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 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 Terence E. Hanley


  1. I've had a copy of the 1970 Paperback Library edition of "The Citadel of Fear" for years now, and your excellent commentary here has prompted me to pull it out from the neatly-stacked mass of pulp fantasy that I've collected and placed in the queue to read soon. The back cover has a quote from Lovecraft on Stevens: "Wonderful and tragic allegory ... Amazing and thrilling." Keep up the superb work on this blog. It is very informative and enlightening.

  2. Hi, John,

    The Citadel of Fear might be a little too long, but hang in there. The climax is an extraordinary foretelling of our time. I'll write more about it in subsequent parts of this series.

    Thanks for your kind words and thanks for reading.


  3. Excellent and thoughtful post.