Spring Break Short Story Recommendations 2021, Part I: “Black Tancrède”

It’s another glorious Spring Break for yours portly, which means it’s time to whip out some classic tales of ghostly spookiness.  This week I’m working my way through Chilling Ghost Stories, edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, published in March 2020.  It’s a collection that was clearly compiled for the bargain section at Barnes & Nobles, with a list price of just $10 for 471 pages of medium-sized print chills (I picked it up for $8 plus tax thanks to my handy Educator’s Discount card).  The stories were written from 1893 to 1929, with today’s selection, Henry S. Whitehead‘s “Black Tancrède,” being the latest.

“Black Tancrède” was first published in Weird Tales in 1929, and is one of several stories inspired by Whitehead’s time serving as the Episcopal Archdeacon for the Virgin Islands from 1921-1929.  The story’s narrator is Gerald Canevin, who serves as a sort of stand-in for the real-life Whitehead.  The story takes place at a luxury hotel on the islands, where Canevin is living with a visiting cousin.  The cousin’s mother and sister come down for a visit, and report a strange knocking every morning at 4 AM on their door.

Near the end of Canevin and his cousin’s time on the island, they agree to take residence in the knocking room to open up their accommodations for a large family moving in.  One morning, upon rising exceptionally early to prepare to attend a 5 AM church service followed by a long day of writing, Canevin hears the legendary 4 AM knock, and discovers a grotesque, five-legged tarantula or land crab scuttling down the hallway.

The hand belongs to a legendary slave rebel, Black Tancrède, who was once imprisoned in the very room of the hotel that his hand haunts each morning.  Upon his execution, BT cursed three men, two of whom died mysteriously and suddenly.  The third, having escaped to Europe, evaded the hand’s vengeance, and it continues to roams the hotel at night, returning to the former room of the governor who had him put to death.

“Black Tancrède” was not particularly frightening, but its discussion of the various mystical, magical, and supernatural traditions of various African tribes blending together in the Caribbean makes for an interesting bit of folklore.  The rather practical way in which Canevin dealt with the hand—he tosses it into the cooking fire of the hotel’s kitchen, and pays the head cook five francs for her trouble—is almost humorous.  While the hand apparently has sinister intent, it never harms anyone other than the two cursed men (it is implied), both of whom had died a couple of centuries earlier.

The setting of a ghostly tale in the blistering white sunshine of the Caribbean is interesting, and I would like to read more of Whitehead’s works.  The strange blending of various African superstitions also added an exotic, intriguing element to the story, although the mysterious “tarantula” was easy to figure out.  The idea of a disembodied hand exacting revenge is terrifying; one that merely knocks on one’s door at an inconvenient hour is a bit disturbing, but mostly just annoying (although if I saw a hand walking around, I wouldn’t be as cool-headed as Canevin in handling it).

Whitehead was apparently good friend’s with H.P. Lovecraft, and this story more properly falls into the “weird fiction” category than the “ghost story” one, but there is much overlap between the genres.  For an unusual read, I’d recommend checking out “Black Tancrède.”

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