677. Morand, Paul (1888-1976). Black Magic. Translated from the French by Hamish Miles. Illustrated by Aaron Douglas. New York: Viking Press, 1929. vi, 218 pp. [MS/NUC 394:35]
On African Americans. Given to HPL by Henry S. Whitehead (HPL to Lillian D. Clark, 10 May 1931; LFF). ES 341
—S. T. Joshi & David E. Schultz,
in Lovecraft’s Library: A Catalogue, Fourth Revised & Enlarged Edition 117-118
Whitehead has just made me a gift of Paul Morand’s “Black Magic”, & has most thoughtfully obtained Seabrook’s “Magic Island” from the public library for my benefit.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 23 May 1931, Essential Solitude 1.341
When I leave in about a week I shall bear away as gifts a jar of West Indian cherry marmalade, a copy of Paul Morand’s “Black Magic”, & a copy of Wakefield’s weird collection, “Others Who Return.” [sic]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 30 May 1931, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.906
The Reverend Henry St. Clair McMillan Whitehead (1882–1934) was an Episcopal priest, one of the regulars of Weird Tales and Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, and a correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, E. Hoffmann Price, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Bernard Austin Dwyer, and R. H. Barlow. Whitehead specialized in “jumbee” stories, drawing off the folklore of the U.S. Virgin Islands which he visited during the summers of 1920-1929, and which sometimes served as fodder for articles such as “Obi in the Caribbean” (1927) and “Negro Dialects of the Virgin Islands” (1932). On his southern travels to Florida in 1931, H. P. Lovecraft graciously accepted Whitehead’s hospitality, visited the Cuban enclave at Ybor City, got some sun…and took a few presents with him as he continued his travels.
Paul Morand was a Frenchman in diplomatic service; in 1925-1927 he visited the United States, including a tour of Harlem by negrophile Carl Van Vecht, who had made the nightlife of cabarets and sex shows the setting of his novel Nigger Heaven (1926). Morand traveled though the Southern U.S. and the Caribbean, including Martinique, Trinidad, Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba. In 1928 Morand went to French colonial possessions in Africa, including Dakar (Senegal), French Guinea, French Sudan and Timbuktu, among other places. In his preface, he describes his journeys as: “30,000 miles. 28 Negro countries.”
The result of these travels on Morand’s imagination was Magie Noire (1928), translated into English in 1929 as Black Magic. The book is a collection of stories or vignettes, grouped together geographically into three sections: U.S.A., Antilles, and Africa. The theme is black people—race informs every story, character, and setting. The stories are, somewhat like Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow (1895), not easy to qualify; some have distinct supernatural elements, many have reference to voodoo, with Morand drawing from William Seabrook’s book on Haitian Vodou The Magic Island (1929), and one is a long, speculative novelette that forecasts a possible black Communist future.
It is the only book on black people in Lovecraft’s library, and there are almost no references to Morand or Black Magic in his correspondence. The voodoo angle probably explains Whitehead’s interest, as he was still writing fiction in that line. Given that Whitehead had acquired The Magic Island for Lovecraft to read, and Lovecraft’s love of Charleston, South Carolina which one of the stories deals with, might explain why he gifted the book to his friend. Whether Lovecraft ever read the book, or what he thought of it, we do not know; nor is there any real indication that Black Magic substantially influenced Lovecraft’s fiction from summer of 1931 on…although we cannot rule that out completely, either.
What Black Magic represents is an opportunity to examine the context of literary racism during Lovecraft’s life. This was not pulp fiction along the lines of “The Tree-Men of M’bwa” (1932) by Donald Wandrei, “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch, “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard, or even “Winged Death” (1934) by Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft. Morand was not writing genre fiction specifically, this was general fiction, read and reviewed by literary critics, and Morand had actually been to many of the places he talks about and seen the people there at first hand. So when we normally think of racism in the pages of Weird Tales, or by pulp writers, it is important to have that context of what someone in the wider world was reading and writing about black people, how they expressed and examined those prejudices.
To this end, what follows will be a brief synopsis of every story in the book, followed by analysis and discussion.
Congo is eighteen years old, and has been dancing for eighteen years. She is a freak of nature. But her principal gift is not really her dancing, nor her comical powers, not her exotic grace, nor the grimaces that distort her features, so rounded when her face is in repose, into flashes of geometrical tattooing. No, it is simply the instantaneous transmission of her immense vitality, the discharge of a current more violent than the electric chair’s. She has only to show herself, and everything will start moving—people, lights, furniture. […]
And Paris laughs its tired, cynical laugh, ingratiated by the primitive merriness of these lively limbs, cheered by these stone-age gambollings, its blood quickened by this organic, unquenchable radiance: can she be ignorant of God’s gift to the Negroes of His most priceless treasure—the gift of joy?
—Paul Morand (trans. Hamish Miles), Black Magic 6, 8
“Congo” is about a young Creole dancer of that stage name in Paris. She believes she is being afflicted by voodoo, and seeks out protection. When her grandmother dies in Louisiana, she returns for the funeral—and falls victim to the doom she has felt stalking her when she plunges into the Mississippi.
The characterization is typical of Morand’s book. Black people of whatever background are largely painted as a race apart, primitive or primeval, superstition in their bones. Paris, jaded and civilized, and urbane is contrasted markedly with the rural black community she briefly returns to, though even Paris has its voodoo underworld on the Rue Fontaine. Readers might wonder at the point of the story—and there really isn’t one. Congo doesn’t have any enemies that are named; self-absorbed in living life and enjoying it, aware of an ending that comes abruptly and without any real explanation.
Ambiguous as this story is, Lovecraft might have at least been interested in the voodoo element, scant on detail as it might be. While not keen on such stories, Lovecraft had expressed his appreciation for “The Half-Pint Flask” (1927) by Dubose Heyward.
I had no hatred for their race, but these new contacts made me feel better how much the individual among them horrified me. The mere idea of their smell, the shape of their mouths, revolted me. I could not look without a shudder at those French papers where you saw white nurses tending black wounded. I was alive to the poetic tragedy of these exiles, but as soon as a Negro came near me, I wanted to see him dead. I loathed them for being so prolific. Those millions of dark skins were not mere statistics for me; they were so many vile and hideous matings—out of sight. If someone suggested their castration as the only solution of the problem, I inwardly applauded. A friend who claimed to be free from prejudices, once declared in my presence that the hatred of the Whites for the Blacks is simply a jealousy of males. I cannot describe how insufferable I thought that. (ibid. 37)
“Charleston” also takes place in France; a chance encounter with a bloody woman on the roadside leads the unnamed narrator to take her back to his house, where she tells her story. She is a white woman from Charleston, South Carolina, who in her life had developed both a terrible prejudice against black people, and a sexual fascination with black men. The feelings come to a crux one night in a French club, where a visiting African-American Jazz musician—does something. She claims at first he tried to rob her; then she says he tried to rape her. Did she actually lead him on? She will not admit it. Other visiting Americans see the affair, and bloodily murder the Jazz musician (“found at dawn with eighty-six bullets in his body; besides that, a heavy automobile had been backed over his face”), leaving a note claiming it is the work of the Ku Klux Klan. The French press is abuzz with the news for a moment—and then sends for a new Jazz musician from the Rue Fontaine.
There is a fine distinction to be made in stories which are themselves racist, and those in which a character is racist. “Congo” is racist, the prejudice is casual, pervasive, and presented as truth or fact. “Charleston” is more complicated. The American woman telling the story is unabashedly racist, and that is the point: we are getting her prejudice from her lips, and it is obvious that her bigotry is mixed up and confused with lust, upbringing, critical experiences. The French narrator is comparatively neutral, relating the events as experienced and the woman’s story without much comment. In this sense, we can compare the American woman to the unnamed narrator of Lovecraft’s “Herbert West–Reanimator,” whose description of an African-American boxer is so particularly reprehensible; a point discussed in “Kanye West—Reanimator” (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky vs. “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon.
