I'm not the first blogger to write about Francis Stevens. A writer (who seems to be unnamed) on the blog Skulls in the Stars wrote about her as well, several years ago. You can see his blog entry by clicking here. The blogger makes some comparisons between the stories of Francis Stevens and other works, such as stories by H.P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt and the television show Lost. He also posits that Stevens was "a 'transitional' author between the 'lawful universe' authors that came before her and the 'nihilistic universe' authors such as Lovecraft which found inspiration in her work." That may be true and a useful insight. I would differ with him however that the stories of Francis Stevens "present a truly dark vision of the world." That's not the case at all, for Francis Stevens--Gertrude Barrows Bennett--did not have a dark view of the world or humanity or our place in the universe, at least not one that showed in her work. I'll quote again from Skulls in the Stars:
Stevens often seems to feel that the audience needs to be let "off the hook" by the end of stories [sic], with some sort of deus ex machina intended to allow the reader to breathe a sigh of relief. To a modern reader, the sigh is usually more a sigh of disappointment, but Stevens is “transitional” in that she usually does not let the reader entirely off the hook: the horror is ratcheted back, but never completely to zero. [Emphasis added.]
I don't really consider the resolution to Stevens stories to be an act of deus ex machina, nor do I detect any desire to let her readers "off the hook." It's clear to me that Gertrude planned her stories very carefully. They are in no way slipshod. The endings are as she planned them to be. (She is said to have shut herself into a room, free of distraction, while she wrote and to labor away for months on each of her novels.) The Citadel of Fear and "Unseen-Unfeared" are the two stories that I think are most horrific (to date), yet both end in very life-affirming and positive ways. The very last event in The Citadel of Fear is literally uplifting.
Those things are beside the point. You will notice the words in bold above. There's the point. My contention is that dark fantasy is a sub-sub-genre of our own time, and because of that, neither Francis Stevens nor any of her contemporaries could have invented it. Dark fantasy suits the readers of today precisely because it is dark. The unnamed blogger on The Skull in the Stars is onto something, seemingly without knowing it, for the modern reader is disappointed with happy endings and seemingly with any affirmation of life, love, or humanity. Why? Good question. It may be that the modern reader is a child of a society that--having thrown off its moorings to the past, to tradition and custom, to family, nation, and God Himself--loathes itself and wishes to see itself destroyed. In other words, the modern reader is a desperately unhappy person and wishes to read what will only confirm his very dark view of the world. During the years of the Great War, Francis Stevens and everybody else in the whole crazy world had reason to believe that this was the end. But rather than plunge into darkness, she and many of them turned towards the light. Why shouldn't we do the same in our far less difficult times?
Copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley