Saturday, May 6, 2017

Lukundoo

Edward Lucas White (1866–1934)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps

Illustration for the jacket of the first edition of Lukundoo and Other Stories (1927).
“Curses,” explains cultural critic Alan Warren in Icons of Horror and the Supernatural, “are one of supernatural fiction’s most enduring genres.” And of the many works of fiction that revolve around curses—by witches and witch doctors, wizards and alchemists—“stories featuring African curses are legion.” Such tales first made their appearance in British and American literature when journalists and missionaries brought back reports of the horrors of the rubber trade in the Congo. As Warren reminds us, “the sociological implications are obvious, and the racial divide gapes wide.”

Among the entries in this subgenre, perhaps no story is more famous or influential than Edward Lucas White’s “Lukundoo.” A Baltimore school teacher for fifteen years, White was better known during his life as a writer of historical novels, three of which, published between 1910 and 1921, approached best-seller status and remained in print for decades. Before he became a novelist, however, he wrote close to a dozen tales of fantasy and horror. His legacy today rests almost entirely on the African curse tale “Lukundoo,” which he wrote in 1907 (eight years after Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), although it was not published until it was accepted by Weird Tales in 1925. During the last century it has been included in at least thirty anthologies, including Alfred Hitchcock’s provocatively titled 1957 collection Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do on TV.

White claimed that many of his fantastic stories were based on his nightmares, but S. T. Joshi, the go-to source on the history of weird fiction, reports that White once admitted that he would never have had the dream that resulted in “Lukundoo” if he hadn’t first read “Pollock and the Porroh Man,” an 1897 H. G. Wells story about an arrogant British traveler in Sierra Leone who is cursed by a tribal witch doctor. “Both tales,” notes Joshi, “are fundamentally tales of revenge, and in both tales we find the victims overcome by remorse at their mistreatment of African natives and inexorably losing their very will to live.” One major difference between the two stories is that Wells allows the reader to wonder if the curse is real or entirely in Pollock’s mind, while White leaves no room for ambiguity. The entry for “Lukundoo” in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and Horror Fiction suggests that “the ending must have come as a considerable shock . . . when the story was first published.”

Joshi also describes a project that preoccupied White for most of his adult life: a utopian science fiction novel called Plus Ultra. He began working on the book in 1901 and finished a short version (never published) in 1919. He picked it up again in 1928, the year after his wife died, and amassed a doorstop novel of over half a million words that no publisher would touch. He killed himself seven years to the day after his wife’s death; his last book, Matrimony (1932) was a memoir of their marriage.

Notes: In the first page of the story, White refers to the explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s claim (since disproved) that, in 1888, he was the first European explorer to encounter members of an African pygmy tribe.

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