Francis Stevens has the distinction of being one of the first well known women to publish in the genres of horror, fantasy and science fiction. She wrote at a time—very early 20th century—when the struggle for equal rights had barely begun and women were yet to obtain voting rights. A contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft and other authors 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 young daughter.
In my view, she is a superior writer compared to the work of her peers at the time, and deserves to be better known. Her characterization, subtle attention to detail, and use of dialogue reveal compassion for her characters and a deep understanding of the human condition and human relationships. What is also striking, given the prevailing attitudes of her day, is her nuanced and respectful perception of racial and ethnic minorities.
The Elf Trap displays all of these attributes of Stevens’ writing. The story appeared in Argosy in July of 1919. The piece is a complex, story-within-a-story that also involves shifts in reality and perception on the part of its principle narrator. It bears re-reading to appreciate the author’s subtlety. Stevens deftly combines elements of a ghost story, fairy tale, romance, horror and even popular psychology to depict an old man’s profoundly shifting perceptions about life.
Theron Tademus is a renowned microbiologist whose principle enthusiasm is the minute study of tiny species of infusoria. He is the type of person whose intense focus prevents him from seeing the forest for the trees. He is encouraged by friends and his doctor to rest and recoup in a mountain cabin not far from Asheville, North Carolina. But the scientist mysteriously vanishes for a week while in the mountains, and then just as abruptly reappears. He seems unable to recall the details of what occurred during the week he was missing. He resumes teaching his classes at the university, but then suddenly dies as he is about to begin lecturing a class.
His young assistant has Theron Tademus’ red book, which may contain an explanation of the professor’s fate. The rest of the story is told in a series of journal entries that the late scientist wrote while on his vacation. Stevens carefully sketches the geography of the setting, which includes an artist community named “Carcassonne” and a camp of ragtag gypsies, not far from the cabin where the professor is staying. After he meets a mysterious woman, his values and perceptions begin to shift, and the boundaries between the two small mountain communities become inextricably mixed with his own life.
Tademus becomes disoriented one night and mistakes one road for another, arriving at a version of one of the communities—but which one? His expectations and preconceptions are challenged and changed; he soon identifies with his welcoming hosts, so much so that he comes to despise his own kind. But it is clear, from the rules of this fantasized encampment, that any escape will be temporary.
It is also clear at the end of the story that the professor’s young assistant, who has carefully studied the red book and who was with the professor the moment he died, may also be drawn to the same location and experience the same fate. In view is the notion that there are other, perhaps better realities, just beyond social and cultural boundaries, as well as opportunities to experience them.
Francis Stevens is an important early author of horror, science fiction and fantasy tales. Her work has been discussed here in several earlier posts, to which the interested reader is referred below: