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Two novels by Francis Stevens

After reading The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy, I was left with the impression that Francis Stevens (pen name for Gertrude Barrows Bennett) was a kind of outsider artist who used genre tropes in eccentric ways, perhaps due to her inexperience as a writer, and wasn't always in complete control of her material. Now having read the two novels she is perhaps most famous for, I've revised my impression. Theses are both supremely accomplished pulp novels in which she exhibits full control of the tropes and material. If they are somewhat eccentric, it's in the way that she blends genres, although it's important to bear in mind that she was writing at a time (her stories were published between 1917 and 1923) when the pulp magazines were only on the verge of specializing into specific genres of the fantastic such as horror and science fiction. But in terms of the skills of the writer, these novels seem superior to me than anything written by Homer Eon Flint, for example. Her imagination is similarly outrageous, too, although it runs more toward the occult and the weird than Flint's did.

Stevens Citadel of Fear Argosy.jpgCitadel of Fear was serialized in The Argosy magazine in September and October 1917. (I read the 1984 paperback from Caroll & Graf.) It's a remarkable novel that starts out as a lost world story set in Mexico. Two American gold miners -- one a big bull of an Irishman, who is the protagonist, and the other a clever sneak, who is the antagonist -- are lost in the Mexican desert when they stumble upon a mysterious hacienda. Soon they are taken to an underground city inhabited by pre-Toltec giants. A conflict amongst this strange race results in our hero being expelled from the hidden city. The action then moves forward fifteen years, when our hero visits his sister in the suburbs of a large city in the Eastern US. Soon the household is under attack from bizarre and mysterious creatures, and the main suspect is a sinister man who lives in a walled compound and claims to be breeding livestock. What he's really up to is much more outlandish than that, of course, and the novel climaxes in a supernatural conflict.

Citadel of Fear is very conventional in many ways, with a manly man as the hero and an early form of the manic pixie dream girl as his love interest. The lost world section of the story is fascinating for the way it creates its exotic pre-Columbian fantasy world, in which ancient Mexican gods vie for power. The action bogs down a bit in the middle part of book, as perhaps too much futile coming-and-going and vague bumpings in the night and comical-skeptical detectives prolong the slow reveal of what then becomes a wonderfully grotesque premise leading to the finale. As others have commented, if the early parts bear the imprint of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, there's more than a little bit of H.G. Wells' Island of Dr Moreau in the latter part of the book, although this is more science fantasy than science fiction when push comes to shove. It's here that Stevens' grotesque imagination is set free, and there is a nightmare quality to the climax that still carries quite a charge. It's also fascinating how Stevens retains a conflicted, mixed perspective of skepticism, Christianity, and paganism in the denouement, with a slight emphasis on the latter that seems a hallmark of the fantasy genre.

The Heads of Cerberus was serialized in The Thrill Book magazine in August through October 1919. (I read the 1952 hardback collectors edition from Polaris Press.) The Thrill Book was a short-lived attempt to publish a magazine specializing in the fantastic, and Stevens apparently sold them other stories that were lost when the magazine quickly folded. This novel begins in contemporary Philadelphia when another big bull of an Irish-American finds his friend blacked out from a blow to the head in an upstairs bedroom. Soon we learn about an ancient crystal vial with a Cerberus-headed stopper and supposedly containing dust of magical properties. When the dust is poured out, the two men and the Irishman's sister (where have we seen that before?) are transported first to a weird twilight fantasyland and then to a dystopian Philadelphia of two centuries in the future. Satirical and yet cracking adventures ensue, with a wonderfully unsettled resolution in which the transformative dust disappears with a gentleman of uncertain intentions.

Stevens Head of Cerberus Thrill Book.jpgThe Heads of Cerberus is touted as possibly the first alternate world story. What's interesting to me about that aspect of the story is that the alternate Philadelphia ends up being specifically a kind of imaginary world even within the story itself. It isn't so much a parallel world as one that is conjured up by the imaginations of the protagonists, and thus it becomes a kind of metaphor for science fiction itself: a work of the imagination. I also found it interesting that the rationalization for how this other world was created/reached was very reminiscent of the rationalization for the parallel world in The Blind Spot by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint, which was serialized in Argosy All-Story in 1921. Hall is usually credited for the occult aspects of that hybrid novel, and it must be said that Stevens handles the occult aspects of her novel much more competently than Hall does. Still, both novels have occult and science fictional aspects, and I'm not enough of a scholar of the era to surmise whether it's a matter of influence or of common practice in the pulps in those days.

A lot of claims are made for Stevens' influence on the developing genres of the fantastic. It appears that the admiring quote about Citadel of Fear that's still widely attributed to H.P. Lovecraft was not in fact written by him. It was written by someone named August T. Swift, which was long wrongly thought to be a pseudonym of Lovecraft's. I haven't seen any indication that Lovecraft commented on Stevens at all, although people see signs of influence, and I can see why. As for the claim that A. Merritt admired her work, there is no direct evidence that I've seen. Apparently for many years people thought Stevens was a pseudonym of Merritt's, and this was only debunked in the '50s. Again, you can see the similarities in the works of Stevens and Merrit, but is that a sign of influence? Whatever the case, Stevens remained a name to be conjured with amongst the cognoscenti of the fantasy pulps, and the fact that her work has been reprinted over the years attests to a continuing admiration, even if this has never led to fame.

One of the best articles I've found about her is Andrew Liptak's Kirkus Review piece, "The Influential Pulp Career of Frances Stevens". Here I learned that Gertrude Barrows published her first story in 1904 at the age of 17, thus establishing that she was interested in writing at an early age. (Other pieces I've read indicated that she was more interested in drawing early on.) Another interesting tidbit is that when she picked up the pen again in 1917, the pen name she wanted to use was Jean Veil, but Munsey magazine editor Bob Davis stuck her with Francis Stevens for some reason. Maybe he thought "Veil" was too obvious, but I like its artificiality.

Both of these novels are available in etexts, but I've read that a lot of the e-versions of Citadel of Fear don't include the whole novel, so be sure to dig a bit before you download one. Last time I checked, neither novel was available at the Gutenberg Project, and I think I only found one work by Stevens there. Another sign, perhaps, that she is arill undervalued. Whether she was influential or not, her stories and novels strike me as more than worthy to be included in the roster of forgotten writers mentioned in the jacket copy of Polaris Press: "Some of these old masters of fantasy -- and there are many others -- were A. Merritt, Murray Leinster, Homer Eon Flint, Ray Cummings, Garrett P. Serviss, J.U. Giesy and Francis Stevens." For me she joins Serviss and Flint as previously unknown writers of early science fiction who are worth exploring in depth.

[NOTE: The scans of the magazine covers were taken from isfdb.org.]


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 4th, 2015 02:18 am (UTC)
Interesting. I'd heard of Stevens and read some of her short stories, but not her novels. btw, according to the cover scan it's The Heads of Cerberus. Not "Cerebus" which so far as I know is only the name of Dave Sim's aardvark.
Sep. 4th, 2015 02:26 am (UTC)
Of course it is! Cerebus only had one head. Fixed.

I thought that you were the one who at one point was asked to look for Gertrude Barrows Bennett's grave in San Francisco.
Sep. 4th, 2015 04:20 am (UTC)
I didn't look for her grave. But Doug Anderson did have me rummage around old city directories for her.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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