Saturday, April 25, 2015

Worlds Invisible

A long time ago, British historian, author, and television personality James Burke hosted a show called Connections in which he wandered through history making connections among seemingly disparate and unconnected events. It was a good show and he was a great host. It's always fascinating to me to see a great mind at work and to read history with a thesis rather than as just a chronicle of events. One of the points of Connections is that historical events have not taken place in isolation, rather, they should be seen and can best be understood in a historical and cultural context.

Fans of science fiction and fantasy prefer to escape from the facts of history, biography, and personality. It's why we read and why it's called escapist literature. The problem is that science fiction and fantasy do not and cannot exist in isolation, separate from their historical and cultural context. Likewise, escapist literature cannot be separated from the biographies of its individual authors. Those facts are among the reasons I write this blog, to place science fiction and fantasy in historical context and to tell something of the biography of the creators of these genres. As writers, readers, and fans, we would prefer not to be bound by history or fact. Instead, we would like to escape. But we should all realize as every person must realize in his or her life that there can be no escape from living.

The last time I wrote, I looked at the story "Unseen-Unfeared" by Francis Stevens (1919). It's a story about invisible monsters that are incarnated through human hatred and violence. The theme in Stevens' work of the monster created by humanity goes back to her novel, The Citadel of Fear (1918). Both stories are in the end positive and life-affirming. They may be fantasy, but they are not dark. 

The supposition is that Francis Stevens was the creator of the sub-genre or sub-sub-genre of dark fantasy. I haven't found any really good evidence of that yet, but then the term itself, dark fantasy, is ill-defined and seems to be whatever one person or another wants it to be. Dark seems to be the operative word, as dark fantasy is apparently dark, negative, pessimistic, and nihilistic. It involves malevolent forces from the outside that seek to corrupt and destroy humanity. In our materialistic age, that means creatures from other times, other places, or other dimensions. In other words, they are not supernatural in origin, as we in this age won't allow for such things. In a time of believers, fantasy, it seems to me, would have been the age-old story of good versus evil, of God versus the devil. It would have been clear to all just who was the Good Guy and who was the bad guy. That, at least, was true until science put God into his grave in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. With dark fantasy, writers, readers, and fans seem to have switched sides and to identify with the powers of darkness rather than Light.

With all that in mind, I realized that there was a concept of invisible monsters or invisible evil in American literature before Francis Stevens and H.P. Lovecraft, before Ambrose Bierce and Fitz-James O'Brien. I remembered my high school days and reading Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather (1693). This is where the connections begin.

Cotton Mather (1663-1728), like John Dee (1527-1608 or 1609) and Joseph Glanvil (1636-1680), whom I quoted recently (by way of Edgar Allan Poe), was a practitioner of pneumatology. That's a new word for me, and I had to look it up. According to Wikipedia, "pneumatology is the study of spiritual beings and phenomena." All three men found their way into the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. It's worth mentioning that Mather was also a scientist who advocated for inoculation against smallpox. The germ theory of disease was still far in the future, but it seems that Mather was interested in the invisible world of the spirit and of organisms invisible to the naked eye.

There isn't any evidence that Francis Stevens sought to connect a seventeenth-century dissertation on witchcraft in New England to events contemporaneous to her own life. But I wonder if in one way or another she updated the concept of an invisible evil to the twentieth century and introduced a very old idea into a newly forming genre, science fiction. There is reason to believe that Francis Stevens--Gertrude Barrows Bennett--was a Catholic. If that was the case, I wonder, too, how receptive she would have been to the very Protestant and very Puritan ideas of Cotton Mather. Finally, I wonder if dark fantasy is simply a genre that is essentially theological in nature but with God and devil (ideas that are considered naïve and unsophisticated today) removed, only to be replaced by material forces. If that's true, then Francis Stevens--if she was indeed an author of dark fantasy--would have come before the break from the theological past into a materialistic present. If that's the case, then it hardly makes any sense to say that she created the genre attributed to her.

It also occurred to me that the invisible creature spawned by human hatred, jealousy, and destructiveness reappeared, so to speak, in the movie Forbidden Planet from 1956. By then the creature was explained in purely materialistic terms as a monster of the Id manifested with the aid of vast and powerful machinery. Many of Freud's ideas are now considered politically incorrect or simply invalid, but in the 1950s, Freudian psychology was wildly popular and I think carried a kind of scientific cachet. It's no wonder that it found its way into science fiction. Heck, even Dianetics, the root of a science-fiction religion, is made up in part of Freudianism. The irony is that Marx, who was an out-and-out crackpot, has adherents today, while Freud has fallen out of favor, despite the usefulness of some of his ideas. The double irony is that the political correctness that has gone against Freud grew, I believe, out of a marriage of his ideas to those of Marx in the forms of critical theory and the schemes of the New Left.

