The Devil(s) of D.C.

The work of Leslie H. Whitten

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in Features • Illustrated by Marguerita Cruz-Urbanc

D.C. cops never get normal cases. Sure, the men and women of the Metropolitan Police work all the kinds of cases one would expect to encounter in a big city — murder, arson, rape, and robbery. But, insofar as 20th-century novelists are concerned, D.C. dicks are best at tackling spectral evidence and crimes involving otherworldly antagonists. The capital city’s most famous spook hunter, Lt. William F. Kinderman, conducts spiritual warfare alongside Father Damien Karras in William Peter Blatty’s blockbuster terror tale, The Exorcist. Brought to life by the brilliant character actor Lee J. Cobb in the film version of Blatty’s novel, Lt. Kinderman is depicted as an intelligent and well-read bloodhound whose Jewish faith is tested, then reaffirmed by his brush with the Assyrian demon Pazuzu. In Legion, Blatty’s sequel to The Exorcist, Lt. Kinderman is the novel’s hero and the only man with enough occult knowledge to realize that the Gemini Killer (a version of the reportedly satanic Zodiac Killer) is not of this world.  

The origins of the Lt. Kinderman character lies in a little-remembered horror novel from 1965. Indeed, without this particular novel and its central gumshoe, so many supernatural sleuths, from Carl Kolchak to the FBI agents of The X-Files, would not exist. The character is Detective Harry Picard of the Metropolitan Police. The novel, Progeny of the Adder, was written by Leslie H. Whitten, a newspaper reporter and D.C. gadfly whose novels have been unjustly forgotten and left to rot. Now, in the midst of dark autumn, it is time to resurrect Whitten’s many monsters.

Listed by Stephen King as one of the best one hundred horror novels ever written, Progeny of the Adder features a string of bizarre murders in D.C. The victims are mostly blonde and mostly streetwalkers. One of the exceptions turns out to be the daughter of the Scandian ambassador to the United States. Other outlier victims include a child and a shady real estate lawyer. Picard is the chief detective on the case. However, given D.C.’s jumbled geography, Picard has to share his manhunting duties with Virginia and Maryland detectives as well as G-men from the FBI. It is Picard who first makes note of the fact that the female victims were found emaciated and with torn throats. Although none of the blondes show signs of sexual assault, the fact that they all worked in the skin trade leads the Metropolitan Police to suspect a sex maniac.

While not told from Picard’s perspective, the hardboiled detective is the reader’s main window into the day-to-day operations of the case. In between descriptions of murder and mayhem, Picard offers up crude social commentary. He not only remarks on how D.C.’s black residents eye the police with a mixture of suspicion and hatred, but Picard also quietly laughs at one eyewitness, a low-status government employee, for continuing “to believe that they have a civic duty when circumstances force them to it.” Picard is no ignoramus, despite dropping out of college after just one year. He is also not a prude — he recognizes that Washington, D.C. is a place where the high and low mingle. It’s a town swimming in well-heeled politicians and bureaucrats, and also the type of place where with a single turn down Ninth Street, “cheap hotels, the honky-tonk bars, the strip theater, and dime-a-look cooze shows,” attract a motley crowd every night. Picard knows that the serial killer knows the seedy side of D.C. too.

Halfway through the novel the murderous menace is named as Sebastian Paulier, a British citizen who immigrated to London from Yugoslavia in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Even at the conclusion, little is known about Paulier. The only indication of his gross indecency is uncovered by Scotland Yard, who in turn feed D.C. information about their suspect. Before becoming the killer of young women, Paulier was a tyrannical landlord on a Malaysian rubber plantation. Under his watch, children died at high rates and workers whispered accusations against Paulier, most of which claimed that he was a literal demon. Picard does not put too much stock in these folktales. That is until Paulier proves impervious to .45 slugs during a siege on a Virginia farmhouse. The only thing that works against Paulier is the cross.

Whitten never comes right out and confirms that Paulier is a real vampire. He doesn’t have to. While Picard and the rest spend the second half of the novel thinking that Paulier thinks he is a vampire, readers know better. After all, Paulier is a pale European with a fondness for black clothes, the nighttime, blood, and beds made out of dirt taken from his homeland. How could he not be a vampire?

Progeny of the Adder was Whitten’s debut horror novel, and without question it is his best, most influential work. In it Whitten established one of the first modern vampire novels. Jeff Rice, the creator of Kolchak and the entire Night Stalker franchise, clearly lifted much from Whitten’s tale. Both novels feature Eastern European vampires with British passports, both include references to the vampire’s awful death breath, and both include a similar scene wherein the vampire buys a used car from a slimy, semi-criminal dealer. Rice’s only omission was nixing the fake suntan ploy that Paulier uses in Whitten’s novel. Without question, Whitten was the first man to combine the police procedural genre with the horror story. Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Progeny of the Adder places the ancient vampire in the heart of civilization. Instead of London, the capital of the British Empire, Whitten’s monster makes D.C., the heart of American hegemony, home. And like Stoker’s England, Whitten’s Washington is a character in Progeny of the Adder.

