“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt”

This week’s piece of weird fiction discussed over at LibraryThing’s Deep Ones group.

Review: “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt”, Charles R. Saunders, 1982, 2010.

Cover by Obrotowy

This is an interesting story that uses the Cthulhu Mythos incidentally.

The story opens in October with the arrival one night of one Theotis Nedeau at the house of Jeremiah Henley. Theotis is a man of imposing physique and some means since he drives a new car, a 1933 Auburn. The location is near Chatham, Ontario.

The two men are black and old friends from their days at Howard University. Theotis has come at Jeremiah’s request.

When asked if he had had any trouble, Theotis says he was “delayed” near at a gas station nearby. Jeremiah thinks back to their college days when they were stopped by white policeman, and Theotis “flattened” them with one blow, and they escaped. Only a large donation from Theotis dad to Howard stopped a “major racial incident”.

Theotis asks after Jeremiah’s wife and sons. Their spending the night elsewhere is the reply.

Theotis hasn’t seen his friend in ten years, but he sees he’s worried.

After some drinks, Theotis tells him that, at that gas station, he encountered a deputy who asked him for identification. Disappointed it was all in order, the deputy asked what his business in the area was. Theotis told him he was visiting his friend. For a moment, seeing the deputy’s reaction, Theotis expected to be shot. Instead, the deputy gave him directions.

Jeremiah recognizes the deputy: Lorne Cooder. He wouldn’t be surprised if Cooder shows up later in the night.

Looking around the room, Theotis notices a portrait is missing from over the mantle place. It was of Jeremiah’s “illustrious grandfather—Jeroboam Henley”. 

Henley escaped from slavery to Ohio via the Underground Railway. There he helped other escaped slaves get to Canada. Eventually, in protest against the Fugitive Slave Act, he moved to Canada. There he helped establish a community of ex-slaves. Jeremiah lives in Jeroboam’s house.

In response to Theotis asking about the picture, Jeremiah tells him he burned it.

Theotis is, of course, surprised. 

Then Jeremiah tells him that, over the past few weeks, he had trouble sleeping. When he did, he had nightmares from which he woke up screaming.

One night, after waking up, he intended to go downstairs to see his wife who had taken to sleeping there after his nightmares. But his feet wouldn’t obey his commands. Instead, he walked up to the “walled-over end” of the house. It’s not a place of good associations for Jeremiah. Once his father whipped him for asking about it.

Jeremiah found himself going to a wall, pressing certain sections of it, and seeing the wall slide back to reveal a set of stairs to the attic.

Up in the attic, he saw a trunk. Opening it, he saw a book he opened. All these are actions seemingly compelled by an outside force.

The book is a combination diary and ledger, an accounting of all the runaway slaves who passed into Jeroboam’s hands in Ohio. But not all of them ended up in Canada. Some were sold back into slavery to a plantation owner in Louisiana. The ledger implied that the plantation owner had some sort of hold over Jeroboam. There were also hints that the slaves were to be “used as sacrifices to some sort of god or devil named ‘Shug-Niggurath’”.

Theotis says he doesn’t like the sound of that name. Neither does Jeremiah. And he is very angry about his treacherous grandfather.

The ledger revealed the last slave sold by Jeroboam was named Gbomi, purportedly a witch doctor who called down a curse on Jeroboam.

Shortly afterwards, strange things began to happen around Jeroboam’s house in Ohio: local animals slaughtered and drained of blood and strange bloody footprints appeared around his house.

This all turned the locals against Jeroboam, and the plantation owner also had no more use for his slaves. So, Jeroboam went to Canada.

These revelations caused Jeremiah to impulsively throw the painting into the fireplace.

Jeremiah needs Theotis help now because Gbomi has come back.

Before he can give more details, a rock is thrown through a window, and a car drives off. With the rock is a note telling Jeremiah to leave with his friend. It’s from Cooder Jeremiah says.

Theotis tells Jeremiah they have no time to lose and tells him they need to go to the attic.

There, out of one of his suitcases, Theotis takes out several items: sand, a metal tray, a sack of powder, and a wooden bowl of African design. Here we learn more about Theotis. He has “an almost obsessive absorption with African culture” and was derided as a “Home Boy” by his fellow students at Howard. He’s now a history professor there and teaches African lore. He’s even been to the Gold Coast for a year studying African magic.

As Theotis prepares his materials, Jeremiah asks if this “voodoo of yours works”. 

“It would take more time than I have to explain to you the difference between that half-baked Haitian superstition and the true magic of Africa.”

Then Theotis takes some leopard bones out of his suitcase. They were a gift to Theotis from a witch doctor in Africa. He thinks Theotis is being “stalked by a semando . . . a dead thing thing shaped and motivated by the will of the malam”. Gbomi must have been a powerful magician for his curse to last two generations.

To defeat it, Theotis must call the semando to the house with Jeremiah as bait.

(Spoilers ahead)

Theotis begins his rite. Seeing Theotis chanting, hearing his drumming and powerful words, Jeremiah begins to realize Theotis is a man of true power and become a little apprehensive of him.

Footsteps sound on the stairs and a “grotesque, misshapen thing formed out of mephitic grave-mud” appears. It has Jeroboam’s face. It heads for Jeremiah. But Theotis puts himself between his friend and the monster, grapples with the semando, and flings magical powder on it. The semando dissipates.

A very relieved Jeremiah thanks him for destroying Gbomi’s creation. “It served its purpose”, replies Theotis, enigmatically.

Then Theotis suddenly grabs Jeremiah by the throat and begins to throttle him. The much smaller and weaker Jeremiah can’t fight him off.

Then come revelations.

Theotis’ family was from Louisiana. His surname means “born of the water” in Creole French. So does “Gbomi” in Yoruba. Gbomi was Theotis’ grandfather. Jeremiah gasps that he’s Theotis’ friend.

Then the face of the formerly impassive Theotis changes. His face contorts, and a voice not his says “Hen-lee . . . , now, you die!”. With that, Theotis breaks Jeremiah’s neck.

Theotis sets the house on fire and leaves.

And we learn more of Theotis past. In the Gold Coast, he killed the African grandfather of the man who sold Gbomi into slavery. When he participated in a “calling-of-the-ancestors rite” there, he became possessed by the spirit of Gbomi.

It was from Gbomi he learned magic. And there’s one more killing that needs doing: the grandson of that Louisiana plantation owner who

“attempted to steal the spirit of an African malam, then slain the malam as a sacrifice to a god with an unspeakable name”.

The story ends thus:

“One more death and perhaps then, the relentless shade of Gbomi would be placated. Perhaps then, only Theotis Nedeau would dwell behind the eyes that now turned from the burning house and began to study a road map of Louisiana.

“Gbomi would not allow Theotis Nedeau to weep for his friend . . . “

I liked this story for a couple of reasons.

First, it goes in a very unexpected direction with the Shub-Niggurath being merely a background detail in a story of vengeance using a very different sort of magic.

Second, the racial elements are interesting. Instead of giving us the conventional white-black conflict, this story concentrates on intra-racial conflict in its multi-generational tale of blacks exploiting other blacks. After all, it was other blacks that sold African slaves on the coasts of African.

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