Saturday, March 18, 2017

Weird Tales Books-Stories of the Walking Dead-Part Two

Stories of the Walking Dead (1986)
Edited by Peter Haining

Stories and Authors
(In chronological order by date of first publication)

"The Country of the Comers-Back" (ca. 1888-1890, 1890)
by Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) Irish-American

"The Country of the Comers-Back" was originally a part of Lafcadio Hearn's series of travelogues on the West Indies, written for Harper's New Monthly Magazine and published in 1888-1890. This series was collected and reprinted in Two Years in the French West Indies in 1890 and reprinted again in later years. In that book, Hearn's story was called "La Guiablesse." Peter Haining changed the title to the more evocative (and pertinent) "The Country of the Comers-Back." We should note that Martinique, on which the story is set, is called "the Island of Revenants" or "the Island of the Comers-Back" because people who visit there are supposed to find it so pleasant that they want to return. Although Martinique is also called "the Island of Ghosts," the sobriquet used as the title here has nothing to do with zombies, as when Hearn's story was written, zombis were still spirits and not the undead that we know today.

There are actually two stories in "The Country of the Comers-Back." The first is Hearn's investigation into the meaning of zombi. He asks Adou, the daughter of his landlady, What is a zombi? (Not the first nor the last time that question is asked in the annals of zombiedom. I'm still not sure we have gotten the picture.) Her answers are vague. A zombi is something that makes disorder in the night . . . zombis are everywhere . . . a zombi is a woman fourteen feet high who comes into your locked house at night . . . it is a five-foot tall dog that also comes into your house at night . . . a great fire on the road at night, one that continually recedes as you approach: that is made by a zombi . . . "a horse with only three legs that passes you: that is a zombi." One thing Adou makes clear: a zombi is not "the spectre of a dead person" or "one who comes back." The second story in "The Country of the Comers-Back" is of a Guiablesse, or devil-woman, who lures a man to his death. My friend points out the similarity of the word to diablesse, a female devil. In Caribbean folklore, there is another devil-woman called La Diablesse, probably the same kind of creature.

"Jumbee" (1926)
by Henry S. Whitehead (1882-1932) American

"Jumbee" was written and published before the advent of the Seabrook zombie. It is set in the Virgin Islands and is a tale told by a native to a visitor from the mainland United States. The visitor, Mr. Lee, has read about Martinique and Guadeloupe and has encountered the word Zombi before. (He must have read the travelogues of Lafcadio Hearn, who is mentioned in the story.) He knows about Jumbees, too, for he has read The History of Stewart McCann (evidently a fictitious book, à la Ech-Pi-El). Like Zombis, Jumbees are spirits. Mr. Da Silva, the teller of the tale, describes the Jumbees he has seen: a boy, a girl, and a "shriveled old woman," three together, hanging in the air next to the road. "The Hanging Jumbees have no feet," Mr. Da Silva explains. "Their legs stop at the ankles. They have abnormally long, thin African legs. They are always black, you know. Their feet--if they have them--are always hidden in a kind of mist that lies along the ground . . . . they do not twirl about. But they do--always--face the oncomer . . . ." (First set of ellipses added.) (This description of floating and footlessness reminds me of the Flatwoods Monster and the Mothman.) The tale continues without any further mention of Zombis, for in Rev. Whitehead's tale, Jumbees have taken the place of Zombis as the spirits of the night.

"Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields" (1928, 1929)
by William B. Seabrook (1884-1945) American

"Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields" is originally from William B. Seabrook's syndicated newspaper features of 1928. Like Lafcadio Hearn more than a generation before, Seabrook traveled to the Caribbean to report on local culture, folklore, etc. His articles were collected in The Magic Island, published in January 1929 to immediate acclaim and great success. It is because of Seabrook that we have zombies in America today. You might say that he carried the zombie virus from its isolated tropical fastness into our large, bustling country. After alternating periods of incubation, infection, remission, and reinfection, the virus is now among us and everyone has become infected.

Like Hearn's article, "Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields" is actually two tales told to Seabrook and relayed to us through his writing. The first tale is the paradigm for zombie stories that came after it and that almost fill this anthology: men and women raised from their graves by a zombie-maker, held as slaves without mind or will, and returned to their graves only when they taste salt or eat meat. In short, they are the walking dead that we know now, except that they are not cannibalistic or threatening in any way.

