Gertrude Barrows Bennett: Lady of Shadows

The invention of modern American dark fiction is often attributed to HP Lovecraft, but in the early 20th-century, another author traversed those shadowy, eldritch paths.  Some even claim that this author came first, trailblazing a new genre with a more elegant and graceful style.

Writing under the pseudonym ‘Francis Stevens’, Gertrude Barrows Bennett was a pioneering voice in fantasy and science fiction. She crafted a number of short stories and books between 1917 and 1920, exploring themes and ideas that continue to intrigue modern readers. Her story ‘Friend Island’ (published in 1918) is set in a 22nd-century society where gender roles have been abandoned, while her dystopian novel ‘The Heads of Cerberus’ (published in 1919) features an early – and perhaps the earliest – example of parallel universes. In addition to these works, her most famous books include the novel ‘Claimed’ and the lost world novel ‘The Citadel of Fear’.

Gertrude Barrows was born in Minneapolis in 1884. Her parents, Charles and Caroline, nurtured her love of reading but she left school during eighth grade to study art at night school, as she aspired to become an illustrator. Eventually, however, she quit school and took a job as a stenographer, which could provide a steady income. Her early years were marked by a parade of tragedy: her father died in 1892, her brother Reginald died in 1896, and her brother Clark died in 1898. She married British journalist and explorer Stewart Bennett in 1909, moved to Philadelphia, and quickly became pregnant, but tragically he died only a year later: while on a treasure hunting expedition off the coast of Florida, he drowned during a tropical storm. His death left a devastated Gertrude with a new-born daughter, Josephine, and an ailing mother to support.

By the end of World War I, she began to write stories to supplement her income as a stenographer. This was not her first foray into writing: in 1904, at the age of seventeen, her short story ‘The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar’ had been accepted for publication in the magazine Argosy. In it, the character of Dunbar survives a harrowing car crash and wakes up in the laboratory of a scientist, where a mishap during an experiment gives Dunbar super-strength. Here in the 21st-century, we can immediately recognize the classic superhero origin story, but in 1904, this was a ground-breaking plot device, and contributed to the foundation of future hero stories.

In 1917, she threw herself into her work with verve, crafting vibrant worlds and harrowing situations that showed off her remarkable imagination. Her first novella, “The Nightmare”, is set on an island cut off from the rest of the world, where evolution has taken a different course. It was published in All-Story Weekly Magazine, and while she originally asked to use the pseudonym Jean Vail, the editor instead credited the story to Francis Stevens – why he chose this name, we may never know. When eager readers reacted positively to her story, Bennett chose to continue writing under the pseudonym.

In 1918 she published her first novel, ‘The Citadel of Fear’, in which a forgotten Aztec city is rediscovered during World War I. Many readers felt the style and images were similar to the work of Abraham Merritt, and rumors soon swirled that ‘Frances Stevens’ was actually his pseudonym – but Merritt quickly squashed these ideas. He claimed to enjoy the work of Frances Stevens, admitted to being influenced by it, and openly praised the talent it displayed.

‘The Citadel of Fear’ received many glowing reviews, including one letter from Mr. Augustus T. Swift, who wrote,

 

“If written by Sir Walter Scott or Ibanez, that wonderful and tragic allegory, would have been praised to the sky… Stevens, to my mind, is the highest grade of your writers.”

In her novel ‘Claimed’, a magical artifact summons an ancient god to early 20th-century New Jersey. Of this book, Swift wrote, “One of the strangest and most compelling science fantasy novels you will ever read.”

Now, I will not wade into the debate that this letter was itself written under a pseudonym, with the actual author being HP Lovecraft. Some researchers insist that Lovecraft enjoyed and supported her work, while others debunk this claim, citing evidence that Mr. Swift was a humble teacher living in Providence, Rhode Island. Still, the letter speaks highly of Bennett’s work and shows, she had many devoted fans.

Far from being obscure, her stories continued to be highly celebrated during the post-war years. From vials of magical dust, to unseen evils lurking in working-class neighbourhoods, to volcanic eruptions belching up boxes full of nightmares, her tales often veers into the weird, the unsettling, and the bizarre. Bennett liked to explore the vast, uncaring nature of the universe, but instead of feeling insignificant, she used this subjectivism as a reason for humans to care about each other. Her characters, instead of despairing, support one another as a way of defying an uncaring cosmos.

Almost all of Bennett’s literary work dates from 1917 to 1923. When her mother died in 1920, she seems to have ceased writing completely, with any work published after this date having been written years before. By the mid-1920s, Bennett placed her daughter in the care of friends and moved west to California. In 1939, her daughter sent her a letter but it was returned as undeliverable, and with no further communication between them, researchers assumed that Gertrude Barrows Bennett was dead. Only recently was her death certificate discovered, to reveal that she died in February 1948.

Critic Sam Moskowitz calls her “the greatest woman writer of science fiction in the period between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C.L. Moore”, and author Gary C. Hoppenstand credits her with having “the best claim at creating the new genre of dark fantasy’. When asked about herself, Barrett said,

“I had just one merit, as I remember it, and that was a rather grotesque originality.”

It would be a shame if the works of Gertrude Barrow Bennett were eclipsed by other Lovecraftian authors. Bennett’s work continues to lurk and linger in the shadows, waiting for a new generation of fans to discover her vibrant imagination — perhaps this time, under her own name.