He had thought of the South as a sunny, lazy land washed by soft breezes laden with spice and warm blossoms, where life ran tranquilly to the rhythm of black folk singing in sun-bathed cottonfields. But now he had discovered another, unsuspected side – a dark, brooding, fear-haunted side…
– “Pigeons from Hell,” The Horror Stories of Robert E Howard, p. 430
In his writing, Robert E. Howard made frequent use of subjects from history and folklore, especially — in keeping with his Southern heritage and Texas upbringing — that of both the American Southwest, and the Deep South. This includes elements from the African-American folk magic practices popularly known as conjure (or hoodoo) and voodoo, which turn up to create fear and atmosphere in various tales of horror and “weird mystery,” most famously in “Black Canaan” and “Pigeons from Hell.”
Where “voodoo,” a ceremonial religion involving a group of people with a defined hierarchy, has a place in the popular imagination, many people tend to be less familiar with “hoodoo.” Even the name isn’t agreed upon: the most famous collection of folklore on the subject is called Hoodoo – Conjuration – Rootwork – Magic, and those are all equivalent synonyms. Someone who practices “hoodoo” can be called a root doctor, a root worker, a trick doctor, a spiritual worker, a two-headed doctor, or a conjure-man or -woman. We’ll primarily be using “conjure,” in honor of Howard’s atmospheric essay “Kelly the Conjure-Man.”
Unlike voodoo, traditional conjure is not organized in any way, but is a loose collection of magico-spiritual practices used by individuals as they see fit. Familiar props include candles, herbs, graveyard dirt, and the “mojo bag,” which is usually made of red flannel, and contains various objects, from coins to literal roots. Conjure can be practiced as part of everyday life, but often workers are professionals, who charge for their services, and who sometimes – like Howard’s conjure men — generate actual supernatural awe.
While voodoo and conjure have many differences, there have always been practitioners who mix up elements from both types of magical practice. New Orleans, in particular, is known for a spiritual heritage that partakes of both, with practical conjure techniques (such as spells including red pepper, red brick dust, salt, and honey, which are all conjure-derived) that are dressed up with voodoo theatricality. Even in groups that perform communal drumming, and/or veneration of snakes (traditions associated with formal voodoo), a lot of their actual magic activities, especially if done privately, without a direct ritual element, can still be more accurately described as conjure.
Some contemporary practitioners display frustration with the common confusion of terminology, viewing the different practices as substantially different, but the labels have always been used loosely by people in the community. When African-American writer Rudolph Fisher wrote The Conjure-Man Dies, frequently cited as the first black detective novel, in 1932, the “Conjure-Man” was an African who performed spiritualist séances for mostly white clients. So in a story like “Black Canaan” (1933), where Howard depicts voodoo-like ceremonies led by a character referred to as a “conjer man,” his usage of the term seems entirely in line with his contemporaries.
Historically, most conjure folk were either knowledgeable about traditional herbal medicines, or were perpetuating folk traditions based on remembered African spiritual lore, or both, and much of what they practiced was benign. There is evidence, though, from slave narratives and other historical sources, that some conjure men and women, reputed or real, did indeed use their magical reputations to gain power and intimidate others — both fellow slaves and white authority figures. For example, in his authoritative book Conjure in African-American Society, scholar Jeffrey Anderson states that “The power of hoodoo translated into enormous influence within black society for successful conjurers … fear of conjure had a profound effect on individual blacks,” and “the fear of hoodoo was present in a significant portion of white southerners.” (p. 79, 86, 78)
To some extent, therefore, the “sinister figure” of folklore described in Howard’s brief “Kelly the Conjure-Man” essay doesn’t seem particularly exaggerated, although Conan fans will note that he’s is both “a fine figure of barbaric manhood” and “supple like a great black panther,” (p. 377) physical descriptions which echo those of his more famous specimen of barbaric manhood.
Kelly, “son of a Congo ju-ju man” and “born a slave” (p. 376), develops a reputation as a healer, and gains power over others by frightening them with his reputed abilities, ultimately becoming more feared than respected. All of which sounds like a perfectly plausible career for a local conjure practitioner of his age. Howard steeps the tale in mysterious atmosphere and speculation, but much of the material in the essay — such as how “the black folk came to him to have spells lifted from their souls where enemies had placed them by curses and incantations” (Horror Stories, p. 377) — would be right at home in any collection of folklore on African-American conjure.
That some people “obsessed by the horrible belief that their stomachs were full of living snakes” (p. 378) is also a well-known phenomenon in the history of conjure. In Yvonne Chireau’s overview Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition, referring to interviews with former slaves and other first-person accounts, she says that “African Americans described Conjure sickness as an intrusion of entities within the body…physical affliction is portrayed as a state in which the body becomes a living menagerie” (p. 104). She quotes a source as saying “My wife Hattie had a spell put on her for three long years with a nest of rattlesnakes inside her.” (p. 104)
Kelly, the non-fiction character, fairly obviously inspired the fictional Saul Stark of “Black Canaan,” another “giant,” intimidating magical practitioner. In this story, interconnected rural communities of former slaves and slave owners are threatened by the activities of a Conjure Man who performs voodoo-type ceremonies in the swamp. His goal is an uprising that would kill all the white people, although he’s equally willing to kill (or perform horrible magic on) any of the black members of the community who don’t bow down to his power. And his greatest weapon is the threat to “put (them) in de swamp,” (Horror Stories, p. 386) an act which transforms them into “mindless, soulless semi-human dweller(s) in the water” with elongated legs, webbed hands, and expressions “no more human than that of a great fish.” (p. 408)
More famous than “Black Canaan” is “Pigeons from Hell,” another of Howard’s stories that makes use of elements and ambience from African-American folk magic. After a bizarre murder, the investigators research the crumbling old Southern mansion where the crime took place, and end up at the hut of Jacob, a now-elderly one-time “voodoo man.”
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