And he remembered a night more than a dozen years ago in Virginia, when he and Nedeau had been stopped by a policeman wanting to know exactly how a couple of “Nigras” had come by such a fine motorcar as the one they were in without having stolen it. Nedeau had flattened the policeman with one blow and they’d fled the state with a posse of cracker cops on their tail all the way up to the gates of the black college they’d been attending.
—Charles R. Saunders, “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” in The Book of Cthulhu 228
The success of Imaro (1981), which virtually inaugurated the Sword & Soul genre, made the fame of Charles R. Saunders. Not many African-American authors were writing Sword & Sorcery, much less with a focus on black protagonists and settings. This is unfortunate because like Robert E. Howard, who essentially defined Sword & Sorcery with his stories of Kull and Conan, Saunders also writes horror fiction. In an era of The Ballad of Black Tom and Lovecraft Country, those interested in more of the same need not wait for more to be written—Saunders was writing it long before Victor LaValle or Matt Ruff came on the scene.
Of course, it is not exactly the same. “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” is more steeped in black history and the black experience over time. Just as Lovecraft found horror delving into the Colonial past in America, so Saunders found new sins to show the readers—for there are some betrayals worse than others, with the right historical context, and old hatreds which persist over generations. Saunders’ own style is neither contemporary nor pastiche; his character Theotis Ledeau is reminiscent of Manly Wade Wellman’s burly occult detective John Thunstone: erudite, intelligent, compassionate, loyal, but also a powerful athlete, prone to action. It is probably the first time a professor of history at Howard University—an historically black college—played a role in a Mythos story; but he plays it very well.
“Voodoo!” he spat the word as if it were a curse. “It would take more time than I have to explain to you the difference between the half-baked Haitian superstition and the true magic of Africa.” (ibid, 234)
African magic and voodoo have been connected with the Mythos since the 1930s; “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch and “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft testify to how white authors tried to draw connections with African traditions, capitalizing on stereotypes and prejudice for effect. One might easily add Hugh B. Cave’s “The Cult of the White Ape” (Weird Tales Feb 1933), or Robert E. Howard’s “The Hyena” (Weird Tales Mar 1928) and “Pigeons From Hell” (Weird Tales May 1938). The latter makes an especially interesting comparison, as there are thematic parallels between Howard’s zuvembie and Saunders’ semando in this story, although the actual details are sharply different.
Saunders knows the tropes, and uses them as he sees fit in the story, but there is a difference in approach. In the fiction of Lovecraft, Howard, Bloch, the black characters tend to be innately superstitious and inclined to believe in the reality of magic, to fear supernatural reprisal. White characters, if they come to believe, have their fears heightened by racial prejudice—stereotypes of Africa as ancient, unholy, even inhuman. In this story, where the two main characters are college-educated black men, the whole context of the subject is different.
“God!” Henley exclaimed. “This is so senseless—unreal! Savage ceremonies here, in 1933…” (ibid. 235)
Just because he’s black, doesn’t mean Henley knows anything about or even believes in magic. Theotis Nedeau has to convince his friend of the reality of what they face, and the way Saunders touches on the subtle prejudices involved with African-Americans towards indigenous African beliefs is…a world of human experience that the Mythos has never really touched on before.
The ending may surprise people. It is not what is expected, though it is fitting and appropriate, from a certain point of view. It is in part about a question that plagues us still—though the American system of slavery is over, there are many who are born of slavers and slaver-owners; what responsibility do they have? Descendants are not culpable for the crimes of their ancestors, yet the descendants of former slaves still suffer economic and social consequences of their ancestors enslavement. Innocent people can still suffer…and, in the setting of “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt,” the suffering is not yet ended when the reader arrives at the final word of the final sentence.
“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” was first published in Potboiler #4 (1982). It was republished by Innsmouth Free Press in July 2010, and may be read for free online here. It was subsequently reprinted in The Book of Cthulhu (2011).