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 fiancĂ©e 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.

Notes
(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

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