Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-Friend Island

Nineteen eighteen was a good year for Gertrude Barrows Bennett. Writing as Francis Stevens, she earned $1,330 for four stories published in All-Story Weekly and The Argosy. "The Labyrinth," from July and August, is novella-length. "The Citadel of Fear," from September and October, is longer still. "Friend Island" and "Behind the Curtain," both published in September, are very short by comparison. (1) In The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (2004), "Friend Island" runs to eleven pages, "Behind the Curtain" to just eight. You might call "Friend Island" a tale rather than a short story, but if you read it as a simple tale, you will miss more than a little of its meaning and context.

The subtitle of "Friend Island"--"Being the Veracious Tale of an Ancient Mariness, Heard and Reported in the Year A.D. 2100"--tells the reader exactly what she is about to encounter, namely, Gertrude Barrows Bennett's first out-and-out fantasy. The story hints at a futuristic society in which women rule and men are subservient. At first glance, that seems to an unnecessary detail or distraction in a story so short. Its purpose becomes clearer as the Ancient Mariness recounts an experience from her youth.

Time was when men had more power. That was before, when the old sea-woman was young and first shipwrecked on a Pacific Island. In her lifetime, in the many decades since, women have gained in power, while men have slipped into subservience. How that came to be is not explained in "Friend Island," but the transition is apparently complete and irreversible. The implication is that women have rebelled against patriarchy--but they may have had some help. The Ancient Mariness learned something about men while on an island she named--significantly--"Anita." "A man is just full of mannishness," she says, "and the best of 'em ain't good enough for a lady to sacrifice her sensibilities to put up with." (p. 203) She learned that lesson in her acquaintance with Nelson Smith, a fellow castaway, who, besides Anita, is the only named character in the story.

"Friend Island" is an apt title, and Anita--meaning full of grace or mercy or kindness--is an apt name, for the island is indeed a friend to the girl castaway:
When I was gay [she remembered], it [the island] was bright and cheerful. It was glad when I come [to the island], and it treated me right until I got that grouchy it had to mope from sympathy. It loved me like a friend. (p. 199)
That's not merely a fantasy or a delusion or an expression of loneliness. The island--Anita--is indeed alive. She is also a true friend to the girl castaway, and by extension to women everywhere, being as she is, "a lady," but one who "knowed how to behave when she was insulted." (p. 102) Nelson Smith does the insulting, and for that, Anita literally blows up. And maybe that's how women came to rule the earth. Maybe the earth herself rebelled against the rule of men. 

* * *

"Friend Island" was not only Gertrude Barrows Bennett's first full-fledged fantasy, it was also her first story with a female protagonist and her first from a decidedly feminist viewpoint. If there is any doubt of that, consider this quote from near the end of the story, written by the unnamed male narrator:

"In what field is not woman our subtle superior?" (p. 203)

"Friend Island" was preceded by "Herland," a utopian romance/Lost Worlds story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and published in the magazine The Forerunner in December 1915. Whether Gertrude Barrows Bennett read The Forerunner is probably irrelevant, for this was the era of women's rights. She would have been only one of many thousands of American feminists. The war had helped bring that on as women got out of the house and into the workplace to do jobs ordinarily done by men. As an example of how times were changing, on December 16, 1918, Somebody's Stenog by A.E. Hayward made its debut as a regular daily comic strip. The title character was--like Gertrude Barrows Bennett--a stenographer and one of the first independent women in the comics. She started a trend--they were called "girl strips"--that lasted into the 1930s and '40s. As another example, the Nineteenth Amendment, extending the franchise to women, was ratified on August 18, 1920, just two years after "Friend Island" was published. Francis Stevens was not the first feminist science fiction author, but she was at least a pioneer.

* * *

So is "Friend Island" in the category of dark fantasy? In Goldfinger by Ian Fleming (1959), the title character has this to say:

"Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, it's enemy action."

If I can modify that, I would say that three times makes a continuing theme. "Friend Island," with "The Nightmare" and "The Labyrinth," establishes a theme in the stories of Francis Stevens. The theme is of a physical place that takes on a personality. Joker Island, from "The Nightmare," is well named, for it seems to mock and toy with its human inhabitants. In the end, however, the island is conquered. The labyrinth, from the story of the same name, also seems to have a personality, which turns out to be that of its deceased designer. There is some doubt that the four main characters will escape, but they do in the end, and once again, the place is defeated. "Friend Island" is another matter, for the eponymous island is alive and aware. It's also not an antagonistic force (except to the vulgar man). In the end, Anita is not defeated, even if she does blow her stack.