There is a statement in "Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields" that stands out for me. Lamercie, a black female overseer of zombie-slaves, tells Seabrook, "Z'affrai' neg pas z'affrai' blanc'." The affairs of blacks are not the affairs of whites. (1) Zombie-ism is a thing among black Haitians, she is saying. It is not something with which white people should concern themselves. I think that's an important thing to know for two reasons. First, among the zombies encountered in the story are several slaves under Ti Joseph, "an old black headman," who has them work for him at Hasco, the Haitian-American Sugar Company. Leftists might see this as an example of capitalist and imperialist exploitation of zombie-slaves. In actuality, the zombie-slaves are being exploited by a black headman, and it is his affair. Hasco simply employs the people who are presented to them by Ti Joseph, a kind of recruiter or subcontractor. Yes, Hasco is there in the island nation of Haiti and is either providing work or providing the opportunity for workers to be exploited, however you might look at it. But the culpability lies solely with Ti Joseph and similar native slave-masters and overseers. They are the ones who have made the zombie-slaves and/or are exploiting the zombie-slaves. Hasco had nothing to with with either action, for zombie-ism during the American occupation of Haiti was still "z'affrai' neg" and not "z'affrai blanc'." The distinction is an important one. Nevertheless, it may be lost on leftists in academia today, despite their vast erudition.

Second, and more importantly, I think, zombie-ism was presumably practiced in Haiti for generations, if not centuries, before Americans arrived there in the 1910s. It was, again, an affair for black people, and no one outside the island seems to have known about it until William Seabrook sent out his dispatches to the American reading public. (2) Zombies became popular only after they were transferred from their originating black culture into the larger white culture. Remember, the first zombie movie was called White Zombie. Call it cultural appropriation if you like (3), but zombies came of interest to white people only after that transfer, and especially when zombies, zombie-makers, zombie-masters, and Voodoo in general were seen as threats to white people. For as long as zombies were "z'affrai' neg," there was no threat, at least to white people. We see the same thing today where black men are killed or black women go missing and almost nothing is said about it in the mainstream media.

It seems to me that this is the story in general of black culture in its transfer to white culture. For example, when jazz, blues, and rock-and-roll were black forms, they were of little or no interest to white people. As they began being transferred into white culture, they were seen by many people as being negative (neg-ative?) or even threatening. Once they were pretty fully whitified--jazz in the 1920s (under Paul Whiteman, no less), rock-and-roll in the 1950s, and blues in the 1960s--they became less negative and more acceptable in the white mainstream. It reached a point where some black practitioners of these black forms were seen among white people as somehow threatening or hostile. Miles Davis comes to mind as an example. In any case, today, zombies are mostly white and are very popular among white people. White people in the real world see themselves as zombie-slaves or see other people as zombie-cannibals or zombie-deadmen. The black past of zombies seems to have been forgotten. The paradigm of the threat of zombie-ism--perhaps especially of black zombie-ism--to white people began after the publication of The Magic Island and continued for decades in popular fiction, as we'll see in part three of this series.

The second tale in "Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields," by the way, is a Poe-esque tale of a woman who goes to a dinner on the occasion of her wedding anniversary and is greeted with a macabre scene laid out by her husband.

(1) In that, Lamercie echoes the words of Lafcadio Hearn's Guiablesse, who tells a man who asks where she lives, "Zaffrai cabritt pa zaffrai lapin." The affairs of the goat are not the affairs of the rabbit. In other words, none of your business.
(2) As we have seen, British author Hesketh Prichard went to Haiti a generation before Seabrook, and although he wrote about Voodoo and the Mamaloi, he seems not to have known about zombies.
(3) I won't because I don't believe in cultural appropriation. People have been borrowing things from other people's culture for as long as there have been people. If you don't like cultural appropriation, you shouldn't put up a Christmas tree at your house next Yuletide season unless you're of German descent. And quit speaking English if you're not of Anglo-Saxon origin.

To be continued . . . 

A zombie? Maybe. A photograph presumably taken by William B. Seabrook in Haiti, circa 1928. From the El Paso Herald, March 31, 1928, p. 8. 

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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