“Cassius” (1931) by Henry S. Whitehead

Weird Racism
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.

Whitehead—to whose other distinctions I find that of Reverend or ex-Reverend added—has just started a tale from an idea of mine which he is suggesting that I finish as a collaborated work—but I may pass it up because of inability to do justice to the West Indian locale he has seen fit to choose. I am the sworn enemy of armchair exoticism, & believe in writing about things one personally knows—except of course in the case of Dunsanian phantasy or cosmic infinity.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 31 Jan 1931, Essential Solitude 1.320

The Reverend Henry S. Whitehead was an Episcopal priest and pulp writer who contributed to magazines such as Weird Tales and Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror. Before retiring to Florida, Whitehead had spent summers down in the U. S. Virgin Islands, soaking up the local atmosphere, culture, and folklore, and set many of his tales in this milieu, often in stories involving his character Gerald Canevin. H. P. Lovecraft had fallen into correspondence with Whitehead, and the two formed a convivial bond.

Lovecraft kept a commonplace book with ideas and plot germs, some of which he used and many of which never materialized but were borrowed or developed by others. The plot seed that inspired Whitehead was apparently this one:

[133] Man has miniature shapeless SIamese twin—exhib. in circus—twin surgically detached—disappears—does hideous things with malign life of his own.

Collected Essays 5.227

The entry is dated 1925, and R. H. Barlow, who was Lovecraft’s literary executor, added the notation “HSW—Cassius” to this entry. Whitehead took Lovecraft’s basic idea and applied it to his West Indian milieu to craft another Canevin tale. While Whitehead urged collaboration, however, Lovecraft begged off:

Whether I do anything with that Whitehead tale depends on how eager he is about it—for I hate being churlish & uncivil. He says he has it all started, & that he has prepared some guiding notes on the chosen West-Indian background.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 17 Feb 1931, Essential Solitude 1.321-322

As for collaboration—though I’ve done it in scores of ghost-writing cases, I think I’ll dispose of the Whitehead case by keeping things in the air till he writes the whole thing himself.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27? Feb 1931, Essential Solitude 1.324

Which is ultimately what Whitehead did. The story that developed, “Cassius” is essentially pure Whitehead in terms of plot and development, and aside from being set in the West Indies and starring his series character Canevin, also continues certain themes that he had developed in earlier tales.

For example, the tale “The Lips” (Weird Tales Sep 1929), a Black woman on a slave ship to the West Indies curses one of her white captors so that black mouths grow from his flesh, whispering the word “L’kundu”—this was a riff off Edward Lucas White’s story “Lukundoo” (1925), where a white man in colonial Africa wrongs an indigenous woman and is cursed to Lukundoo, where miniature, chattering Black heads grow from his flesh. In another tale, “Passing of a God” (Weird Tales Jan 1931), a white man with a large growth in his abdomen goes to the West Indies and falls in with voodoo; the growth is surgically removed and revealed to have been a parasitic twin that the cultists believed to be an incarnate god.

As those brief synopses indicate, there is a strong racial component to these stories; while the Virgin Islands was much less racially segregated than the mainland United States, Whitehead’s perspective—and his audience—was very much of the white mainland majority, and the characterization of BIPOC characters in his West Indies stories, while rarely mean-spirited, tend to be expressions of particular stereotypes and prejudices. So it is in “Cassius,” where a light-skinned biracial man named Brutus Hellman.

Brutus, it appeared, had need of a minor operation, and, Negro-like, the two of them, talking the matter over between themselves, had decided to ask me, their present patron, to arrange it.

Henry S. Whitehead, “Cassius” in Strange Tales of Mystery & Terror Nov 1931

The operation had been the removal of a growth from Brutus’ groin or side—a parasitic twin which would go on to hunt and haunt Brutus Hellman in revenge. Except that the miniature human being thus freed is darker-skinned than Brutus, and possesses a kind of ancestral memory, reproduced African hut and spear in miniature as it carries out its campaign of terror. Whitehead offers a pseudoscientific explanation:

The well-established ethnic rule,the biological certainty in cases of miscegenation between Caucasians or quasi-Caucasians and the Negro or negroid tpes is tha the offspring is never darker than the darker of the two parents. The ‘black-baby’ tradition, as a ‘throw-back’ being produced by mulatto or nearly Caucasian parents is a bugaboo, Canevin, sheer bosh! It doesn’t happen that way. It cannot happen. it is a biological impossibility, my dear man. […] since Brutus is very ‘clear-colored,’ as the Negroes would say, that one of his parents was black; the other very considerably lighter, perhaps even a pure Caucasian. […] The mother—she was, undoubtedly, the black parent—proud of her ‘clear child’, would favor it,nurse it first.

