is an attorney and asks his help in bringing his killers to justice, though sixteen years have passed since the crime. Callender agrees and Bellinger disappears.
Callender dutifully launches his investigation—probably my least favorite part of any ghost story—but in this case it feels organic to the story, however “organic” it can be that a ghost has hired a lawyer. Still, I’m with you, Henry S, Whitehead!
But then Callender gets busy with other work and sets aside the investigation, only coincidently booking the same room, now on the 23rd of December.
And the ghost of Bellinger, apparently unable to sue for legal malpractice, strangles poor Mr. Callender and stuffs his head in the fireplace grate. This is accomplished by Bellinger’s own strangely long-fingered hands even though earlier in the story he needed Callender’s help lifting the corner of a rug to reveal the hidden belongings. Which requires more strength, lifting up the corner of a rug or strangling a grown man who we have to imagine struggled for his life? I’ll refer you to that disturbing scene in the movie No Country for Old Men in case you’re still not sure.
Follow your own rules, people! If a ghost can’t lift the corner of a rug and says flat out that knocking on the door was pretty much the limit of his ability to interact with the world, that same ghost can’t strangle someone.
No other mention of how we then get, ten years later, to the death by fire of two of the “rascals.” I guess Bellinger was stuck waiting for these guys to book the room again on the same day?
I liked this story a lot, right up till the end, and not just because of the inconsistent abilities of the ghost.
How does this pay off? Callender is murdered for what reason, really? Couldn’t Bellinger have just materialized and talked him into relaunching the investigation? We don’t know if that happened and if Callender refused because we aren’t shown that scene. Bellinger just strangled him with his weird long fingers. The story to that point depended on our wanting to see justice for poor, mistreated Bellinger but now we’re left thinking, Fuck you, Bellinger. I guess it takes a rascal to know a rascal.
I don’t know, Henry S. Whitehead… did you just run into some kind of pre-set word count limit? Seems to me he just bailed out of this one.
Still, some lessons to be learned from “The Fireplace,” especially in terms of how not to end a short story!