Monday, April 20, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-Unseen--Unfeared

"Unseen--Unfeared" is a short story originally published in People's Favorite Magazine for February 10, 1919. It was Francis Stevens first story published after the end of the Great War, and there seems to be a cloud hanging over it, perhaps a cloud of awareness or an inkling of what had gone on in Europe over the previous four years and more. In the end, that cloud is dispelled and life is affirmed. The story is in five sections and takes up fifteen pages in The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (2004).

Longer than "Behind the Curtain," the story "Unseen--Unfeared" is also more complex, more innovative, and I think more enjoyable. As with so many of Stevens' stories, "Unseen--Unfeared" is a hybrid. It begins and ends as a detective tale, but there are elements of fantasy, science fiction, and the ghost story in between. It approaches what people now call dark fantasy, but then backs away with an affirmation of the essential goodness and immeasurable value of human beings. It also has something in common with later stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe he read it. More likely, tales like those written by Stevens and Lovecraft were in the making during the 1910s and '20s. The Germans, who were then entering into a period of decadence, call such a thing zeitgeist.

"Unseen--Unfeared" is set in the then-present and takes place in a large city, probably New York City or Philadelphia. The story opens and closes with conversations between the narrator, Blaisdell, and his "ever-interesting friend," Mark Jenkins, a police detective. The subject of their conversations is Doc Holt, "an amateur chemist and dabbler in different sorts of research work." (p. 213) Bracketed within these conversations is the narrator's account of a terrifying experience in a kind of laboratory/lecture hall located in a private home with Blaisdell as the sole member of the audience. The lecturer is an odd and frightening scientist--one guess as to who he is. By carefully explained (pseudo)scientific means, Blaisdell sees visions of monsters that--though invisible to us--inhabit the same space that we inhabit. The kicker is that these monsters are created by man "[o]ut of the ether . . . . By his evil thoughts, by his selfish panics, by his lusts and his interminable, never-ending hate he has made them, and they are everywhere!" (p. 221) Blaisdell resolves to abolish his "monster-creating self," (p. 222) but is interrupted in the nick of time by Jenkins the detective. In the end, coming out of his state of fear and dread, Blaisdell refuses "to ever again believe in the depravity of the human race." (p. 225) (1, 2)

Stevens' story has a Scooby-Doo kind of ending, but things aren't tied up completely with a rational explanation. There is still doubt--more than a little doubt--as to whether such an explanation is adequate. "Unseen--Unfeared" is science fiction, more accurately science fantasy. Just as in The Citadel of Fear, science and reason seem to explain things, but then something beyond science shows itself to be more powerful and closer to the real nature of the world and of human beings.

Human hatred seems to be a developing theme in the stories of Francis Stevens. Again and again, she turns away from hatred and towards "the goodness and kindliness of the human countenance." (p. 225) It's worth noting that in "Unseen--Unfeared," Blaisdell, in his state of fear, turns his thoughts against the "Italians, Jews, and . . . negroes"(p. 213) he sees in the street. "Oh, no," I thought as I was reading the story. It reminded me of nothing so much as "The Horror at Red Hook" by H.P. Lovecraft. The difference is that Stevens' narrator has fallen into a drug-induced state of fear and dread. In the end he recovers himself and embraces his fellow man.

"Unseen--Unfeared" puts me in mind of H.P. Lovecraft's work in other ways. Lovecraft was of course a materialist and probably would not have delved into a supernatural explanation as Stevens did. I can hardly imagine him closing a story with words like these:
. . . doubt is sometimes better than certainty, and there are marvels better left unproved. Those, for instance, which concern the Powers of Evil. (p. 126)
That may be the same idea as the mind not correlating all of its contents, but certainty and proof are in the province of science. The Powers of Evil inhabit the space beyond. I wonder now if Lovecraft ever used the concept of supernatural evil in his stories, or if the threats he imagined against humanity were always material, or at the very least, not in any way suggestive of God and the devil and their ongoing struggle for the human soul.

Unlike Lovecraft's stories, "Unseen--Unfeared" does not end with death, destruction, or disaster. It is affirmative rather than pessimistic or downbeat. The concept of invisible  monsters and a scientific way of rendering them visible reminds me of "From Beyond" by H.P. Lovecraft, written in 1920. Was there influence of one upon the other, or, again, was this merely the zeitgeist? After all, Einsteinian relativity and talk of multiple dimensions was in the air in 1919. Invisible monsters had previously shown up in "What Was It? A Mystery" by Fitz-James O'Brien (1859), "The Horla" by Guy de Maupassant (1887), and "The Damned Thing" by Ambrose Bierce (1893). The seed of interdimensional or intradimensional invisibility may have come from Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott (1884), a pretty well indispensable book.

If there was a spirit of the times, Francis Stevens appears to have partaken of the positive and affirmative parts. She seems to have been a woman of faith, as opposed to Lovecraft the materialist, who seems to have held such dim views of humanity and our place in the universe. The difference may be explained very well by biography. Unfortunately, biographical information on Francis Stevens--Gertrude Barrows Bennett--is sorely lacking. We're left with the stories themselves. So the continuing question is this: Did Francis Stevens create dark fantasy? If dark fantasy is negative, pessimistic, or nihilistic, the answer is still no.

Notes
(1) There may be an analogy here to the war years, but if there is, it's only in the mood of the story and of the times and not in any way overt in the story.
(2) In The Citadel of Fear, the god-monster Nacoc-Yaotl comes to hate humanity because they have made him what he is by their hateful and violent ways. In "Unseen--Unfeared" Francis Stevens took that idea a step further, for the invisible monsters in the story are manifestations of human hatred. In dark fantasy, the monster supposedly comes from the outside. He predates humanity and may be entirely indifferent to us. He certainly isn't created by us, just as Cthulhu wasn't created by us.

Francis Stevens had more than her share of space on the covers of pulp magazines in her brief career, but that wasn't the case in February 1919 when her story "Unseen--Unfeared" was published in People's Favorite Magazine. The cover artist is unknown.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley 

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