Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-Serapion

"Serapion" by Francis Stevens was first published as a four-part serial in The Argosy from June 19 to July 10, 1920, then reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries Combined with Fantastic Novels Magazine nearly a generation later, in July 1942. It is a novella in length, and in The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (2004), "Serapion" takes up ninety-five pages.

I have not yet read "Sunfire," Francis Stevens' last published story, but it's hard for me to imagine that it will surpass "Serapion." Sophisticated, profound, tightly written, carefully composed, singular in its purpose, and inexorable in its movement towards a powerful conclusion, "Serapion" must be considered one of Francis Stevens' highest achievements as a writer. It's hard for me to believe that it was published in a pulp magazine or that a pulp readership would have found it of real interest. And yet it was reprinted in a pretty pulpy pulp, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, in 1942.

The plot of "Serapion" is pretty straightforward: Nils Berquist introduces his friend, Clay Barbour, to two spiritualists, James Barton Moore and his wife, a pallid and enervated hothouse flower named Alicia. During a séance at the Moores' house, Barbour becomes aware of what he calls a "Fifth Presence," an entity soon known to him by the name Serapion. The nature of Serapion is uncertain. His presence distresses Barbour, but he also wishes--or says he wishes--Barbour to be happy and well loved. To that end--ultimately his own ends--Serapion begins to manipulate events in the lives of Barbour and his associates. Every one of them meets a tragic end, only . . .

In his introduction to The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy, Gary Hoppenstand writes:
"Serapion" is, to my mind, Stevens' best story among her shorter fiction [and] is her most sophisticated tale. . . . [T]he warning, stated early in the narrative that 'there are entities and forces dangerous to the human race outside of what we call the natural world,' decidely confirms the fundamental ideology of dark fantasy. . . . [Stevens] concocts a marvelously problematic ending for both the possessed [Barbour] and the possessor [Serapion]. Neither evil nor good wins in the end of her morally ambivalent tale, nothing that simple here. (p. xxiii)
I agree with Dr. Hoppenstand that this is one of Stevens' best and most sophisticated tales. I also agree that there is nothing simple in its conclusion. I disagree with everything in between.

First, that warning--"there are entities and forces dangerous to the human race outside of what we call the natural world"--does not confirm "the fundamental ideology of dark fantasy." On the contrary, "Serapion" is suffused with Christian thought and imagery. Its "fundamental ideology," if you want to call it that, is not of dark fantasy at all but of Christian theology. And there is nothing that is "decidedly . . . dark fantasy" about it--"Serapion" is Francis Stevens' most Christian tale. In fact it's one of the most Christian of all genre stories I have ever read.

Second, the story is not morally ambivalent. There is ambivalence in the entity Serapion--as you're reading, you're not sure what he's up to or whether he's good or bad--but by the end you know the truth and you can have no sympathy for him. And although it's true that "[n]either evil nor good wins in the end," you're pretty certain which way things will go, and it's not in favor of evil. Sorry, fans of dark fantasy. Once again you will be disappointed.

As in The Citadel of Fear (Nacoc Yaotl) and "Claimed!" (an unnamed Poseidon-like god referred to as "the scarlet archangel"), Francis Stevens used in "Serapion" a pagan god as her nemesis. That name, Serapion, evokes the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis, who was depicted in statuary as holding a scepter, with Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld, at his feet, and perhaps significantly, a snake also coiled there. (1, 2) In both of the previous stories, love and human goodness foil these pagan gods (with help from other forces). Those forces, including love and goodness, are still at work in "Serapion," but all adornment is stripped away to reveal the Christian God as the force foiling the title character. Francis Stevens wrote just one more published story after "Serapion." We might wonder why and assign her silence to some unknown biographical fact. I wonder now if she had simply said all she had to say in the best way she could.

So I would like to offer evidence from "Serapion":

The spiritualist Jimmy Moore probes Berquist, a skeptic on spiritualism, with this question: "Still clinging to sacred barriers, eh?"
"The barriers exist, and they are sacred [Berquist replies] . . . . I do not believe that you or others like you can tear them down. If I did, I should be justified in taking your life, as though you were any other dangerous criminal. When those barriers go down, chaos will swallow the world, and the race of men be superseded by the race of madmen!"
We have seen what happens when sacred barriers came down. Berquist's (and Stevens') warning proved accurate.

