Monday, February 6, 2017

The Secret Origin of Zombies-Part Three

The Missing Piece: Zombi(e) Stories in Weird Tales

U.S. Marines went into Haiti on July 28, 1915, and came back out again on August 15, 1934. That nineteen-year-long episode is almost forgotten in the United States today. It's probably better remembered in Haiti. The invasion force that Americans remember came from the opposite direction, for sometime during the occupation of Haiti, zombies arrived on our shores. They have never left.

 I have an article from 1932 that asks the question: Do zombies really exist? 
Rumors have been seeping in for years [the article reads] from the island of Haiti about dead bodies being exhumed and, through a process of sorcery, put to work in the fields and mills, but is there any truth in the rumors? (1)
If there were rumors seeping in from Haiti, they must have come from Americans on the island. William B. Seabrook (1884-1945) was one of them. In 1928, he returned dispatches to an American syndicate for publication in the nation's newspapers. These were reports on zombies, men who had been enslaved and put to work in the sugar cane fields of Haiti. Seabrook published his reporting in a book, The Magic Island, in 1929. The book proved a sensation and led to a stage play, Zombie, in early 1932 and a far more successful film, White Zombie, released on July 28, 1932 (the seventeenth anniversary of the marine landing at Port-au-Prince). You might call William Seabrook the father of zombies in America, except that there was another American writer in Haiti in the 1920s who wrote stories of the island nation and its folklore. And he was sent there as an officer in the U.S Marine Corps. So not so fast, William Seabrook.

Arthur J. Burks (1898-1974) was born in Waterville, Washington, and served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1917 to 1927. In the early 1920s, he was stationed in what one newspaper article described as "the unknown fastnesses of Santo Domingo," from which "he mailed story after story to the States." These were returned to him, but after taking a correspondence course in short-story writing and returning to the United States in 1924, "he sold scores of short stories and novelettes" and even a novel. (2) One of those stories was "Thus Spake the Prophetess: A Tale of Haiti," published in Weird Tales in November 1924 under the byline Estil Critchie. It was Burks' first story in "The Unique Magazine" and the first of several set in Haiti and on the island of Santo Domingo or Hispaniola. Many if not all of these stories were reprinted in the book Black Medicine in 1966. (3)

There was yet another American writer in the West Indies during the 1920s. This was Henry S. Whitehead (1882-1932), a native of Elizabeth, New Jersey, a graduate of Harvard University (where Franklin D. Roosevelt was one of his classmates), and an Episcopal priest. From 1921 to 1929, Whitehead was acting archdeacon of the U.S. Virgin Islands. (4) Like Arthur J. Burks, Whitehead collected tales of West Indian folklore, turning them into short stories for the pulp magazine market in America. His first story for Weird Tales was "Tea Leaves" for the triple May/June/July 1924 issue.  His story "Jumbee," from the September 1926 issue, is the first in Weird Tales that I know of to use the word zombi. That's only in passing, though. The main part of the story is about a jumbee, a West Indian spirit of another type, although the derivation of the word is almost certainly the same. (5) Sadly, Whitehead died young, at age fifty. His death in 1932 was perhaps the first great loss suffered by readers and fans of Weird Tales. August W. Derleth remembered him with Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales, published by Derleth's Arkham House in 1944.

The key words in the previous paragraph are "that I know of." I don't have access to most of Henry S. Whitehead's stories, and I have never read anything by Arthur J. Burks. My suspicion is that the word zombi, and possibly zombie (William Seabrook's spelling), appeared in Weird Tales between 1923 and 1928 (other than in "Jumbee"). It's also possible that Seabrook's version of the zombie as a mindless, soulless slave--a walking deadman--is in Weird Tales. On the other hand, maybe the Seabrook zombie was not in Weird Tales before 1928. Whatever the case may be, this is something we should know for sure. So with that in mind, I would like to offer a list of stories, poems, and articles about zombi(e)s and voodoo from Weird Tales, and I would like to ask everyone who cares to do it to begin searching for the occurrence of zombi(e)s in those stories. I hope we can meet with some success.