A physical place with a personality, a place with its own hidden, sometimes perverse, often inscrutable, or even more often malevolent ways--is that dark fantasy? Here is the two-part definition again:

"Dark fantasy . . . is a a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened with destruction by hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals."

"Dark fantasy is nihilistic fiction . . . ."

I would not consider "Friend Island" to meet either requirement, for it is not a horror story, nor a story in which humanity is threatened with destruction, nor is it nihilistic or very dark. As for the force in the story, I would not consider the island to be hostile, nor cosmic, and perhaps not even beyond the normal ken of mortals. It seems more likely to me that in creating her friend island, Stevens drew on the imagery of Mother Earth and Mother Nature, a sometimes wrathful force perhaps, but over all, warm, caring, nurturing, and benevolent.

* * *

Finally, another quote:
The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways; nor are the models that we frame in any way commensurate to the vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness (2) of His works, which have a depth in them greater than the well of Democritus.
The quote is from Joseph Glanville [sic]. (3) It forms the epigraph of "A Descent into the Maelström" by Edgar Allan Poe (1841). Like "Friend Island," Poe's tale is framed by an unnamed narrator who hears and records the words of a person who has come face to face with a powerful force of nature. Unlike Stevens' island Anita, the maelström is non-living. Its destructiveness is simply an expression of the vast, profound, and unsearchable ways of God in Nature.

My reason for quoting Poe's epigraph is larger than any similarities between the two stories, however strong they might be. If you substitute "cosmic forces" for the word "God" in Glanvill's quote, you might find yourself coming close to a definition of dark fantasy. The difference of course is that God created, loves, and provides for humanity, whereas dark fantasy is, in Gary Hoppenstand's words, "nihilistic fiction in its prediction (directly or indirectly) of a terrible end to our world that we inhabit in blissful ignorance." So is this the choice, between Joseph Glanvill's God in Nature and in Providence on one side, and dark fantasy's essentially hostile, indifferent, and ultimately destructive universe on the other? Maybe so, but then maybe that has always been the choice.

(1) "Friend Island" was published in the September 7, 1918, issue of All-Story Weekly.
(2) Recall the quote in "The Labyrinth": "The heaven for height, and the earth for depth, and the heart of man is unsearchable" (Proverbs 25:3).
(3) Readers of H.P. Lovecraft's stories might recognize Glanvill's name.

The living island is not a new idea. It goes back at least as far as the mythical aspidochelone of the Middle Ages. This image is from the Danish Royal Library, and though I can't be sure it's of an aspidochelone, I think I can see at least the word "aspido" in the middle of the second line below the fish.

The aspidochelone is a hostile creature. The Living Island from H.R. Pufnstuf is, like Francis Stevens' Anita, a friendly island.

Scott O'Dell's 1960 Island of the Blue Dolphins is also about a girl stranded alone on an island. Based on a true story, O'Dell's novel is one of loneliness, courage, and perseverance. I read it long ago but don't remember any particular personification of the island.

Krakoa, the Island That Walks Like a Man from Marvel Comics, is on the other end of the scale.

In high school you learn that there are four basic conflicts in literature: man against man, man against nature, man against society, and man against himself. Stories of the sea are often stories of man against nature. But does fantasy introduce a fifth conflict, of man against monster? In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus must pass between Scylla and Charybdis, two forces of nature but also seemingly two forces animated by hostility towards man. Is that dark fantasy? What about Cthulhu in his island city? There can be no doubt that if dark fantasy is real, then "The Call of Cthulhu" is it. In fact, maybe all dark fantasy is simply an iteration of the Cthulhu Mythos. In any case, was there any artist better suited to illustrate the nightmarish scene of Odysseus and the Scylla than the great eighteenth century fantasist Henry Fuseli?

"Friend Island," being a "Veracious Tale of an Ancient Mariness," is cast in the mold of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798). Like The Odyssey, both are tales of a maritime journey. Coleridge's "Rime" also has a force of nature that acts against a man, but only because that man acted against nature by shooting the albatross. The illustration is by Gustave Doré.

Another illustration by Doré from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The mariner has lashed himself to the ship in a storm . . . 

