Having been introduced to Francis Stevens through the Modern Library edition of ‘The Heads of Cerberus’, I was eager to read more. Fortunately, it turned out that I had a couple of her other key novels on my shelves already, so I could dive right in.
While her debut novel, ‘The Citadel of Fear’, from 1918, is likely to be her best remembered work, mostly because it was reprinted by Paperback Library in 1970 during the first nostalgia boom for pulp era weird fantasy, ‘Claimed’ has positioned itself as an overlooked and underrated gem, not just from her but from the whole of the pulp era. I was eager to check it out.
And it is a glorious short novel of pulp weirdness, with the clear touch of a female author. Why so many believed that Francis Stevens must have been a pseudonym for A. (for Abraham) Merritt, I have no idea, other than he was well known and she wasn't and the time was right. ‘Claimed’ was originally published in Argosy as a three-part serial in March 1920, during Merritt's heyday.
There's honour and bravery. There's a clear romance. There's a capable young lady and a stubborn old man. There's the tide entering a second floor room, washing in and rearing up in attack. And there's a weird box at the heart of everything. Yes, this has all the component parts to be a memorable read and that it is. It's precisely why I often wonder how it would have felt to be a reader back in the glory days, picking up all the new pulps for a dime each and devouring them as the stories were first published. What a time!
The MacGuffin of a box is the key, of course. It's small and green, created from apparently indestructible stone, and inscribed in blood red enamel. It would be mysterious just in itself, but it also has a weird habit of turning itself, unseen, so that the inscription is always on the bottom. Nobody's sure what it is, but we, the readers, know that it found its way to civilisation from a temporary island thrust up from the seafloor during an earthquake and unwisely taken by a passing sailor, so prompting this entire story.
It ends up in the hands of a millionaire in New Jersey by the name of Jesse J. Robinson, who knows full well that it's threatening him but is too damn stubborn to let it win. "I aim to keep the box," he reiterates frequently, "'cause I bought it and it's mine." So that's that! What it means, just in case you hadn't figured it out, is the time-honoured irresistible force and the immovable object. Something, inevitably, has to give.
While Robinson is the character with the box, he's not really the lead, just the reason why this novel isn't a ten-page story. He has a niece, Leilah, an attractive and vibrant young lady whom he never fails to put down, though he loves her dearly. Circumstances lead Dr. John Vanaman, a young physician, to Robinson's house and he promptly moves in, enlisted by the millionaire as a sort of bodyguard against evil, because he proves himself on his first visit as a brave and honourable man, even though he never fails to put him down as well.
No guesses as to where the romantic angle will arise, but that's really not where Stevens's greatest talents lay. As in ‘The Heads of Cerberus’, the best writing here is reserved for the weirdest scenes. I'm not sure what it says about an author when her flights of outright fancy are written with a higher level of effectiveness than her everyday passages, but that's Stevens.
She's fair at exploring the strange relationship between Robinson, his niece and the doctor who has clearly fallen for her. But she's utterly glorious as an explorer of the weirdness that binds them together, packed full of what Lovecraft would describe as too much for the human mind to comprehend. It surely threatens her characters' sanity and others commit suicide because of what they encounter on the fringes.
I won't spoil it, but she conjures up magnificent imagery. That green ghost of a tide threatening its enemies in a place it has no business being. That blood red enamel inscription. The ten scarlet cities lost beneath the ocean in darkest antiquity. White horses charging headlong into the sea, throats slit and bleeding. The imagery here is second to none and what it adds up to is immense and unfathomable.
It's easy to play the influence game. Stevens was massively important as an author, but even more so as a female author. Sam Moskowitz described her as "the "greatest woman writer of science fiction in the period between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C. L. Moore". He's probably not wrong. But, given that most people didn't realise that Francis Stevens was female, the penname of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, her influence is debatable.
Her likeliest shot at real influence is as the creator of the genre of dark fantasy, a title that a number of people have suggested belongs to her. I'm not convinced, given that she was clearly writing in a world already forming under the pens of authors like Robert W. Chambers, William Hope Hodgson and H. Rider Haggard, but there's a lot of merit to the suggestion.
All I know is that I found this a wilder romp than ‘The Heads of Cerberus’ and a more enjoyable read, playing more to her strengths as a chronicler of the outré. I have a copy of ‘The Citadel of Fear’, a lost world novel set in an Aztec city forgotten until the First World War, and I'm eager to devour it. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For other titles by Francis Stevens click here