The race that created the machines in Forbidden Planet were called the Krell. The source of their great power is subterranean. The name evokes, if ever so slightly, the subject of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's romance of 1871, Vril, the Power of the Coming Race. The Vril is the power, also subterranean. The people who wield that power are the Vril-Ya, which word seems to have been the source of H.P. Lovecraft's name for his submarine city, R'lyeh, in "The Call of Cthulhu." Bulwer-Lytton's book also influenced the Theosophists (who were mentioned in "The Call of Cthulhu"). They in turn seem to have influenced Raymond A. Palmer in his peddling of the so-called Shaver Mystery and perhaps even L. Ron Hubbard, an even greater huckster than Palmer, who invented a quasi-Freudian Dianetics and a quasi-religious Scientology. Forbidden Planet is said to have influenced the making of the television series Star Trek (1966). In one episode, "The Ultimate Computer," human "engrams" are encoded in the eponymous machine. Engram is of course a term from Dianetics and Scientology. The Krell's machinery, like the Vril-Ya's technology before it, might easily be called "the ultimate computer" as well. The Mathison E-meter is a pretty meager gadget by comparison. (1)

So, Karl Marx, Theosophy, Raymond A. Palmer, L. Ron Hubbard, and to a lesser extent Sigmund Freud attempted to uncover or explain earth's secret history, each in more or less materialistic terms. Cotton Mather had his own non-material explanation for historical forces. Poor Francis Stevens, whom hardly anyone remembers, relied on a very old and very simple explanation. She laid the blame instead at the feet of a corrupt humanity and its influencing "Powers of Evil."

The connections continue: There are those who explain witches and even zombies by material means. This is, after all, the era of Scientism in which all things are or can be explained by science. One of those means is by ingestion of jimsonweed, a highly toxic plant that grows in old barn lots, hog lots, and other waste places here in the Midwest. If jimsonweed is only one of many material sources of altered states of consciousness, morality, or being, then Cotton Mather's ideas are rendered obsolete. After all, in an era of Scientism, there can't be any supernatural or non-material explanations for human conduct.

Another name for jimsonweed is thornapple. You and I ran across that word recently in our reading. You will remember that Lee Brown Coye passed through an area overgrown with pines and thornapple trees on his way to a house of horrors in central New York State. I take that name, thornapple, to mean hawthorn, a small tree with apple-like fruits and thorny twigs. Hawthorn is common on old-field sites, as Coye's woods seem to have been. But there is a suggestion of the name of that far less innocuous plant that I have called jimsonweed. That suggestion gives a whole new meaning to Coye's tale, and to the story "Sticks," adapted by Karl Edward Wagner, who was a psychiatrist, a drug user, a nihilist, possibly an atheist, and the one who may very well have coined the term dark fantasy.

(1) Speaking of the E-meter, I think people undergoing auditing grip cylindrical electrodes in their hands. If I remember right, I read a story that early auditors might even have used tomato cans as the electrodes. That makes me think of Mr. Haney, from Green Acres, who very famously said, "Don't look in the termator can!" It also makes me think of the "time machine" from Napoleon Dynamite, the title character of which was, like L. Ron Hubbard, Lee Brown Coye, and Karl Edward Wagner, a redhead. Here's another quote from Wikipedia: "Montague Summers, in his translation of the Malleus Maleficarum, notes that red hair and green eyes were thought to be the sign of a witch, a werewolf or a vampire during the Middle Ages." Readers of H.P. Lovecraft have of course heard of the Malleus Maleficarum. In some of the images of Cotton Mather on the Internet, his hair is suspiciously ruddy in hue. Anyway, if a witch is a drug user, and werewolves and vampires are either psychopaths or victims of bloodborne illness, then evil and corruption have satisfactorily been explained by science, and the individual is excused from responsibility for his own actions.

Copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-Unseen--Unfeared

"Unseen--Unfeared" is a short story originally published in People's Favorite Magazine for February 10, 1919. It was Francis Stevens first story published after the end of the Great War, and there seems to be a cloud hanging over it, perhaps a cloud of awareness or an inkling of what had gone on in Europe over the previous four years and more. In the end, that cloud is dispelled and life is affirmed. The story is in five sections and takes up fifteen pages in The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (2004).

Longer than "Behind the Curtain," the story "Unseen--Unfeared" is also more complex, more innovative, and I think more enjoyable. As with so many of Stevens' stories, "Unseen--Unfeared" is a hybrid. It begins and ends as a detective tale, but there are elements of fantasy, science fiction, and the ghost story in between. It approaches what people now call dark fantasy, but then backs away with an affirmation of the essential goodness and immeasurable value of human beings. It also has something in common with later stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe he read it. More likely, tales like those written by Stevens and Lovecraft were in the making during the 1910s and '20s. The Germans, who were then entering into a period of decadence, call such a thing zeitgeist.

"Unseen--Unfeared" is set in the then-present and takes place in a large city, probably New York City or Philadelphia. The story opens and closes with conversations between the narrator, Blaisdell, and his "ever-interesting friend," Mark Jenkins, a police detective. The subject of their conversations is Doc Holt, "an amateur chemist and dabbler in different sorts of research work." (p. 213) Bracketed within these conversations is the narrator's account of a terrifying experience in a kind of laboratory/lecture hall located in a private home with Blaisdell as the sole member of the audience. The lecturer is an odd and frightening scientist--one guess as to who he is. By carefully explained (pseudo)scientific means, Blaisdell sees visions of monsters that--though invisible to us--inhabit the same space that we inhabit. The kicker is that these monsters are created by man "[o]ut of the ether . . . . By his evil thoughts, by his selfish panics, by his lusts and his interminable, never-ending hate he has made them, and they are everywhere!" (p. 221) Blaisdell resolves to abolish his "monster-creating self," (p. 222) but is interrupted in the nick of time by Jenkins the detective. In the end, coming out of his state of fear and dread, Blaisdell refuses "to ever again believe in the depravity of the human race." (p. 225) (1, 2)

Stevens' story has a Scooby-Doo kind of ending, but things aren't tied up completely with a rational explanation. There is still doubt--more than a little doubt--as to whether such an explanation is adequate. "Unseen--Unfeared" is science fiction, more accurately science fantasy. Just as in The Citadel of Fear, science and reason seem to explain things, but then something beyond science shows itself to be more powerful and closer to the real nature of the world and of human beings.

Human hatred seems to be a developing theme in the stories of Francis Stevens. Again and again, she turned away from hatred and towards "the goodness and kindliness of the human countenance." (p. 225) It's worth noting that in "Unseen--Unfeared," Blaisdell, in his state of fear, turns his thoughts against the "Italians, Jews, and . . . negroes"(p. 213) he sees in the street. "Oh, no," I thought as I was reading the story. It reminded me of nothing so much as "The Horror at Red Hook" by H.P. Lovecraft. The difference is that Stevens' narrator has fallen into a drug-induced state of fear and dread. In the end he recovers himself and embraces his fellow man.

"Unseen--Unfeared" puts me in mind of H.P. Lovecraft's work in other ways. Lovecraft was of course a materialist and probably would not have delved into a supernatural explanation as Stevens did. I can hardly imagine him closing a story with words like these:
. . . doubt is sometimes better than certainty, and there are marvels better left unproved. Those, for instance, which concern the Powers of Evil. (p. 126)
That may be the same idea as the mind not correlating all of its contents, but certainty and proof are in the province of science. The Powers of Evil inhabit the space beyond. I wonder now if Lovecraft ever used the concept of supernatural evil in his stories, or if the threats he imagined against humanity were always material, or at the very least, not in any way suggestive of God and the devil and their ongoing struggle for the human soul.

Unlike Lovecraft's stories, "Unseen--Unfeared" does not end with death, destruction, or disaster. It is affirmative rather than pessimistic or downbeat. The concept of invisible monsters and a scientific way of rendering them visible reminds me of "From Beyond" by H.P. Lovecraft, written in 1920. Was there influence of one upon the other, or, again, was this merely the zeitgeist? After all, Einsteinian relativity and talk of multiple dimensions was in the air in 1919. Invisible monsters had previously shown up in "What Was It? A Mystery" by Fitz-James O'Brien (1859), "The Horla" by Guy de Maupassant (1887), and "The Damned Thing" by Ambrose Bierce (1893). The seed of interdimensional or intradimensional invisibility may have come from Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott Abbott (1884), a pretty well indispensable book.

If there was a spirit of the times, Francis Stevens appears to have partaken of the positive and affirmative parts. She seems to have been a woman of faith, as opposed to Lovecraft the materialist, who seems to have held such dim views of humanity and our place in the universe. The difference may be explained very well by biography. Unfortunately, biographical information on Francis Stevens--Gertrude Barrows Bennett--is sorely lacking. We're left with the stories themselves. So the continuing question is this: Did Francis Stevens create dark fantasy? If dark fantasy is negative, pessimistic, or nihilistic, the answer is still no.

(1) There may be an analogy here to the war years, but if there is, it's only in the mood of the story and of the times and not in any way overt in the story.
(2) In The Citadel of Fear, the god-monster Nacoc-Yaotl comes to hate humanity because they have made him what he is by their hateful and violent ways. In "Unseen--Unfeared" Francis Stevens took that idea a step further, for the invisible monsters in the story are manifestations of human hatred. In dark fantasy, the monster supposedly comes from the outside. He predates humanity and may be entirely indifferent to us. He certainly isn't created by us, just as Cthulhu wasn't created by us.

Francis Stevens had more than her share of space on the covers of pulp magazines in her brief career, but that wasn't the case in February 1919 when her story "Unseen--Unfeared" was published in People's Favorite Magazine. The cover artist is unknown.

Text and captions copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-Behind the Curtain

"Behind the Curtain" is a short story originally published in All-Story Weekly, September 21, 1918, and reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, January 1940. In The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (2004), it takes up a mere seven pages.

"Behind the Curtain" is short, also simple, a tale of revenge in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe. The author even mentions Poe in her story, and her two characters, Santallos the narrator, and Quentin, his guest, drink of Amontillado. Santallos is a collector of Egyptian antiquities, including mummies and mummy cases. You might say he's wrapped up in his hobby, so much so that he neglects his wife. Naturally she falls into the arms of the younger man, Quentin. Santallos concocts a fiendish kind of revenge. Poe might have twisted the story one way. Francis Stevens chose to twist it another. A more conventional author would have left it untwisted. There is, I think, a feminine sensibility in the twist, despite the fact that the narrator is a man and the story was written by a woman who signed her stories with a masculine pseudonym.

* * *

As the saying goes, the golden age of science fiction is twelve. Born on September 18, 1883, Gertrude Barrows turned twelve in 1895. During the year in which she lived that golden age (and perhaps in the few months before and after--I don't know the exact dates of publication), Henry Altemus of Philadelphia issued a collection of Edgar Allan Poe's stories entitled Weird Tales (1), and out of England came The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells and The Well at the World's End by William Morris. Francis Stevens was clearly inspired and influenced by Poe--as in "Behind the Curtain"--and Wells--as in the Doctor Moreau-like character Archer Kennedy in The Citadel of Fear. (2) I can also see the influence of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century detective stories and tales of Lost Worlds after H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, again in The Citadel of Fear. We might ask how Gertrude Barrows left such a mark in her very brief career writing fantasy. Maybe it all goes back to a golden age during which she read Poe and Wells, as so many of us have done in our adolescence.

(1) There is reason to believe the later magazine (1923) was named for Poe's Weird Tales of 1895.
(2) The influence of H.G. Wells is even more pronounced in The Heads of Cerberus (1919). Stay tuned.

Virgil Finlay's illustration for "Behind the Curtain" by Francis Stevens, from Famous Fantastic Mysteries, January 1940. Note how the wrappings are strategically placed to cover up certain parts of the female anatomy. That happened a lot in pulp art.

Text and captions copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-The Citadel of Fear-Part Three

The climax of The Citadel of Fear takes place in the estate of Chester T. Reed, a mad scientist type and master and creator of the creatures who have been terrorizing Cliona O'Hara Rhodes and her household. Her brother, Colin O'Hara, visits the estate one last time for a showdown with Reed. Although the phrase "citadel of fear" never appears in the story, it is for Reed's estate that the story is named. (1)

I say climax, but there are actually two climaxes in The Citadel of Fear. The first is thematic and takes the form of a dream-vision of Colin O'Hara as he lies unconscious or semi-conscious and a captive of Chester Reed. That thematic climax must have been unconventional in its day. I doubt that Francis Stevens' readers would have been well prepared for it. The second climax has to do with the plot and is much more conventional, although with its slam-bang action, pandemonium, conflagration, and--ultimately--complete destruction, stretched out over page after page, it reminds me of the special-effects extravaganzas you see at the movie theater these days, you know, the kind that never seems to end.

As I noted in Part Two of this article, The Citadel of Fear is divided into three parts: 1) the setup, about eighty pages worth, which takes place in Mexico and in Tlapallan; 2) the development, set in the fictional villages of Charpentier and Undine, another ninety pages or so; and 3) the climax (and a brief denouement) of about seventy-five pages, which takes place in Chester Reed's "fortress of fear" in Undine. (2) That's a long climax to be sure (maybe a little too long), but it's where the book comes into fruition.

