Howard Ellis Davis (1883-1951) was a military officer and an engineer who worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Although he was born in Florida, Davis lived and worked in Georgia and Alabama. He moved to Bay Minette, Alabama, north of Mobile, in 1945 and lived there for the rest of his life.
Davis wrote more than one hundred stories and articles published in various pulp and slick magazines. His lone story for Weird Tales was "The Unknown Beast," a tale of Southern swamps published in the first issue, March 1923. Although he was in places other than Birmingham, Alabama, Davis apparently had connections to that city, specifically to his contemporary, Artemus Calloway (1883-1948), who conducted the short story department at the Birmingham News-Age-Herald. Calloway also contributed to Weird Tales. There is reason to believe that he was on the Alabama end of a connection between Weird Tales and his fellow writers in the Yellowhammer State. Anthony M. Rud (1893-1942), who was from Chicago but wintered in and went on public speaking tours in Alabama (Georgia, too), may have been the one who established the connection between those two places. There don't seem to have been connections between tellers of weird tales in most cities and states in America. Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Milwaukee were exceptions. But so was Alabama, and that's why I have created a category and a label called "Weird Tales in Alabama." Howard Ellis Davis was a part of the Weird Tales scene in Alabama. I think Alabaman fans of weird fiction have reason to be proud of their home state.
I have written about Davis before. Click here to read what I wrote. Davis died of a heart ailment at a hospital in Mobile, Alabama, on April 25, 1951, seventy-two years ago this week.
Howard Ellis Davis' Story:
"The Unknown Beast" is another story of Southern swamps. It's set in a backwater place called Bayou le Tor along Mississippi Sound, probably in Alabama, possibly a fictionalized version of Bayou le Batre in Alabama. Davis must have been well acquainted with such places. He wrote effectively of a landscape of giant cypress trees, live oaks, and sedge grass. As a forester and nature lover, I like to read of real natural places and real plants and trees.
"The Unknown Beast" is something like a murder mystery. There are suggestions that the horrible murders taking place in the swamps around Bayou le Tor are supernatural or even cryptozoological in nature. A local man, driving in a borrowed car, makes a journey two counties away to fetch back a deputy sheriff named Ed Hardin. It is Hardin who investigates the murders. One evening, armed with a pistol and a broad hunting knife, he fearlessly rides on horseback into the swamp. He is almost killed in the effort, but he brings out the unknown beast for all to see. It is Old Rensie Bucker, a black man and a former sailor, who provides the explanation as to the nature and background of the beast.
Davis' story is a straight, uncomplicated, third-person narrative. It's told in linear fashion, with no flashbacks, framing devices, introductions, stylistic flourishes, or other author's tricks. The style is readable and literary. It's not sensationalistic and definitely not stricken with overwrought, pulpish prose as in Hamilton Craigie's story "The Chain." The author doesn't draw attention to himself, and there isn't anything standing between the reader and his narrative. Although "The Unknown Beast" is marred in my opinion by transcriptions of dialect and accented regional speech among its various characters, Davis' approach is refreshing in a collection that has, to this point at least, included too many contrived, complicated, self-conscious, unsophisticated, simplistic, or not fully realized narratives.
I should let you know that there is in "The Unknown Beast" the first occurrence in Weird Tales of the n-word. I won't defend that word or its use, but I can say at least that it is used only by characters within the story, first by Ed Hardin, a white man, then by Rensie Bucker, a black man. Both men use the word in a matter-of-fact way. It seems to be just a word that people use in their everyday speech. In contrast, the author didn't use the word in his narration at all. Instead, he referred to black people as negroes. That word might be considered in our time offensive as well, but it is still in use among black institutions.
"The Unknown Beast" is not predictable. We don't know what the beast is until Old Rensie explains it to us. There is a nice twist at the end involving a "chile-minded" black man (kind of like Sloth in The Goonies) and a bunch of drug smugglers aboard a schooner out of the East Indies. It seems to me that drugs would have been a taboo subject in mainstream magazines of that time. More than that, though, "The Unknown Beast" has a slightly weird element in it, and I think it found an appropriate place in Weird Tales. As in later tales by H.P. Lovecraft, there is the theme of degeneracy. There is also, again, the theme of the swamp monster, as well as references to the Orient, both of which were staples of pulp fiction.
|"The Cypress Swamp" (1894) by Rudolf Eickemeyer, Jr. (1862–1932).|
Text copyright 2023 Terence E. Hanley