Just as Poe's mariner in "A Descent into the Maelström" lashes himself to a cask. In so doing, he escapes the whirlpool. His encounter with a vast, profound, and unsearchable Nature leaves him a changed man however. The illustration is by Fritz Eichenberg (1901-1990).

So is "Friend Island," or for that matter any of these stories dark fantasy? I can't say, but I think that Francis Stevens' story at least is not one of threats and destruction, but instead one about Mother Nature--with a feminist twist--and probably one of the first feminist science fiction stories written by an American woman. 

Original text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-The Labyrinth

Fifteen months passed between the publication of "The Nightmare" (Apr. 14, 1917) and Francis Stevens' second published story, "The Labyrinth," a three-part serial that ran from July 27 to August 10, 1918, in All-Story Magazine. (1) Reprinted in The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (2004), "The Labyrinth" is a short novel or novella and runs to 114 pages in all. The story is about one and a half times the length of "The Nightmare."

Like "The Nightmare," "The Labyrinth" is a fairly conventional story except for the startling introduction of a fantastic and terrifying setting. In "The Nightmare," that setting is the interior of Joker Island. In "The Labyrinth," it is the labyrinth itself, an impressive work of imagination on the part of the author. The story takes place in Marshall City, the fictional capital of an unnamed Midwestern state, and opens with the disappearance of Veronica Wyndham, a secretary to prominent men in business and government. (2) She is also the cousin of the narrator, Mr. Hildreth Wyndham, and the fiancée of his friend, Rex Tolliver. Together and separately, Hildreth and Rex set off on an investigation into her disappearance. That investigation leads to the country estate of Governor Clinton Charles, Veronica's former employer. There they uncover the reason for her disappearance, and with her and the governor in tow, they become lost, first in a labyrinth of hedges, then, by accident, in a far more sinister underground labyrinth of concrete and steel. The rest of the story involves their efforts to find their way out.

As I said, "The Labyrinth" is a fairly conventional story, a combination mystery/thriller, complete with a damsel in distress. There is a reference to a story by Edgar Allan Poe (3) and a mention of Sherlock Holmes. The author was obviously aware of the vein in which she was working. There is also a suggestion of the Yellow Peril or Chinatown kind of story, but that goes nowhere: the Chinese characters are peripheral and harmless. (4) Lastly, there is a recapitulation of sorts of the conte cruel, an anticipation of the weird menace story of later decades, and perhaps even an influence on the movie Labyrinth from 1986. 

"The Labyrinth" is not only longer than "The Nightmare," it's also a deeper, more complex, and more sophisticated story. It's no wonder that the author would have spent a year or more working it out. As in "The Nightmare," there's a little too much busyness, with people running here and there and being separated before being united again. "The Labyrinth" is also a more melodramatic story, and there's a good deal of stilted writing and dialogue, but then that seems to be a characteristic of Francis Stevens' writing. All of these flaws are redeemed by the author's depiction of the underground labyrinth, a place of true terror and menace.

Despite the disappearance and possible kidnapping or murder of Veronica Wyndham, the story begins in a lighthearted way. Hildreth and Rex are like two-thirds of the Rover Boys. Once in the labyrinth, they come face to face with evil, and there the tone of the story changes. With its ever-shifting walls and passageways, moreover with its menacing mottoes--all taken from the Bible--the labyrinth takes on a malignant personality of its own. The temptation is to see this inexplicable and inescapable maze as a symbol of life or of human existence. That symbolism might lead down the path towards dark fantasy. However, there isn't any evidence in the story that the labyrinth represents something about our place in the universe. Instead, it appears to be the manifestation of one man's evil and depraved mind. 

"I have been told," says Hildreth, "that there is no experience more terrible than for a sane man to find himself in the hands of a lunatic." (p. 140) It may be more terrible still to find oneself in the mind of a lunatic, for the malignant personality manifested in the maze proves to be that of the previous owner of the estate who, bent on revenge, designed it as a trap for a man who never shows his face in the course of the story. In his place, Hildreth, Veronica, Rex, and Governor Charles (5) fall into the labyrinth, and their escape is mostly by luck. It's worth noting that one of the characters refers to the "convolutions" of the labyrinth, a word that evokes images of the human brain. It's also worth noting that the spring that opens the trap is a quotation--or misquotation--carved in stone: "The heaven for height, and the earth for depth, and the heart of man is unsearchable." (p. 179) (6)

None of the characters in "The Nightmare" is evil, nor do they encounter evil. The threats in the story are cryptozoological in nature. "The Labyrinth" is another story, for its characters do encounter evil, though it's the evil of a dead man, an evil that has survived him in the labyrinth he so cleverly and diabolically designed. I think that the key word in the phrase dark fantasy is dark--dark in mood, dark in its view of humanity and of human existence. There is a certain darkness in "The Labyrinth," but only within the walls of the maze. In the end, the four main characters escape, the girl's heart is won, and at least two of the four live happily ever after. In "The Labyrinth," Francis Stevens may have been leaning towards some kind of dark fantasy, writing as she did about the unsearchable heart of man, but she wasn't there quite yet.

* * *

Once the four main characters descend into the labyrinth, they come upon mottoes adorning the walls. These are meant to torment or terrify the man who was supposed to be caught in the trap. The first motto quoted in the story is sort of a shock:

That Which Is Crooked Cannot Be Made Straight,
and That Which Is Wanting Cannot Be Numbered

The quote is from Ecclesiastes 1:15, but it's in a form similar to another cryptic couplet familiar to fans of weird fiction:

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.

So was Francis Stevens' story an influence upon H.P. Lovecraft? As the old commercial says, the world may never know.

(1) "The Labyrinth" was actually Gertrude Barrows Bennett's third published story but only the second under her pseudonym Francis Stevens.
(2) Gertrude Barrows Bennett was herself a secretary. We might as well consider the heroine she created to be an idealized version of herself.
(3) The story is "Berenice" (1835). The bloody teeth in the story remind me of the bloody teeth in The Blair Witch Project--or vice versa--but let's not dig up that old topic.
(4) Those of a politically correct bent who slaver over depictions of the "races" in old stories should not miss Francis Stevens' treatment of her Chinese characters in "The Labyrinth."
(5) Here's a quote from the story: "Governor Charles . . . considers himself above the law." (p. 126) Substitute the governor's given name--Clinton--and you have a prophecy worthy of Nostradamus.
(6) Proverbs 25:3.
A final note: Francis Stevens recognized the fanatic in "The Labyrinth." Here are her words: "His generally kindly face was set in the lines of a fanatic, who will sacrifice himself and every man on earth to the Moloch of his conscience." (p. 190) I find that to be an extraordinary insight for a mere pulp story. It was echoed in this quote from C.S. Lewis:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
Leftists like to claim that quote as their own. I think it's because of the part about "moral busybodies." The truth is that Lewis' words are an indictment of leftism or statism, not an endorsement. Stevens' fanatic and Lewis' moral busybodies--what Eric Hoffer called true believers--are still with us, and, still, they will not rest.

All-Story Weekly, July 27, 1918, the first installment of "The Labyrinth" by Francis Stevens.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-The Nightmare

Published in the April 14, 1917, issue of All-Story Weekly, "The Nightmare" was Gertrude Barrows Bennett's first story since "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar" thirteen years earlier. It was her first under the pseudonym Francis Stevens. "The Nightmare" is a long short story--perhaps more properly a novelette--made up of fourteen chapters. Nonetheless, it was not serialized in its original publication but came complete in a single issue. In The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (2004), it takes up seventy-seven pages and can be read in two or three sittings.

"The Nightmare" opens in a stateroom on board the RMS Lusitania, but by the bottom of page two, the protagonist, Mr. Roland C. Jones of New York, New York, is swimming for his life. He lands inexplicably on a volcanic South Seas island, and from there is off on an adventure involving two rival Russian brothers--Prince Sergius the nihilist and Prince Paul the czarist--and their quest for a kind of philosopher's stone. (The brothers are also rivals for the affections of a pretty American nurse, Miss Weston.) The island on which the action takes place is called--with no small bit of irony--Joker Island. There are labyrinthine caves, humongous and very deadly cabbages, malodorous mushrooms, giant bats, enormous spiders, and other horrors on the island. Mr. Jones is traded back and forth between the rivals before being rescued by his friends. In the end, all is explained satisfactorily and in spite of the title, it all really happened and was not a dream or a nightmare at all.

The timing of the story and within the story has some significance. Mr. Jones goes in the water when the Lusitania is sunk. So the starting date is May 7, 1915. Two years later, he is pulled out again, and the story closes in late March, presumably March 1917, or shortly before "The Nightmare" was published in All-Story Weekly. (1) At almost exactly the same time--on April 6, 1917--the United States declared war on Germany. Meanwhile, the Russians were getting out. On March 15, 1917, the Czar abdicated, and though the fighting continued, the wind had gone out of the Russian sails, and within a year they had effectively surrendered.

Set against the backdrop of a world at war (and featuring a new technology, the airplane), "The Nightmare" must have benefitted by being so immediate and topical. But there were other recent developments worth considering. Gertrude Barrows Bennett had not published a story since 1904. She had been busy of course rearing her daughter, but is that the entire explanation for her silence? Only five years before "The Nightmare" was published, Edgar Rice Burroughs had arrived on the scene with his stories "Under the Moons of Mars" in The All-Story (beginning in February 1912), and "Tarzan of the Apes" in The All-Story (in October 1912). "The Nightmare" is a fairly conventional story in the mode of Edgar Rice Burroughs (or Jules Verne), with its light tone, its innocent protagonist thrown into a strange adventure, and its Lost World/South Seas/jungle setting. (There is even a bit of the club story towards the end.) It seems pretty likely to me that Francis Stevens was inspired by Burroughs and wanted to write a story like his. In that she succeeded.

I have just two more points to make. First, Francis Stevens' protagonist, Mr. Roland C. Jones (2), is a castaway on Joker Island. In 1910, Gertrude Barrows Bennett's husband, Stewart Bennett, "drowned in a tropical storm while on an expedition seeking sunken treasure." (3) You might as well consider that real-life event as a source for her story. The psychological implications are perhaps more significant. Second, if dark fantasy is defined as "a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened with destruction by hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals," then I don't detect even one whit of dark fantasy in "The Nightmare." (4) In fact, it's a lighthearted story in which the girl is won and all is right with the world in the end. (5)

But then America had not yet witnessed the horrors of war.

(1) There is some similarity here between "The Call of Cthulhu" (written 1926, published 1928) and "The Nightmare." First, both take place, at least in part, on an island in the South Pacific. Both describe horrors on that island. Both are tied to real events, and both involve a timetable that can be worked out by a careful reading of the story. Finally, both were published shortly after the events in the story had come to a close.
(2) I wonder if it's going too far to suggest that the name "Roland C. Jones" is a pun on the saying "rolling the bones," that is, to shoot craps.
(3) From Lloyd Arthur Eshbach's introduction to The Heads of Cerberus, quoted in "Francis Stevens: The Woman Who Invented Dark Fantasy" by Gary Hoppenstand in The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens (2004), p. xii.
(4) Prince Sergius is a nihilist, but not in the contemporary sense. Rather, he is a nihilist in the nineteenth-century Russian political sense. Gary Hoppenstand notes the treatment by Francis Stevens of "radical political thought" as an expression of "the American readers' social paranoia." (The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy, p. xix.) If you thought defining "dark fantasy" is hard, try defining "social paranoia." In any event, given the last hundred years of murder, starvation, war, torture, imprisonment, and oppression at the hands of people subscribing to "radical political thought," I would say that in this case "foresight" or "wisdom" is a better word than "paranoia."
(5) There is even a suggestion of more adventures to come in the life of Mr. Roland C. Jones.

All-Story Weekly, April 14, 1917, with "The Nightmare" by Francis Stevens as the cover story. Note the use of the word "weird." A new magazine with that word in its title was only six years away. 

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar

Gertrude M. Barrows (1884-1948) was nineteen and as yet unmarried when her first story, "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar," was published in The Argosy in March 1904. Her byline, effectively concealing her sex, was "G.M. Barrows." The story is brief and takes up a little less than six and a half pages of the magazine. It has been reprinted half a dozen times in the last 111 years.

"The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar" is the story of a man who, when struck by an automobile, is carried by the driver into his home. The driver, named Lawrence, is small, "weazened," and ugly. Despite his hostility to medicine, Lawrence nurses Dunbar, the narrator, back to health. As it turns out, Lawrence is a scientist absorbed in the isolation of a new element called stellarite, one that holds enough life-force "to vivify a herd of elephants." By accident, that life-force passes into the narrator, making him, as a result, "almost limitless" in strength. (1)

"The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar," written when its author was seventeen and accepted by the first magazine to which she submitted it, is a kind of super-science story. You might also call it science fiction or scientific romance. (The term science fiction had not yet been invented when "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar" was first printed.) More than anything, it reads like the origin story of a comic book superhero and could very easily be turned into a comic book script. "I [sic] had just one merit, as I remember it," wrote Gertrude Barrows, "and that was a rather grotesque originality." (2) Just how original was "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar"? I can't say, but it may be an early example of stories in which a man is made into a superman by science. Published in 1904 by a teenaged author, it did not yet show any signs of dark fantasy, but could it have been the first science fiction story published by an American woman? If so, then the case for Francis Stevens as an innovator waxes stronger.