The thematic climax in The Citadel of Fear--Colin O'Hara's dream-vision--comes when the god Quetzacoatl confronts Nacoc-Yaotl, the "creator of hatreds" and a god with "an enmity against the human race--an enmity darker and vaster than human enmity could ever be." (p. 204) (3) Chester Reed--better known as Archer Kennedy--has subdued his old friend O'Hara and prepares to change him into one of his nightmarish creatures. In the lead-up to that confrontation between god and god, Kennedy reveals himself in some very long passages:
"I worship nothing!' [Kennedy shouts] "Do you understand me? Nothing!" (p. 207)
He was loathsome, and inspired contempt [O'Hara thinks]. He was shallow, cheap, the shell of a man, empty of aught but petty egotism and a malice that had not even the redeeming dignity of greatness. (p. 212)
"I told you that I let imagination run away with me at first [continues Kennedy]. I swept and carried and toiled for them in fear and trembling! I! Till I began to use my reason, to remember that material effects have material causes, and I saw clear to the real god behind the sham ones . . . . The god I speak of is the only one of real power the world has ever known. I mean--science!" (p. 212)
Kennedy again: "Men bow to two powers--gold and fear! In the day when I am ready they will bow to only one, and that will be in my control. Gold! What's gold beside fear?" (p. 217)
And again: "Oh, there is a science of will as of matter." (p. 221)
And O'Hara's response to all this: "Any man who is fool enough to play with the devil's own process you've been describing, to try to explain it by a rigamarole of 'science', not to perceive the black power behind his own power--such a man is no more or less than an empty-head . . . !" (p. 220)
Then the dream-vision commences (on page 234), and Nacoc-Yaotl makes his case:
"Men made me what I am, and for that I hate them! In all Anahuac [Mexico under the Aztecs] there was no mercy among them. In the shrieks of the bloody sacrifice, in the cries of babes murdered upon my altars, in the steam that arose from the unspeakable feast, the mirror of Tezcatlipoca was fouled and dimmed; Telpuctli grew black, old and cruel!" (p. 237) (5)
states his aim:
"Free runs my will today and freer shall it run tomorrow. Hate breeds hate, and demon produces demon. How fast have their numbers increased! He [Kennedy] is pleased like a child, and believes that he shall rule the world! He! That empty, hollow reed through which my will runs!
          "But through all, and despite his coward soul, I have brought this blind slave of mine to dare that for which I waited through the centuries. We have come at last to the utter corruption of man!" (p. 238)
and then makes a prophecy that has come down through nearly a century to the present day, into the real world in which we all now live:
"In the day of full corruption, and when each hater shall wear the foul outer form of his hatred, who, think you, will be best worshipped of the gods?" (p. 238)
Despite Nacoc-Yaotl's power, he is defeated, Kennedy and his monsters are consumed in fire and destruction, and Colin O'Hara, the woman he loves, and the rest of humanity are saved. In the end, "[h]aving met nothing to shake his faith in either his universe or his God, [O'Hara] remained a good Catholic, and the Dusk Lady [the woman he loves] was duly baptized into that church . . . ." (p. 269) The two are married and they seem pretty certain to live happily ever after.

* * *

The claim is that Francis Stevens--Gertrude Barrows Bennett--created dark fantasy. It's clear that the ancient, powerful, and hostile entity of dark fantasy is present in The Citadel of Fear. It's even more clear that Stevens was not a nihilist, atheist, or materialist, and did not sympathize with those causes. On the contrary, her sympathies are with the forces of good and with her "good Catholic" hero, his sister, and humanity in general. The villain is Archer Kennedy, a materialist and a nihilist ("I worship nothing!"). Moreover, he is a subscriber to what is now called Scientism, the religion of science, and a man who seeks to impose his will---through fear--upon the world. With the appearance of Nacoc-Yaotl, Kennedy's worldview, in which materialism, science, and a human will-to-power are supreme, falls apart, for Nacoc-Yaotl is a supernatural force and in the end is defeated only by other supernatural forces. Kennedy is a mere pawn. It's clear here also where the author's sympathies lie.

We are now living in a world created by men like Archer Kennedy: small, hollow, empty-headed, egotistical, but burning with an ambition to impose their will upon the rest of us. Science is their highest belief. Atheism, materialism, nihilism, and similar -isms are their religions. They and their followers worship a god of hatred. Like Kennedy, they are merely the tools of something darker still, an ancient force of evil and corruption. And like Kennedy, they fail to see it. Nacoc-Yaotl, "creator of hatreds," is one name for the force that hates humanity and wishes to corrupt and destroy us. It goes by other names as well. In a remarkable bit of prophecy, Francis Stevens foresaw a time when he would be "the best worshipped of the gods." That time may very well be now. And dark fantasy may very well be a genre for that time, written as it is, more significantly read as it is, by people who may have more in common with Archer Kennedy than with Colin O'Hara or Francis Stevens. We should all ask ourselves: would we rather be good, loving, faithful, heroic, and courageous? Or would we rather worship nothing and be filled with corruption and hatred, for ourselves and the rest of humanity?

* * *

The Citadel of Fear is Francis Stevens longest, most complex, and most sophisticated work to date. I'm not sure that I will read anything else by her to top it. If you decide to read The Citadel of Fear, be aware that the book is long, that its author goes on a little too much in certain places, and that her style is old-fashioned. In the end, I hope you will find the book worth it.

The Citadel of Fear by Francis Stevens (1970), with an introduction by Sam Moskowitz and cover art by Steele Savage. Note the Moth Girl again.

(1) The phrase used in the story is "fortress of fear."
(2) The symbolism in the name Undine is pretty straightforward: an undine is a supernatural or mythological being--usually female--associated with water. Chester Reed's creatures live in an artificial swamp or marsh, but the word undine more likely applies to his supposed daughter, with whom Colin O'Hara has fallen in love. The name Charpentier is harder to puzzle out. Charpentier is the French word for carpenter. It might be a little too obvious to connect that to Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth.
(3) The quote is from Svend Bjornson, who has made a reappearance. He goes on: "Can you believe, child, that there are gods of old who still live? Old gods, and powers that have survived the passing of their worshippers?" (p. 204) Again, images of the Cthulhu Mythos pop into my head.
(5) Tezcatlipoca is an epithet for Nacoc-Yaotl. I don't know the meaning of Telpuctli.

Original text copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-The Citadel of Fear-Part Two

This episode begins with two treasure hunters, Colin O'Hara and Archer Kennedy, being held prisoner by the people of Tlapallan, "the last remnant of a forgotten race, older than Toltec or Mayan, or even the Olmecs." (p. 43) As it turns out, Svend Bjornson, O'Hara and Kennedy's former host and captor, is a kind of guardian of the lost city and its people. Still, he is a modern man and a member of western civilization, and he has something in common with them. Meeting the captives in their cell, Bjornson offers a warning and the first inkling of the theme of The Citadel of Fear:
"Boy," [he says to O'Hara], "never bow your head to the gods of a strange race! Never! Not for beauty, nor love, nor wealth, nor friendship! Not for wonders, nor miracles! You speak of mysteries. There is a mystery I could tell you of--but your soul would be sick afterward--sick--you might even desert your Christ--as I did, God help me!" (p. 44)
Bjornson recounts his story, how he came to Tlapallan and how he remained, even when he knew what it meant to remain:
"When I say that you are housed now in the seat of Nacoc-Yaotl it means nothing to you," [he says], "but to me it means threat of a terror that I never think of when I can avoid it! When I was first here, a prisoner, I, who had never given much thought to religion, used to spend whole nights in prayer, entreating God to make it untrue--or let me forget!"
Bjornson could have escaped from Tlapallan, seat of Nacoc-Yaotl, a god of the Tlapallans, but he did not go, for the attraction was too great. The implication is that he has given up his soul in exchange for what he once believed to be a greater reward.

There is a lot of escaping in The Citadel of Fear. Once again, O'Hara and Kennedy escape from their cell into the city of Tlapallan. They are astonished to find a great white lake, illuminated from below, its waters plied by the galleys of the Tlapallans. Here they separate, O'Hara drawn to light and water--symbols perhaps of life itself--Kennedy retreating into the dark, empty, and convoluted inner recesses of the city. There he stumbles onto a nightmarish and fantastic landscape, and in it, a niche in a wall, filled with an almost palpable darkness and inhabited by a black idol. Kennedy cannot tear himself away from the face of the idol:
It was not a good face. No evil, indeed, could have been too vile for its ugliness to grin at . . . . A tense, cruel grin it was, that had never heard of humor. Cruel and monstrously alert . . . . The eyes were slits, but they were watchful slits . . . . Had it witnessed torture, not the victim but the tormentor would have held its avid attention. Not pain, but cruelty, not vice but viciousness--and the corruption of all mankind could hardly have sated its ambition, nor the evil of a world-wide race of demons have quenched the desire behind its narrowed lids. (p. 66)
This, then, is Nacoc-Yaotl, "black maker of hatreds, who would destroy mankind if he could." (pp. 71-72) The image evokes in the mind of the reader who has read stories by H.P. Lovecraft the image of Cthulhu and his associates. Maybe that image made its way into the mind of Lovecraft himself in 1918, there to remain for nearly a decade before he wrote "The Call of Cthulhu" in 1926. (1)

The narrative continues:
In the natures of different men there are, as one might say, certain empty spaces. Voids that long to be filled. So one craves beauty, and another love, a third goodness, and a fourth, perhaps, mere lust of the senses.
          Meeting these, the emptiness is filled and the man is happy. So, Kennedy. He had craved gold, but back of that desire was another and deeper lack--an emptiness unknown and unacknowledged, even by himself. The face of [Nacoc-Yaotl] filled it. (pp. 66-67)
Here, then, is a figure we might recognize, the materialist, desperately empty, desperate to believe in something, only too happy to fill his emptiness with the first compelling belief system he encounters, and desperate, too, to surrender himself and his freedom to the first entity who offers to relieve him of such burdens. Heedless of Bjornson's earlier warning, Kennedy gives to Nacoc-Yaotl "the perfect worship of a real devotee." (p. 76)

Kennedy and O'Hara spend another twenty-five pages in Tlapallan until Bjornson allows O'Hara to escape. Kennedy is still held captive in the city of Quetzacoatl--and Nacoc-Yaotl--and that's the last we see of him for awhile. Then, abruptly, on page 93, the story jumps forward fifteen years into the then-present, circa 1918, and the home of Colin O'Hara's almost anagramically-named sister, Cliona O'Hara Rhodes, located in an eastern suburb named Charpentier. That break comes about one-third of the way through Francis Stevens' story, and it isn't only a break in time and place, but also in mood, plot, and genre. From a Lost Worlds adventure-fantasy, The Citadel of Fear moves into the territory of a mystery-thriller, increasingly into horror, as Cliona and her household are terrorized by the nighttime visitations of strange, frightening, and largely unseen creatures. There is a good deal of humor, including the introduction of an Inspector Lestrade kind of character in the police detective MacClellan. There is also some domestic melodrama and/or comedy perhaps meant to appeal to women readers after so many pages of the Mexican adventures of two scruffy treasure hunters. The Citadel of Fear is overlong in places, with too much space devoted to what appear to be inconsequential events and descriptions. Most of that is in the middle part of the book.

