The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens
Up until recently, Minneapolis-born author Francis Stevens had been a very solid 3 for 3 with this reader. Her first novel, 1918’s The Citadel of Fear, had proved to be a mindblower, dealing as it did with the lost city of Tlapallan, nightmarish creatures, and battling Aztec gods. Her second novel, 1919’s The Heads of Cerberus, was a dystopian affair set in a totalitarian Philadelphia and is one of the first sci-fi offerings to feature a parallel time track. And in Stevens’ fourth novel, 1920’s Claimed, a mysterious box that had been belched up from the Atlantic depths by volcanic activity causes major problems (to put it mildly!) for all its subsequent owners. After reading these three exceptionally fine novels by the author whom critic Sam Moskowitz has famously referred to as “the most gifted woman writer of science fiction and science-fantasy between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C. L. Moore,” I resolved to read everything else in Stevens’ comparatively small oeuvre; namely, that third novel, four short stories and four novellas.
Coming to my rescue was Bison Books’ 2004 collection The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy, which collects those eight shorter works, in strict chronological order, in one generously sized, 400+-page volume; the first and, to my knowledge, only anthology of Stevens’ shorter fiction. Preceded by a scholarly introduction by Gary Hoppenstand, this collection of tales is simply marvelous (emphasis on the syllables “mar-vel”), and demonstrates what a fine author Stevens was even at the very beginning of her brief career. The eight tales are drawn from the pages of four of the foremost pulp magazines of the day — All-Story Weekly, People’s Favorite Magazine, Argosy and Weird Tales — from the period 1917 to 1923, encompassing such disparate genres as horror, fantasy, sci-fi, and the Haggardian lost world/lost race story. Each shows off the author who would later be called “The Queen of Dark Fantasy” to winning effect and allows the reader to understand why Stevens would soon be so admired — and “homaged” — by the authors Abraham Merritt and H. P. Lovecraft. Simply put, this collection is still another winner from this woefully underappreciated writer.
The volume kicks off in a very big way with Stevens’ very first published work, the novella-length lost-world story “The Nightmare.” In this one, meek, foppish, mild-mannered millionaire Roland C. Jones prepares to go to bed while on board the ill-fated Lusitania, just south of Ireland, and suddenly finds himself floundering in the waters of what later turns out to be … the Pacific?!?! He fetches up on the shore of a lonely, volcanic island, where two contending parties, each led by adversarial, Russian prince brothers, are in search of … well, perhaps I’d better not say. Oh … the island also comes replete with man-eating plants and monstrously huge spider, bat, and hairless bear creatures, just to keep Jones & Co. on their toes and the reader entertained. This is a marvelously self-assured first effort for a novice writer, only marred by a rather unconvincing explanation for Jones’ advent on the island itself. Still, tremendous fun.
In the collection’s lengthiest offering, the novella entitled “The Labyrinth,” Hildreth Wyndham goes in search of his cousin Veronica, who has apparently been abducted by the lovesick governor of the state, Clinton Charles. Wyndham is accompanied in his quest by Veronica’s fiancé, Rex Tolliver, and before long, the two men attempt to penetrate the governor’s heavily guarded compound, known as Asgard Heights. The four main characters are ultimately reunited in the nighttime gardens of the estate, only to fall into a devilish, subterranean maze that the home’s original owner had constructed. It is a truly hellish underground trap, indeed, with sliding walls, knife-edged panels, asphyxiating gas traps, dead ends, and mocking Biblical inscriptions to taunt the captured quartet. This is a pretty wonderful story, with four well-drawn characters forced together in an increasingly horrifying situation, and is marred only by its very slight racism as regards several of the governor’s Chinese servants; a racism, to be perfectly honest, that was part and parcel of so much pulp writing of the time.
“Friend Island” is set in the futuristic era of 2100; a time in which women have dominated the males both physically and mentally. Here, our narrator plies a female sailor with tea and macaroons (!), and gets the old she salt to relate a tale of her youth. The nameless sailor had been involved in a disaster at sea and had washed up on a completely deserted island (as opposed to the one in “The Nightmare”). The mariness had dubbed this Pacific island Anita, and soon came to realize that the island could not only sense her moods, but anticipate her wishes and react in kind. It was a living, sentient island, which only led to problems when a male sailor had later washed ashore… Stevens’ story deftly combines elements of science fiction and fantasy, and its unique setting and amusing “battle of the sexes” are elements that should go over well with 21st century female readers. The story’s ultimate moral is one that really shouldn’t need repeating, but here goes: Good manners really do count when dealing with a proper lady!
“Behind the Curtain” is a very clever homage to the great Edgar Allan Poe, in particular his classic short story of 1846, “The Cask of Amontillado.” In this one, an avid collector of Egyptian antiquities, named Santallos, invites to his home one Ralph Quentin, who has been having an affair with the older man’s wife. He gives Quentin a glass of Amontillado wine, which has been mixed with a lethal poison, and suggests to the young man that the female mummy in his collection might just be of a very recent vintage… Anyway, Stevens’ creepy little story takes several unexpected twists, managing to insert two surprising developments into its brief eight-page length, and ending on a note of necrophilic ghoulishness. Lovecraft, who deemed Poe the greatest of all horror writers, probably loved it.
In “Unseen — Unfeared,” a man walks through a tenement district, in what I take to be NYC, and comes across a window with a sign reading “See the Great Unseen!” Curious, he enters the rundown building and is ushered into the apartment of one Professor Holt, who has come up with a novel contraption built with special plates, chemicals, and a paper filter of rare South American origin. With this device, our narrator is able to see what is normally hidden from human vision: the “huge, repulsive starfish … centipedish things … furry spiders … sausage-shaped translucent horrors that moved — and floated through the air…” Viewers who have seen the bonkers 1986 film From Beyond will perhaps have some idea of what I’m referring to here. This is a pretty fascinating story, again marred by some pronounced racism (which is explained away at the conclusion, to its credit) and a pretty far-out and unconvincing explanation at the tail end for all the cosmic mishegas that had preceded it. Still, a very entertaining romp, in all.
In “The Elf Trap,” we are returned to the realm of magical fantasy. Here, a college professor, Theron Tademus, an expert in the field of cytology, goes on a doctor-recommended rest cure in the mountains of North Carolina. He is appalled by the nearby presence of a camp of Gypsies — in an instance of yet more casual racism, they are referred to as “a peculiarly ill-favored set, dirty and villainous of feature” — just as he is charmed by the equally nearby presence of Carcassonne, an artists’ colony, and especially by one of its female residents, Elva, a young woman who dances wildly and weaves honeysuckles into garlands. The stodgy professor is so entranced by his new artist friends that he is tempted to stay on … until, that is, the call of science returns him to reality, with tragic results. Or are they tragic? This mysterious, atmospheric story weaves a truly magical spell and ends on a note of decided ambiguity.
Up next is a novella that Hoppenstand calls the best piece of work in this collection, and it just might be my favorite, too. In “Serapion,” a 24-year-old college graduate named Clayton Barbour ignores an older friend’s warning and attends a séance at the home of James Barton Moore and his wife, Alicia. Mrs. Moore is reputed to be one of the only genuine physical mediums in the world, and indeed, the séance seems to go very impressively … until, that is, things get out of hand and one of the outer-world spirits manages to break loose into our plane! As it turns out, this spirit is that of Clayton’s Uncle Serapion, an uncle whom he had never met. Serapion’s spirit appears to him whenever he closes his eyes, as the weeks go on, and even begins speaking to him, driving the poor nephew to the brink of madness and then … murder! Stevens manages to keep matters nicely ambiguous, it seems to me, so that the reader is never 100 percent sure that Serapion’s spirit is real or only a figment of Clayton’s deranged mind. On a personal note, it was during my reading of this 95-page novella that I suffered a slight concussion (a “nightmare” of my own!) and was told by a doctor not to read for a while. But this story was just so powerfully irresistible that I found myself sneaking pages every day, prolonging my recovery period. So yes, I can honestly say that I did indeed risk my mental health because of this story, a revealing statement regarding its “unputdownable” nature.
This collection’s final tale, which was also Stevens’ last published work, is the novella-length “Sunfire,” which originally appeared in the fifth and sixth issues of Weird Tales; the July/August and September 1923 issues. Here, five explorers discover a hidden pyramid on a small island deep in the Amazon jungle. Upon making their way into the long-deserted structure, the men find a redheaded dancing maiden, a monstrously huge centipede (far larger than the ones experienced in “Unseen — Unfeared”), a witchlike hag … and an enormous diamond, used, as it turns out, to magnify the sun’s rays during human sacrifices! Stevens’ final tale is a lost-world story, thus, featuring five sharply drawn lead characters, great color and suspense, and breathless action, once again marred by instances of casual racism (the “N word”) and by a somewhat unconvincing explanation, this time regarding that dancing girl’s origin. Still, it manages to bring this wonderful collection to an eminently satisfactory close.
So there you have it: eight superlative tales, four long, four short, from one of America’s earliest creators of dark fantasy, Francis Stevens, who is now, I’m happy to report, an even more solid 4 for 4 with me. And that only leaves the previously mentioned third novel to experience, 1919’s Avalon, which Hoppenstand describes as being the author’s “weakest novel.” Still, if I’m ever going to call myself a Stevens completist, I suppose that I will have to seek it out. Stay tuned…