Leslie Hunter Whitten, Jr. was born in Jacksonville, Florida, but D.C. was always his true home. Once describing himself as an “Episcopalian wine-loving atheist,” Whitten was a dreamer with a dash of the crusader. Despite being the son of a Graybar executive and a Latin teacher, Whitten gave up the comfortable upper middle-class life for wanderlust. He left Lehigh after three semesters, joined the Army during World War II, and wound up living in Paris. He tried to make a go of being a poet. He wound up becoming a pretty good translator, especially of Charles Baudelaire. Evidence of Whitten’s Francophilia is in the title of Progeny of the Adder, which comes courtesy of Baudelaire’s “Sépulture” (“Sepulcher”).

Whitten returned to the United States and graduated from Lehigh with a degree in English and journalism in 1950. He certainly put his journalism degree to use, and from 1951 until 1978, Whitten buttered his bread as a reporter for Radio Free Europe and, most prominently, the Washington Post. Whitten covered the US-led invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, and he also covered the war in Southeast Asia for several publications. In 1969, he inherited the “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column from Drew Pearson. The Whitten years saw the gossip-y staple of Washington reporting uncover a CIA plot to assassinate Fidel Castro and was one of the first media outlets to devote time and energy to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson. Maybe such muckraking made Whitten an enemy of D.C.’s bureaucratic elite. Or, conversely, Whitten’s bulldog approach to reporting is what got him in trouble. Whitten and his boss Jack Anderson were not averse to threatening sources. During the heyday of Watergate, Whitten, according to author Mark Feldstein, “devised a contingency plan to keep the FBI from confiscating their [Whitten and Anderson’s] notes by locking themselves in their office and throwing their paperwork out the window.” Like some kind of character in one of his own novels, Whitten often resorted to using a private investigator to squeeze information out of his sources.

Whitten and Anderson were on President Nixon’s naughty list. G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, two of the men at the center of Watergate, considered taking both nosy newspapermen out with what they called “Aspirin Roulette”— an assassination plot using LSD disguised as harmless headache remedies.  Liddy and the machinations of the CIA did not get Whitten, but, on January 31, 1973, his overzealous reporting almost got him a one way to ticket to the jailhouse. Whitten was arrested by the FBI after he was found with a box containing stolen government documents. Whitten faced the possibility of ten years behind bars.

Whitten went to war against the Justice Department, arguing that, as a journalist, he was protected by the First Amendment. “Free Les Whitten” buttons began adorning lapels all throughout D.C.  His boss Anderson played the decisive role in keeping Whitten free: the publisher reminded Secretary of the Interior Rogers Morton that Whitten’s beat relied on exclusive reporting. More importantly, Anderson sweet talked Morton into handing over confidential files that Morton believed displayed his benevolence and good works towards Native Americans. Anderson used this as a trap — he got Morton to do the same “crime” that the Justice Department was trying to hang on Whitten. The ruse worked. Whitten walked free because prosecutors were too worried about accusations of government corruption.

Whitten put away his press badge in the late 1970s. He thought that he could end his days as a popular novelist. He had good reason to think this way too. 1976’s Conflict of Interest was a modest success, most probably because it is a fictional rendering of Whitten’s life as an investigative journalist. As in Progeny of the Adder, Whitten’s fiction always found inspiration in Washington, D.C. 1979’s Sometimes a Hero pits a D.C. reporter against an amoral oil syndicate; Washington Cycle sees the city in poetry; and 1968’s Pinion, the Golden Eagle shows the fight for environmental regulation through the eyes of Congress and a hunted golden eagle.

1973’s The Alchemist was closer to the form Whitten established in Progeny of the Adder. The horror at the heart of this D.C. novel is Old Scratch himself, as the morass of Washington politics is pulled back and exposed as plaything of devil worshippers. In the same year that William Friedkin’s The Exorcist was causing some audience members to repent and return to Mass, Whitten’s paperback potboiler was telling a similar yarn about sin-ridden Washington.

None of Whitten’s efforts after Progeny of the Adder measure up to the story of Picard and the serial killer/vampire Sebastian Paulier. The closest thing to that first book’s greatness, 1967’s Moon of the Wolf, is less revolutionary and more staid. A Southern Gothic set in the Mississippi Delta during the Great Depression, Moon of the Wolf, which was turned into a made-for-television movie in 1972, has as its villain a wealthy aristocrat who is either deranged or an actual werewolf. Moon of the Wolf is one of the better werewolf novels, but, despite being one of the great creatures of horror cinema, the humble wolfman cannot hang his hat on any classic akin to Dracula or even Progeny of the Adder. The only contender is Guy Endore’s Werewolf of Paris, and even then that 1933 novel leans more towards mental illness as the explanation for Bertrand Calillet’s lust for blood. Lycanthropy need not apply.  

Les Whitten the novelist only wrote one great novel, but what a novel. Progeny of the Adder is a must-read for all lovers of literary terror. Few efforts strike such a perfect balance between the prosaic and outré. Progeny of the Adder is street-level, blood and guts gothic that influenced countless creators. Whitten, the swashbuckling reporter and grandee of D.C. dirt, poured his genius into that pulp vampire novel. Because of that, it is a crime that Progeny of the Adder and the rest of Whitten’s opus remain out of print. If you want to find it in the flesh, then you have to hunt for Progeny of the Adder in dark, dank, and overlooked used book stores that are reminiscent of Sebastian Paulier’s lair. •