Sunday, March 22, 2015

Dark Fantasy and Francis Stevens-Part One

An old wise man once said that you must be the change you wish to see in the world. With that in mind, I would like to take a look at dark fantasy and the stories of Francis Stevens.

In his introduction to The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens (2004), Gary Hoppenstand calls Francis Stevens "the woman who created dark fantasy." That is in fact the title of his introduction. In his first mention of Stevens, he equivocates, writing: "The person who may stake the best claim at creating the new genre of dark fantasy is Francis Stevens." (p. x) You can't really call your introduction "Francis Stevens: The Person Who May Stake the Best Claim at Creating Dark Fantasy," so later in his essay, Dr. Hoppenstand says with certainty that Francis Stevens was indeed The Woman Who Created Dark Fantasy. As you can see, Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who wrote as Francis Stevens, presents a problem to writers and critics. I'm not sure why.

The first problem is this: What is dark fantasy? Wikipedia, that fount of all knowledge, defines it in at least a half dozen ways, admitting, "A strict definition for dark fantasy is difficult to pin down." Wikipedia also attributes the creation of the genre or the naming of the genre to at least four different people, Gertrude Barrows Bennett included. At least Wikipedia tries. My library of reference works on fantasy, horror, and science fiction is either too small or too old to include a definition, or I haven't looked hard enough. I suspect that dark fantasy is a relatively new concept and that it has something in common with Justice Potter Stewart's concept of hard-core pornography: Those who read dark fantasy--or at least those with extraordinarily acute vision who read dark fantasy--know it when they see it. I still don't know what dark fantasy is, unless I just settle on Wikipedia's explanation:
Charles L. Grant is often cited as having coined the term "dark fantasy." Grant defined his brand of dark fantasy as "a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened by forces beyond human understanding." (1)
But that sounds a lot like what H.P. Lovecraft wrote about his own works:
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form--and the local human passions and conditions and standards--are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown--the shadow-haunted Outside--we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold. (2)
So is dark fantasy simply the Cthulhu Mythos? Here is Fritz Leiber, Jr., on the subject:
Perhaps Lovecraft's most important single contribution was the adoption of science-fiction material to the purpose of supernatural terror. The decline of at least naive belief in Christian theology, resulting in an immense loss of prestige for Satan and his hosts, left the emotion of supernatural fear swinging around loose, without any well-recognized object. Lovecraft took up this loose end and tied it to the unknown but possible denizens of other planets and regions beyond the space-time continuum. (3)
So if dark fantasy is a sub-genre or sub-sub-genre of fantasy in which forces "beyond human understanding" or from "the shadow-haunted Outside" or from "beyond the space-time continuum" threaten us, then any fantasy of that type written after about 1930 or so is almost certainly in imitation of or in tribute to H.P. Lovecraft. And if that's true, and Lovecraft was not the creator of dark fantasy, then it seems to me that only someone whose work predated his could have been that creator.

Gertrude Barrows Bennett is still in the running.

To be continued . . .

(1) From The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders, Vol. 1, edited by Gary Westfahl (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005).
(2) From a letter from H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, dated July 27, 1927, quoted in Selected Letters 1925-1929 (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1968), p. 150.
(3) From The Acolyte, Fall 1944, quoted in Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction by Sam Moskowitz [1963], p. 259.

Original text copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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