Henry S. Whitehead, “Cassius” in Strange Tales of Mystery & Terror Nov 1931

Even in 1931, this “scientific” explanation wouldn’t hold water, but the point was to try and give an explanation for why Cassius was both darker-skinned that Brutus, and why the miniature stereotype was running around stabbing lighter-skinned Black people with spears made from knives, building “African” style huts out of discarded pencils, and the like. Totally aside from the explicit and implicit racism (scientific and otherwise) in “Cassius,” the story ends rather anticlimactically, and even Lovecraft wasn’t very impressed with the result:

About “Cassius”—It is hard for me to give an unbiased judgment, since the development is so antithetical to that which I had in mind when offering the central idea. To me it seems that a vast number of atmospheric & other horror-possibilities have been left unrealised, & that the typically bland, urbane, & almost unctuous style (the stereotyped Kipling tradition) wrecks the sort of hideous tensity really needed. Yet on the other hand I can see where Whitehead has used a fertile cleverness in incident-devising that I could never have approached. The chief scientific objection is, of course, the part played by “hereditary memory”—a thing wholly repudiated by responsible biologists, though still favoured by weird writers. I’d call “Cassius” a typical anthology item—for “sophisticated” professionals love that unctuous urbanity which to me is so markedly unsatisfying.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 6 Nov 1931, Essential Solitude 1.404-405

Whitehead and Lovecraft did eventually meet in Florida, and would collaborate on another Canevin tale, “The Trap.” Yet in a later letter, Lovecraft would reveal a little more about the origin of the tale:

I gave H S W the idea for “Cassius”—at first he wanted me to collaborate, but our styles & approaches were so different that I couldn’t. It all came from a freak I saw in a dime museum—an Italian with a rudimentary twin growing out of his abdomen. Some time I’ll tell you how I had meant to develop the theme—I may do it yet.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 23 Aug 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 207-208

In a sense, Lovecraft had already played with the twin theme in at least two tales: “The Dunwich Horror” (Weird Tales Apr 1929) and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (written early 1927, unpublished during Lovecraft’s lifetime). Ward with its near-identical ancestor-descendent pair recalls one of Lovecraft’s earliest recorded stories, now lost:

One long-destroyed tale was of twin brothers—one murders the other, but conceals the body, & tries to live the life of both—appearing in one place as himself, & elsewhere as his victim. (Resemblance had been remarkable.) He meets sudden death (lightning) when posing as the dead man—is identified by a scar, & the secret finally revealed by his diary. This, I think, antedates my 11th year.

H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 2 Feb 1916, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 51

Lovecraft would refer to this idea in commenting on a similar story, “The Man Who Was Two Men” by A. W. Bernal in Weird Tales Apr 1935 (Letters to Robert Bloch and Others 233). Yet neither of these stories really involves a parasitic twin, and the idea that Lovecraft got the idea from a real performer he saw at a human oddity exhibition is intriguing. We know from Lovecraft’s letters, for example, that in 1925 (from when the entry in the Common Place book is dated), Lovecraft and his wife visited such an attraction in Coney Island.

We then called in for a fitting of the suit, & took an open car for an evening ride to Coney Island. We had not intended to get off at all; but finding the resort phenomenally uncrowded, we did—incidentally patronising some of the assorted freak shows. In one of them there still survives P. T. Barnum’s original “Zip, the What-is-It”—now probably over 90 years of age. In Barnum’s day “Zip” (whose profile I here reproduce) was exhibited as a semi-ape, & dressed in a furry skin supposed to be his natural hide. Now he appears in immaculate evening dress, grins amiably, & picks out simple tunes on the violin & xylophone. The age is too sophisticated for Barnum’s charlatanry, & “Zip” chiefly interests people as having been part of the great showman’s entourage. This creature is really a semi-idiotic Andaman Islander—one of a dwarf Malay stock inhabiting the East Indies. He was picked up as a boy by a seaman long before the Civil War, & has since vegetated in one freak show after another. Living feebly & lightly, he does not show his years; & will probably excite the smiles of still another generation.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 6 Jul 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.308
Brown University Library

Lovecraft is credulously repeating the popular billing; “Zip the Pinhead” was William Henry Johnson, born to a Black family in New Jersey, and was in his late 60s when Lovecraft saw him, though he would die the following year.

It is not clear if the performer who inspired Lovecraft’s commonplace book entry was seen during this excursion or another, but Lovecraft went into great detail about the idea and its potential development; for ease of reading, this long section of a letter has been broken up into several sections:

About the twin—I was divided between two plans of development. One would have had the monster escape as Whitehead had it—but would have had it much more terrible & much less human. I would have had it grow in size, & frighten people much more terribly than “Cassius” did. Indeed, I would have tried to convey the implication that some Outside force or daemon had taken possession of the brainless, twisted body—impelling it to strange acts of apparently deliberate but plainly non-human motivation. The climax would have consisted of some dramatic & unmistakable revelation of this Outside tenancy—probably connected with the spectacular destruction of the thing in one way or another. My story would have had none of the lightness, sauvity, & humour of Whitehead’s, but would have been grim & terrible all through. So much for one plot.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 12 Sep 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 215

This is the development that most closely resembles the unnamed twin in “The Dunwich Horror”—and perhaps too closely resembles the parasitic twin in Whitehead’s “Passing of a God.” Assuming that Whitehead wrote that story before he received Lovecraft’s plot germ—and perhaps it is what prompted Lovecraft’s sharing of his own vaguely similar idea—he might have felt inclined to develop the parasitic twin idea in a different way in “Cassius” so as to avoid repeating himself. The other plot idea was far less cosmic and, like Whitehead’s, more science fiction:

The other plot I had in mind was much more human—not supernatural at all, in fact. The idea was to have the connexion of the man & his miniature twin much more complex & obscure than any doctor had suspected. The operation of separation is performed—but lo! An unforseen horror & tragedy results. For it seems that the brain of the twin-burdened man lay in the miniature twin alone . . . . so that the operation has produced a hideous monster only a foot tall, with the keen brain of a man, & a handsome manlike shell with the undeveloped brain of a total idiot. From this situation I planned to develop an appropriate plot, although—from the magnitude of the task—I had not progressed very far. I had an idea of having the midget monster assume the guardianship of his handsome, brainless twin & endeavour to hypnotise it in such a way that it could do his talking for him & act as his substitute in the outside world. I meant to have him succeed, so that after about a year there appears in society a handsome, brilliant man who always carries a satchel, & who displays vast alarm when there is any danger of his being separated from it. This, of course, is the brainless twin—who now serves as the mouthpiece & exterior facade of the intelligent monster, who rules him by hypnotism from the shelter of the satchel. From then on I had decided nothing. One idea was to have an accident destroy the satchel, causing the idiot to collapse helplessly & perhaps die. Another was to have the man gain fame—but finally to have the idiot body die in such a way that the death can hardly be concealed. The intelligent twin still lives—but how can he now keep his secret? He may be able to hide bodily, but how can he continue the work which brought him fame (say as a writer or painter or scholar) when the famous man is supposed to be dead? I had not progressed to the point of solving that problem—or even deciding whether I’d have such a problem—when Whitehead began urging the collaboration & I finally gave him the plot to develop in his own way. Hence “Cassius”.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 12 Sep 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 216

This “double life” plot is obviously a continuation of Lovecraft’s earliest twin theme story idea; yet the idea of a miniature parasitic twin with its own independent intelligence is clearly what inspired Whitehead’s “Cassius.” Yet the whole process of thinking over the plot germ led Lovecraft in a third direction:

Now—after years—another alternative occurs to me. I might have the death of the handsome idiot-body concealed, & have the intelligent monster embalm it & display it seated in a chair—ostensibly still alive but paralysed. he would have it appear to speak—in a feeble, alien voice supposedly due to the paralysis—through the clever practice of ventriloquism. Then some awful climax of revelation could occur—any one of a dozen hideous sorts. The embalming could be imperfect, so that the supposedly living man would display signs of decomposition. Or notice could be attracted by its failure to age through the passing years. In writing such a story, I’d probably begin near the end—that is, have the bulk of the action concern the final phase, when the supposed paralytic begins to arouse suspicion. The antecedent history—the operation &c—would be subtly worked in as backflashes. I would make the revelation very gradual & suspense-filled—& at the last might leave the reader in some doubt of what the truth really was. Whether I shall ever do this or not remains to be seen. It certainly wouldn’t be duplicating “Cassius”—for the whole spirit & emphasis of my conception is antipodally alien to Whitehead’s. Whitehead urged me to go ahead & try—but I thought some time had better elapse in any case.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 12 Sep 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 216

While Lovecraft would never develop this explicit idea, the image of the ventriloquist act would be used in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales Aug 1931). The narrative development of beginning at the end and then working back to how this came to pass is a familiar part of Lovecraft’s style. Yet as for where Lovecraft got the idea in the first place:

