randy_byers: (brundage)
After reading The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy, I was left with the impression that Francis Stevens (pen name for Gertrude Barrows Bennett) was a kind of outsider artist who used genre tropes in eccentric ways, perhaps due to her inexperience as a writer, and wasn't always in complete control of her material. Now having read the two novels she is perhaps most famous for, I've revised my impression. Theses are both supremely accomplished pulp novels in which she exhibits full control of the tropes and material. If they are somewhat eccentric, it's in the way that she blends genres, although it's important to bear in mind that she was writing at a time (her stories were published between 1917 and 1923) when the pulp magazines were only on the verge of specializing into specific genres of the fantastic such as horror and science fiction. But in terms of the skills of the writer, these novels seem superior to me than anything written by Homer Eon Flint, for example. Her imagination is similarly outrageous, too, although it runs more toward the occult and the weird than Flint's did.

Stevens Citadel of Fear Argosy.jpgCitadel of Fear was serialized in The Argosy magazine in September and October 1917. (I read the 1984 paperback from Caroll & Graf.) It's a remarkable novel that starts out as a lost world story set in Mexico. Two American gold miners -- one a big bull of an Irishman, who is the protagonist, and the other a clever sneak, who is the antagonist -- are lost in the Mexican desert when they stumble upon a mysterious hacienda. Soon they are taken to an underground city inhabited by pre-Toltec giants. A conflict amongst this strange race results in our hero being expelled from the hidden city. The action then moves forward fifteen years, when our hero visits his sister in the suburbs of a large city in the Eastern US. Soon the household is under attack from bizarre and mysterious creatures, and the main suspect is a sinister man who lives in a walled compound and claims to be breeding livestock. What he's really up to is much more outlandish than that, of course, and the novel climaxes in a supernatural conflict.

Citadel of Fear is very conventional in many ways, with a manly man as the hero and an early form of the manic pixie dream girl as his love interest. The lost world section of the story is fascinating for the way it creates its exotic pre-Columbian fantasy world, in which ancient Mexican gods vie for power. The action bogs down a bit in the middle part of book, as perhaps too much futile coming-and-going and vague bumpings in the night and comical-skeptical detectives prolong the slow reveal of what then becomes a wonderfully grotesque premise leading to the finale. As others have commented, if the early parts bear the imprint of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, there's more than a little bit of H.G. Wells' Island of Dr Moreau in the latter part of the book, although this is more science fantasy than science fiction when push comes to shove. It's here that Stevens' grotesque imagination is set free, and there is a nightmare quality to the climax that still carries quite a charge. It's also fascinating how Stevens retains a conflicted, mixed perspective of skepticism, Christianity, and paganism in the denouement, with a slight emphasis on the latter that seems a hallmark of the fantasy genre.

The Heads of Cerberus was serialized in The Thrill Book magazine in August through October 1919. (I read the 1952 hardback collectors edition from Polaris Press.) The Thrill Book was a short-lived attempt to publish a magazine specializing in the fantastic, and Stevens apparently sold them other stories that were lost when the magazine quickly folded. This novel begins in contemporary Philadelphia when another big bull of an Irish-American finds his friend blacked out from a blow to the head in an upstairs bedroom. Soon we learn about an ancient crystal vial with a Cerberus-headed stopper and supposedly containing dust of magical properties. When the dust is poured out, the two men and the Irishman's sister (where have we seen that before?) are transported first to a weird twilight fantasyland and then to a dystopian Philadelphia of two centuries in the future. Satirical and yet cracking adventures ensue, with a wonderfully unsettled resolution in which the transformative dust disappears with a gentleman of uncertain intentions.

Stevens Head of Cerberus Thrill Book.jpgThe Heads of Cerberus is touted as possibly the first alternate world story. What's interesting to me about that aspect of the story is that the alternate Philadelphia ends up being specifically a kind of imaginary world even within the story itself. It isn't so much a parallel world as one that is conjured up by the imaginations of the protagonists, and thus it becomes a kind of metaphor for science fiction itself: a work of the imagination. I also found it interesting that the rationalization for how this other world was created/reached was very reminiscent of the rationalization for the parallel world in The Blind Spot by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint, which was serialized in Argosy All-Story in 1921. Hall is usually credited for the occult aspects of that hybrid novel, and it must be said that Stevens handles the occult aspects of her novel much more competently than Hall does. Still, both novels have occult and science fictional aspects, and I'm not enough of a scholar of the era to surmise whether it's a matter of influence or of common practice in the pulps in those days.

A lot of claims are made for Stevens' influence on the developing genres of the fantastic. It appears that the admiring quote about Citadel of Fear that's still widely attributed to H.P. Lovecraft was not in fact written by him. It was written by someone named August T. Swift, which was long wrongly thought to be a pseudonym of Lovecraft's. I haven't seen any indication that Lovecraft commented on Stevens at all, although people see signs of influence, and I can see why. As for the claim that A. Merritt admired her work, there is no direct evidence that I've seen. Apparently for many years people thought Stevens was a pseudonym of Merritt's, and this was only debunked in the '50s. Again, you can see the similarities in the works of Stevens and Merrit, but is that a sign of influence? Whatever the case, Stevens remained a name to be conjured with amongst the cognoscenti of the fantasy pulps, and the fact that her work has been reprinted over the years attests to a continuing admiration, even if this has never led to fame.

One of the best articles I've found about her is Andrew Liptak's Kirkus Review piece, "The Influential Pulp Career of Frances Stevens". Here I learned that Gertrude Barrows published her first story in 1904 at the age of 17, thus establishing that she was interested in writing at an early age. (Other pieces I've read indicated that she was more interested in drawing early on.) Another interesting tidbit is that when she picked up the pen again in 1917, the pen name she wanted to use was Jean Veil, but Munsey magazine editor Bob Davis stuck her with Francis Stevens for some reason. Maybe he thought "Veil" was too obvious, but I like its artificiality.

Both of these novels are available in etexts, but I've read that a lot of the e-versions of Citadel of Fear don't include the whole novel, so be sure to dig a bit before you download one. Last time I checked, neither novel was available at the Gutenberg Project, and I think I only found one work by Stevens there. Another sign, perhaps, that she is arill undervalued. Whether she was influential or not, her stories and novels strike me as more than worthy to be included in the roster of forgotten writers mentioned in the jacket copy of Polaris Press: "Some of these old masters of fantasy -- and there are many others -- were A. Merritt, Murray Leinster, Homer Eon Flint, Ray Cummings, Garrett P. Serviss, J.U. Giesy and Francis Stevens." For me she joins Serviss and Flint as previously unknown writers of early science fiction who are worth exploring in depth.

[NOTE: The scans of the magazine covers were taken from isfdb.org.]
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stevens nightmare.jpgI previously wrote about the first story in this collection, "The Nightmare," in February 2010, and it has taken me this long to get back to the rest of the stories. As I noted then, Francis Stevens was the pen name for Gertrude Barrows Bennett, who wrote a variety of fantasy stories for mostly the Munsey magazines from 1917 to 1923. Her work was admired by A. Merritt and H.P. Lovecraft, and several of her novels have been reprinted over the years. The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2004, and it appears to contain all of her short fiction, although "The Labyrinth" has apparently been published as a stand-alone novel in its own right.

Gary Hoppenstand, in his introduction to this edition, argues that Stevens was not only an influence on Merritt and Lovecraft but one of the inventors of the dark fantasy subgenre, which might be described as a merger of fantasy and horror. That may be the case, but these stories aren't all dark fantasies. Even the ones that are seem to come at it from an odd angle. For example, "The Labyrinth" starts out as a mystery about the disappearance of a young woman, who is the cousin of the narrator and the love interest of two other men. As in "The Nightmare," the protagonist is not a very heroic figure and basically bumbles his way into the titular labyrinth in the company of his cousin and her suitors. The labyrinth is full of strange devices and inexplicable designs which menace the lives of this variably intrepid crew, but ultimately it becomes merely a backdrop to the real matter of the story, which is the choice the young woman has to make between the two suitors. So instead of a metaphor for the mysteries of life and death, the labyrinth becomes a metaphor for the mystery of love. The story is most effective as an exploration of the challenges and convolutions of choosing a good partner, and it keeps you guessing until the end on that score.

"The Elf Trap" is likewise a romantic story with supernatural elements. "Friend Island" is the real oddball in the collection, set in a feminist future in which women are the dominant gender and one aviator-adventuress nearly finds paradise on a strange tropical island before a man spoils all the fun. It's really a remarkable story. "Sunfire" is more like "The Nightmare": a lost world adventure story set in a South American milieu, but while there's a monster in this one what's unusual about the approach is how much it plays like a comedy of errors, with once again a band of "heroes" who basically come across as a bunch of bumbling, egotistical, selfish idiots.

That said, a number of these stories do play the horror aspects fairly straight. "Behind the Curtain" is a revenge story that is very upfront about its debt to Poe, specifically "The Cask of Amontillado". "Unseen-Unfeared" is a macabre story about grotesque monsters invisible to the human eye. "Serapion" is another long story that is perhaps the most effective dark fantasy of the lot. The protagonist gets involved in a paranormal experiment that seems to summon a spirit of the dead that desires to possess him. I wondered in my review of Brackett and Bradbury's "Lorelei of the Red Mist" whether Brackett had borrowed the trope of the protagonist with a divided/conflicted consciousness from Merritt, and here we find it in Stevens, as the haunting spirit attempts to merge itself with the protagonist. This leads to a remarkable duel of wills that reaches a very strange and conflicted conclusion.

When I read "The Nightmare" five years ago I wasn't sure whether Stevens was in control of her material. Now I would say that her writing reflected a lack of experience and was almost a kind of outsider art. She had a vivid imagination, and there's something eccentric about the way she expresses it. I found the eccentricity compelling even when the stories were a bit clumsy or unfocused. Her approach comes across as unique, even in a standard form like the lost world adventure. If nothing else, her approach feels fresh because it doesn't use the standard heroic, alpha male tropes so beloved of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his imitators. That said, the casual racism in her work seems all too standard and familiar, even though it does seem casual rather than ideological. Less loathsome than that in, for example, George Allan England's Darkness and Dawn trilogy. And indeed, while I didn't find the stories in this collection quite up to the level of Merritt's The Moon Pool, I did find them superior to England for all that he's a more polished writer. I was inspired enough by Stevens' oddball imagination that I ordered a copy of her novel, Citadel of Fear. Sounds like one of Kuttner and Moore's science fantasies, doesn't it?
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The Moon Metal 1900I've now read all four of Garret P. Serviss' readily available science fiction novels. Serviss is so far the best early science fiction writer in America that I've read. He was born in 1851 and became an astronomy journalist for the New York Sun in 1876, and he didn't write his first SF novel until 1898, when he was nearly 50. The Moon Metal was his second novel, published in 1900. E.F. Bleiler considered it Serviss' best story, partly, I think, because he looked down on the "pulp excess" of Edison's Conquest of Mars (1898) and A Columbus of Space (1911), both of which I enjoyed more than The Moon Metal.

That said, I really enjoyed The Moon Metal too (and also the fourth Serviss novel I've read, The Second Deluge). Serviss was explicit about his indebtedness to Jules Verne, and The Moon Metal shows the debt. It's set roughly 40 years in the future, so sometime in the 1930s or 1940s. One tossed off bit of futurology comes when the protagonist takes a commercial airplane to San Francisco late in the book. Not a bad prediction considering that the Wright Brothers' first powered flight happened three years after this book was published. This kind of "prediction" was a specialty of Verne as well, since he was privy to the latest engineering ideas that were under development.

The plot of The Moon Metal concerns a financial crisis caused by the discovery of an enormous amount of gold in Antarctica, which undermines the gold standard. A mysterious figure named Dr. Syx appears with the offer of a new metal called artemisium that he says can be used as the new monetary standard. While he allows people to visit the mine in Jackson Hole, Wyoming where he claims to produce the metal, he refuses to share the secret of the refining process. The intrigue of the novel circles around this mystery, with the narrator pulled into an investigation into the matter by another scientist.

The title of the book more or less gives away the secret, but the investigation and some of the incidentals provide plenty of fun along the way. For example, there's a mountain-climbing scene that features an experimental balloon-assisted grappling hook, and there's a scary device that kills people by coating them with artemisium. In one remarkable scene that's unfortunately left stranded, Syx plays a film documentary (again, predicting longer form films than existed in 1900) that seems to show a humanoid culture that was wiped out in some kind of cataclysm on what is unexpectedly revealed to be the moon. It's never mentioned again in the rest of the book.

Serviss had plenty of striking ideas, but, as in that last example, he wasn't always good at incorporating them into the story. There's a lot of interesting scientific and pseudo-scientific speculation in The Moon Metal, and I suppose that's the thing that seems remarkable about Serviss from the modern vantage. He was writing at a time when science fiction wasn't even a term yet, let alone a fully formed genre. The American branch of this strange new form of literature was about to be dominated by purveyors of exotic lost world adventure, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and A. Merritt. Serviss was writing more about scientific ideas than the new wave to come, and in that way he looks forward to Gernsback and Campbell. Gernsback was certainly a fan and reprinted three of Serviss' four novels in Amazing as an example of the type of story he was looking for (although, to be fair, he also reprinted Burroughs and Merritt). As the article about him in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says, 'In a sense, Serviss, who was almost fifty before he began writing fiction, was born too soon; born twenty years later he might have become one of the prolific masters of the new sf.'
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Recently [livejournal.com profile] kim_huett pointed me to the stories of Nictzin Dyalhis -- a mysterious figure who published just a few short stories and novelettes, mostly in Weird Tales, in the '20s and '30s. I had never heard of him before, but the name was certainly an eye-catcher. His story "When the Green Star Waned" (1925) is considered by some a notable early example of genre science fiction.

I did a little googling and discovered that three of his stories had been reprinted by Karl Edward Wagner in the heroic fantasy anthology Echoes of Valor III. Wagner touts these stories, along with the more well-known Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, as seminal in the development of the sword and sorcery sub-genre. He also prints an article about Dyalhis by Sam Moskowitz called "Nictzin Dyalhis: Mysterious Master of Fantasy" that, before devolving into detailed story descriptions, gives us what little is "known" about Dyalhis' biography, much of which is based on the testimony of a man named Willis Conover and seems extremely odd and at times contradictory. The name Nictzin is said to be Mexican Indian in origin (as is his mother), while the name Dyalhis is said to be a Scotch-Irish name for the Roman god Flamen Dialis and the basis for the modern names Douglas and Dallas. His father is said to have been a British sea captain.

Well, that's all very well, but what of the stories? The first, "The Red Witch" (1932), made me doubt the early fans who apparently thought so highly of Dyalhis. It's about a contemporary man who falls in love with a woman who is visited nightly by the angry phantasm of a horrible giant warrior. Eventually these two are transported back into earlier selves in the distant past (a distant past that never was), and our hero has to defend his bride-to-be from the vile intentions of a the horrible giant warrior. The story reads as though Dyalhis were thinking through his narrative strategies as he was typing, and at one point the narrator hero tells us he's going to switch from first person to third person narration, because ... because ... aw, fuck it! Just really sloppy, awful, embarrassing writing.

The second story, "The Sapphire Goddess" (1934), is touted by Moskowitz as a hugely impressive, ground-breaking work. Here too we start in the contemporary world before being thrown into a fantasy world. While I don't remember there being a good reason for starting in the contemporary world, at least the transition is handled more smoothly than in the earlier story. Our hero is a deposed king who, with the aid of two henchmen, must recover the titular object for a dark wizard in order to have his memories and fortunes and long lost love restored. The adventures in the fantasy world don't seem all that exceptional, but I can believe this was an influential story in its day. It has a sense of humor, and while many story elements seem completely conventional now, there's a somewhat satirical air of weirdness about it. A lot happens in something like 15,000 words, even if none of it matters very much.

The third story, "The Sea Witch" (1937), is by far the best of the lot and begins to actually rise to the reputation that Wagner and Moskowitz argue for Dyalhis. Here an old man retired to the storm-wracked coast of Maine rescues a naked woman from the freezing winter sea. She turns out to be a supernatural figure out of Norse legend. Part of what makes this story better than the other two is that the details of Norse legend and culture are much more coherent than the fantastical worlds Dyalhis pulled, as it were, out of his esoteric ass. But deeper than this, as Moskowitz pointed out, is that the portrait of the old man at the end of his life seems to some extent autobiographical (Dyalhis died five years later at age 69) and has a real pathos, and the relationship that develops between him and the sea witch, while having some elements of wish-fulfillment fantasy, also has genuine warmth and a strange humanity to it. It feels real, conflicted, yearning, eccentric.

So now I'm mildly curious about "When the Green Star Waned", which has been reprinted in a couple of things that should be readily available. Pulp fiction is full of these strange figures whose flames still dimly flicker in shadowy paraliterary limbos. Meanwhile Echoes of Valor III contains more stories of interest by Robert E. Howard, Henry Kuttner, Jack Williamson, and Manly Wade Wellman. Hadn't really been looking to read those stories, but what the hell.
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I've received the latest catalog (#38) from Bob Brown and Associates -- a local book dealer. (So local that his shop is three blocks from here.) It's four sheets of paper folded into a chapbook, with the cover beige and the interior white. I always enjoy looking through Bob's catalogs both because he usually features old science fiction novels that I've never heard of and I guess because I just like looking at random lists of books.

Here's one I'd never heard of:

Bigley, Cantell. AURIFODINA OR ADVENTURES IN THE GOLD REGION. Baker & Scribner, NY, 1849. 1st ed. One of the earliest American Lost Race novels. [Description of book's condition deleted.] A scarce and important early American fantasy occasionally credited with helping to start the California Gold Rush.

I mean, who knew? I definitely didn't know that lost race novels started that early, but I suppose it just shows I don't know much about lost race novels.

Or this one sounds like a corker:


"Gilmore & Olerich", eh? Self-published, then.

But then there's this:

Wentworth-James, G De S. THE TELEVISION GIRL. A NOVEL. Hurst & Blackett, London, 1928. 6th Thousand. [Description of book's condition deleted.] ... a very scarce SF novel about the fictionalized development of television.

Torn from yesterday's headlines, no doubt. The title reminds me of Amy Thomson's VIRTUAL GIRL.

In other news, Bob is offering a signed first edition of Stephanie Meyer's TWILIGHT for $1150.00. Copyright 2005. Most expensive single volume in the catalog. Can its value possibly appreciate over time? The mind boggles.
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Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] shsilver for pointing me to this story: Science Fiction Pioneer Homer Eon Flint Gets Second Chance at Publishing Career. According to the article, the digital publisher Musa Publishing has begun publishing all of Flint's stories and novels, including previously unpublished work. Musa is working with Flint's grand daughter, Vella Munn, and they are also publishing a biography she's written about her grandfather.

I had dreamed of putting together a collection of the science fiction stories that had never been reprinted, but of course it was unlikely I'd actually ever have gotten around to it. Now I guess I need to think seriously about buying an e-reader. Or maybe an iPad or other tablet. Anyway, great news! Although I had to laugh when the article referred to "the flowing ease of Flint's prose." Clearly written by either a publicist or someone who has never actually read anything by Homer Eon Flint!
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'Lest you think me a biassed witness, another’s pen must add this final testimony, which may perhaps supply the climax you expect. I will quote the following account of the star Nova Persei verbatim from the pages of that eminent astronomical authority, Prof. Garrett P. Serviss ... '

--H.P. Lovecraft, "Beyond the Walls of Sleep" (1919)
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So far I find I disagree with Bleiler's judgments as much as I agree with them, which isn't all that surprising and not all that interesting as a general observation. People always disagree in their judgments on literature. The biggest disagreement I've had with him so far is his assessment of Murray Leinster's early SF, which he doesn't think much of. I find his characterization of "The Mad Planet" (1920) -- "competent textbook natural history" -- to completely miss the point of the story, which I see as a conceptual breakthrough story: a weak man learning to use tools and weapons to project power in a nightmare world. Then again, Bleiler's assessment may be a clue as to why these early Leinster stories never show up in his Best Of collections, despite the fact that Gernsback thought they were important enough to reprint alongside Verne and Wells in the early issues of Amazing.

However, Bleiler is just killing me with some of his descriptions of stories I've long wanted to get my hands on. For example, Robert W. Cole's The Struggle for Empire (1900), which I've faunched after ever since reading that it may well be the earliest example of space opera. Here's what Bleiler says:

"The first real space opera, filled with space battles, invasions, and escalating weapons; a nineteenth-century E.E. Smith story in many respects. ... A remarkable work for its time. While the theme of the story is obviously that of a naval imaginary war of the terrestrial sort, the author goes far beyond this in his concept of space empires, weapons, space tactics, and much else. The story vehicle is trivial, but the strengths elsewhere more than make up for this weakness. In some of the descriptions there is a touch like M.P. Shiel's. * The Struggle for Empire is one of the great missed opportunities in the history of science-fiction. If it had been as well circulated as H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds (to which it is superior in concept, if weaker in execution) science-fiction might have developed a generation earlier."

Poking around on Google just now I see that it was released in a facsimile edition in 1998, but I don't see any copies available. I'm curious why this book is so obscure, because every reference I've seen to it indicates that it would be of great interest to the historically-minded SF reader. Seems like the perfect kind of thing for Project Guttenberg, except that it's probably so rare that hardly anybody has access to the text. So on top of wanting to put together a Homer Eon Flint collection, now I want to reprint this novel too! Just as soon as I think of a name for my publishing imprint ...


Jun. 26th, 2010 08:05 am
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FLINT, HOMER EON (born FLINDT, 1892-1924)
American (California) writer for the pulp magazines. His death remains a mystery; perhaps executed by gangsters. In many ways the outstanding writer of s-f in the Munsey pulp magazines.

-- Everett F. Bleiler, Science-Fiction: The Early Years
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It's sad when it takes somebody's death to make things come into focus. In recent years I have become fascinated with pre-Amazing science fiction, and of course I kept running into Bleiler's name. Somehow I developed the impression that he was one of those obsessive old coots who devised long checklists of hoary old stories that told you nothing about the stories. Useful only as bibliography. This despite the fact that I had stumbled upon his comments on stories by Garrett P. Serviss and Homer Eon Flint and found them eminently sensible. Why didn't that make me curious? My mind was made up (probably set to some extent by his old-fashioned name), and mere evidence wasn't enough to open it back up.

But his death has done the trick. Or rather the tributes to him in the wake of his death (on the 13th), which started for me with Jessica Amanda Salmonson's heartfelt personal tribute on Facebook. As I read a few more tributes, I began to think, "Huh, this guy actually was doing stuff that I would probably be particularly interested in." And sure enough, when I took a closer look at Science Fiction: The Early Years and Science Fiction: The Gernsback Years, they were pretty much precisely the kind of encyclopedic reference that would be very useful to me in my exploration of old SF. They are both expensive, it's true, but yesterday I ordered Science Fiction: The Early Years as a kind of memorial. Looks like it could come in handy for the piece I'm writing about Lemuria, too.

I'm looking forward to Mr. Bleiler opening my eyes, even if it's only posthumously.

Update: I had initially written "imminently sensible," which is kind of appropriate, all things considered.
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I'm not sure why I finished this trilogy, which was first serialized by Bob Davis in the Munsey magazines in 1912, 1913, and 1914 and then collected into an omnibus book in 1914. It was a slog to read, and it took me well over a year to get through it, with long breaks between each book of the trilogy. Why a slog? It is priggish, mawkish, racist, and pretty much completely unbelievable. It has all the worst aspects of Edgar Rice Burroughs (a contemporary of England's) with almost none of the virtues of his imagination. Yet I did not bounce off it, as I did with Bellamy's Looking Backward, so I guess it wasn't boring. There was just enough interest in seeing how the story ended to keep me going.

Into the great abysss )


Feb. 28th, 2010 06:03 pm
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For many days after this incident, the young man avoided the window that looked into Doctor Rappaccini's garden, as if something ugly and monstrous would have blasted his eye-sight, had he been betrayed into a glance. He felt conscious of having put himself, to a certain extent, within the influence of an unintelligible power, by the communication which he had opened with Beatrice. The wisest course would have been, if his heart were in any real danger, to quit his lodgings and Padua itself, at once; the next wiser, to have accustomed himself, as far as possible, to the familiar and day-light view of Beatrice; thus bringing her rigidly and systematically within the limits of ordinary experience. Least of all, while avoiding her sight, should Giovanni have remained so near this extraordinary being, that the proximity and possibility even of intercourse, should give a kind of substance and reality to the wild vagaries which his imagination ran riot continually in producing. Guasconti had not a deep heart--or at all events, its depths were not sounded now--but he had a quick fancy, and an ardent southern temperament, which rose every instant to a higher fever-pitch. Whether or no Beatrice possessed those terrible attributes--that fatal breath--the affinity with those so beautiful and deadly flowers--which were indicated by what Giovanni had witnessed, she had at least instilled a fierce and subtle poison into his system. It was not love, although her rich beauty was a madness to him; nor horror, even while he fancied her spirit to be imbued with the same baneful essence that seemed to pervade her physical frame; but a wild offspring of both love and horror that had each parent in it, and burned like one and shivered like the other.
-- Nathaniel Hawathorne, "Rappaccini's Daughter" (1844)
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Francis Stevens was the pen name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett -- a figure of some mystery who wrote for the pulps from 1917 to 1923 while caring for her sick mother and then, after her mother died, stopped writing and more or less disappeared from the face of the earth, even losing contact with her own daughter. Her weird fiction, largely published in the Munsey magazines (she was another discovery of Bob Davis'), was an influence on both A. Merritt and H.P. Lovecraft. She wrote a number of novels that have been reprinted now and again over the years, and in 2004 University of Nebraska Press under its Bison Books imprint published a collection of shorter works called The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy.

So far I've only read "The Nightmare", which is an odd story. It's a lost world story, in some ways reminiscent of Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land that Time Forgot (1918). A young American gentleman of leisure boards the Lusitania in New York en route to London, and wakes up in the middle of the ocean. He washes up on an island and soon finds out that he is somehow in the Pacific, not the Atlantic. He is soon embroiled in a contest between twin Russian brothers who have come to the island to seek an element in the interior that can change lead to gold. A shifty American guide (for whom the narrator is initially mistaken) is the only one who knows how to find his way through the volcanic cliffs into the interior. The lost world inside the volcano turns out to be full of bizarre creatures such as man-eating cabbages and giant bats.

This is basically an adventure story, but it manages to approach its material in an unusual way. For example, the protagonist is a bit of a bumbling twit, by no means a Burroughsian hero. He does perform some heroic actions despite himsef and through sheer luck, but for the most part he is tossed back and forth between the two rival gangs without much control over his own fate. Also interesting is how his sense of who his allies are shifts almost every time he moves from one group to the other. The story has a certain dream logic in that way, with the narrative shifting its valence as his context changes. There's a fairly large cast of characters for a novelette, and they are all distinct. The two Russian brothers are very charismatic and have a fascinating relationship -- a very powerful bond despite their violently conflicting aims (one a loyal tsarist, the other a nihilist). There's a young woman whose affections are torn between the two, yet whose character does not seem at all subsumed in them. She has her own mysterious reasons and goals.

What's most bizarre about this story is that it builds up a full head of steam, plunging us into the nightmare world of the mysterious island and the hugger-mugger and derring-do and scheming of the two gangs as they try to get the upper hand on each other, and then right at the climax of the action, the protagonist is plunged into the sea again and ... everything turns out to be a dream. WTF?!!!! She didn't really just do that, did she? Complete deflation of what had been an excellent adventure, in the most banal way possible. You have *got* to be kidding me! And then ... and *then* ... another switch is flipped, and it turns out it really *wasn't* a dream, except that everything we saw earlier has now either been disposed of or wasn't what it seemed at the time. So still sort of not real, but with future adventures in a similar vein apparently possible and imminent.

I'm not sure what happened. It almost seems as though Stevens got to a point where she couldn't resolve the story as she had set it up, so she just switched gears and gave up on it. On the other hand, apparently the shtick at All-Story at the time (1917) was stories that appeared to be supernatural or weird but ended up having a rational or common sense explanation, so it's possible that this was the normal structure for such stories. It seems completely self-defeating, in a way, although the way Stevens shifts gears twice at the end is very unusual, so maybe she was playing with the formula she had been handed.

So the verdict is out on whether she wasn't in control of her material or was actually playing an interesting game with it. We'll see if the other stories shed any light on the question. What's clearer is that she had a very good grasp of character and weird adventure. I found "The Nightmare" completely vivid and engrossing up to the point at which the rug was pulled out from under the narrative. A real page turner.
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Black Dog Books published a thin volume in what they call the Signature Series with two science fiction novellas by Murray Leinster that were originally published in Thrill Book magazine in 1919. The two stories are related, featuring recurring characters: Teddy Gerrod, a young scientist; Evelyn Hawkins, his beloved who is also a scientist; and Richard Davis, a military pilot. The second story introduces a love interest for Davis, Nita Morrison, an heiress.

These are both scientific puzzle stories, with lots of scientific exposition. "A Thousand Degrees Below Zero" is about a mad scientist with delusions of grandeur who invents a device that cools things close to absolute zero. He places the devices in harbors and reservoirs in an attempt to blackmail governments into making him world emperor. Our young scientists must figure out how his device works and how it can be destroyed. The evil genius has also invented a type of helicopter, and there are dogfights between it and the hottest new fighter biplane that the US government has developed, with extra added improvements by our genius heros.

The second story, "The Silver Menace", is about a strange phenomenon causing the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent rivers to turn into a fetid silver sludge. It turns out to be a microscopic animacule that rapidly reproduces and can even encroach on land. Once again the scientists must figure out a solution to the problem, which is rapidly engulfing the world. (Strangely, it turns out that the critters are allergic to "Indian Love Call".)

I didn't find these stories all that interesting. On the positive side is the crisp writing and tight ideation. Leinster is also notable for featuring female characters who are smart and who contribute to the problem-solving, even if they are still secondary to the males. He is perhaps like Howard Hawks in the way his women get to be one of the boys, sort of. Compared to Homer Eon Flint in the same era, for example, he handles the formulaic romantic aspects of the stories relatively smoothly. Despite these felicities, however, the stories *are* pretty formulaic and lacking in dramatic interest. Not really my cuppa, and nothing as good as Leinster's "The Runaway Skyscraper" (1919), "The Mad Planet" (1920), or "The Red Dust" (1921), which are all masterworks of early science fiction.