In any case, Moore retorts: "In the world of science . . . what one can do, one may do." (p. 251) Though a spiritualist, Moore is actually the scientific half of a team, his wife being the spiritual half. It's a dichotomy--material vs. non-material--that runs throughout Francis Stevens' work. Moore continues: "How do you know that your soul, as you call it, isn't just another finer form of matter?" (p. 252) James Barton Moore, then, is a scientist, rationalist, and materialist, a man without limits, barriers, or conscience. It's no wonder that an evil force would come into the world through his door.

Clay Barbour, the narrator, explores his character further: "James Barton Moore . . . . had, moreover, one characteristic of a certain type of scientist in less weird fields. He would have put a stranger or a friend on the vivisectionary table, could he by that means have hoped to acquire one small modicum of the knowledge he sought." (pp. 264-265) Being a materialist, Moore is of course unbound by morality--"what one can do, one may do"--and in that he sounds suspiciously like a psychopath. (We know that there is a connection of some kind between medical doctors and psychopathy.) Moore also sounds like Aleister Crowley, who famously said, "Do what thou wilt."

"There is power in a name," says Alicia (p. 306), a power that Francis Stevens used in her stories, where proper nouns have such meaning and significance. Clay Barbour for instance carries as his middle name the full name of his possessor, Serapion. He also disclaims his middle name, saying instead that it is Samuel. Serapion is the name of a demon. Samuel is literally "the name of God." The name Clay is self-explanatory, for the man of clay is caught between God and the devil.

Serapion, a charmer and seducer, speaks true-lies to Barbour: "There is but one invincible power, offered by God to man, and which God has commanded man to use . . . . Love! Armored in love, your life will be a sacred, guarded joy to you. Believe me! I am older than I appear, and wiser than I am old. Guided by me, guarded by love, you have a beautiful future at your command." (p. 316)

Nils Berquist, initially a socialist and an idealist, slowly converts over the course of the story and finally takes the fall for a crime committed by his friend:
"You believe in God and His justice? You?" [Barbour asks.]
"Most solemnly--most earnestly--as I never knew Him nor His justice before, Clayton, lad. Why, I'm happy! Do I seem so tragically sad to you?"
"No. But you seem different from any living man. You look like--I have seen the picture of a man with that light on his face."
"He was nailed to a cross." (p. 337)
Finally, Serapion, who is truthful to himself if no one else and who calls himself "the angel-drowned-in-mire" among other epithets, possesses Clay Barbour completely--or almost completely:
"I have absorbed his being: yes!" [writes Serapion.] "But in the very face of victory I, who never had a conscience, have paid a bitter price for the new lease of life in the flesh that I coveted. . . . And my punishment is this: that you [Barbour] are not content, and I know now that you never will be. Year by year you, who were weak have grown stronger; day by day, even hour by hour, you are tightening the grip that draws me into your own cursed circle of conscience-stricken misery. . . . Is it true then? After all these years must the long, bright shadow of Nils Berquist's cross touch and save me even against my will? Must I, Clayton-Serapion, the dual soul made one, surrender at last and myself take up the awful burden God lays on those he loves?"
And then the final sentence in the story: "First painful step on that road, I have confessed." (pp. 341-342)

So, can we put to rest the demonstrably false and terribly misguided idea that Francis Stevens invented or worked in the genre of dark fantasy? She was unquestionably Christian, I suspect a Catholic. In her stories, the forces pressing in upon humanity from the outside are not material at all but spiritual, malicious, and as old as time itself. There is no moral ambivalence nor lack of absolutes. Her best stories are of the continuing battle between good and evil. And in her stories, the world will not meet Gary Hoppenstand's "terrible end" (p. xxiv) but will go on under the watchful eyes of a loving God. This is not dark fantasy at all, nor is it in any way nihilistic. It is faith, and I would wager, truth.

(1) The image of a Middle Eastern god or demon from The Exorcist (1973) leaps to mind.
(2) The word serapion seems to have been Francis Stevens' invention. In the ancient world, a serapeum was a temple dedicated to Serapis. There is evidence in the story that Barbour's namesake, his uncle Serapion, was also possessed by the demon, in which case the idea of the body as a temple of God takes on some ambiguity. Or it could be that the word Serapion is meant to signify a follower or devotee of Serapis. In any case, Francis Stevens seems to have invoked pagan gods for the nemeses in her stories.

Argosy, June 19, 1920, with "Serapion" by Francis Stevens as the cover story. The male character is Nils Berquist, not the narrator and protagonist Clay Barbour. The cover artist is unknown.

Famous Fantastic Mysteries, July 1942, with cover art by Virgil Finlay. The "dead-alive house" is the house of the spiritualists, James and Alicia Moore.

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley

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