"The Heads of Cerberus" by Francis Stevens was first published as a five-part serial in the short-lived magazine The Thrill Book, from August 15 to October 15, 1919. It was reprinted in book form by Polaris Press in 1952 and in a facsimile edition by Dover Publications in 2014. The Dover edition has preserved the original four-page introduction by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach and the original illustrations by Ric Binkley. It's a slim book of 190 numbered pages, but because the story is novel-length, I will italicize the title from here on out.
One of the most interesting things to come out of Eshbach's introduction is that there were at least three stories by Francis Stevens that went unpublished: The Bronze Chest, "a sheer fantasy of novel length"; "Beyond the Pallid Wall," a short story that may have been published under another title, "though this doesn't seem too likely"; and "Impulse," another short story announced by The Thrill Book in its last issue, October 15, 1919. (1, 2) I would like to think that Francis Stevens' manuscripts are out there somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered. More likely they are gone forever.
The Heads of Cerberus was an innovation when it was published in 1919, and may still have been unmatched in 1952 when Polaris Press reprinted it. In explaining the innovation, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach quoted P. Schuyler Miller:
"The Heads of Cerberus can be read as perhaps the first work of fantasy to envisage the parallel-time-track concept, with an added variation that so far as I know has not been reused since." (p. 15)
The variation of which Miller wrote is that those parallel time tracks seem to be moving at different rates, in which case the interlude (a weird episode in an otherwise straightforward tale) between the current time track (set in 1918) and the future time track (set in 2118) makes some kind of sense. Whatever the case may be, The Heads of Cerberus is a story of real complexity and sophistication. In the mere two and a half years since "The Nightmare" was published, Francis Stevens had come a long way. As in previous stories, the explanation behind the events in The Heads of Cerberus is balanced between science and the non-material (whether psychological, supernatural, or spiritual). A deep question arises as a result, namely: Just what is real and what exists solely in the minds of the protagonists? Neither Lloyd Arthur Eshbach nor P. Schuyler Miller had an answer. Miller considered The Heads of Cerberus a riddle.
Expecting a parallel-time-track story, you follow The Heads of Cerberus wondering when it will get there, for it seems to be a straight-ahead tale of time travel. In that, Francis Stevens was probably inspired by H.G. Wells. The Heads of Cerberus also has a good deal in common with Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888). Some people have read The Time Machine as a satire, while Looking Backward seems to have been written in earnest. The Heads of Cerberus may have been written as a satire as well, not only of the then-current society, but also of Looking Backward. In any case, Looking Backward is famously utopian, while The Heads of Cerberus is distinctly dystopian, and in that, the unsung author Gertrude Barrows Bennett seems to have outdone her competition. After all, she lived in the Progressive Era when everything was going to be wonderful, yet she envisioned the perfect future not as a paradise but as a nightmare of human stupidity and lust for power.
Anyway, the explanation of the parallel-time-track concept, such as it is, comes very near the end of the story. Otherwise the reader is left to follow the exploits of the four characters from today in the nightmarish and somewhat comical world of tomorrow. But here's another innovation: Awhile back, I was looking for the first totalitarian in literature. I found two candidates, the Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1879–1880), and the Benefactor or Well-Doer from We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921). The problem with the Grand Inquisitor is that he is not actually a character in a book but a character created by a character in a book. In my little survey, that leaves Zamyatin's Benefactor. Well, The Heads of Cerberus was published in 1919, and in it the author described a revolting creature called "Justice Supreme" or the "Supreme Servant," in his person a totalitarian ruler and very probably the first of his kind in American literature--maybe in all of literature. So the search for the first totalitarian is pushed back two years, from 1921 to 1919, and from a Russian author with firsthand knowledge of totalitarianism to an American pulp writer who seems to have relied mostly on her own intuition in predicting the world of tomorrow.
To be concluded . . .
(1) The titles and quotes are on page 15 of the Dover edition.
(2) "Beyond the Pallid Wall" reminds me of the title of one of H.P. Lovecraft's stories, "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" (1919).
Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley