Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Stories of Francis Stevens-Sunfire

Finally I'm back to Weird Tales.

"Sunfire" was Francis Stevens' last published story. After its appearance as a two-part serial in Weird Tales (July-Sept. 1923), she fell silent. If "Serapion" was the climax of her career, "Sunfire" was a denouement, and, I'm sorry to say, not a very memorable one. It is a long short story or short novella and runs to sixty-one pages iThe Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (an inaccurate subtitle by the way).

"Sunfire," originally entitled "Fire of Noon," is a straightforward narrative that reads like the plot of an adventure movie. As a tale of Lost Worlds, it hearkens back to Stevens' first story, "The Nightmare," from just six years before. In its description of a complicated physical environment--a pyramid-island in a high Amazonian lake or lagoon--"Sunfire" has similarities to "The Labyrinth" and The Citadel of Fear. Also like "The Nightmare," the nemesis is a cryptozoological creature, in this case a monstrous centipede. The powerful themes of her middle stories--love vs. hate, spirit vs. science, God vs. devil--are absent from "Sunfire," although she touches on the theme of altered states of consciousness. All in all, it's a lighthearted story of adventure and romance. Despite the blurb on the back cover of The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (did I mention that the subtitle is inaccurate?), the main characters survive. Those characters--five men on an expedition--banter and joust like Allan Quatermain, Sir Henry, and Captain Good from King Solomon's Mines (1885). I imagine Doc Savage's sidekicks were made from the same mold.

Gertrude Barrows (1883-1948) had come of age before movies as we know them were widely seen. She very likely would have learned storytelling from reading rather than from watching movies. And although pulp magazines were almost as old as she (1), that form had entered a new era after the war with the publication of specialty titles, The Thrill Book (1919), Black Mask (1920), then Weird Tales (1923). Although she wrote her stories in the pulp era, Stevens' style was still a little old-fashioned, even antiquated. In her last two stories, she alluded to characters past their prime at age forty; Gertrude turned forty in 1923, in the same month the last chapter of her last story was published.

No one knows why Gertrude Barrows Bennett stopped publishing stories. It could be that she did not feel equipped for a new era in pulps or in a larger society. (2) That's mere speculation. All we know is that Francis Stevens, who did not invent dark fantasy, wrote twelve stories published in a six-year period (plus one published when she was seventeen); that she may have been the first American woman to have a science fiction story published in an American magazine ("The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar," 1904); that she may have been the first American to create a totalitarian ruler as a character (The Heads of Cerberus, 1919) (3); that, with "Friend Island" (1918) at least, she was an early feminist writer of fantasy and science fiction; that she wrote several fine and memorable stories (The Citadel of Fear, The Heads of Cerberus, "Claimed!", and "Serapion" among them); that she was a very popular and widely admired writer (4); and that she may have been the most important woman writer of fantasy between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1759-1797) and C.L. Moore (1911-1987). Something else that comes out in a reading of her stories is that she may have been one of few Christian writers of fantasy and science fiction before C.S. Lewis.

There are some who believe that Francis Stevens influenced A. Merritt and H.P. Lovecraft. (5, 6) I haven't seen any evidence of that, but that's not to say that there isn't any. That belief seems to be just one of those things that people pass around on the Internet. But I'm done with my crusading. I think I have shown that Stevens did not invent or work in the late twentieth century sub-sub-genre of dark fantasy. That seems to be hype, or a marketing ploy, or the sound of someone trying to add something to his curriculum vitae. If there is going to be any further investigation into her career, someone else will have to do it.

And so ends this series.

(1) The first pulp magazine, The Argosy, switched to an all-story pulp format in 1896, in the year of Gertrude Barrows' golden age of twelve.
(2) Although Weird Tales dates from the specialized era of pulp magazines, it seems now like an old-fashioned or antiquated magazine. That makes sense in its way. After all, fantasy and weird fiction are about the past. The founder of the magazine, Jacob Clark Henneberger, was born in 1890, as was his leading author, H.P. Lovecraft. Both cut their teeth on tales by Poe, both came from the Victorian era, and both turned thirty in the year the Roaring Twenties began. For years the main cover artist was C.C. Senf (1873-1949), a decidedly Old-World artist with Old-World sensibilities. It would be many years before the fantasy or science fiction story was well polished--as in the work of Robert A. Heinlein, for instance--and before pulp art came into its own--as with Virgil Finlay or Ed Emshwiller. Those Victorian origins for Weird Tales are one of the reasons why I chose the background for this blog: it reminded me of that old velvety wallpaper you could still see in houses when I was a kid, long after Weird Tales had come to an end.
(3) She was not, however, the first American woman to write a dystopian novel. That honor probably falls to Anna Bowman Dodd (1855-1929), author of The Republic of the Future, published in 1887.
(4) Eight of her thirteen stories were cover stories at first publication.
(5) When I read her stories, I was reminded not of Merritt or Lovecraft, but C.L. Moore. I'm not sure how likely it is that Catherine would have read Gertrude's stories. I'm not sure that you could make a case that the latter influenced the former. More likely, they all read the same stuff and each other's stuff, and out of that soup came the fantasy of the 1910s through the 1940s.
(6) As I think about it more, Francis Stevens may have had more in common with Nictzin Dyalhis (1873?-1942) than with A. Merritt or H.P. Lovecraft: Both were pseudonymous authors about whom almost nothing is known; both lived, wrote, and died in isolation; both were writers of very colorful and imaginative science fantasy stories; both had a relatively small output of stories that were yet very popular; and both had more than their share of cover stories. Finally, speaking of isolation--from the Latin, "made into an island": five of her thirteen stories take place at least in part on islands. The remainder involve separation from the outside world, either physically or psychologically, perhaps a requirement for fantasy fiction in general.

I have been working on a series categorizing the covers of Weird Tales. I looked and looked at this one and couldn't figure it out. Now I have read "Sunfire" and I still can't figure it out. What the heck is going on here? And why did anyone think this would make a good cover? As the man in the commercial said, the world may never know. (Art by R.M Mally.)

Text and captions copyright 2015 Terence E. Hanley


  1. This nonsense about Francis Stevens as the inventor of dark fantasy or having been an influence on Merritt and Lovecraft appears to have been made up out of whole cloth by Gary Hoppenstand in his introduction to the volume The Nightmare. I never found such a suggestion anywhere prior to that introduction. I think it is just a case of an academic who knows nothing of our field and is trying to make a big name for himself and inflated claims for his author. If ever there were authors who were sui generis in style and substance, they were Merritt and Lovecraft (they don't say Merrittesque or Lovecraftian for nothing). I note, for instance, that her first story, The Nightmare, came out in April 1917. Merritt's first two stories were Through the Dragon Glass (Nov. 1917) and The People of the Pit (Jan. 1918). The Nightmare is nothing like either of the Merritt stories, but the Merritt stories are entirely typical of Merritt. Lovecraft's sources are perfectly plain from Supernatural Horror in Literature, and Lovecraft did not mention her work in his essay even though he admired it.
    I think you are 100% correct when you state that Stevens was influential with C. L. Moore. I have been reading the Jirel of Joiry stories back to back with The Citadel of Fear, and they are quite similar in style and substance. The Jirel stories are essentially travelogues which move from heavily described scene to heavily described scene. This is very similar to the method of Citadel. C. L. Moore was one of Lovecraft's correspondents, and Lovecraft was a Stevens fan, so it would not be unlikely if he made her acquainted with Stevens' work.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      I'm glad to hear that someone else sees the situation as I do: that Francis Stevens was NOT the inventor of dark fantasy. In fact, she didn't even work in that sub-sub-genre. She may have been acquainted with A. Merritt, but even if she was and even if there is any similarity in their writing (you say no and I'll take your word for it), it could be that they were both working in the forms, genres, and conventions of their times. There may be other writers who could be put in their same category.

      All of this just shows that there is more to explore in the fields of fantasy and weird fiction: not everything has been discovered yet.

      Thanks for writing.


  2. Thanks for your reply. I came across your excellent blog precisely because I was looking to see if anyone else had seen similarities between Stevens and C.L. Moore

    What Francis Stevens and Merritt both worked in was the style of the Munsey magazine style American scientific romance (to distinguish it from the British scientific romance in the style of H. G. Wells). The American scientific romance was essentially descended from the work of H. Rider Haggard, of which the best prototype is She. There is the voyage to an unexplored foreign location, finding a lost civilization, two warring city states, the hero falls in love with the good princess of one of them (There is often a bad princess too) and does something instrumental to bring the war to an end. Often he goes back home. The story incorporated science fictional elements, often with a type of occultism thrown in. This is all pretty standard Haggard. At this phase in the development of science fiction the authors often did not try to write hard science fiction, even though they had the example of Verne before them. Haggard wrote in a period where spiritualism and occultism were popular and he added that into his mix. The Munsey scientific romance was a highly adaptable format, especially because the voyage could be to Mars, as in Burroughs's A Princess of Mars (1912), or the star Sirius in Giesy's Palos of the Dog Star Pack(1918). So both Stevens's The Citadel of Fear and Merritt's The Moon Pool both were written in the well-established mode of the Munsey magazine's style. Neither author originated it, it was already well-established in both theme and style. I would have to say that Merritt used it with a good deal more imagination than Stevens, but her stuff is also pretty good. The best book I know on the American style scientific romance is by Sam Moskowitz entitled "Under the Moons of Mars, A History and Anthology of "The Scientific Romance" in the Munsey Magazines, 1912-1920." It is the best study of the period that I know (compare with Stableford's "Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950" to see the difference between the two styles). The Moskowitz book has stories or excerpts from Burroughs, George Allan England, Charles Stilson, J.U. Giesy, Francis Stevens, Merritt, Ray Cummings, Murray Leinster, Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint. If you read Merritt's The People of the Pit (Jan. 1918), it is entirely typical of Merritt's work, but appeared well before most of Stevens's work.

    So I would have to say that neither Stevens nor Merritt influenced each other, although undoubtedly both read each other's work, considering that they were published in the same magazines. Rather they were simply working in an already established style which had roots at least as far as She (1886).

    However, it would not surprise me if Stevens had not influenced the later C. L. Moore. Compare the first section of The Citadel of Fear and the Jirel Of Joiry stories and see what you think. There is the same dense serial imagery in both.

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      Thanks for the information. I wasn't aware of the distinction between the British-style and the American-style scientific romances. I have the Moskowitz book but not the Stableford book.

      What you otherwise write makes sense to me. It seems to me that writers and artists are more likely to be influenced by their individual milieux or by the zeitgeist of their own times than by any other individual writer or author; after all, what writer or artist of any maturity wants to be an imitator or acolyte of another? It seems to me that he or she would rather be original and recognized for his or her own accomplishments.

      Thanks for writing.