Monday, April 13, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-The Citadel of Fear-Part Three

The climax of The Citadel of Fear takes place in the estate of Chester T. Reed, a mad scientist type and master and creator of the creatures who have been terrorizing Cliona O'Hara Rhodes and her household. Her brother, Colin O'Hara, visits the estate one last time for a showdown with Reed. Although the phrase "citadel of fear" never appears in the story, it is for Reed's estate that the story is named. (1)

I say climax, but there are actually two climaxes in The Citadel of Fear. The first is thematic and takes the form of a dream-vision of Colin O'Hara as he lies unconscious or semi-conscious and a captive of Chester Reed. That thematic climax must have been unconventional in its day. I doubt that Francis Stevens' readers would have been well prepared for it. The second climax has to do with the plot and is much more conventional, although with its slam-bang action, pandemonium, conflagration, and--ultimately--complete destruction, stretched out over page after page, it reminds me of the special-effects extravaganzas you see at the movie theater these days, you know, the kind that never seems to end.

As I noted in Part Two of this article, The Citadel of Fear is divided into three parts: 1) the setup, about eighty pages worth, which takes place in Mexico and in Tlapallan; 2) the development, set in the fictional villages of Charpentier and Undine, another ninety pages or so; and 3) the climax (and a brief denouement) of about seventy-five pages, which takes place in Chester Reed's "fortress of fear" in Undine. (2) That's a long climax to be sure (maybe a little too long), but it's where the book comes into fruition.

The thematic climax in The Citadel of Fear--Colin O'Hara's dream-vision--comes when the god Quetzacoatl confronts Nacoc-Yaotl, the "creator of hatreds" and a god with "an enmity against the human race--an enmity darker and vaster than human enmity could ever be." (p. 204) (3) Chester Reed--better known as Archer Kennedy--has subdued his old friend O'Hara and prepares to change him into one of his nightmarish creatures. In the lead-up to that confrontation between god and god, Kennedy reveals himself in some very long passages:
"I worship nothing!' [Kennedy shouts] "Do you understand me? Nothing!" (p. 207)
He was loathsome, and inspired contempt [O'Hara thinks]. He was shallow, cheap, the shell of a man, empty of aught but petty egotism and a malice that had not even the redeeming dignity of greatness. (p. 212)
"I told you that I let imagination run away with me at first [continues Kennedy]. I swept and carried and toiled for them in fear and trembling! I! Till I began to use my reason, to remember that material effects have material causes, and I saw clear to the real god behind the sham ones . . . . The god I speak of is the only one of real power the world has ever known. I mean--science!" (p. 212)
Kennedy again: "Men bow to two powers--gold and fear! In the day when I am ready they will bow to only one, and that will be in my control. Gold! What's gold beside fear?" (p. 217)
And again: "Oh, there is a science of will as of matter." (p. 221)
And O'Hara's response to all this: "Any man who is fool enough to play with the devil's own process you've been describing, to try to explain it by a rigamarole of 'science', not to perceive the black power behind his own power--such a man is no more or less than an empty-head . . . !" (p. 220)
Then the dream-vision commences (on page 234), and Nacoc-Yaotl makes his case:
"Men made me what I am, and for that I hate them! In all Anahuac [Mexico under the Aztecs] there was no mercy among them. In the shrieks of the bloody sacrifice, in the cries of babes murdered upon my altars, in the steam that arose from the unspeakable feast, the mirror of Tezcatlipoca was fouled and dimmed; Telpuctli grew black, old and cruel!" (p. 237) (5)
states his aim:
"Free runs my will today and freer shall it run tomorrow. Hate breeds hate, and demon produces demon. How fast have their numbers increased! He [Kennedy] is pleased like a child, and believes that he shall rule the world! He! That empty, hollow reed through which my will runs!
          "But through all, and despite his coward soul, I have brought this blind slave of mine to dare that for which I waited through the centuries. We have come at last to the utter corruption of man!" (p. 238)
and then makes a prophecy that has come down through nearly a century to the present day, into the real world in which we all now live:
"In the day of full corruption, and when each hater shall wear the foul outer form of his hatred, who, think you, will be best worshipped of the gods?" (p. 238)
Despite Nacoc-Yaotl's power, he is defeated, Kennedy and his monsters are consumed in fire and destruction, and Colin O'Hara, the woman he loves, and the rest of humanity are saved. In the end, "[h]aving met nothing to shake his faith in either his universe or his God, [O'Hara] remained a good Catholic, and the Dusk Lady [the woman he loves] was duly baptized into that church . . . ." (p. 269) The two are married and they seem pretty certain to live happily ever after.

