Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar

Gertrude M. Barrows (1884-1948) was nineteen and as yet unmarried when her first story, "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar," was published in The Argosy in March 1904. Her byline, effectively concealing her sex, was "G.M. Barrows." The story is brief and takes up a little less than six and a half pages of the magazine. It has been reprinted half a dozen times in the last 111 years.

"The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar" is the story of a man who, when struck by an automobile, is carried by the driver into his home. The driver, named Lawrence, is small, "weazened," and ugly. Despite his hostility to medicine, Lawrence nurses Dunbar, the narrator, back to health. As it turns out, Lawrence is a scientist absorbed in the isolation of a new element called stellarite, one that holds enough life-force "to vivify a herd of elephants." By accident, that life-force passes into the narrator, making him, as a result, "almost limitless" in strength. (1)

"The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar," written when its author was seventeen and accepted by the first magazine to which she submitted it, is a kind of super-science story. You might also call it science fiction or scientific romance. (The term science fiction had not yet been invented when "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar" was first printed.) More than anything, it reads like the origin story of a comic book superhero and could very easily be turned into a comic book script. "I [sic] had just one merit, as I remember it," wrote Gertrude Barrows, "and that was a rather grotesque originality." (2) Just how original was "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar"? I can't say, but it may be an early example of stories in which a man is made into a superman by science. Published in 1904 by a teenaged author, it did not yet show any signs of dark fantasy, but could it have been the first science fiction story published by an American woman? If so, then the case for Francis Stevens as an innovator waxes stronger.

(1) You can find "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar" in Google books.
(2) Quoted in "Francis Stevens: The Woman Who Invented Dark Fantasy" by Gary Hoppenstand in The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens (2004), p. xii.

The Argosy, March 1904.

Copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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