So if a story breaks at the one-third mark, you might look for another transition at the two-thirds mark. On first reading the book, I didn't detect the break, but there it is, on page 190, where Colin O'Hara sets off on his last visit to the estate of a Mr. Chester Reed, like Tlapallan a fantastic place, and located in the nearby village of Undine. Reed is an odd character and a kind of Dr. Moreau of the suburbs. He and O'Hara had met many chapters before. Again, as in her previous stories, Francis Stevens displayed a great faculty for imagining and describing strange, fantastic, and nightmarish places. Again there is a suggestion that a place has a personality, or expresses the personality of the person who inhabits or creates it. In the estate of Chester Reed, The Citadel of Fear reaches its climax, and its author, in an extraordinary dream-vision, foretells something of our time, and perhaps also of the world into which dark fantasy would be born.

To be concluded . . .

(1) The body of the idol is described as a thing that "squatted naked, and the fingers clasped about its drawn-up knees were long, and stealthy, and treacherous." (p. 66). There is a strong suggestion here of the image of the idol of Cthulhu in Lovecraft's story.

"The Citadel of Fear" was reprinted complete in Famous Fantastic Mysteries in February 1942. The cover was by Virgil Finlay.

Text and captions copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-The Citadel of Fear-Part One

"The Citadel of Fear" by Francis Stevens was first published as a seven-part serial in The Argosy from September 14 to October 26, 1918. It was reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries Combined with Fantastic Novels Magazine in February 1942, and again as a mass-market paperback in 1970. The paperback edition has a brief introduction by Sam Moskowitz and runs to 270 pages in all. "The Citadel of Fear" was Francis Stevens' longest story to date and is actually a novel in its length and complexity. There are twenty-three chapters in all, some quite short. From here on out, treating it as a novel, I'll italicize the title.

The Citadel of Fear begins like a Western with two treasure hunters lost in the desert. Colin "Boots" O'Hara is young, fair, tall, strong, and very Irish in temperament. His companion is Archer Kennedy, short, dark, a little older than O'Hara, and altogether an unsavory character. O'Hara, the hero, is, as he calls himself, "a good Catholic." Kennedy on the other hand is a materialist, a fallen man, ripe for further falling.

As it turns out, O'Hara and Kennedy are lost in Mexico (or "Old Mexico" as my octogenarian landlady of many years ago called it) beyond a place called Cuachictin.
Barren, unpopulated, forsaken even of the Indians, this region had an evil reputation. "Collados del Demonio," Hills of the Fiend, the Mexicans called it. (p. 15)
The two men--perhaps two sides of the same Irish coin--finally stumble onto a kind of oasis, a lost valley inhabited by a mysterious and faintly threatening planter, Svend Biornson, and his family. Biornson proceeds to lock the men in their room. In their escape, they move further up the valley and are captured by a forgotten race of men. The men inhabit a hidden city called Tlapallan, the city of Quetzacoatl. With that, The Citadel of Fear passes from one genre into another, from a Western--a strange kind of Western to be sure--into a Lost Worlds romance.

* * *

The claim is that Francis Stevens created the sub-genre or sub-sub-genre of dark fantasy. People don't seem to agree very well on the definition of that term, but dark fantasy is apparently the Cthulhu Mythos, only more so. If I understand it correctly, in dark fantasy, the earth and humanity are threatened by beings that were old when the world was young. They may be hostile towards us, or they may simply be indifferent. They are certainly beyond our understanding. That seems to be only half the definition, however, and maybe not even the more important half. The Citadel of Fear is the first evidence I have read that Francis Stevens did indeed work in this ill-defined sub-genre or sub-sub-genre, for there is indeed an ancient and hostile god in the story. What's missing from her story is the other half of the definition, the operative half, for dark fantasy is dark.

