Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Francis Stevens (1883-1948)

Pseudonym of Gertrude Barrows Bennett
Author, Office Worker
Born September 18, 1883, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Died 1948, California

Francis Stevens has been called "the woman who invented dark fantasy." (1) That would seem a significant accomplishment for a pseudonymous author who wrote in isolation and who was largely forgotten in the decades after her last story was published. Stevens is also supposed to have been an influence upon A. Merritt and H.P. Lovecraft. Again, if that were true, it would seem of some importance. Yet no one seems to have made a convincing case in her favor, either as an innovator or as an influence upon her peers. But then no one seems to have defined "dark fantasy" in any satisfactory way either. It's as if we were to claim that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, but we haven't decided yet just what is a light bulb.

Those are only two of the many problems in the case of Francis Stevens. The problem of her biography precedes them. Thankfully, some of the questions about who she was, where she came from, and how she lived have been answered. We can thank Randal A. Everts for a good deal of that information. Even so, erroneous information survives, in print and on line, even in so-called scholarly works. For example, was her middle name Mabel or Myrtle? If she was a writer of significance, why should there be any confusion? Do we wonder whether Lovecraft's middle name was Phillips or Poe's was Allan? For another example, on what date and in what place did she die? If we're talking about an important writer of the twentieth century, we should know these things. A second problem--the unsolvable problem of the disorderly human mind--is that no one on line seems to have provided a simple, complete, chronological list of her works with their original titles and their original dates of publication. I hope to have corrected that in the list provided below. If I have made any errors or omissions, I hope someone will let me know.

Francis Stevens was the pseudonym of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, a native Minnesotan who worked in an office during the day to support herself, her orphaned daughter, and her invalid mother, and in her spare time composed tales of fantasy. She wrote thirteen stories published from 1904 to 1923. The first, "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar," is an outlier in two ways. First, it was separated from the others by thirteen years. Second, it was published under a semblance of her real name, that is, as by G.M. Barrows. Francis Stevens' reputation rests instead on a dozen stories and serials published from April 1917 to September 1923, a mere six and a half years. All appeared in All-Story Weekly, Argosy, The Thrill Book, People's Favorite Magazine, and Weird Tales. After the publication of "Sunfire" in Weird Tales in the summer of 1923, Francis Stevens fell silent.

The stories of Francis Stevens were rediscovered in the early 1940s and have been reprinted many times since. Eight appeared in The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy, published in 2004. The introduction, by Gary Hoppenstand, is entitled "Francis Stevens: The Woman Who Invented Dark Fantasy," but it opens with a discussion of A. Merritt (1884-1943), H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), and other subjects. Stevens herself doesn't make an appearance until the middle of the second page, and then only in these three sentences:
The person who may stake the best claim at creating the new genre of dark fantasy is Francis Stevens (1883-1948). It is readily apparent to those who survey Steven's pulp magazine novels and short stories that her fiction was greatly admired by Merritt and Lovecraft. Both authors expanded and reworked in their own fiction the dark fantasy narrative elements that Stevens first developed and employed in her writings . . . . (p. x)
Each one of those sentences makes an extraordinary claim in need of supporting evidence, evidence that is not always forthcoming. But there is a more subtle problem at work here, one that is central to the case of Francis Stevens. That problem has nothing to do with her. Instead, it has to do with how she is seen and interpreted. Why for example, in a book of her stories, is she in third place after two male authors and not even mentioned until page two of the introduction? Here is another example:
Francis Stevens was the most gifted woman writer of science fiction and science-fantasy between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C.L. Moore. She possessed, in addition to a natural storytelling sense, a flair for creating images of sheer imagination that come to life from the printed word, a facility second only to that of A. Merritt, who had so greatly admired her. (2)
Again, instead of being taken on its own merits, the work of Francis Stevens is considered in comparison to that of a man, A. Merritt. (3)

Francis Stevens worked alone. She had no known contacts with any other writers of fantasy. Unlike H.P. Lovecraft, of whom she was a rough contemporary, she did not have a circle of friends, associates, and correspondents. Nor did she have a champion, as August Derleth was for Lovecraft, unless it was A. Merritt. She was a female writer, but she is also considered one of the originators of that ill-defined sub-sub-genre, dark fantasy. That would seem to me a significant accomplishment. Yet the emphasis seems to be placed more on her femaleness than on her innovation. The question is this: can the work of Francis Stevens stand alone, or is it propped up only in comparison to or in relationship with that of her male counterparts? More often than not, Stevens has been compared to men, the significance of her work has been defined in relationship with men, and those who have written about her life in greatest detail--Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Sam Moskowitz, Gary Hoppenstand--have been men. If Francis Stevens was one of the originators of so-called dark fantasy, then someone should make that case. If she was a significant influence upon other authors, someone should make that case as well. Instead, what we have is a strained argument that seems to say that because she was a woman, Francis Stevens needs our help, that her work can't stand on its own but needs a crutch. Gertrude Barrows Bennett's pen name was that of a man and an artifact of her time. But just how far have we come in the nine decades since her career as a published author came to an end?

Stories & Serials by Gertrude Barrows Bennett aka Francis Stevens
With reprints from the pulp-fiction era:
  • "The Labyrinth" (three-part serial, All-Story Weekly, July 27, 1918-August 10, 1918)
  • "Friend Island" (All-Story Weekly, September 7, 1918; reprinted in Fantastic Novels Magazine, September 1950)
  •  "The Citadel of Fear" (seven-part serial, The Argosy, September 14, 1918-October 26, 1918; reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries Combined with Fantastic Novels Magazine, February 1942)
  • "Behind the Curtain" (All-Story Weekly, September 21, 1918; reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Jan. 1940)
  • "The Elf-Trap" (The Argosy, July 5, 1919; reprinted in Fantastic Novels Magazine, November 1949)
  • "Avalon" (four-part serial, The Argosy, August 16, 1919-September 6, 1919)
  • "Claimed" (three-part serial, The Argosy, March 6, 1920-March 20, 1920; reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, April 1941; Super Science Stories, October 1944)
  • "Serapion" (four-part serial, The Argosy, June 19, 1920-July 10, 1920; reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries Combined with Fantastic Novels Magazine, July 1942)
  • "Sunfire" (two-part serial, Weird Tales, July 1923-September 1923)

(1) From "Francis Stevens: The Woman Who Invented Dark Fantasy" by Gary Hoppenstand, his introduction to The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens (University of Nebraska Press, 2004).
(2) From "The Woman Who Wrote 'Citadel of Fear'" by Sam Moskowitz, his introduction to The Citadel of Fear by Francis Stevens (Paperback Library, 1970), p. 9.
(3) Whenever I read his name, I can't help but think of A. Mutt, of Mutt and Jeff fame.

Note: I had intended to write and post this article on Sunday, March 8, 2015, in observance of International Women's Day. We have had a family emergency, and so I'm late in posting it. Please bear with me. I will add images later.

Corrected on October 14, 2023.
Text and captions copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

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