Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-Claimed!-Part One

"Claimed!", a three-part serial by Francis Stevens, first appeared in Argosy from March 6 to March 20, 1920, and was reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries in April 1941 and in the Canadian title Super Science Stories in October 1944. It has the distinction of being Stevens' only story (I believe) to be reprinted in hardback during the science fiction and fantasy revival of the 1960s. (1) The frequent reprintings are justified I think, for "Claimed!" is a good story with flashes of great color and imagination. One of the characters in the story calls its events "an uncanny mystery." It is that for sure. "Claimed!" is also Francis Stevens' darkest story to date. Don't worry, though: in the end the hero still claims his reward, a woman with hair white like moonlight.

"Claimed!" is the story of a small green casket made of indestructible stone and incised in scarlet with an indecipherable inscription. (That's a lot of ins.) The casket makes its way from an island thrust up in an earthquake from the seafloor, into the hands of a sailor, from there to a dealer in curios, and finally into the very powerful clutches of a New Jersey millionaire named Jesse J. Robinson. Strange and terrifying occurrences fall upon those in possession of the casket. Despite that, Robinson won't let go of it. His desires are simple: "I aim to keep the box," he says, " 'cause I bought it and it's mine."

Jesse Robinson enlists the aid of his niece, Leilah, and a physician, Dr. John Vanaman. They stick by him throughout the ordeal, Leilah out of family loyalty, Vanaman because he is a man and because of his attraction to Leilah. The events of the story take place mostly in Robinson's home, but the climax comes in a thrilling chase scene in the Delaware River and at sea. "Claimed!" culminates in a phantasmagoric vision of the prehistoric past and Leilah's recounting of the very scary events on board the pursued ship. (She has been abducted as women in thrillers so often are. Vanaman must go to the rescue as men in thrillers so often do.) The title does triple duty. Robinson and his nemesis claim the green box. In the end, it is Vanaman who does the claiming of a different treasure.

Francis Stevens seems to have had a hard time getting started on her story. "Claimed!" has four beginnings, and she threw them all into the mix. After that the story calms down and runs pretty well straight to the end. The style is a little old-fashioned, and I would not consider it a tightly written story. As before, Stevens spent a lot of time writing about things that are without consequence. It takes, for instance, a whole chapter just for Robinson and his entourage to secure passage on and board a ship. On the other hand, she handled many images and scenes with great skill, and her writing and sensibility are very modern in places. 

Stevens' handling of weird and terrifying events in her story is extraordinary, like scenes taken verbatim from dreams and nightmares. An upthrust island enshrouded by a foot-thick mat of floating ash and scoria. An indestructible green casket whose writing always sinks to the bottom, no matter which side is placed up. Ten scarlet cities sunk in the silent ocean. A fearsome scarlet archangel. White horses, their throats red with blood, charging into the sea. A ghostly, green tide creeping into a room high above sea level. An unknown figure of great power, speaking, in the pitch-black cabin of a rotting Atlantean trireme, of matters that are at once ancient and eternal. Despite its flaws, "Claimed!" is a good story. Lloyd Arthur Eshbach called it one of his "boyhood favorites." Augustus T. Swift, a reader of Providence, Rhode Island (and whose name some people thought was a pseudonym for H.P. Lovecraft), felt that it placed Francis Stevens in "the highest grade" of Argosy's writers. If you read it, you won't soon forget it.

To be continued . . .

Notes
(1) "Claimed!" is available online at Project Gutenberg Australia at the following URL:

Argosy, March 6, 1920, with a cover story by Francis Stevens and very fine cover art by an unknown illustrator. Gertrude Barrows wrote thirteen published stories. Most of them were at one time or other a magazine cover story.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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