Welcome to the next installment in my Retro Reviews! This time, we’re looking at a book written by a woman considered by some to be the mother of dark fantasy, and maybe the first American woman to publish sci-fi under her own name – although it’s not the name given here. You see, Francis Stevens was born Gertrude Mabel Barrows (also often called Gertrude Barrows Bennett), and was first published in 1904 as GM Bennett. The Citadel of Fear was then published in 1918 under the name Francis Stevens, with no one knowing under a reprint in 1952 that it was a pen name.
Now I’ve told you a little about the author, let me tell you a little about the book
There was an explorer named Boots
Who found a lost city then had to scoot
But when he got back home
He found its evil did roam
And he had to fight some real brutes
Note: For ease of reading, I am referring to the author by the pen name on the cover throughout.
What’s it all about?
The Citadel of Fear’s opening image is two explorers/treasure hunters stumbling across a lost civilisation in the desert of Mexico. One is Boots O’Hara, a rambunctious and good-hearted two-fisted hero, and the other is Kennedy, a learned and callous fellow. After getting into a lot of trouble, Boots escapes the city, and makes his way back to his sister and her lawyer husband. However, strange events start disturbing their peace and when Boots hatches a plan to find out who’s responsible, he finds some very unwelcome and creepy discoveries.
How readable is it?
There’s a bit of work involved. It is often dense with detail, particularly when shooting for an atmosphere of uncanniness and dread rather than two-fisted action. Some of the talk at the beginning about the Irish race this and a lighter race that and a darker race this is unwelcome too, although for the much larger part it’s free of such things overtly (and I don’t see much subconscious but what do I know).
Is it any good though?
It’s okay. Its readability issues, combined with stop-start pacing, made it impossible to love for me. I wonder whether a horror fan would enjoy that pacing more; slow creeping unease followed by ghastly revelations seems more entrenched in that genre than fantasy. I can’t say the characters really came alive for me other than Boots, who was a fun mix of impetuosity, cunning, and occasional wisdom. He’s at his best when talking to his sister, Cliona, or engaged in active physical investigation of a mystery; there’s quite a lot of the book that aren’t those things. Nothing about it is bad except for calling milk “the healthsome fluid”, a turn of phrase that will always sit ill with me in the most visceral way. But it is a mix between the good and the so-so that ends up okay.
How Important is this book?
Stevens was an influence on the generation after, with Abraham Merritt a fan (and indeed, his style was similar enough that people thought Stevens a pen name of his). It’s said that Lovecraft was a fan too, although that’s a little harder to pin down a source for that. However, for all the acclaim she’s received and given – best female speculative fiction novelist between Shelley and CL Moore for Sam Moskowitz – she’s relatively little known. While the claim of her inventing dark fantasy gives her an influential status, it’s hard to point to her being an influence on modern authors of the genre (here understood as horror-fantasy of a sort) or even necessarily on their influences.
What about the author?
Stevens was born in Minneapolis in 1884 and went to night school in the hope of becoming an illustrator. In 1909 she married a British journalist and explorer named Stewart Bennett, a man who would die in a year during a tropical storm in a treasure hunting expedition. One can’t help but wonder if there was some of Stewart Bennett in Boots and the city he finds, or her illustration training in the images she creates. Most of Stevens’ stories were written from 1917-1920, a period when she was forced to stay at home to look after her ill mother. After she died, Stevens stopped writing and returned to her more lucrative work as a stenographer. Little is known about the rest of her life as in the mid-20s, Stevens left her infant daughter in the care of friends and moved to California, cutting almost all known ties to her prior life. It feels like her life can’t have been as she’d dreamed it would be; it’s a shame she didn’t live long enough to see his work reprinted in the ’50s and the acclaim given to it.
The Citadel of Fear has not aged particularly well, both in prose style and what society is interested in, but not to the point where it can’t be a pleasant read today. It wasn’t particularly my thing but I can see it being of interest to readers who are more into horror and dark fantasy. As a matter of influence, while some of what it does looks like the fantasy of today, and Stevens’ achievements were remarkable, this doesn’t feel like a top tier big influence. But maybe I’m saying that because I didn’t love it? I am still happy to have read it.