by Francis Stevens
124 pages, Disruptive Publishing
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
You probably haven’t heard of Francis Stevens, the pen-name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett. Widowed only a couple of years after her marriage with an eight month old daughter and an invalid mother to care for, Gertrude Bennett turned to writing short stories and novels for pulp magazines in order to support her family. In the four years between 1917 and 1920, Bennett produced eleven works under the name Francis Stevens – four short stories, two novellas and five novels. Although her works brought her some critical success, in 1920 she chose the financial security of a nine-to-five job and never wrote again.
Her works have been out of print for more than fifty years but some careful searches on the interweb will lead the curious to a handful of ebook publishers who are making her works available once more. The question is, is she a forgotten author worth checking out?
There’s no quick answer to that. The legendary HP Lovecraft wrote that Claimed! was “amazing and thrilling!” It is worth bearing in mind that Lovecraft is a writer with the ability to firmly split his readers into two camps. The first are those who “get it.” These fanboys (and girls) worship the strange gods he created and devour everything he ever wrote (even the dreadful poetry). The second camp are those who find Lovecraft’s writing frustratingly cluttered with adjectives, annoyingly vague and more than a little bit silly. Myself, I belong to the first group. Many of my friends belong to the second. No matter how many times I try to get them to read The Call of Cthulhu, they will rarely get past the first few paragraphs before rolling their eyes and giving up.
I have a feeling that Francis Stevens will have a similar effect on modern readers. Those who like tales of mad old men, mysterious artifacts and vengeful gods from forgotten times will fly through this book and immediately go out in search of more. Those who find Lovecraft’s tales a bit hard to swallow will probably find Stevens’ novel similarly unpalatable.
Claimed! tells the story of Dr. Jack Vanaman, a young physician who is hired to nurse the elderly, cantankerous millionaire Mr. Robinson. The old man is in possession of a strange green box whose secrets he is less than willing to reveal to his new companion. Vanaman (as is expected of the hero of a trashy pulp novel) falls head over heels in love with Robinson’s beautiful young niece, Leilah. His strong feelings for the girl stop him from running off when his dreams become increasingly strange and terrifying, a condition he knows is somehow linked to the old man’s mysterious box. To tell more of the story would be to ruin what makes it such an intriguing little tale and Stevens is careful to ensure that the reader is suitably gripped right up to the dizzying conclusion which, whilst a little predictable, is satisfying enough. The plot ambles along at an unhurried pace but is never dull. Stevens’ skill as a spinner of good yarns is evident in the way she drip-feeds the reader enough clues to keep their interest but saves the whizz-bang events for the final few chapters.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, readers of Lovecraft won’t be disappointed by this dark fantasy. Interestingly, Stevens’ strengths as a writer lie where she differs from her contemporary. The prose is fluid and unfettered by lengthy descriptive passages. The characters, though somewhat one-dimensional, are likeable enough and Stevens has the reader rooting for them by the end of the book. Though a dark tale, Stevens manages to end the story happily, something Lovecraft seemed to veer away from whenever such a conclusion was within reach.
Ultimately, it must be remembered that this is a piece of pulp fiction. Whilst original (at least back in 1919 when it was first published), the novel is essentially a trashy little read meant to be consumed quickly, enjoyed for a short time and then forgotten. I’m glad, however, that the works of Francis Stevens have not yet been completely forgotten as this short novel still has the power to entertain and should be sought out by all fans of the genre.
Hereward L.M. Proops