I believe I mentioned that my idea came from seeing an actual case of the undeveloped-twin anomaly in a freak shew (Hubert’s Museum in W. 42nd St.) in New York. The man in question–an intelligent Italian who for some reason billed himself under the French name of “Jean Libera”—had a little anthropoid excrescence growing out of his abdomen which looked hellishly gruesome when uncovered. Cothed, he looked merely like a somewhat “pot-bellied” individual. So far as I know, he is still living & on exhibition. He looked so essentially refined & high0gade that I wondered at this willingness to be exploited as a freak, & speculated as to what he would do if a stroke of luck removed him from the need of such an ignominious occupation. The first thing he would do, I argued, would be to have the excrescence cut off—& then & there the idea of the story came. This was in 1924 or 1925. Now the odd & amusing thing is this. Years afterward—after I had given the idea to Whitehead & was awaiting the appearance of “Cassius”—I chanced to mention the matter to my old friend Arthur Leeds of New York, who has had extensive dealings with freaks & other amusement enterprises. Fancy my surprise when he told me that he knows Libera well—that the man’s real name is Giovanni Libera, that he is an Italian of great intelligence, that he is interested in everything weird, & that (believe this or not—it’s actual truth!) he is especially fond of my work in W.T.!!!! Talk about coincidence! Leeds was going to tell him about “Cassius”, but I told him not to, since he might feel some delicacy (despite his occupation) about being used in that way. At the time (1930) Leeds was going to introduce me to Liebra; but something prevented, so the meeting never came off. It certainly would have seemed odd to meet one of my plot-germs in the flesh . . . . the flesh of two bodies, or a body & a half, at that!

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 12 Sep 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 216-217

Giovanni Libbera was an Italian performer who toured the United States, sometimes billed as Jean or Jean and Jacques Libbera. Lovecraft’s 1924 and 1925 letters do no mention Hubert’s Dime Museum or Libbera by name, and trying to figure out exactly where Libbera was under contract during that period is difficult, but there are newspaper advertisements that show Libbera was employed at Hubert’s during some periods. J.-M. Rajala in “Locked Dimensions Out of Reach: The Lost Stories of H. P. Lovecraft” (Lovecraft Annual #5, 2011) suggests it may have been during a 15 July walk to Times Square recorded in Lovecraft’s 1925 diary.

Which is the long and rather weird root to how a chance encounter with a human oddity led to a story in Weird Tales…and, perhaps, sheds some light on Lovecraft’s plotting and development of story ideas, and how that differed from his colleagues. It is notable, for instance, that Lovecraft’s original plot-germ and all of its developments is totally agnostic in terms of race. The plot has nothing to do with the twins being white, Black, or anything else, while Whitehead in transferring the plot to the West Indies makes it entirely about race, or at least about certain preconceptions about race. This makes fair sense when it is considered that Whitehead’s stories frequently dealt with BIPOC characters in a setting where they predominated, while Lovecraft stuck mostly with familiar New England settings with relatively fewer BIPOC folk.

No—I shan’t let your gargoyle tale cut mine off . . . . any more than I shall let Whitehead’s “Cassius” suppress my future tale of the amputated Siamese twin.

H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 23 Aug 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 320

The legacy of “Cassius” is a bit harder to track. While no one has, to the best of my knowledge, written a direct sequel, however there are two stories by members of Lovecraft’s circle of correspondents that might continue some of the themes and ideas.

“The Mannikin” (Weird Tales Apr 1937) by Robert Bloch is about a man with a parasitic twin growing from the left shoulder that is both intelligent and has a distinct interest in Mythos lore; as in Lovecraft’s second plot development, the parasite manages to gain control of its brothers body for a time.

“It Will Grow On You” (Esquire Apr 1942) by Donald Wandrei is a kind of spiritual sequel that combines elements of “Cassius,” “The Lips,” and “Lukundoo.” A white man among the islands gets a native woman pregnant, and when he threatens to leave she curses him. A small female form then grows from his thigh. A surgeon attempts to remove the growth, but the curse transfers to the surgeon.

In all of these stories that have been discussed, there is a fascination with both bodily deformity—many of the stories are effectively early examples of what today would be termed body horror—and with the idea of a kind of twisted morality play. Giovanni Libbera did nothing wrong, committed no crime or sin, he was simply born the way he was. Individuals in stories like “Lukundoo,” “The Lips,” and “It Will Grow On You” all receive their horrific transformations from some terrible crime, and like a rapist who catches an STD, have to live with the consequences. In “Passing of a God,” “Cassius,” and “The Mannikin” it is the parasite that is evil…something to be cut from the body if possible, endured if not.

None of the characters seek to capitalize on their odd status as Libbera did; these are not stories about the practical difficulties of the life of a performer making the best of an unusual physical condition, like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). There is a very distinct prudishness and shame regarding their physical bodies which is reflected in Lovecraft’s emphasis on Libbera’s “ignominious occupation.” Yet that was a mentality that went far beyond just Lovecraft himself, and found expression in many authors during the period. Sideshows and dime museums may have come and gone, yet the repulsion at that which is different—and the fascination with the same—remains.

Henry S. Whitehead’s “Cassius” may be read for free online in the Nov 1931 issue of Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

One thought on ““Cassius” (1931) by Henry S. Whitehead

  1. Libbera, and other such performers, may have decided that they should be paid by the people staring at them. Unless they were already wealthy, or could make their living without in-person dealings, they didn’t have many choices.


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