Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Whip-poor-wills in Weird Fiction

I have been doing more research on Lee Brown Coye and have come upon something that might make a simple side note to the study of weird fiction. On the other hand, whip-poor-wills in weird fiction might have some significance. If they do, it might be one of the ways that Robert W. Chambers has had such an influence on the authors who came after him.

The whip-poor-will is a non-passerine bird, about the size of a robin or bluejay but with a slim body, long pointed wings, a long, fan-like tail, and a broad mouth used for catching insects on the wing. Whip-poor-wills are crepuscular, a nice word to add to your store. It means active at dawn and duskIn the evenings of spring and summer, as light fades into a smoky haze, you might have heard the ceaseless repetition of the whip-poor-will's mad cry from the darkening woods. If so, you are unlikely to have forgotten it, for it is a haunting sound, the sound of a kind of wildness that is disappearing from the world. 

Along with the chuck-will's-widow, the poor-will, and the nighthawk, whip-poor-wills are of the family Caprimulgidae. In everyday speech, the members of this family were once called goatsuckers for the belief that they suck milk from goats. That belief carries over into the Spanish word chupacabra, which is also now used for a cryptozoological monster. Another and less colorful word is nightjar, which refers to the nocturnal habit of the bird and its chirring or jarring call. Modern ornithologists--being scientists--seem to be a little squeamish about the word goatsucker, I suppose because of the folkloric (hence non-scientific) connotation. They prefer the more neutral nightjar.

Although they are in trouble today, whip-poor-wills would have been common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We think of them as birds of the wilderness, but you're more likely to hear them close to human habitation, in old-field woods or in woods that have been heavily cut over. In the day or in the evening, when there is still enough light, you might see them gliding soundlessly among saplings and poletimber, like a kite or like a toy on the end of a string. Their calling, their silence in flight, and their pattern of flight only add to the whip-poor-wills' ghostly qualities.

According to Clifton Johnson in his book What They Say in New England (1896), "If a whippoorwill sings near the house, it is a sign of death. Some say this is simply a sign of trouble." That superstition passed into weird fiction by way of "The Dunwich Horror" by H.P. Lovecraft, published in Weird Tales in April 1929. From "The Dunwich Horror":
It is vowed that the birds are psychopomps lying in wait for the souls of the dying, and that they time their eerie cries in unison with the sufferer's struggling breath. If they can catch the fleeing soul when it leaves the body, they instantly flutter away chittering in daemoniac laughter; but if they fail, they subside gradually into a disappointed silence.
Whip-poor-wills figure prominently in the story, so much so that they made a reappearance in a story by one of Lovecraft's circle, August Derleth. The story is called "The Whippoorwills in the Hills," and it was published in Weird Tales in September 1948. Lee Brown Coye was the illustrator.

According to Wikipedia, "Lovecraft based this idea [that whippoorwills capture the souls of the just departed] on information of local legends given to him by Edith Miniter of North Wilbraham, Massachusetts when he visited her in 1928." I have assumed that August Derleth drew on "The Dunwich Horror" for his story of whip-poor-wills, but a discussion on the Internet proposes that Derleth's true inspiration was the work of Robert W. Chambers.

Robert W. Chambers is a tough case for fans and students of weird fiction. Although he made his name as the author of The King in Yellow in 1895, Chambers wrote scads of conventional and ultimately forgotten popular fiction. In doing an Internet search for "Robert W. Chambers" and "whip-poor-wills" (or "whippoorwills"), I came up with numerous results, but searching through those results, uncovering the original works, determining whether they are weird fiction or not, and trying to puzzle out the significance (or insignificance) of whip-poor-wills in Chambers' stories would take time and resources that I confess I don't have right now. I guess the question is: Did whip-poor-wills arrive in weird fiction by way of Robert W. Chambers? Or did Derleth get his inspiration from Lovecraft, who in turn got it from Edith Miniter and the folklore of old New England? And what of Edith Miniter (1867-1934)? Did she read Chambers, or did she go back to the folklore itself for her tale of the soul-swallowing whip-poor-will? 

Note: Where else are there whip-poor-wills in weird fiction or genre fiction? In "The Whip-poor-will" by James Thurber, published in The New Yorker, August 9, 1941, and reprinted in Alarms and Diversions (Harper and Brothers, no date). From that story: "Down where she came from, she said, if you heard a whip-poor-will singing near the house, it meant there was going to be a death." ("She" is Margaret, wife of the protagonist's butler. The protagonist, a man named Kinstrey, is being driven crazy by the cry of a whip-poor-will outside his window. There are indeed deaths in store for the Kinstrey household.)

In 1948, Weird Tales published "The Whippoorwills in the Hills" by August Derleth and illustrated by Lee Brown Coye. Coye was a very productive artist who did thorough research on everything he drew, but he often worked under tight deadlines. That might explain his use of imagery from the work of John James Audubon, including pictures of:
The Whip-poor-will, and
The Chuck-will's widow. Audubon (1785-1851) was an artist inclined towards natural history, what would then have been called natural philosophy, but he was also a Romantic with a capital "R." If he had written fiction, he might have found himself sandwiched between Washington Irving (1783-1859) and James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851). American Romanticism was partly Gothic and gave rise of course to weird fiction and stories of supernatural horror.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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