Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 197: Francis Stevens, Unseen—Unfeared (#199)

Francis Stevens, "Unseen—Unfeared" (1919) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

Warning: Super-sappy interpretation.

In Woody Allen's lesser Everyone Says I Love You (stay with me now), the son of two liberal Democrats has become a staunch Republican--which is later revealed to be the product of a brain clot cutting off oxygen to part of his brain. There's almost something of that nature in Francis Stevens's story here, where a guy has all these fears about Italians and blacks and Jews--and it's eventually revealed that his brain has been poisoned. It's a fun reversal of what many readers of 1900s weird tales would take as the unfortunate status quo of racism and xenophobia.

We could speculate that Francis Stevens, née Gertrude Mabel Barrows (mariée Bennett), might have brought this slightly askew view to this dark fantasy because of her position: a widowed woman, taking care of an invalid mother and daughter, might have different ideas about the world than your Lord Dunsanys or your John Colliers--or, yes, your H. P. Lovecrafts. But that's just speculation; and while we have a bunch of Francis Stevens stories fro, 1917 to 1923, we know very little about her--like why she stopped writing.

That speculation and history to the side, today's story actually starts out rather like other weird tales of the time, both in tropes and in construction. This sentence--
Bodiless, inexplicable horror had me as in a net, whose strands, being intangible, without reason for existence, I could by no means throw off.
--could really have been written by just about any of the weird writers of the time. Once you get used to lines like that, the story here is

  • narrator Blaisdell meets a close-lipped detective friend of his, Mark Jenkins who is following a poisoning case and who believes the weird Doctor Holt is innocent; (Jenkins gives Blaisdell a cigar); 
  • Blaisdell wanders through an immigrant community, seeing horror and monstrousness all around him, a teeming world of malice and horror (which is not all that unusual in many depictions of poverty, where "teeming" seems like the usual situation); (Blaisdell partially smokes the cigar);
  • he wanders into Holt's lecture, which shows how the world is covered with human's thoughts-given-life--and since humans are terrible, these thought-forms are monstrous: centipedes and amoeboid creatures, all with sinister human faces, which causes Blaisdell to faint;
  • Blaisdell considers suicide, but is stopped by Mark Jenkins, who comes to tell us the real story:
    • the cigar was poisoned (and Jenkins mixed up his good cigars with the cigars he took from the poisoner);
    • Dr. Holt was dead the whole time, which means that Blaisdell hallucinated everything, including the malice of the immigrant community;
    • but there is something odd about this particular filter-paper that Holt used in his lecture--so they destroy it.
So we have tropes of the invisible all around us, which connects with the idea of the microscopic monster (which we saw in David H. Keller's "The Jelly-Fish"); we have a human-hating scientist; we have apparitions beyond death's door; we have the reasonable but perhaps not accurate explanation of the weird; we have the destruction of the disquieting object--all fairly standard for fantastic fiction. (Which is not a bad thing. I just heard an interview with a comic book author who seemed to feel that identifying tropes was the same thing as criticizing a work.)

But then we have the detective story: the poisoned cigar, the switcheroo, the ongoing investigation.

And on top of that we have the moral switcheroos that I talked about at the top. For the first few sections, this seems like a typical representation of early weird fiction, but with that strange opening about a normal crime and the detective who know but won't speak, I think Francis Stevens is cluing us in that things aren't going to go totally as we expect. And so the ending isn't just "monsters are all around us" or "people are monsters" or "we live on a thin skin of sanity"--though there's a large touch of that as well. There's something almost hopeful about the detective coming back to save his friend, first from the poisoned cigar that the detective idiotically gave, then from the friend's own attempts at suicide, and lastly, from the knowledge of the terrible things that might be around us.

And since those terrible things are caused by our thoughts, then these good thoughts of friendship may well cause good things to live around us--unseen, yes, but unfeared because they are on our side.

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