Stories, Poems, and Articles about Zombies and Voodoo in Weird Tales, 1923-1939
Plus a Few Maybes and Probably Including Some Stories That Shouldn't Be Here and Probably Missing Some That Should Be
  • "Voodooism" by Bill Nelson (article, July/Aug. 1923)
  • "Thus Spake the Prophetess: A Tale of Haiti" by Estil Critchie (Arthur J. Burks) (Nov. 1924)
  • "Death-Waters" by Frank Belknap Long (Dec. 1924; reprinted Sept. 1933)--I have read this story, and there are no zombi(e)s. However, there is a black sorcerer who has power over serpents, perhaps like those in the cult of Li Grand Zombi.
  • "Voodoo" by Estil Critchie (Arthur J. Burks) (Dec. 1924)
  • "Luisma's Return" by Arthur J. Burks (Jan. 1925)
  • "Strange Tales from Santo Domingo: 1. A Broken Lamp-Chimney" by Arthur J. Burks (Feb. 1925)
  • "Strange Tales from Santo Domingo: 2. Desert of the Dead" by Arthur J. Burks (Mar. 1925)
  • "Strange Tales from Santo Domingo: 3. Daylight Shadows" by Arthur J. Burks (Apr. 1925)
  • "Strange Tales from Santo Domingo: 4. The Sorrowful Sisterhood" by Arthur J. Burks (May. 1925)
  • "Strange Tales from Santo Domingo: 5. The Phantom Chibo" by Arthur J. Burks (June 1925)
  • "The Return of the Undead" by Arthur Leeds (Nov. 1925)
  • "Ti Michel" by W.J. Stamper (June 1926)
  • "Jumbee" by Henry S. Whitehead (Sept. 1926; reprinted Feb. 1938)--Mentions the word zombi, but focuses on the spirit of the title. A weird and creepy tale well worth reading.
  • "Strange Tales from Santo Domingo: Faces" by Arthur J. Burks (Apr. 1927)
The Magic Island by William B. Seabrook published, January 1929
  • "Le Revenant" by Charles Beaudelaire (poem, May 1929)--This is a poem about a ghost rather than a zombi(e) or the undead.
  • "Black Tancrede" by Henry S. Whitehead (June 1929)
  • "The Corpse-Master" by Seabury Quinn (July 1929)
  • "The Drums of Damballah" by Seabury Quinn (Mar. 1930)
  • "Voodoo" by A. Leslie (poem, Apr. 1930)
  • "Hill Drums" by Henry S. Whitehead (June/July 1931)
  • "The Venus of Azombeii" by Clark Ashton Smith (June/July 1931)--The Azombeii of the title is a fictional place in Africa. The people of Azombeii are described as "a pagan tribe of unusual ferocity, who were still suspected of cannibalism and human sacrifice." I have not read this story all the way through, but the word Azombeii seems to be a combination of Zombie and Pompeii, and is almost certainly meant to evoke images or awareness of zombies.
  • "Placide's Wife" by Kirk Mashburn (Nov. 1931)
White Zombie released, July 28, 1932
  • "The Last of Placide's Wife" by Kirk Mashburn (Sept. 1932)
  • "In Memoriam: Henry St. Clair Whitehead" [by H.P. Lovecraft] (article, Mar. 1933)
  • "Voodoo Song" by Mary Elizabeth Counselman (poem, July 1933)
  • "Dead Men Walk" by Harold Ward (Aug. 1933)
  • "Voodoo Vengeance" by Kirk Mashburn (Nov. 1934)
  • "Isle of the Undead" by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach (Oct. 1936)
  • "Pigeons from Hell" by Robert E. Howard (May 1938; reprinted Nov. 1951)
  • "While Zombies Walked" by Thorp McClusky (Sept. 1939)--This is the first story in Weird Tales with the word zombie(s) in the title. It is set in the South. The zombies are slaves of a white zombie-master who has learned his craft from a black Voodoo man. The zombie-master uses Voodoo dolls to control people.
By the way, the first short story chronologically in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database with the word zombie(s) in the title was "White Zombie" by Vivian Meik from his collection Devils' Drums (1933). The first serial in a magazine was "Z Is for Zombie" by Theodore Roscoe in Argosy, February 6-March 13, 1937. And the first short story in a magazine was "Zombies Never Die" by Richard Tooker in Thrilling Mystery, November 1937.

