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W.J. Stamper and Lips of the Dead. Lost Voices of the Caribbean Gothic(24 Apr 2014)
By Miss Vanessa Velez
As I have mentioned in my first post, one of the goals I have set for reviewing horror anthologies of the early-to-mid twentieth century is to discover the unknown voices that, from my perspective, have added, expanded upon, or even faithfully recreated recognizable literary approaches attributed to Gothic literature. There is a lot of separating the wheat from the chaff in this endeavor, as since I have mentioned earlier, most of the short fiction is just not that good. I’ve found authors who attempt to mimic the styles of Poe, Lovecraft, and even Mary Shelley. There are generic tales of the terror that resides within hidden rooms (G. Frederick Montefiore’s “Black Curtains”, 1925), stories that reveal abhorrent primordial monsters (Hazel Heald’s “The Horror in the Museum”, 1932-33)*, and nested narratives about failed quests for immortality (Michael Gwynn’s “The Death Plant”, 1934). However various their subject matter may be, and no matter how “spine-chilling” they may be advertised as, these narratives lack the sociopolitical dialogues and existential depth that have established for the classic Gothic texts their long-lasting appeal. In short, the narratives are superficial. They are, as the taglines of the anthologies they are featured in suggest “Tales the freeze the blood” (More Not at Night, 1961), and little else.
Yet, this doesn’t mean all of the works featured in these collections are literary dross. As I have shown in my second post regarding the work of C.S. Forester, within “The Physiology of Fear” we find an example of a horrifying story of the often untold, yet thought-provoking experience of an unwilling participant in the Nazi project. The story possess the Gothic concerns of enhanced subjectivity, nostalgia, sublime terror, and the uncanny that is reminiscent of the original Gothic works that established the contextual parameters of the mode of the literature. Still, C.S. Forester is a well-known author who employed the Gothic mode in his larger military-influenced fiction, for which he has gathered his fame. So what about the unknown authors, those who mastered the Gothic mode and have been forgotten by time?
One work that I have discovered in the Not at Night Omnibus by a virtually unknown writer has astounded me, not only for the short story’s style and narrative content, but also because in my deep, almost fruitless perusal of various internet archives I have barely found anything on the author that could provide even one small explanation regarding his inspiration for writing upon subject matter of this kind. Nor could I find a copy of his collected works available for purchase. For anyone who has attempted this kind of research project, where you labor to find a diamond in the rough only to find that, once you have had a glimpse of it, you realize it is only one small specimen of a larger hoard, you can imagine my frustration.
The writer that I am speaking about is American author, William James Stamper, W.J. Stamper for short. The story I am speaking about that causes me both intrigue and vexation is titled, “The Lips of the Dead”. Regarding the author, from what I have been able to dig up on Stamper, I have discovered that he published about eight short stories between 1925 and 1931, which were featured in magazines and anthologies such as Weird Tales, More Not at Night, and Jungle Stories. Stamper also published a collection of short stories in 1935, titled, “Beyond the Seas”. In the case of his personal background, according to some U.S. census reports I’ve managed to find, Stamper was born around 1893, was a U.S. war veteran, and died in 1963. Outside of this, I have no other knowledge regarding the author.
What is fascinating about Stamper’s “Lips of the Dead” is that, from my research into the historical events the story beyond a doubt portrays, it appears to be a modern Gothic tale, in the vein of the original Gothic works of Walpole or Lewis, about the repressive and pilfering Haitian government led by president Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The story is a fictional retelling of the events surrounding Sam’s gruesome murder by the Haitian populace on July 28, 1915. It is not an exact retelling of the historical events, however; names have been changed, for example, where Sam is recast as Théodor (possibly after Joseph Davilmar Théodore, the historical Sam’s presidential predecessor), yet the event in itself is representative of the two day period where Sam and his favored general, Charles Oscar Etienne, called “Black Oscar” in the tale, brutally massacred political prisoners and were then murdered themselves in retribution by the Haitian citizenry. On a sidenote, I have discovered that the historic “Black Oscar” was so hated by the Haitian population, and also infamous for his brutality, that a carnival character has been modeled after him, called “Chaloska.” You can see the images of the carnival here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/sex-death-and-slaves-welcome-to-haitis-horror-carnival-2016522.html?action=gallery&ino=6
I have deemed “Lips of the Dead” as being a modern Gothic tale because it functions within the parameters of the original Gothic: for example, there is obviously a decidedly sociopolitical message in the story. Additionally, Théodor and Black Oscar’s demise is foretold in a prophesy by the severed head of a political prisoner, Papillon, whose dead lips issue the words, “Tomorrow, Théodor, tomorrow!” (35), lending to the name of the story. Furthermore, the idea of political retribution is an ongoing theme in the Gothic, where those who commit the most heinous crimes are subject to the most brutal of deaths, such as in Lewis’ The Monk. Lastly, there is also a sense of irony in this idea of retribution. As Théodor is dragged through the square by an angry mob in a death march, an almost carnivalesque scene, he is crucified against the face of a monument Stamper calls “the Sacred Arch” (38). The narrator elucidates upon the brutality of Théodor’s death by explaining:
Mortal man could not long survive such inhuman torture. Slowly the head sank down upon the scrawny chest; the eyes bulged from their sockets. The cooling blood had ceased to flow and now merely oozed from around the nails...Grasping the dishevelled hair with his left hand...the axe ascended once more and there was a sickening thud as it fell upon the distended leaders of the bare throat...The mob slunk back as the gory head dropped to the street, rolled a few feet, stood upright on the bloody stub of the neck. As the glazing eyeballs fixed in the cold state of death, there issued from the purple lips a scarcely audible murmur: ‘Today, Papillon, today!’ (39)
His death becomes representative of the corruption and brutal atrocities Théodor committed in life. Yet, in subjecting him to this type of death, the actions committed by the angry mob also indicate the turbulent state of Haitian society during the time period. It asks the reader to take into consideration the turmoil and terror sociopolitical malpractice brings to a nation, where the mental state of the population is rendered into a gruesome and inhumane mode of being.
Taking Stamper’s “Lips of the Dead” into consideration, by happening upon this obscure work of Gothic fiction I have discovered an authorial voice that may expand upon our understanding of the postcolonial interpretation of the Gothic from an American perspective. To further my research into Stamper, since I have discovered that he was a war veteran, I need to discover where exactly he served as well as in what capacity. Moreover, I would like to find copies of his other works to see if they cover the same themes of political turmoil in the Caribbean. From my findings, however, this story could be used as an example to prove why more research needs to be done in discovering the lost authorial voices of the Gothic genre.