One thing I haven't been able to determine is whether this is the extent of Leinster's pre-Amazing science fiction. He wrote in a lot of other genres for the early pulps, and in looking at his story bibliography (Steven Silver maintains a very good one at the Murray Leinster Home Page), I'm not seeing anything else pre-1926 that screams out that it's science fiction. Anybody else know?
randy_byers: (2009-05-10)

Yesterday I splurged on a couple of old collectible books, which is something I haven't done in years. Pictured above is a first edition of Garrett P. Serviss' A Columbus of Space. The book was published by D. Appleton and Company in 1911, although the novel was first serialized by Bob Davis in All Story in 1909. Serviss is little remembered today, but he is a fascinating transitional figure in American science fiction. This story of a scientific expedition to Venus on an atomic powered spaceship is full of smart world-building and reads like an imaginary midway point between Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose "Under the Moons of Mars" was serialized in All Story in 1912. The climax foreshadows Asimov's "Nightfall". (This is one of the books that Gernsback reserialized in Amazing as an example of the kind of scientifiction story he was interested in publishing.) I love the cover of this edition, and there are four interior illustrations on color plates that are also wonderful. This may well be the oldest book in my collection now, almost exactly a hundred years old.

I also picked up a first edition of Murray Leinster's Operation: Outer Space, which was published by Fantasy Press in 1954.

I don't know what got into me. A sudden overwhelming rush of book lust. (Well, I had actually been faunching after the Serviss since I spotted it in Bob Brown's latest catalog last weekend, but I couldn't make it to the shop until yesterday.)
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
We had a Chungatorial meeting yesterday, and at some point our high-powered intellects got themselves focused on the hot topic of Lemuria. In lost continent mythologies, Atlantis goes back to Plato, if not earlier, but my sense was that Lemuria was of a more recent vintage. I think the initial question was whether Lemuria was invented by Madame Blavatsky or whether she got the idea from somebody else. The answer, according to Wikipedia, is quite fascinating: a sunken continent named Lemuria was initially proposed in 1864 by a zoologist named Philip Sclater, who was trying to explain why there were lemurs in both India and Madagascar but not in any of the intervening territory in the Middle East or Africa. This was before the theory of plate tectonics was widely accepted and it was understood that Madagascar had once been a part of the same land mass as India but India broke off and drifted toward Asia. Sclater's theory was that there had been a continent in the Indian Ocean that both India and Madagascar had been a part of and that the bulk of it between them sank under the ocean.

What fascinates me about this origin is that a discarded scientific theory was then adopted by occultists (i.e., the theosophists) and was passed on from *them* to science fiction writers such as A. Merritt and Robert Howard. Blavatsky peopled Lemuria with an ancient race of dragon or snake people who developed a mighty civilization but began to practice black magic, which caused the continent to sink. This is what Merritt picked up on in The Moon Pool, not the idea of a land bridge for lemurs. Blavatsky claimed to have received her ideas from a text called The Book of Dzyan, but it's assumed to be her own invention, and of course some of her ideas about these ancient races with superhuman civilizations came from Bulwer-Lytton's early science fiction novel, The Coming Race (1871). How did she come across Sclater's idea of a sunken continent in the Indian ocean? Her first reference to Lemuria, in The Secret Doctrine, was apparently in 1888, about twenty years after Sclater published a scientific paper proposing his idea. Did Blavatsky read about his theory, or had the idea already spread into the esoteric imagination by then?

One of the other odd bits in the Wikipedia article is that they have recently discovered a large land mass called the Kerguelen Plateau that actually was submerged in the Indian Ocean 20 million years ago. Drilling in 1999 discovered "pollen and fragments of wood in a 90 million-year-old sediment." There are no reports of lizard men wielding ancient superscience and quietly biding their time, waiting for the right moment to take humanity by main force.

Update: Brian Haughton, in an article called "The Lost Lands of Mu and Lemuria" at New Dawn Magazine ("A Journal for a New Consciousness, a New Humanity, and a New Era!" -- ahem), says "Madame Blavatsky never claimed to have discovered Lemuria; in fact she refers to Philip Schlater coining the name Lemuria, in her writings." (There seems to be some confusion on the internet about whether the name is Sclater or Schlater.) The article also indicates that Australian writers at the end of the 19th century latched onto the Lemuria concept, envisioning Australia as a remnant of the sunken continent.
randy_byers: (brundage)
No genre stands alone, and in dealing with romance I have to allude to every other aspect of literature as well. Still, the conventions of prose romance show little change over the course of centuries, and conservatism of this kind is the mark of a stable genre. In the Greek romances we find stories of mysterious birth, oracular prophecies about the future contortions of the plot, foster parents, adventures which involve capture by pirates, narrow escapes from death, recognition of the true identity of the hero and his eventual marriage with the heroine. We open, let us say, Guy Mannering, written fifteen centuries later, and we find that, although there are slight changes in the setting, the kind of story being told, a story of mysterious birth, oracular prophecies, capture by pirates, and the like, is very much the same. In Greek romance the characters are Levantine, the setting is the Mediterranean world, and the normal means of transportation is by shipwreck. In science fiction the characters may be earthlings, the setting the intergalactic spaces, and what gets wrecked in hostile territory a spaceship, but the tactics of the storyteller generally conform to much the same outlines.

-- Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (1976)
randy_byers: (powers expdt)
Thanks to [livejournal.com profile] supergee, I recently read a defense of Edward Bulwer-Lytton by Jess Nevins, and Nevins' article convinced me to pick up a copy of Bulwer-Lytton's proto-science-fiction Hollow Earth novel, The Coming Race (1871). The point that caught my attention was Nevins' claim that "the mystical vocabulary and ideology of The Coming Race were adopted by Helena Blavatsky and incorporated into the philosophy of Theosophy." The reason I perked up is that Michael Levy argues in his introduction to the Wesleyan edition of A. Merritt's The Moon Pool (1919) that Merritt likely got many of the ideas for his own Hollow Earth novel from Blavatsky. Bulwer-Lytton to Blavatsky to Merritt, oh my! I was fascinated by the idea that these ideas had passed from a science fiction novel to a mystical religious work and back to a science fiction novel again over the course of fifty years. What better illustration of science fiction's close relationship with pseudo-science?

Eventually I get around to talking about the book ... )
randy_byers: (brundage)
And right here let me remark that science-faking requires a great deal of research. One has to 'bone' an immense mass of data, in order to give the requisite air of verisimilitude.

--George Allan England, "The Fantastic in Fiction" (a fascinating article by this all-purpose pulp writer that I want to write about at greater length when I have the time)
randy_byers: (brundage)
I've finally gotten back to Leinster. When I first started delving seriously into the classics of science fiction as a teenager, Leinster was known as the Dean of Science Fiction, but I couldn't figure out why. None of his books seemed to be a part of the canon. Over time I think I read a couple of his short stories here and there, but he still seemed like a fairly minor figure to me. (Checks. Ah right, "First Contact" was his. I read that in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1 -- one of my first introductions to Golden Age SF.) Then a couple of years ago, I read his 1920 short story "The Mad Planet" and its sequel, "The Red Dust". These are terrific stories that seemed very Campbellian to me, and Hugo Gernsback was impressed enough with them to reprint them in early issues of Amazing as part of his effort to indicate to writers the type of scientifiction story he wanted to publish. I began to see how Leinster had gained his moniker.

"The Runaway Skyscraper" was his first science fiction story and was published in 1919 in the pulp magazine Argosy. The premise is fairly ridiculous: due to a brief burst of hand-waving, a Manhattan skyscraper and all the people working in it are plunged a few thousand years into the past. Uh-oh! Now, a writer of scientific romance might have used this scenario to examine the fragility of civilization, but while Leinster flirts with this theme, one of the ways that he is proto-Campbellian is that he's more interested in engineering problems and the can-do attitude. His engineer protagonist and Girl Friday (a no-nonsense, can-do gal who wouldn't be out of place in a Howard Hawks movie) get to work organizing the denizens of the transplanted building to feed themselves and to find a way to get back to the future. The engineer has a theory, you see ...

Leinster is a facile writer as well. His description of what the protagonists see as the building hurtles backwards in time is reminiscent of Hodgson's description of fast-forwarding through time in The House on the Borderland. Whereas I wasn't sure if Hodgson had actually seen any timelapse photography, Leinster makes an explicit comparison to the cinema: "There was hardly any distinguishing between the times the sun was up and the times it was below now, as the darkness and light followed each other so swiftly the effect was the same as one of the old flickering motion pictures." At the end of the story as they move forward in time again, he throws off a description that foreshadows the scene in Norstrilia (I think it was -- something by Cordwainer Smith anyway) where the hero and heroine live a subjective thousand years together in flash: "While he kissed her, so swiftly did the days and years fly by, three generations were born, grew and begot children, and died again!"

This is another impressive early story by Leinster. I'm curious why these stories from the Munsey magazines seem to have fallen out of consciousness in terms of his best-of collections, including the relatively recent collection from NESFA, First Contacts, which doesn't include anything earlier than "Proxima Centauri" from 1935. I read "The Runaway Skyscraper" in a new collection called The Runaway Skyscraper and Other Tales from the Pulps, which includes several other stories from Munsey magazines of the '20s and one from a 1931 issue of Astounding. Aside from the latter, the other stories are non-SF and in fact range all over the place in genre. Perhaps the most striking is "Stories of the Hungry Country: The Case of the Dona Clotilde," which is about a Ruritanian Portugese colony in the Caribbean that has slaves. The take on the European attitude toward slavery is quite barbed. The Astounding story is called "Morale" and is a future war or future weapon story that is more than a little reminiscent of H.G. Wells' "The Land Ironclads" in tone and approach, although again with a less sociological than tactical interest.

I'd like to read more of Leinster's science fiction from the '20s. There's a collection out called The Silver Menace and a Thousand Degrees Below Zero that's from that era. I'll probably check that out next.


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