Francis Stevens (1883–1948)
From American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps
From 1917 to 1923 Francis Stevens published five short stories and seven longer works of fiction (including the novel The Citadel of Fear, widely considered an early “lost-world fantasy” classic), all of which appeared in pulp magazines such as Argosy, All-Story Weekly, and Weird Tales. Two other novels were accepted for publication by a magazine that then folded; the manuscripts were subsequently lost. At the end of this seven-year sprint, Stevens turned forty and lived another quarter of a century—yet never again wrote anything for publication. Stevens influenced many contemporary and subsequent horror and fantasy writers and experienced a brief renaissance during the 1940s, when pulp magazines reprinted many of the stories and novellas for a new generation of readers, but this body of work was largely forgotten.
In recent years, however, Francis Stevens, who was born Gertrude Mabel Barrows, in Minneapolis, has been praised as “the woman who invented dark fantasy” (by literary scholar Gary Hoppenstand) and “the most gifted women writer of science-fiction and science-fantasy between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C. L. Moore” (by the late science-fiction expert Sam Moskowitz). Most of her tales and novels are once again back in print. Yet very little is known about her life.
After the death of her husband in 1910, Gertrude Bennett became a stenographer to support her daughter and invalid mother. Pulp-fiction historians are unsure sure what then led her to write suspense and fantasy fiction, pulp genres that were almost exclusively male at the time. She had previously published only one story, in 1904, and the magazine editor who accepted her first new submission thirteen years later insisted that she use a male pseudonym, which he chose for her. “Francis Stevens” then opted to keep her new name after favorable response from readers and further encouragement from publishers. Why she stopped writing remains a mystery.
“Unseen—Unfeared” blends two motifs well known to readers of horror and fantasy. The first is the character of the demented scientist, an archetype brought to its most familiar form by Mary Shelley a century earlier in Victor Frankenstein and later re-imagined by writers as diverse as Nathaniel Hawthorne (see “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”), Robert Louis Stevenson, and H. G. Wells. The second motif is the existence of another dimension, a world beyond the perception of humans. Although the idea of an unseen realm can be found in stories as early as Fitz-James O’Brien’s “The Diamond Lens” (1858), Hoppenstand argues that “Stevens’s subsequent reworking of this motif, making this world extremely hostile to human existence, fundamentally defines dark fantasy.”
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