Sunday, October 13, 2013

An Ancient Marineress

There is some evidence that women lived and wrote in the United States of America as early as the1890s. Yet women are almost completely absent from horror, fantasy and science fiction published in the early decades of the 20th century.  Two names come to mind from this period:  C.L. Moore and Francis Stevens.  Catherine Lucille Moore began publishing her short fiction in various pulp magazines in the mid 1930s, among them Weird Tales.  She later collaborated with Henry Kuttner on numerous stories.  She passed away in 1987.

Francis Stevens precedes Moore by a decade or more, and her work often appeared in various ‘Munsey magazines’, early versions of the pulp fiction magazines that became popular in the 20s and 30s.  (Stevens’ actual name was Gertrude Bennett.)   Her first story was published when she was 17 years old, appearing in Argosy in 1904.  After a hiatus during which she cared for her ailing mother, she returned to fiction writing in 1917.  Her story Unseen, Unheard (1919) was discussed in an earlier post last August, (“Don’t Look Now, But…”) 

Stevens was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft’s, and also one of the first well known women in the genre of fantasy and science fiction.  She wrote at a time when the struggle for equal rights had barely begun and women had yet to obtain voting rights.  Her story Friend Island (1918) is remarkable for its depiction of a future society ruled by women.  Here men are the ‘weaker sex’, and must endure all of the chauvinism that women have suffered historically.  But Stevens approaches this theme humorously and affectionately—Friend Island is more parody than serious social commentary.

The story is basically light fantasy, but contains a few darker elements.  The narrator is a ‘lad’ who encounters an old retired sea captain in “one of the shabby little tea shops frequented by able sailoresses of the poorer type.”  He plies her with an abundance of tea and macaroons, and she tells him the story of her disastrous voyage on board the Shouter.  She was a crewmember on this old fashioned cargo ship, which still sailed under the power of oil and gasoline. 

Stevens has some satirical fun with this.  “We cleared from Frisco with a cargo of silkateen petticoats for Brisbane”, she has the old captain begin.  (Compare this to one of William Hope Hodgson’s ‘Sargasso Sea’ stories—he was one of Stevens’ contemporaries across the Atlantic.)  While on deck searching for a favorite gold hairpin that she has dropped, the ship’s engine explodes, tossing her into the water along with “a new, patent, hermetic, thermo-ice-chest” which she clings to.  She is the only survivor.

She arrives at a tropical island with a gentle white sand beach, ample coconuts and turtle eggs to eat, a comfortable cave to sleep in, and an inactive volcano.  With her material needs satisfied, the castaway’s main struggle is with loneliness and her fading hopes of rescue.  However, the previous occupant of the island, a man named Nelson Smith, has left a sign nailed to a palm tree, warning future visitors that “This island ain’t just right.”  The island appears to anticipate the needs of its inhabitants, and reflects their moods.  A friendship grows between the stranded ‘saileress’ and the gentle island.  She names the island ‘Anita’. 

But one day, the castaway sees a small floating island approaching her own .  On the island is another castaway, a man.  It is Nelson Smith, the ‘aeronauter’ who had earlier crash landed on ‘Anita’.  Everything changes at this point, and the story becomes less of a parody or social comment and more of a doomed romance.  Back in the ‘shabby little tea shop’, the now ancient sea captain finishes her tale, and the narrator wonders:  “In what field is not woman our subtle superior?”   But in the end, he still picks up the expensive tab—some things never change.

Stories by Francis Stevens show up infrequently in anthologies of early twentieth century horror and science fiction—they are often hard to find.  This is too bad, because she was a talented writer with a unique voice, especially for the time period in which she wrote.  What is especially appealing is her sense of humor and affection for her characters.  Underlying her fiction is a compassionate and optimistic humanism.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your interest in The R'lyeh Tribune! Comments and suggestions are always welcome.