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.

Notes
(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

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