‘Startling Stories’, illustrating ‘Strangers on the Heights’ by Manly Wade Wellman

Deborah Hyde
Deborah Hydehttp://deborahhyde.com/
Deborah Hyde is former editor of The Skeptic and is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. She writes and lectures about belief in the malign supernatural, with special regard to the folklore, psychology and sociology behind belief.

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Cover of Startling Stories
Startling Stories – Strangers on the Heights by Manly Wade Wellman. A man holds a ray gun to the head of a scared skeletal being. The man uses his free hand to comfort the woman beside him, who is holding an illuminated cross. Date: 1944

This cover of pulp magazine ‘Startling Stories’ dates from 1944 and illustrates the book’s main feature ‘Strangers on the Heights’ written by prolific fantasy writer Manly Wade Wellman. It clearly features a reanimated cadaver – a zombie.

In retrospect, the twentieth century’s fascination with fictional zombies (which is ongoing – a note for those readers unfortunate enough to live in a cave) is traceable to Haiti’s occupation by the United States between 1915 and 1934. As is often the case with folklore, the astonished commentary of visiting outsiders was instrumental in drawing attention to religious traditions – traditions which had passed unremarked-upon for years in their own environment.

The idea ‘broke’ with the publication of journalist William Seabrook’s influential 1929 travelogue The Magic Island (1929). Seabrook clearly enjoyed his time in Haiti and wrote respectfully, if a little sensationally, of its inhabitants and their religion. But ‘gruesome’ sells better than ‘thoughtful’. It inspired a stage play and – far more famously – Victor Halperin’s film White Zombie (1932), starring horror-favourite Bela Lugosi. The movie’s theme is authentic to the folklore, in that the zombie is the victim rather than the perpetrator.

As American anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis put it: “In Haiti, the fear is not of being harmed by zombies; it is fear of becoming one”.

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