* * *

The claim is that Francis Stevens--Gertrude Barrows Bennett--created dark fantasy. It's clear that the ancient, powerful, and hostile entity of dark fantasy is present in The Citadel of Fear. It's even more clear that Stevens was not a nihilist, atheist, or materialist, and did not sympathize with those causes. On the contrary, her sympathies are with the forces of good and with her "good Catholic" hero, his sister, and humanity in general. The villain is Archer Kennedy, a materialist and a nihilist ("I worship nothing!"). Moreover, he is a subscriber to what is now called Scientism, the religion of science, and a man who seeks to impose his will---through fear--upon the world. With the appearance of Nacoc-Yaotl, Kennedy's worldview, in which materialism, science, and a human will-to-power are supreme, falls apart, for Nacoc-Yaotl is a supernatural force and in the end is defeated only by other supernatural forces. Kennedy is a mere pawn. It's clear here also where the author's sympathies lie.

We are now living in a world created by men like Archer Kennedy: small, hollow, empty-headed, egotistical, but burning with an ambition to impose their will upon the rest of us. Science is their highest belief. Atheism, materialism, nihilism, and similar -isms are their religions. They and their followers worship a god of hatred. Like Kennedy, they are merely the tools of something darker still, an ancient force of evil and corruption. And like Kennedy, they fail to see it. Nacoc-Yaotl, "creator of hatreds," is one name for the force that hates humanity and wishes to corrupt and destroy us. It goes by other names as well. In a remarkable bit of prophecy, Francis Stevens foresaw a time when he would be "the best worshipped of the gods." That time may very well be now. And dark fantasy may very well be a genre for that time, written as it is, more significantly read as it is, by people who may have more in common with Archer Kennedy than with Colin O'Hara or Francis Stevens. We should all ask ourselves: would we rather be good, loving, faithful, heroic, and courageous? Or would we rather worship nothing and be filled with corruption and hatred, for ourselves and the rest of humanity?

* * *

The Citadel of Fear is Francis Stevens longest, most complex, and most sophisticated work to date. I'm not sure that I will read anything else by her to top it. If you decide to read The Citadel of Fear, be aware that the book is long, that its author goes on a little too much in certain places, and that her style is old-fashioned. In the end, I hope you will find the book worth it.

The Citadel of Fear by Francis Stevens (1970), with an introduction by Sam Moskowitz and cover art by Steele Savage. Note the Moth Girl again.

Notes
(1) The phrase used in the story is "fortress of fear."
(2) The symbolism in the name Undine is pretty straightforward: an undine is a supernatural or mythological being--usually female--associated with water. Chester Reed's creatures live in an artificial swamp or marsh, but the word undine more likely applies to his supposed daughter, with whom Colin O'Hara has fallen in love. The name Charpentier is harder to puzzle out. Charpentier is the French word for carpenter. It might be a little too obvious to connect that to Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth.
(3) The quote is from Svend Bjornson, who has made a reappearance. He goes on: "Can you believe, child, that there are gods of old who still live? Old gods, and powers that have survived the passing of their worshippers?" (p. 204) Again, images of the Cthulhu Mythos pop into my head.
(5) Tezcatlipoca is an epithet for Nacoc-Yaotl. I don't know the meaning of Telpuctli.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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