Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-Friend Island

Nineteen eighteen was a good year for Gertrude Barrows Bennett. Writing as Francis Stevens, she earned $1,330 for four stories published in All-Story Weekly and The Argosy. "The Labyrinth," from July and August, is novella-length. "The Citadel of Fear," from September and October, is longer still. "Friend Island" and "Behind the Curtain," both published in September, are very short by comparison. (1) In The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (2004), "Friend Island" runs to eleven pages, "Behind the Curtain" to just eight. You might call "Friend Island" a tale rather than a short story, but if you read it as a simple tale, you will miss more than a little of its meaning and context.

The subtitle of "Friend Island"--"Being the Veracious Tale of an Ancient Mariness, Heard and Reported in the Year A.D. 2100"--tells the reader exactly what she is about to encounter, namely, Gertrude Barrows Bennett's first out-and-out fantasy. The story hints at a futuristic society in which women rule and men are subservient. At first glance, that seems an unnecessary detail or a distraction in a story so short. Its purpose becomes clearer as the Ancient Mariness recounts an experience from her youth.

Time was when men had more power. That was before, when the old sea-woman was young and first shipwrecked on a Pacific Island. In her lifetime, in the many decades since, women have gained in power, while men have slipped into subservience. How that came to be is not explained in "Friend Island," but the transition is apparently complete and irreversible. The implication is that women have rebelled against patriarchy--but they may have had some help. The Ancient Mariness learned something about men while on an island she named--significantly--"Anita." "A man is just full of mannishness," she says, "and the best of 'em ain't good enough for a lady to sacrifice her sensibilities to put up with." (p. 203) She learned that lesson in her acquaintance with Nelson Smith, a fellow castaway, who, besides Anita, is the only named character in the story.

"Friend Island" is an apt title, and Anita--meaning full of grace or mercy or kindness--is an apt name, for the island is indeed a friend to the girl castaway:
When I was gay [she remembered], it [the island] was bright and cheerful. It was glad when I come [to the island], and it treated me right until I got that grouchy it had to mope from sympathy. It loved me like a friend. (p. 199)
That's not merely a fantasy or a delusion or an expression of loneliness. The island--Anita--is indeed alive. She is also a true friend to the girl castaway, and by extension to women everywhere, being as she is, "a lady," but one who "knowed how to behave when she was insulted." (p. 202) Nelson Smith does the insulting, and for that, Anita literally blows up. And maybe that's how women came to rule the earth. Maybe the earth herself rebelled against the rule of men. 

* * *

"Friend Island" was not only Gertrude Barrows Bennett's first full-fledged fantasy, it was also her first story with a female protagonist and her first from a decidedly feminist viewpoint. If there is any doubt of that, consider this quote from near the end of the story, written by the unnamed male narrator:

"In what field is not woman our subtle superior?" (p. 203)

"Friend Island" was preceded by "Herland," a utopian romance/Lost Worlds story written by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and published in the magazine The Forerunner in December 1915. Whether Gertrude Barrows Bennett read The Forerunner is probably irrelevant, for this was the era of women's rights. She would have been only one of many thousands of American feminists. The war had helped bring that on as women got out of the house and into the workplace to do jobs ordinarily done by men. As an example of how times were changing, on December 16, 1918, Somebody's Stenog by A.E. Hayward made its debut as a regular daily comic strip. The title character was--like Gertrude Barrows Bennett--a stenographer and one of the first independent women in the comics. She started a trend--they were called "girl strips"--that lasted into the 1930s and '40s. As another example, the Nineteenth Amendment, extending the franchise to women, was ratified on August 18, 1920, just two years after "Friend Island" was published. Francis Stevens was not the first feminist science fiction author, but she was at least a pioneer.

* * *

So is "Friend Island" in the category of dark fantasy? In Goldfinger by Ian Fleming (1959), the title character has this to say:

"Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, it's enemy action."

If I can modify that, I would say that three times makes a continuing theme. "Friend Island," with "The Nightmare" and "The Labyrinth," establishes a theme in the stories of Francis Stevens. The theme is of a physical place that takes on a personality. Joker Island, from "The Nightmare," is well named, for it seems to mock and toy with its human inhabitants. In the end, however, the island is conquered. The labyrinth, from the story of the same name, also seems to have a personality, which turns out to be that of its deceased designer. There is some doubt that the four main characters will escape, but they do in the end, and once again, the place is defeated. "Friend Island" is another matter, for the eponymous island is alive and aware. It's also not an antagonistic force (except to the vulgar man). In the end, Anita is not defeated, even if she does blow her stack.

A physical place with a personality, a place with its own hidden, sometimes perverse, often inscrutable, or even more often malevolent ways--is that dark fantasy? Here is the two-part definition again:

"Dark fantasy . . . is a a type of horror story in which humanity is threatened with destruction by hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals."

"Dark fantasy is nihilistic fiction . . . ."

I would not consider "Friend Island" to meet either requirement, for it is not a horror story, nor a story in which humanity is threatened with destruction, nor is it nihilistic or very dark. As for the force in the story, I would not consider the island to be hostile, nor cosmic, and perhaps not even beyond the normal ken of mortals. It seems more likely to me that in creating her friend island, Stevens drew on the imagery of Mother Earth and Mother Nature, a sometimes wrathful force perhaps, but over all, warm, caring, nurturing, and benevolent.

* * *

Finally, another quote:
The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways; nor are the models that we frame in any way commensurate to the vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness (2) of His works, which have a depth in them greater than the well of Democritus.
The quote is from Joseph Glanville [sic]. (3) It forms the epigraph of "A Descent into the Maelström" by Edgar Allan Poe (1841). Like "Friend Island," Poe's tale is framed by an unnamed narrator who hears and records the words of a person who has come face to face with a powerful force of nature. Unlike Stevens' island Anita, the maelström is non-living. Its destructiveness is simply an expression of the vast, profound, and unsearchable ways of God in Nature. Anita is a friend, while the great whirlpool is not, even if it permits itself to be understood and the man who understands it to escape.

My reason for quoting Poe's epigraph is larger than any similarities between the two stories, however strong they might be. If you substitute "cosmic forces" for the word "God" in Glanvill's quote, you might find yourself coming close to a definition of dark fantasy. The difference of course is that God created, loves, and provides for humanity, whereas dark fantasy is, in Gary Hoppenstand's words, "nihilistic fiction in its prediction (directly or indirectly) of a terrible end to our world that we inhabit in blissful ignorance." So is this the choice, between God in Nature and in Providence on one side, and dark fantasy's essentially hostile and ultimately destructive universe on the other? Maybe so, but then maybe that has always been the choice.

(1) "Friend Island" was published in the September 7, 1918, issue of All-Story Weekly.
(2) Recall the quote in "The Labyrinth": "The heaven for height, and the earth for depth, and the heart of man is unsearchable" (Proverbs 25:3).
(3) Readers of H.P. Lovecraft's stories might recognize Glanvill's name.

The living island is not a new idea. It goes back at least as far as the mythical aspidochelone of the Middle Ages. This image is from the Danish Royal Library, and though I can't be sure it's of an aspidochelone, I think I can see the word "aspido" in the middle of the second line below the fish.

The aspidochelone is a hostile creature. The Living Island from H.R. Pufnstuf is, like Francis Stevens' Anita, a friendly island.

Scott O'Dell's 1960 Island of the Blue Dolphins is also about a girl stranded alone on an island. Based on a true story, O'Dell's novel is one of loneliness, courage, and perseverance. I read it long ago but don't remember any particular personification of the island.

Krakoa, the Island That Walks Like a Man from Marvel Comics, is on the other end of the scale.

In high school you learn that there are four basic conflicts in literature: man against man, man against nature, man against society, and man against himself. Stories of the sea are often stories of man against nature. But does fantasy introduce a fifth conflict, of man against monster? In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus must pass between Scylla and Charybdis, two forces of nature but also seemingly two forces animated by hostility towards man. Is that dark fantasy? What about Cthulhu in his island city? There can be no doubt that if dark fantasy is real, then "The Call of Cthulhu" is it. In fact, maybe all dark fantasy is simply an iteration of the Cthulhu Mythos. In any case, was there any artist better suited to illustrate the nightmarish scene of Odysseus and the Scylla than the great eighteenth century fantasist Henry Fuseli?

"Friend Island," being a "Veracious Tale of an Ancient Mariness," is cast in the mold of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1798). Like The Odyssey, both are tales of vengeance, a maritime journey, and fantastic events. The illustration is by Gustave Doré.

Another illustration by Doré from "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The mariner has lashed himself to the ship in a storm . . . 

Just as Poe's mariner in "A Descent into the Maelström" lashes himself to a cask. In so doing, he escapes the whirlpool. His encounter with a vast, profound, and unsearchable Nature leaves him a changed man however. The illustration is by Fritz Eichenberg (1901-1990).

So is "Friend Island," or for that matter any of these stories dark fantasy? I can't say, but I think that Francis Stevens' story at least is not one of threats and destruction, but instead one about Mother Nature--with a feminist twist--and probably one of the first feminist science fiction stories written by an American woman. 

Original text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

1 comment:

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