Though little read and seldom discussed today, in the late teens and early 1920s, Minneapolis-born Francis Stevens was something of a cause célèbre among discriminating readers. “Francis Stevens” was the pen name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who published her first story in 1917 at the age of 33. Her career as a writer only lasted six years, during which time she produced six novels and three short stories, and she only took to writing in the first place after becoming a widow, as a means of supporting her young daughter and invalid mother. Her work initially appeared in pulp periodicals such as All-Story Weekly and The Argosy, readers of which believed the name “Francis Stevens” to be a pseudonym for the great Abraham Merritt, who indeed was a fan of hers. And Merritt wasn’t the only famous writer to sing her praises; no less a figure than H.P. Lovecraft, in a letter to The Argosy regarding Stevens’ first novel, 1918’s The Citadel of Fear, remarked, “Stevens, to my mind, is the highest grade of your writers,” and sci-fi critic Sam Moskowitz has since referred to her as “the most gifted woman writer of science fiction and science-fantasy between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C.L. Moore.” My first exposure to Stevens was via The Citadel of Fear, after coming across a very laudatory review of it in Cawthorn & Moorcock’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books. As I later wrote of that dark fantasy, it had dealt with the discovery of the lost city of Tlapallan and “a whole slew of nightmare creatures, battling Aztec gods, indoor swamps, and on and on.” And as it turns out, Stevens’ next novel, 1919’s The Heads of Cerberus, which first appeared in the August to October issues of The Thrill Book, netting Stevens around $750, is yet another winning creation from this wonderful author.
As in The Citadel of Fear, our heroes here are an American and an Irishman. After lawyer Bob Drayton is framed and disbarred, he falls on very hard times, and in desperation and half starvation, decides to burgle a house in Philadelphia. By a million to one chance, the house he happens to break into belongs to his old crony, a huge Irish adventurer named Terry Trenmore. The Irishman, it seems, has also come into some trouble lately. After winning a curio at auction — a glass vial with a Cerberus head, supposedly containing dust from the gates of Purgatory that had been collected by the poet Dante himself — several threats and violent attacks on his person had resulted. The two decide to unstopper the vial and examine the dust, and — along with Trenmore’s beautiful, 17-year-old sister, Viola — are instantaneously transported to an otherworldly realm called Ulithia. And then things become even more problematic for our trio. After walking through the so-called Gate of the Moon, they appear back in Philadelphia… but in the year 2118! The city is now a totalitarian state, and the three are promptly arrested for not wearing their number badges on their lapels! (No names for the citizens here; only numbers. Anyone remember the classic BBC program The Prisoner?)
Yes, The Heads of Cerberus IS most assuredly an early dystopian novel, as well as having been called, by sci-fi author and critic P. Schuyler Miller, “perhaps the first work of fantasy to envisage the parallel-time-track concept.” But despite the fact that the bulk of the novel transpires in the year 2118 — 200 years after the time of its creation — it is never better than in that Ulithia segment, which takes up only 20 pages. Here, Stevens manages to conjure up a decidedly outré atmosphere, and the ruinous castle, living (but untenanted!) suits of armor, faceless dancers, living cobwebs, whispering and red-eyed shadows, and the ghostly, singing White Weaver that our trio encounters therein are all wonderfully described. In perhaps the book’s finest single moment, Drayton, newly arrived and alone in Ulithia, flings “out his arms in a gesture of despair,” and the reader senses his awe at the cosmic mystery into which he has been thrust. Stevens uses the futuristic-Philadelphia section to examine a form of leadership that Terry later describes as “a new low in autocratic government.” Thus, high positions in the city council — the so-called Penn Service — are won by entering a peculiar series of games; rigged games, of course. The common citizens — the Numbers — are allowed to enter, but losers in these contests are summarily thrown into a spear-lined pit in the City Hall, a natural discouragement to participation! Our trio decides to enter this contest, each of them running for a different office. It is a truly nightmarish scenario, and the Numbers whom we encounter do seem to be a thoroughly demoralized and downtrodden bunch.
Stevens, to her credit, manages to keep her story taut and suspenseful, at the same time that she injects pleasing snippets of humor here and there, mainly thanks to the character of Arnold Bertram, a portly thief who had tried to rifle Trenmore’s safe back home and had also been thrown into the year 2118 as a result. The author presciently posits the coming of a second World War, and yet her Philadelphia of two centuries hence still somehow contains “clanging street cars,” shooting galleries, and “movie” theaters. (I love that fact that Stevens puts the word “movie” in quotes; first used around 1911, it must have still seemed a newish, slangy word by 1918!) A pseudo-scientific explanation, at the novel’s end, for all the mishegas that had come before goes far in claiming for the book its place of pride in the early sci-fi field. If Stevens’ work here can be charged with a fault, however, it is its use of not just coincidence, but double coincidence: Besides the staggering one that opens the book (Drayton just happening to choose to rob a house that, unbeknownst to him, belongs to an old friend), we also have Bertram choosing — of all the hotel rooms in 22nd century Philly — our trio’s hotel room to rob after he arrives! Once the reader manages to overlook these minor matters, however, a most entertaining and atmospheric read will be in store.
Further good news regarding The Heads of Cerberus is that the novel is available today via Dover Books, reasonably priced, and with a very informative introduction by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach and charming illustrations by Ric Binkley. It is a reprint of the 1952 Polaris Press edition, in which The Heads of Cerberus first (and probably last, prior to this) appeared in book form. Francis Stevens, I am happy to say, is now a very solid 2 for 2 with me. And I have a feeling that once I finish her 1920 novel Claimed — which supposedly deals with an Atlantean relic belched out of the sea after a volcanic eruption — she will be an even more solid 3 for 3…