Modern Library has created a new curated series called Torchbearers, of books written by "women who wrote on their own terms, with boldness, creativity, and a spirit of resistance." I'll be reviewing a few of these, starting with this one, a dystopian science fiction novel written by Gertrude Barrows Bennett in 1919 and originally published in 'The Thrill Book' magazine.
The worst thing about this welcome new edition is the introduction by Naomi Alderman. Sure, it's incisive, well-written and thought-provoking, but it tells us precisely nothing about Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who, after all, is the point of this reprint. Only a brief note on the back cover highlights that she was "the first major female writer of science fiction and fantasy in the United States, and has been credited as the inventor of the subgenre of dark fantasy."
'The Heads of Cerberus' is very much a product of its time, not just in its use of language which, contrary to modern standards, is happy to employ eloquent sentences and good grammar, but in the subject matter. Alderman ably points out that much of the dystopia is a commentary on the faceless masses who died for their countries in World War I, here depicted as the populace of an oppressed 2118 Philadelphia who are known by numbers rather than names.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The book begins in 1918, still in Philly, in haunting manner. A man wakes up in a strange room, having been bludgeoned into unconsciousness. He sees an open safe, rustles through the papers and, finding something unexpected, hurls it from him in horror. He hears noises, suggesting that he's not alone, so flees through the house, eventually secreting himself in a downstairs room where the hand of a looming giant arrests him.
It's glorious stuff and it hooked me immediately. What we come to find out is that this man is Robert Drayton and what horrified him so in the safe was a gift that he himself had given, bringing home the fact that he had broken into a friend's house. He's stuck between thankfulness that he didn't rob him (even if someone else did) and guilt that he tried, even if he fell to crime after being framed and disbarred as a lawyer.
Wonderfully, the friend, a huge Irishman named Terry Trenmore, forgives him immediately and thanks the fates for bringing him here. The two of them move forward into the grand adventure that is to come, along with Terry's young and beautiful sister, Viola.
You see, the burglar who knocked Drayton senseless was searching for a curio that Terry had recently won in auction, a glass vial whose stopper is a carved representation of the three heads of Cerberus. Supposedly it contains dust from the gates of Purgatory, collected there by the poet Dante during the creation of his epic. You won't be surprised to find that this is mere mythology but the vial does contain something wilder and more fantastic: a mysterious powder that, when our protagonists ingest it by merely breathing, transports them to an otherworldly plane known as Ulithia.
They're not in Ulithia long but the few pages spent there constitute a wild and wonderful feat of imagination, the sort of thing for which Bennett was known and which I plan to promptly explore further through the other books of hers which I own, 'The Citadel of Fear' and 'Claimed'. It's hallucinatory stuff, never explained but gloriously imagined. No wonder our heroes find themselves rather in shock when they walk through half a moon framed by a Moorish archway into a strange city, one which seems to be the Philadelphia they know but really isn't because it's two hundred years into their future.
Of course, they promptly get into trouble through ignorance of law and are whisked into conflict with those who run this future Philly, representatives of Penn Service, who maintain their grip on the city through rigged games of hope. That each of these leaders is named for a cardinal virtue merely adds to the weird make-up of the city and its balance of control.
While war is outlawed in this city which, like others, has closed borders on the rest of the United States and exists in a strange aspect of deliberate stasis, these leaders are clearly representations of our own politicians and military men who used our people as pawns in the great war that they fought, each of them known by their number rather than their name. This is dystopia, certainly, but it's social commentary rather than fanciful extrapolation.
A number of factors leapt out at me.
Our heroes are not necessarily heroic, Drayton being a thief, by fact if not intention, and Terry Trenmore being a stereotypical Irishman, full of honour and anger and ever ready to join a fight, whatever it might be about. Viola is the conscience of the group, in addition to other roles that spring out of her being beautiful and young. That she was created by a woman says much about the expectations of the time, both in how she was written and how she clearly didn't want to be written.
This future Philadelphia looks uncannily like the present (our past), which we quickly see as a problem until it's explained. I'm not entirely sold on the explanation but it works and helps to construct the dystopia. One catch here is that, while everything is maintained without change for deliberate reason, the future characters' understanding of history has been blurred by time and is notably flawed. There's certainly convenience here for a point.
And there are a few other plot conveniences too, the most obvious being the way that Bob Drayton breaks into his friend's house by accident. That one I have no trouble looking past but another, later in the book, is far harder to forgive.
I enjoyed this immensely. While Bennett was a pulp author, working primarily for the Munsey magazines, 'All-Story Weekly' and 'The Argosy', her writing is original and evocative and still holds a power a century on. In a worthy introduction to the Paperback Library edition of 'The Citadel of Fear', Sam Moscowitz describes her as "the most gifted woman writer of science fiction and science-fantasy in the period between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C. L. Moore."
That's a lofty position but one that this novel doesn't discourage. It's an interesting book and a very original one, given that some of the techniques in play were being introduced within its pages. However, it mostly looks to the past and reminds of the works of H. G. Wells and other writers of the Victorian era. I plan on following up with some of her other work, starting with the weird fantasy known as 'Claimed', a major influence on both H. P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt.
Francis Stevens deserves to be better known and more widely read, though I do see that she's being reprinted quite a lot at present, with most of her short fiction in print from the University of Nebraska Press and her novels being reprinted by publishers including Dover and other small presses. She's certainly a perfect inclusion in this Torchbearers series because she wrote what she wanted to write, even doing so as a single mother during the teens and twenties of the last century. You owe it to yourself to check her out! ~~ Hal C F Astell