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Claimed by Francis Stevens

Claimed is a fantasy novel with elements of horror. It opens with a ship discovering a volcanic island recently thrust up from the ocean and bearing what appears to be ruins of an ancient city. One of the crew finds a green oblong box and takes it with him. We next see him sell the object to a dealer in ancient artifacts in San Francisco. We switch once more in this fitful beginning to an old millionaire who has acquired the object and has some kind of seizure in the middle of the night. A young doctor is called in to tend to him, and an element of romance is introduced into the mystery when he immediately falls for the old man's beautiful silver-haired niece. The old man hires the doctor as a kind of guard, and bizarre events begin to unfold as the doctor gradually becomes aware that there's something unnatural about that oblong box.

argosy_19200306.jpgThis novel isn't quite as compelling as Stevens' Citadel of Fear or The Heads of Cerberus, but it still has a number of things to recommend it. Chief amongst these is the eerie, foreboding atmosphere she's able to conjure at times and the full bore explosion of fantastic imagery in the finale, which many people have pointed out bears some resemblance to H.P. Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu," published six years later. The other strength is the character of the old man, who is a successful capitalist who is notable for his fierce possessiveness -- which is depicted as a source of both strength and weakness and really gives the story its shape, leaving the protagonist doctor seeming a bit secondary despite his acts of heroism.

If Stevens has a failing as a writer, it's a lack of so-called narrative drive. All of her longer works suffer from too many scenes in which the characters sit around interpreting what has just happened, rather than doing something. Claimed suffers from this narrative passivity more than her best stories, and the insipid romance that she often manages to keep in the background is too much in the forefront in this one. Or maybe it's just that the doctor is such an uninteresting characters compared to the brash Irishmen of Citadel and Cerberus. The niece is practically a non-entity, so she also pales in comparison to the female protagonists of those two books.

This is not the kind of lost world adventure that was something of a specialty of Stevens', but more of a metaphysical fantasy along the lines of her novel Possessed: A Tale of the Demon Serapion, which was also serialized in 1920. On that front the novel succeeds in creating an otherworldly feeling, particularly in the climax, but also in a fine scene involving the doctor's aunt, who arrives on the scene as a blithe spiritualist whom he shamefacedly (as a man of science) asks for help. Indeed, it's really only the doctor and niece who are weak characters, since many of the secondary characters come off better. Stevens' descriptive powers as just as strong as always, and here she does a good job of characterizing the sea, which has a central role in the story. She also does a good job of evoking the foggy atmosphere of San Francisco, which makes me a little curious whether she had visited before she moved there after she stopped writing. Well, she could just as easily have picked it up from reading other adventure stories.

I believe I've now read everything that Stevens published except her first short story, which came out when she was 17, and the novel Avalon, which has never been reprinted perhaps because it has no elements of fantasy and is thus of little interest to the readers who have kept her name alive. She only wrote for a short period, so her body of work is not large. I'm still not sure what to make of the claims that she was influential on the developing genres of dark fantasy and science fiction, because I simply haven't read widely enough in that era to have much sense of what was common and what was new, but she is certainly a writer worth paying attention to. She's not doing too badly for a forgotten writer, since she's had a pretty good history of being reprinted. I highly recommend her to anyone interested in the pulp era of the fantastic.

[Magazine cover scan from isfdb.org.]

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