Thursday, November 7, 2013

An Early Woman of Horror: Francis Stevens

Francis Stevens, (also known as Gertrude Barrows Bennett), was an early 20th century writer of fantasy and science fiction, and one of the first well known women to publish in these genres.  She wrote at a time when the struggle for equal rights had barely begun and women had yet to obtain voting rights.  She was a contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft’s, though it is unclear to what extent she may have influenced his work.  Unlike Lovecraft and other writers of pulp fiction, she wrote to help support her family, who depended on her income from publication.  She was a single parent who looked after her invalid mother and her young daughter. 

In his introduction to a collection of her short stories, Gary Hoppenstand remarks that, had it not been for her success, “there would have been no A. Merritt or H.P. Lovecraft.”  He bases this on the fact that the latter two authors read and published in the same magazines that Stevens did and may have publicly expressed their admiration of her work.  Hoppenstand credits Steven with the invention of dark fantasy. Despite her very evident talent, this may be a bit of a stretch.

S.T. Joshi tries to set the record straight regarding any relationship or connection between Lovecraft and Stevens in his two volume biography I Am Providence (2013).  Joshi comments that letters supposedly written by Lovecraft and offering his praise (under a pseudonym) for both Francis Stevens and A. Merrit now appear to be spurious.  Moreover, there is apparently little evidence so far that Lovecraft read works by Stevens or had a strong feeling about them one way or the other. 

There seems to be an unfortunate tendency lately to attempt to link the Lovecraft name to less well known writers of the period when their work is re-issued—a kind of branding or “weird fiction seal of approval”.  But the work of these writers can stand alone—even favorably aside of Lovecraft’s—and deserve rediscovery and enjoyment by new readers.  Francis Stevens is certainly one of these.

In a biographical note, Sam Moskowitz describes how Francis Stevens, after marrying in 1909, became a single parent when her husband was lost at sea during a treasure –hunting expedition.  She worked as a secretary at the University of Pennsylvania to support her infant daughter, but eventually took on the care of her invalid mother when her father passed away.  Her first story was published when she was just 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.  Around this time she began sell her fiction to some of the Munsey publications, (All-Story Weekly, People’s Favorite Magazine).  When her mother died, perhaps in 1920, she returned to secretarial work, but no longer wrote.  Little is known about the end of her life.

Two of Francis Stevens’ other stories were discussed earlier in August (“Don’t Look Now, But…”) and October (“An Ancient Marineress”) of this year.  Another story of hers well worth reading is Behind the Curtain, originally published in the All-Story Weekly in September of 1918.

The narrator, Santallos, is a very wealthy old man whose specialty is the collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts.  His home is like an archaeological museum, and he is especially fond of his “Beni Hassan Sarcophagus” which contains the mummified remains of the Princess of Naam.  Santallos may be feeling his age among the dusty, dry collection, and is especially disparaging of a young man named Quentin who has come to visit him—but who is more likely in the house to visit his wife.  The thoughts and observations of the old man make it clear that what is in view here is a classic romantic triangle:  wealthy old husband, young restless wife, and virile young man.

The two men make small talk while a chilly draft moves a curtain that conceals the entrance to the bedroom.  Beatrice—the wife that was “too beautiful for safety” is disturbingly absent.  Santallos offers the young man a glass of Amontillado, and the reference to the Poe story drops the temperature even a few more degrees.  What is behind that curtain that keeps moving in the breeze?

The story has a surprise ending that cannot be revealed here, but the twist at the end reveals a common thread in nearly all of Francis Stevens’ stories:  compassion for her characters and a deep understanding of the human condition.  Stevens sees evil as a creation of human minds, even poisoned human minds.  The form it takes is unique to each individual, but is not necessarily inherent in all people nor victorious in the end.  Compared with other horror writers, Stevens’ prognosis for humankind is much more hopeful and humane.

Behind the Curtain is in The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (2004), an excellent collection of Stevens’ short stories and longer fiction edited by Gary Hoppenstand.  (Published by University of Nebraska Press.)  

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