(1) You can find "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar" in Google books.
(2) Quoted in "Francis Stevens: The Woman Who Invented Dark Fantasy" by Gary Hoppenstand in The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens (2004), p. xii.

The Argosy, March 1904.

Copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Dark Fantasy and Francis Stevens-Part Three

Another old wise man once said that there is nothing new under the sun. So is dark fantasy really new? I'm not so sure. Here is Gary Hoppenstand's two-part definition of the genre (or sub-genre, or sub-sub-genre):

"Dark fantasy . . . is a a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened with destruction by hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals."

"Dark fantasy is nihilistic fiction . . . ."

I should point out that the words are his but their juxtaposition here is mine.

If you accept just the first part, then it seems to me that there have been tales of dark fantasy since the beginning of time, for we have always been "threatened with destruction from hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals." The most obvious example is of the gods, devils, demons, and supernatural monsters of mythology, organized religion, and folklore, more specifically, Satan his bad self. In fact, I would say that "destruction by hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals" is one possible definition of evil. But if God is dead and there is no such thing as evil--in other words, if nihilism is just one of many reasonable ways of looking at the world--then maybe dark fantasy is something new after all, for God's death is a recent phenomenon, probably dating from--you guessed it--the nineteenth century.

On the other hand, if dark fantasy arose as Christian belief declined, then could there not have been tales of dark fantasy from the pre-Christian era, either before Christ or before Europe was Christianized? My first thought is of the epic Beowulf, written down in the Christian era but told of pre-Christian days. My second is of ancient Greek myths couched in stoicism. Also, if dark fantasy arose as a result of the disaster of World War I, could there not have been tales of dark fantasy from other disastrous times in European history, when God seemed to have withdrawn from involvement in human affairs and the universe to have become incomprehensible? The time of the Black Plague would seem an obvious example of that.

* * *

Again the question: Is dark fantasy a new genre? If so, who created it? It seems to me that if you're creating something, you might know that you're creating it. By that measure, Francis Stevens may not have been the creator. But then we'll never know, as we don't have anything from her outside her own stories (or nothing that I'm aware of anyway). In that case, H.P. Lovecraft presents himself as the more likely creator. However, that assumes that all creation is a conscious process. You won't go very far with an assumption like that. I think the thing to do is to look at the stories of Francis Stevens and see what pops up. That's next in this series.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, March 23, 2015

Dark Fantasy and Francis Stevens-Part Two

Thankfully, in his introduction to The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens (2004), editor Gary Hoppenstand defines dark fantasy, at least for the purposes of his essay:
Dark fantasy is defined as a type of horror story (possibly containing science fiction and fantasy elements) in which humanity is threatened with destruction by hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals.
Mr. Hoppenstand adds a second sentence to his definition, but the first seems to get to the heart of things. Anyway, here is the second sentence:
Within the larger genre of horror fiction, dark fantasy expresses a macabre existential variant, one that envisions a desperately weak worldview in which stereotyped notions of courage and heroism fail when confronted by the overwhelming presence of ancient and unfathomable evils. (p. ix)
There's a fair amount of academic gobbledygook in that sentence. Nonetheless, it expands a little on the preceding one.

The two sentences quoted above are near the beginning of Dr. Hoppenstand's essay. Here is more from near the end:
[Dark fantasy was] a new type of horror and fantasy story that evolved out of the apocalyptic calamity of World War I, one that posits the danger of forbidden knowledge and an ultimate lack of human understanding (and control) over such banal concepts as "good" and "evil." Dark fantasy is nihilistic fiction in its prediction (directly or indirectly) of a terrible end to our world that we inhabit in blissful ignorance. (p. xxiv)
That last phrase--"blissful ignorance"--echoes the sentiment in the opening paragraph of "The Call of Cthulhu" by H.P. Lovecraft:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
So we have a workable definition: "Dark fantasy . . . is a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened with destruction by hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals." That sounds like the devil to me, but as Fritz Leiber, Jr., pointed out, Satan and his hosts have lost prestige in the face of a "decline of at least naive belief in Christian theology." (1) That's why I added that part from near the end of Mr. Hoppenstand's introduction, for it seems to me that an essential part of the definition of dark fantasy is this: "Dark fantasy is nihilistic fiction . . . ." As such, it is well suited to our age and to the writers and readers of our age, so many of whom seem to have lost their way, their faith, and their sense of place in the universe. As a result, they have adopted a nihilistic worldview.