Yet having a racist character in a story does not necessarily make a story racist. Victor LaValle has several racist white characters in “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016), but that does not make the story itself racist. Paul Morand is playing a specific role here, one which his readership would have recognized: the disaffected European, offering without comment the psychosexual complexities and barbarities of a uniquely American prejudice:
It was a purely American tragedy, acted inside provincial France. (ibid., 44)
In his letters, H. P. Lovecraft definitely had the idea that the race relations in the United States of America were peculiar, a result in part of the long history of slavery and the continued separation of races under segregation and Jim Crow. In this sense, the idea of black equality with whites was also something Lovecraft saw as a particular extension of American race relations, and that Europeans were more impartial. Lovecraft wrote to his friend James F. Morton, who was an early member of the NAACP and had written a tract against race prejudice in 1906:
The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists—eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 29 Dec 1930, Letters to James F. Morton 253
Morand’s point is a bit barbed: none of the white people are punished for the murder. The French make a hue and cry, but hypocritically do nothing to obtain justice. In their own way, it is not so much agreement with the American prejudice as apathy, but the results are the same. Given the sexual element, how poorly Morand portrays Lovecraft’s beloved Charleston, and the complete lack of any supernatural element, one has to wonder whether Lovecraft continued with the book beyond this point.
The Negro quarter, “Little Africa,” as it is called, begins at the eighth block. And there, in a little house of businesslike brick, shut in by a Spanish rough-cast wall with sunflowers looking over its top like sentries, there lives a white family. A stranger, at least, would take them for such, though everybody in Excelsior knows that the Blooms are black. The town register shows the letter “C” after the name of Victor Bloom—”coloured,” as opposed to the “W” to which the Whites are entitled.
—Paul Morand (trans. Hamish Miles), Black Magic 46
“Excelsior” is a story about passing. The “one drop rule” made those Americans with any distant non-white ancestor subject to the same social and legal discrimination as anyone else. The Blooms are “nearly white,” and travel north to a resort town where no-one knows them to pass as white. At first it works fine—and then, one by one, they become darker and darker, and the social niceties afforded to them disappear. Eventually, the white people move away, leaving the resort town entirely in the hands of the Blooms and their African-American employees and customers. There is a very slight voodoo element, but the main supernatural action of the story, the inexplicable darkening of skin and biological and behavioral changes whereby the passing Blooms become stereotyped caricatures of African Americans, goes unexplained.
The horror of passing was real in the 1920s, and has been discussed in regard to “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft. This is arguably one of the most egregiously racist stories in the book; it feels like a bizarre morality play where the Blooms lose what they hoped to gain by their slight deception, and them embrace their black identity and drive out the whites by their very presence. Morand prefaced the story with: “The zebra cannot lay down his stripes. Dahomey Proverb.” and perhaps that served as inspiration…yet for all that, it isn’t a tragedy in any normal sense. The Blooms do succeed, but not on their own terms; they only embrace their black identity when given absolutely no other choice, and in doing so they forfeit most of the audience sympathies along with it as they become a caricature of greedy, grasping black people with no dignity or cultivation.
Ironically, this might be the sole story that could be argued to have had any impact on Lovecraft at all, if he read it. During his trip to Florida in 1931, Lovecraft saw a coral reef and conceived the basic idea that would, some time later, be fleshed out as “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Whether the idea of the sort of “reversion to type” in Morand’s “Excelsior” and the establishment of a racial enclave provided any inspiration to Lovecraft is unknown—Lovecraft had many other possible sources to draw from—but the possibility cannot be denied completely.
Syracuse, or The Panther Man
The great executive was surrounded by a hundred dark faces with white enamel eyes: colorados, claros, colorado-claros, etc. … Through all the dilution of blood, in spite of adulterated unions and inextricable adventures, they still bore a few scattered traces of their origin: the open look of the people of the plain, sociable and merry, or the defiant expression of those whose ancestors had lived in hiding amid the green tunnels of the jungle. (ibid., 64)
In “Syracuse, or The Panther Man” Doctor Lincoln Vamp is an African-American entrepreneur who has managed to, through diligence and hard work, carve out a space for African-American business in his native Syracuse, New York. As a sign of his achievements, he has been invited to the Pan-African Congress at Brussels, where he visits the Museum of the Belgian Congo at Tervueren. There, wandering alone through the exhibits that portray the life of indigenous Africans, Vamp undergoes a kind of hallucinatory return to a primeval state—and a sudden mental degeneration, emerging from the museum the next day “mad—and bellowing.”
If “Excelsior” concerned a kind of biological determinism, however unnatural, “Syracuse, or The Panther Man” is a kind of mental or spiritual determinism and devolution. Dr. Vamp and his achievements are played with bald and kind of sickening humor; the black characters in the civilized world are painted as grasping, greedy, tasteless, and petty buffoons, while the idealized indigenous Africans of Vamp’s vision are simple, happy, and untroubled except for superstitions and the threat posed by panthers. No matter how far removed Vamp is from Africa—which he has never visited—nor how firmly he has established himself in American life, the implicit lesson of the story is that black people are still close to those roots, and that it takes only a little nudge to push them back to how they were.
The implicit and explicit racism of the piece is all the worse when one considers the real horrors of the Belgian Congo during the 1920s, how horribly abused that the indigenous peoples of the Congo were and the atrocities they suffered at the hands of Leopold II. None of which is mentioned here; the white people of Europe appear to be about as blameless as in Tintin in the Congo (1931). What is galling is that in the early part of the story, Vamp recounts various injustices which African-Americans have suffered at the hands of white Americans—including lynchings and sundown towns—but the focus of the story is not on the real injustices against black people, but on the negative portrayal of black people in striving for economic success and political equality.
The Black Tsar
He had a tradition that traced his descent from African princes, but he felt himself the grandson of slaves, one of those fine “Indian pieces” that the old slavers used to value, and which they paid for in cowries, rolls of tobacco, guineas, shells—all the strange currency of the dark continent; a negro chained up ‘tween-decks; a negro branded with his owner’s initials, sold at auction, bartered for print cloth or Dutch pipes; a runaway nigger dragged along with a fork on his neck, his wrist in the pillory, with pepper on his wounds, nailed by the ear, or caught eating the sugar-cane during work and muzzled with an iron mask. … Hard dying, hard living. (ibid., 91)
“The Black Tsar” is a novelette, tracing the rise of a mulatto lawyer named Occide in Haiti during the American occupation (1915-1934) to when he sets himself up as dictator of a nominally Communist republic to his degeneration to banana republic despot and overthrow. Haitian Vodou features in the story, with Occide undergoing initiation and experiencing dreams and hallucinations, but without any actual supernatural occurrences.
As a story, “The Black Tsar” can be compared with “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch or Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones (1920). It is a question of black character and equality: without white people, governing themselves, how would they act? Except this thought experiment takes place in Haiti, the great horror-lesson of the Caribbean for whites, a black revolt that consumed the entire colony. The political turmoils and civil strife of Haiti formed an object lesson for Americans such as Arthur J. Burks, whose early stories in Weird Tales are set on the island of Hispaniola and pursue some similar themes of racial conflict, endemic corruption, and the inscrutable character of the people.
Morand prefaces the story with a quote from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852):
“Greasy or not greasy, they will govern you, when their time comes; and they will be just such rulers as you make them. The French noblesse chose to have the people ‘sans culottes’ and they had ‘sans culottes’ governers to their heart’s content. The people of Haiti—”
“Oh, come! … The Haitians were not Anglo-Saxons; if they had been, there would have been another story…”
Haiti had been a French colony; the American occupation allowed Morand to put the shoe on the other foot, to showcase what might have happened if the Haitians revolted against them as they had done against Napoleon. To the mix, Morand adds the post-World War I fears of communism; Soviet Russia becomes an ally to revolutionary Haiti, just as Soviet Russia would in real-life become an ally to Cuba. Yet the focus of the story is only briefly global; it is focused on Occide, his experiences and hatred of whites and of blacks, how his power quickly corrupts him, the indifference and nature of the Haitians…and then the final bloody revolution as the Americans return and overthrow the despot.
Again, there’s not a real moral lesson here on the nature of the rise of despots or the corruption of power. Occide was a bastard and a terrorist before he became president, and the characterization of his rise and fall is little more than a portrait of an ugly characters. Yet he is only ugly because Morand makes him such; Occide is as much a stereotype of everything white Europeans saw as negative in black or mixed-race people as anything else.
Goodbye, New York!
“Come, come,” tittered Mr. Jonas. “You’re paying your ten thousand dollars to go and see niggers, and you complain, ladies, just because they show you one before the appointed date?” (ibid., 136)
“Goodbye, New York!” is another tale of passing. Pamela Freedman Orfei is rich, almost white, and boards a cruise ship from New York to tour Africa. During the passage she is “outed” as colored, and by a trick she is left ashore and misses the boat. Once in Africa, she penetrates deeper into the jungles and almost immediately “goes native.”
There is no weird element to the plot. The prejudice of the American passengers is robust, the nature of Pamela’s discovery, denial, abandonment, and acceptance blistering in pace and again, to no real greater purpose. Her fate is perhaps a little better than Dr. Vamp’s in “Syracuse, or The Panther Man” because she does not literally go insane, but at the same time she rapidly throws away everything of her previous life to join a very stereotypical jungle society of which she knows absolutely nothing but still feels an immediate belonging. Morand is playing here at variations on the same theme, that of black people connecting or re-connecting with some natural state, and it is very tiresome how everyone seems to approach this as a positive thing. The white passengers don’t have to deal with the woman they had no problem with before they discovered she was non-white, and Orfei is bizarrely happy at abandoning her entire life and “belonging” with people she’s never met before and has no connection to except in the sense of race.
The People of the Shooting Stars
“That is Krou, over there: it’s still in the Ivory Coast on French territory,” said Bishara. “Further over, it’s Liberia. But the frontier’s not very well marked. Anyway, you’re home.”
That was only a phrase. A Levantine trader has no home but his trade. When once he has found his way into the colony, thanks to the precautions of an older relative, he sticks there till he has made a few pence so that he can go further up-country and open a warehouse of his own. Even so with Bishara. He had been posted at Danane with the help of an old hand, had lived there alone for two years in native fashion, eating yams and sleeping on the ground, and had struck lucky in the kola-nut trade. He in his turn was sending out shoots; and now he was going to plant out his clerk and cousin Malek, lately arrived from Lebanon. (ibid, 160)
“The People of the Shooting Stars” is set in Africa proper. A “Levantine” trader sets up a trading outpost, trying to sell overpriced goods to the locals in exchange for kola-nuts. However, the kola-nut crop starts to diminish, the goods stop selling, and a great lethargy comes over the entire village—the result of a new and bizarre religious sect, which eventually burns down everything, so that both the traders and the indigenous Africans are left with nothing.
Again, it’s a story without any sort of moral center. The indigenous Africans are treated as culturally not much different from Haitians or African-Americans, being mostly simple, childlike, occasionally treacherous. Their actions are the result of superstition, their religion inscrutable. The traders aren’t morally any superior: bigoted, greedy, determined to wring some profit out of the people they’re there solely to exploit.
A comparison can be made to Lovecraft’s depiction of indigenous Africans in “Winged Death” (1934), but arguably Lovecraft does better than Morand there, which is a damning with faint praise you don’t read very often. At least some of Lovecraft’s African characters have names and exist in the story as supporting characters rather than faceless background elements against the play of the protagonists. Both stories are very much in the colonialist mold; outsiders venturing into Africa and dealing with jungles and natives and folk-beliefs which may be a bit more real and terrible than they let on—yet none of Lovecraft’s Africans is malicious or destructive, only the white people. Morand cannot even claim that.
The Goat With No Horns
While the eunuchs were on the look-out for alliances and preparing public opinion, the successor to the throne had virtually been decided on. It was he who already filled the place of the deceased, imitating his speech, his gestures, his clumsy walk; at night he slept in his bed, and possessed in succession all the women of the harem, his own mother includes. (ibid., 191)
“The Goat With No Horns” is the final story in the book. An African king in the French Sudan has been raised by the “secret society of Serpent-Men” to the throne, fattened, and now the omens are right that he should die. The little drama unfolds, the ghost of the murdered king quieted, and the deceased’s corpulent body is spirited away to be consumed in a cannibalistic feast by his brothers in the secret society.
The name of the tale comes from the supposed practice of human sacrifice in Haitian Vodou, notably covered in The Magic Island (1929) and Beale Davis’ novel The Goat Without Horns (1925). As with the other stories, the black society pictured in the story is an utter caricature of vice, corruption, and duplicity. Change the black faces to Asian and it immediately becomes a Yellow Peril despot; the depiction is utterly unoriginal and closer to Orientalist fantasy than anything else. Ironically, it feels like the kind of story Farnsworth Wright might have rejected for Weird Tales for having too little plot. There’s no drama or action, just one event flowing into the other, a parade of scenes without any deeper meaning.
Which could almost do as a review for the whole book.
The one cachet of Black Magic is that it focused very strong on black characters; it isn’t a story about white people going among black people, except for “The People of the Shooting Stars,” and plenty of Europeans and Americans wouldn’t have accepted the “Levantines” as white. However, it has to be remembered that “black” as an identity is pretty much a product of the slave trade; the group identities of the people taken from their homes was lost as they and their descendants spent their lives there, and ancestral cultural lost, adulterated, or forgotten. While Morand does sort of explore the concept of different black cultures and experiences…there is at once a terrible uniformity to his black characters. They are presented as different, set apart from white people, and often in very negative ways. Even the most sympathetic characters like Congo and Pamela Freedman Orfei are still presented as fundamentally apart from white people, regressing to the superstitious and the primitive.
So yes, it is a book that focuses on black people. It is not a positive or realistic portrayal of those characters. The prejudice displayed against those characters in the book is terrible, but there is no moral judgement regarding it. The discrimination simply is. Morand presents, but does not comment, and in the end almost doesn’t matter. In pulp fiction, stereotypes are often easy and garish, but not necessarily without purpose. When comparing “Black Cunjer” (1923) by Isabel Walker vs. “Black Canaan” (1936) by Robert E. Howard for example, racism is the driver of the conflict in the stories; in Morand’s Black Magic, it is simply the existence of black people that drives conflict, with or without white characters.
If these stories seem horrible to you just from the quotes and synopses, if you wonder at the implicit and explicit racism of the person that wrote them—remember that Morand’s book was not some penny-a-word cheap entertainment churned out for a pulp magazine. Black Magic was viewed as literature, reviewed and commented on in literary circles, which spurred debate and controversy over Morand’s portrayals of black people. The artist who did the black and white plates for the book—which are undoubtedly the best part of the whole production—was Aaron Douglas, part of the Harlem Renaissance.
Black Magic was high brow, at a time when pulps were low brow. Both could be, and were racist. Race prejudice cut across delineations of class; and Morand shows they often cut across nationality as well. So when we look at the portrayal of black people in “Medusa’s Coil” or “The Call of Cthulhu”—when we think of Lovecraft in the context of his own period, the books and stories he would have read and drawn from—Black Magic is a hallmark. Lovecraft and Morand were separated in nationality, wealth, literary market…but both of them were drawing from similar views of race, expressed in their own way, and for their own purposes.
To say that Lovecraft was “a man of his time” is not an excuse for his racism. James F. Morton was a contemporary, and he opposed Lovecraft’s views on race, as discussed in “Concerning the Conservative” (1915) by Charles D. Isaacson. Discussing Lovecraft in the context of his time is to say: these prejudices did not come from nowhere, they were part of an ongoing discussion of race and portrayal of black people in literature that both the readers and writers of that period were having. Readers today do not always catch all the nuances of that conversation, because we see only a slim part of it. So when we consider “Medusa’s Coil,” is may help to keep in mind “Excelsior” or “Goodbye, New York!”—and remember that both Lovecraft and Morand were operating within a tradition of fiction about passing, not staking out new racist literary territory.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).