* * *

Many years ago, I went with a group of people to the library of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Most were botanists, but there were some herpetologists and other wildlife researchers as well. The library holds a first printing of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. That book was on display that day. We looked at the book in its glass case, but I also watched the botanists and herpetologists as they looked. It was an enlightening thing for me to see, for these people looked upon Darwin's tome as a Christian would look upon an early Bible. They were in awe, and a kind of reverence came upon them. It occurred to me that they--as science-minded people--hoped that they might someday change the world with their research, observations, and insights as Darwin once did. If they could only do what he did--if they could somehow lay bare hidden truths about the world--if they could uncover earth's secret history the way Darwin, or in other fields, the way Mendel, Freud, Einstein, and Watson and Crick did--they might be esteemed beyond all measure, they might become extraordinary, they might reach a kind of immortality among men.

Unfortunately for them and for so many other people, we find ourselves living in a democratic age. We all want to be extraordinary without seeing that to be extraordinary in a world where everyone is extraordinary is an impossibility--an absurdity. The advent of digital technology has only leveled things out even more. Now everyone can be a writer, an artist, a musician, a journalist, a philosopher, a theorist, a historian, a critic, and so on. Here I am writing a blog. My potential readership is in the billions. I could be a crackpot and still have more people read what I write than even the most popular authors of the pre-digital past. Everyone who reads my blog or any other blog can do the same thing. And because of that, no one stands out, for if there are billions of people but also billions of websites and blogs, who is there to read what you have written?

We all want to accomplish something or other and for our lives to have some kind of purpose and meaning. We all want to be esteemed and to have a kind of immortality as well. There was a time when everyone on earth, no matter how high or low, was esteemed, not necessarily by other people or even by himself, but by his Creator. Every person also held a position in his society or culture. Again, it might be high or low, but he knew and everyone else knew where he was and what his duties were. Finally, every person held a position in his family and was--potentially at least--esteemed by them. Even if he were not a patriarch--a king in his own family--he might be a prince. In all those things--by God, in society, in his own family--the individual was esteemed, and through all those things, he might attain a kind of immortality: he would live on in his children and grandchildren, his works would live on as well, as the work of countless nameless peasants and craftsmen lives on in Il Duomo di Milano, for instance, and most importantly his eternal soul would live on in communion with God.

But we decided we didn't want any of that. And in pursuit of our own personal happiness and fulfillment, I suspect we have made ourselves deeply unhappy and unfulfilled.

So what does all that have to do with dark fantasy?

First, as a writer or artist, if you can claim to be the inventor of a form or genre, you might earn the esteem of your fellow artists, as well as of critics and fans. You might also gain, in your own mind at least, a kind of immortality. As a critic or academic, if you can claim to have discovered the inventor of a form or genre, you might write a paper (published in some unread academic journal), thereby earning the esteem (more likely jealousy) of your fellows. In your own small way, you have uncovered one of the world's secrets, and you can hope that your name will live on forever because of it. The problem is that there is an ever-diminishing supply of really juicy secrets to be uncovered and ever-fewer new ideas and concepts to lay out before a reverent and appreciative world. Not only that, everyone else in your field is trying to do the same exact thing. And not only that, now that there's that damned Internet, everybody in the world can compete with you, too, even if they are completely lacking in credentials. How are you supposed to be extraordinary when everyone else is trying to be extraordinary, too?

Second, once you have cut yourself off from the past, from any kind of traditional and cohesive society, from your own family and the concept of family, and from God himself, how are you supposed to live? It's no wonder that there should be so many people who are so depressed, living in despair, negative, pessimistic, self-destructive, and nihilistic. It's no wonder that a man should shoot up a museum or crash an airplane into a mountainside. If there really is such a thing as dark fantasy, it exists because it suits a need among writers, critics, and academics to stand out somehow, but more to the point, it exists because it satisfies the desire of the reader to be affirmed in his negative and nihilistic view of himself, humanity, and the universe. There have always been and always will be nihilists. But I suspect that dark fantasy would have been undreamed of in a traditional society and culture, in other words, the society and culture that was finally put in its grave more than a hundred years ago by Darwin or Freud or Nietzsche or whatever other nineteenth or early twentieth century bugaboo you care to mention. In fact, I think dark fantasy, if it exists, is an invention of recent years, probably of the last twenty-five to thirty years, the same period during which science fiction--a genre based on a faith in the infinite future--seems to have taken to its sickbed, and during which fantasy--a genre that is more or less about decadence--has become more popular, it seems certain, to suit our decadent age. Yes, Francis Stevens wrote about an ancient god who hates and seeks to destroy humanity, but Francis Stevens was not a nihilist. In the end, Colin O'Hara, "a good Catholic," wins out over that god, and love wins out over hate. If it were written today, and if it were indeed dark fantasy, The Citadel of Fear could not be hopeful and positive. As it is, it might very well have little appeal to readers who seem so eager to wallow in everything that is dark, violent, and nihilistic in the world.

To be continued . . . 

The Argosy, September 14, 1918. The cover story is "Citadel of Fear" by Francis Stevens, the cover artist unknown. The female character is "The Moth Girl." Look for her again in the second part of this series.

Text and captions copyright 2015, 2023 Terence E. Hanley