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 Terence E. Hanley

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