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).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).
3 thoughts on ““Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders”
This was a really enjoyable post. I am something of a Saunders fan myself. I didn’t know he wrote Mythos stuff but it doesn’t surprise me.
“Saunders’ own style is neither contemporary or pastiche”
I’ve read both versions of the first Imaro, part of the second, his pulp hero novel Damballa, and a passel of his short fiction including a very interesting story called Mtimbu about an eponymous feral man in the vein of you know who. In fact one reason I’m drawn to Saunders is because he is an avowed Tarzan-lover.
Now Imaro feels like straight Sword & Sorcery of the time it was written and published. Not pastiche. I don’t totally know what you mean by not contemporary but maybe it would make more sense if I had read the story under review.
As an aside: I’m okay with the assertion that Imaro kicked off the Sword & Soul subgenre but I think of it as a precursor. AFAIK, he was the first person publishing heroic fantasy where the world-building took African cultures seriously in a sensitive and researched way. But my sense is Sword & Soul comes about a couple decades after the original Imaro books were published.
In contrast, I’d say his more recent stuff *is* in the style of pastiche though. Damballa and Mtimbu are period pieces set during the era when pulp magazines were popular and both tell kind of Harlem Renaissance pulp hero stories. In fact, the Shadow’s existence is referenced as a real person in the universe of Damballa. What elevates the stories somewhat is the seriousness with which he treats the subject matter. Over the course of his life he’s done an immense amount of homework about African and diaspora history and it’s rich subject matter for world building. But they are in the style of pulp adventure.
Anyway, I’ve never read the story you posted about today and now and it’s from the earlier period and is probably not in the style of pastiche. I’m looking forward to tracking it down sometime.
Charles Saunders is a treasure. He should definitely be more well known and well read at this time because he was doing the kind of work that is popular now back when it was less so.
Did Saunders intend for Theotis Nedeau to be a persistent character in his stories, a la Randolph Carter or something? When I read it, I assumed this wasn’t the first time he and Henley had appeared.
However, as far as I can tell, there was never a follow-on to this one, even though the ending sets up the sequel of Nedeau going to Louisiana.
The short answer is, we don’t know. Nedeau certainly seems set up to be a series character, but as far as I’m aware – and I haven’t read everything Charles Saunders ever wrote – no more stories were published. That happens sometimes, characters that for whatever reason don’t click with editors or audiences.