To be continued . . . 

(1) From "At the Elwood" in The Call-Leader, Elwood, Indiana, Dec. 23, 1932, p. 6.
(2) From "Marine Officer, Rising Author, Finds Pen Mightier Than the Sword" in the Monroe News-Star, Monroe, Louisiana, July 23, 1925, p. 10.
(3) Black Medicine was issued by August Derleth's Arkham House with a cover design by Lee Brown Coye. See the image below.
(4) The United States acquired the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917 during the administration of Woodrow Wilson. If you're still looking for connections between American colonialism/imperialism and zombies, you're right back at Woodrow Wilson. Yeah, a Democrat and a Progressive. Sorry. The date, by the way, was March 31, 1917, so we're nearing the centennial of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
(5) The title in Italian is, tellingly, "Zumbi": the Italian alphabet lacks the letter j.
Finally, the subject of zombies and the U.S. Marine Corps gives new meaning to our most recent ex-president's pronunciation "corpseman." He's the smartest man in the room, you know. Probably one of the smartest presidents ever. Just ask people who speak the Austrian language or who live on the Maldive Islands in the South Atlantic.

Black Medicine by Arthur J. Burks (Arkham House, 1966), a collection of his stories for Weird Tales. Cover art by Lee Brown Coye.

Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales by Henry S. Whitehead (Arkham House, 1944), a posthumous collection of his stories, including the proto-zombie story "Jumbee." Cover art by Charles Frank Wakefield.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Terence,

    I wish that I had some of these stories in my collection. Alas, I do not, so I can't be of any help.

    Thanks for reminding me of the occupation of Haiti by US Marines beginning in 1915. That military intervention had slipped my mind, but now seems likely the reason that zombies had a growing popularity in this country during the twenties and thirties. Returning servicemen have long been a treasured source of exotica from far away lands. And sometimes those tales are less than scholarly in their accuracy, having been nurtured and embellished on military bases -- both here and abroad -- from bits and pieces; "I knew a guy who..." type tales which morph and twist, much like in the game of telephone. Certainly whether accurate or not, tales of zombies would have been popular scuttlebutt among the Marines stationed on or returning from Haiti...especially when coming from "eye witnesses."

    Well, yeah, that "corpse man" moment was pretty embarrassing. Just goes to show that even the smartest of people have limitations. (I find it interesting that you would -- albeit playfully -- infer that Austrians and Maldivians can't be trusted to judge someone's intellect.)
    You overlooked one striking connection between President Obama's blunder and this topic of discussion; the Navy Corpsman he was talking about was of Haitian descent...

    1. Mike,

      Those are some excellent points. You're right about American servicemen bringing back tales and experiences from exotic places. I think that's part of what brought about the Tiki/Exotica craze after World War II, and it would explain the zombie stories of the 1920s and '30s. And you're exactly right about the story among military men that begins, "I knew a guy who . . ."

      The quotes about Austrians and the Maldives are in reference to our most recent ex-president's gaffes: he actually mentioned people who speak "the Austrian language," and he referred to the Falkland Islands as "the Maldives." The first was just an ignorant mistake. The second was politically motivated: he was trying to refer to the Falkland Islands--British territory--as the Malvinas--the Argentinian name for them. (If only he has said "Maldives" is the Austrian word for "Malvinas," he could have gotten himself out of two messes.)

      The guy was Haitian? Maybe the president knows something we don't.