If those things are true, it should come as no surprise that dark fantasy is a new genre--not new as in World-War-I-new, but new as in the last-decade-or-two-new. And it's no wonder that there is disagreement over who created it. Another reason I added that part near the end of the introduction of The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy is that it mentions World War I. That war--the war to end all wars--was without a doubt a calamity, an utter disaster for Western civilization and for Christendom, and the event that ushered in this past century of disasters and horrors. Depending on your interpretation, the war was a culmination, an ultimate expression, or a kind of beginning of European decadence in the extreme. There are reasons to believe that we now live in a time of extreme decadence as well and that we could be on the verge of further disasters. Again, it's no surprise that dark fantasy--if there is such a thing--would have come from the World War I years, that it would have been named and described only recently, and that it should prove so popular today.

To be continued . . . 

(1) See yesterday's article.

Original text copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Dark Fantasy and Francis Stevens-Part One

An old wise man once said that you must be the change you wish to see in the world. With that in mind, I would like to take a look at dark fantasy and the stories of Francis Stevens.

In his introduction to The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens (2004), Gary Hoppenstand calls Francis Stevens "the woman who created dark fantasy." That is in fact the title of his introduction. In his first mention of Stevens, he equivocates, writing: "The person who may stake the best claim at creating the new genre of dark fantasy is Francis Stevens." (p. x) You can't really call your introduction "Francis Stevens: The Person Who May Stake the Best Claim at Creating Dark Fantasy," so later in his essay, Dr. Hoppenstand says with certainty that Francis Stevens was indeed The Woman Who Created Dark Fantasy. As you can see, Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who wrote as Francis Stevens, presents a problem to writers and critics. I'm not sure why.

The first problem is this: What is dark fantasy? Wikipedia, that fount of all knowledge, defines it in at least a half dozen ways, admitting, "A strict definition for dark fantasy is difficult to pin down." Wikipedia also attributes the creation of the genre or the naming of the genre to at least four different people, Gertrude Barrows Bennett included. At least Wikipedia tries. My library of reference works on fantasy, horror, and science fiction is either too small or too old to include a definition, or I haven't looked hard enough. I suspect that dark fantasy is a relatively new concept and that it has something in common with Justice Potter Stewart's concept of hard-core pornography: Those who read dark fantasy--or at least those with extraordinarily acute vision who read dark fantasy--know it when they see it. I still don't know what dark fantasy is, unless I just settle on Wikipedia's explanation:
Charles L. Grant is often cited as having coined the term "dark fantasy." Grant defined his brand of dark fantasy as "a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding." (1)
But that sounds a lot like what H.P. Lovecraft wrote about his own works:
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form--and the local human passions and conditions and standards--are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown--the shadow-haunted Outside--we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold. (2)
So is dark fantasy simply the Cthulhu Mythos? Here is Fritz Leiber, Jr., on the subject:
Perhaps Lovecraft's most important single contribution was the adoption of science-fiction material to the purpose of supernatural terror. The decline of at least naive belief in Christian theology, resulting in an immense loss of prestige for Satan and his hosts, left the emotion of supernatural fear swinging around loose, without any well-recognized object. Lovecraft took up this loose end and tied it to the unknown but possible denizens of other planets and regions beyond the space-time continuum. (3)
So if dark fantasy is a sub-genre or sub-sub-genre of fantasy in which forces "beyond human understanding" or from "the shadow-haunted Outside" or from "beyond the space-time continuum" threaten us, then any fantasy of that type written after about 1930 or so is almost certainly in imitation of or in tribute to H.P. Lovecraft. And if that's true, and Lovecraft was not the creator of dark fantasy, then it seems to me that only someone whose work predated his could have been that creator.

Gertrude Barrows Bennett is still in the running.

To be continued . . .

(1) From The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders, Vol. 1, edited by Gary Westfahl (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005).
(2) From a letter from H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, dated July 27, 1927, quoted in Selected Letters 1925-1929 (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1968), p. 150.
(3) From The Acolyte, Fall 1944, quoted in Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction by Sam Moskowitz [1963], p. 259.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley