Historical racism can take some strange turns when expressed through fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and the result can be more disturbing or offensive to some readers than “normal” racism. As such, please be advised before reading further.
But by the time I was twenty-one I realized how insurmountable a barrier lay between me and the fulfilment of my dreams. I was a Negro. No matter what respect I might command from white men because of my intelligence and abilities, no matter to what heights I might rise, the wall of race reared between. It drove me fantic. I wanted to meet other great men on a common level, to be one of them. And I could not.Eli Colter, “The Last Horror” in Weird Tales Jan 1927
Racial discrimination is based on the fallacy that race is a definable, fixed constant; a physical and cultural reality that is consistent and unalterable. The reality of this discrimination—the eponymous color line in the United States—has been a source of tension within the population since the first African slaves were brought to the nascent Colonies in 1619. Sometimes the definition and discrimination based on race was encoded in law, such as during the Jim Crow era when Lovecraft and his contemporaries wrote for Weird Tales, and more often—even today—the discrimination was largely informal, social, a reflection of white supremacy and the paranoia and violence used to enforce that self-image.
Yet race is not so clear-cut or fixed. This is part of what gave rise to the white horror of passing, a light-skinned person of color being able to successfully pass themselves off as “white,” as happened in Mark Twain’s Puddn’head Wilson (1894) and “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft. Supernatural and science fiction, however, allows much more fantastic possibilities. What if you could drink some magic potion, or apply some chemical agent to the skin, and change its color? On the surface, this seems silly; albinism exists regardless of ethnicity, and there is much more to ethnic identities than just skin, eye, and hair color. However, when so much cultural tension is wrapped up in issues of skin color, the idea of racebending becomes a thought experiment—a narrative what-if explored in stories like Harry Roselenko’s Black Is A Man (1960) or Lord Dunsany’s “Across the Colour Bar” (2002), and many other works, sometimes for social commentary, or comedy, or horror.
“The Last Horror” by Eli Colter is an example of such a racebending weird tale—a rare story that directly addresses the issues of racial discrimination, and yet the plot is irreparably snarled.
In form, the story is essentially science fiction: a Black millionaire with white hands (attributed to maternal impression, but possibly inspired by vitiligo) receives a skin graft from a white friend and conceives the idea of grafting white skin onto his entire body and passing himself as a white man. This is accomplished with the aid of a rogue surgeon and a carefully planned campaign of kidnapping, bribery, and murder to obtain the white skin. Yet the focus of the story is less on the details of the surgery, the possibilities of tissue rejection, or the possibility of failure—the antagonist, Ballymair, has planned too well. What the narrative focuses on are the racial dynamics of the story.
When Ballymair goes to the Congo to participate in a hunt, the African-American meets indigenous Africans, and expresses his prejudices:
I compared myself to those negroids over there. Cannibals! Living in crude rectangular houses, tattooed in weird designs with scars, carrying bows with cane strings and packing wooden shields, wearing bark-cloth—or nothing—believing in their fetishism and witchcraft, chipping their teeth and letting the women do all the work. Was I like them? Was I of that race? Only in color! Outside I was black, but inside I was as purely Caucasian as either the captain or Dr. Straub.Eli Colter, “The Last Horror” in Weird Tales Jan 1927
Except…are these really his prejudices? Because the words put into the character’s mouth are white stereotypes, the kind of thing expressed in a hundred pulp stories or Black Magic (1929) by Paul Morand. These are the words put in the mouth of an African-American character when the author wants to express self-hatred, to define that spark of madness that would lead to this murderous plot. These are a white person’s prejudices, put in the mouth of a non-white character, and for the specific purpose so that at the climax of the story a white character can give the ultimate rebuttal when the operation is complete and Ballymair shows off his white skin.
White? Where? You may change your skin, Ballymair, but you can’t change your heart. You’re quite right. The skin does not matter. One of the best friends I have is a Negro—a man with a clear brain and a fine soul, satisfied to hold his place in the world.Eli Colter, “The Last Horror” in Weird Tales Jan 1927
While this might not be the earliest example of a white person dragging out a token Black friend as an effort to appear inclusive. Yet that Black man is only the white man’s friend so long as he is “satisfied to hold his place in the world.” The whole of the reason-you-suck speech is such a bizarre mishmash of backhanded compliments towards Black people and hellacious stereotypes about Black people that the ideas run into each other.
While the overall moral of the story would appear to be self-acceptance, it is couched in such a web of white supremacist language and ideas that it’s difficult to read this as well-meaning. This is a story written by a white person who, regardless of what moral they were trying to express, fundamentally doesn’t understand and cannot portray the Black experience in the 1920s, and it shows at nearly every turn. All we are left with at the end is a morally indignant white person essentially proving their ideas of white superiority by shaming Ballymair to suicide by explaining race and racism to him.
You may be white from the second skin out, but your blood runs true to form. Whatever pigment lies in the cells of that first skin to make the Negro black still flows in your veins! Go ahead and marry! Find out how white you are. Look—there you are! A white man, having taken his place in the world, wealthy; perhaps respected for his brain and his polish, in social intercourse with his seeming kind—with black children around his knees.Eli Colter, “The Last Horror” in Weird Tales Jan 1927
It’s not a stupid argument to point out that the skin graft is a change literally only skin deep, but the idea that this is a showstopper for someone who has already conducted multiple murders to pull off the fraud is making a hell of an assumption. The problem isn’t the genetics so much as the suppositions that go behind these statements. For example, the assumption is that Ballymair will marry a white woman and that biracial children would give him away or prove a social handicap. A moment’s thought might bring up adoption, interracial marriage, or any other option if Ballymair desires children.
Yet the superficial nature of the argument is a reflection of the literally superficial plot. “The Last Horror” is not some deep introspective philosophical work on the nature of racism and racial identity; it’s an almost hokey science fiction story with a laughable surmise that’s played for horror to an audience of white readers. The argument that “passing” doesn’t make Ballymair white is a reaffirmation of scientific racialism and white supremacist talking points, even when an effort is made to couch it in such a way as to shame Ballymair for not embracing his own Black identity. If a Black character had made this argument, it would have seemed an appeal to Black pride; from a white character, it is literally nothing more than “know your place.”
Given the absolute mess of the race dynamics in this story, it is perhaps not surprising that “The Last Horror” hasn’t had much of a cultural impact or seen much reprinting. The story was well-received at Weird Tales, and reprinted in the British Not At Night anthology You’ll Need A Night Light (1927) edited by Christine Campbell Thomson and in the Feb 1939 issue of Weird Tales, but “The Last Horror” has been passed over for anthologies and collections ever since, except for facsimile reprints of Weird Tales. No doubt it is too much an artifact of the Jim Crow era, and of sentiments whose time is long past.
Yet there is a final aspect of “The Last Horror” which is rarely acknowledged: the synchronicity with H. P. Lovecraft. In that same issue of Weird Tales where “The Last Horror” was first published, Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” also first saw print. When Thomson selected “The Last Horror” for You’ll Need A Night Light, she picked “The Horror at Red Hook” too. And while Lovecraft rarely discusses many of the early stories of Weird Tales, he did make a point to mention this one:
The only decent thing in the issue, aside from such shorter features as your tale, is “The Last Horror”—which is truly clever, though more quasi-scientific than weird. I have long planned something of that sort myself, though of psychic rather than physical cast—an attempt on the part of an educated negro to project his personality & secure the tenancy of a white man’s body through the arts of voodoo.H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 16 Dec 1926, Essential Solitude 1.56
Lovecraft wasn’t kidding. His Commonplace Book where he recorded story ideas and images for later use includes two entries along these lines from 1923:
108: “Educated mulatto seeks to displace personality of white man & occupy his body”
109: “Ancient negro voodoo wizard in cabin in swamp—possesses white man.”Collected Essays 5.225
Like “A Million Years After” (1930) by Katharine Metcalf Roof, Lovecraft was sort of beaten to the punch. Perhaps that is why, ultimately, Lovecraft would not write either of these stories, though the whole idea of personality displacement or possession would appear in stories like “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” Nor does voodoo make much of an appearance in Lovecraft’s fiction (see “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch for details). Later generations who mined Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book for ideas have also generally left those ideas inviolate. We can only imagine how Lovecraft might have conceived and written a story based on this kind of premise—whether he could bend his view to get inside the mind of a Black character, or whether like Colter it would have been simply a confirmation of white supremacism.
Which is understandable. Lovecraft and Colter both expressed an interest in the same idea at roughly the same time because racial segregation and white supremacy were current and ongoing issues in the United States, and passing had real legal, social, and economic benefits when compared to the ongoing discrimination that nearly all people of color faced. Discrimination which Lovecraft and Colter were both aware of, but did not face themselves.
As for Eli Colter’s “Golden Whistle”—not having my W T file with me, I couldn’t say what issue it appeared in. Nor do I know anything about Colter himself. I never liked his tales overly well, since to me they seemed to contain just a touch of the mawkish.H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 29 Apr 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 81
Eli Colter was one of the pseudonyms of May Eliza Frost (see her entry on Tellers of Weird Tales blog), a white woman from Oregon, which had long-lasting Black exclusion laws. She and Lovecraft were of an age, and it is not surprising that they addressed some of the same themes, in their own style and from their different perspective. Yet they were both white people, and benefitted from their place in the racial hierarchy of the United States, despite their personal hardships…and they were writing to an audience that was presumably also white, who would be expected to share those same experiences and possibly the same prejudices, spoken and unspoken, that inform works like “The Horror at Red Hook” and “The Last Horror.”
Yet while Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” has been reprinted dozens of times, studied and dissected, critiqued, pastiched, parodied, and revisited (see “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle), “The Last Horror” has largely sunk into obscurity—and the obscurity of this story, and other contemporary stories like it, is part of the reason why Lovecraft’s own prejudices tend to loom larger in his reputation. When folks claim that Lovecraft’s racism was particularly virulent or notorious even when compared to his peers, it is worth remembering “The Last Horror” and that Lovecraft’s prejudices were not unique. This should not be taken as absolving or downplaying the prejudices expressed in either Colter or Lovecraft’s fiction, but only as an understanding that these works were not created in a vacuum, but express something of the historical context of their times and experiences.
“The Last Horror” by Eli Colter can be read online in the Jan 1927 issue or Feb 1939 issue of Weird Tales.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).
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5 thoughts on ““The Last Horror” (1927) by Eli Colter”
Are you familiar with _Black Like Me_ by John Howard Griffin? It’s a 1961 non-fiction account by a writer who made himself look black to gain firsthand experience in how black people were treated in the South. He was able to fool people with surprisingly little effort.
I haven’t read that one, no.
The people around him saw dark skin. It didn’t matter how he dressed, how he spoke, how he wore his hair: he was Black. Not hard to fool people who literally can’t see past skin hue.
That book got quite a lot of attention back in the olden days if my youth: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/black-like-me-50-years-later-74543463/
“…the obscurity of this story, and other contemporary stories like it, is part of the reason why Lovecraft’s own prejudices tend to loom larger in his reputation.”
Indeed so. It would be an interesting exercise to gather a collection featuring fictional writings explicitly dealing with the subject of “race” from the pulp era in which Lovecraft dwelt. I’m not talking simply featuring stereotypes, of which there would unfortunately not be any shortage, but attempts at deeper analysis. Since they’d be consciously aimed at an audience not considered sophisticated by the pulpsters themselves, though, it’s be astonishing if anything that challenged the “accepted wisdom” of its time slipped through…
I can see an African-American of the period being repulsed by actual Africans, especially those living outside cities and following their ancient ways. An entire lifetime of negative stereotypes in print, on movie theater screens, on the radio–all used to justify and maintain bigotry and oppression–and the reality (seemingly) matches just enough for the person to reject any kinship.
The rest of the story? Sounds cringey.