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stevens nightmare.jpgI previously wrote about the first story in this collection, "The Nightmare," in February 2010, and it has taken me this long to get back to the rest of the stories. As I noted then, Francis Stevens was the pen name for Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who wrote a variety of fantasy stories for mostly the Munsey magazines from 1917 to 1923. Her work was admired by A. Merritt and H.P. Lovecraft, and several of her novels have been reprinted over the years. The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2004, and it appears to contain all of her short fiction, although "The Labyrinth" has apparently been published as a stand-alone novel in its own right.

Gary Hoppenstand, in his introduction to this edition, argues that Stevens was not only an influence on Merritt and Lovecraft but one of the inventors of the dark fantasy subgenre, which might be described as a merger of fantasy and horror. That may be the case, but these stories aren't all dark fantasies. Even the ones that are seem to come at it from an odd angle. For example, "The Labyrinth" starts out as a mystery about the disappearance of a young woman, who is the cousin of the narrator and the love interest of two other men. As in "The Nightmare," the protagonist is not a very heroic figure and basically bumbles his way into the titular labyrinth in the company of his cousin and her suitors. The labyrinth is full of strange devices and inexplicable designs which menace the lives of this variably intrepid crew, but ultimately it becomes merely a backdrop to the real matter of the story, which is the choice the young woman has to make between the two suitors. So instead of a metaphor for the mysteries of life and death, the labyrinth becomes a metaphor for the mystery of love. The story is most effective as an exploration of the challenges and convolutions of choosing a good partner, and it keeps you guessing until the end on that score.

"The Elf Trap" is likewise a romantic story with supernatural elements. "Friend Island" is the real oddball in the collection, set in a feminist future in which women are the dominant gender and one aviator-adventuress nearly finds paradise on a strange tropical island before a man spoils all the fun. It's really a remarkable story. "Sunfire" is more like "The Nightmare": a lost world adventure story set in a South American milieu, but while there's a monster in this one what's unusual about the approach is how much it plays like a comedy of errors, with once again a band of "heroes" who basically come across as a bunch of bumbling, egotistical, selfish idiots.

That said, a number of these stories do play the horror aspects fairly straight. "Behind the Curtain" is a revenge story that is very upfront about its debt to Poe, specifically "The Cask of Amontillado". "Unseen-Unfeared" is a macabre story about grotesque monsters invisible to the human eye. "Serapion" is another long story that is perhaps the most effective dark fantasy of the lot. The protagonist gets involved in a paranormal experiment that seems to summon a spirit of the dead that desires to possess him. I wondered in my review of Brackett and Bradbury's "Lorelei of the Red Mist" whether Brackett had borrowed the trope of the protagonist with a divided/conflicted consciousness from Merritt, and here we find it in Stevens, as the haunting spirit attempts to merge itself with the protagonist. This leads to a remarkable duel of wills that reaches a very strange and conflicted conclusion.

When I read "The Nightmare" five years ago I wasn't sure whether Stevens was in control of her material. Now I would say that her writing reflected a lack of experience and was almost a kind of outsider art. She had a vivid imagination, and there's something eccentric about the way she expresses it. I found the eccentricity compelling even when the stories were a bit clumsy or unfocused. Her approach comes across as unique, even in a standard form like the lost world adventure. If nothing else, her approach feels fresh because it doesn't use the standard heroic, alpha male tropes so beloved of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imitators. That said, the casual racism in her work seems all too standard and familiar, even though it does seem casual rather than ideological. Less loathsome than that in, for example, George Allan England's Darkness and Dawn trilogy. And indeed, while I didn't find the stories in this collection quite up to the level of Merritt's The Moon Pool, I did find them superior to England for all that he's a more polished writer. I was inspired enough by Stevens' oddball imagination that I ordered a copy of her novel, Citadel of Fear. Sounds like one of Kuttner and Moore's science fantasies, doesn't it?


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 3rd, 2015 02:35 am (UTC)
Thank you! I want to read these!
Aug. 3rd, 2015 02:41 pm (UTC)
I'm completely fascinated by her writing career. She wrote for a few years while she was taking care of her sick mother, and then she stopped. I'm not sure whether she was interested in writing when she was growing up, or if it was just something she tried her hand at a moment when she couldn't hold down a regular job.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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