For three years in the early-20th century, an author named Francis Stevens appeared in the pages of the dominant pulp magazines with an incredible run of stories. She would become one of the more influential speculative authors right as the genre was primed to take off as its own movement, and she also influenced a number of contemporaries who would shape the movement in the years to come. Long after her short career in fiction was over, Stevens would be considered by many in the field to be the first professional female author within the genre and a founding member of what would later be known as Dark Fantasy.
On September 18th, 1883, Stevens was born as Gertrude Mabel Barrows in Minneapolis, Minn., to Charles Barrows and Carrie Hatch, parents of literary tastes, according to Stevens later on. Little is known about her early life; she remained in elementary school until the 8th grade, when she had to leave to find work and help support her family. In 1900, at the age of 17, she found work at an office in a department store, where she used her spare time to write. During this time, she produced a single story, “The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar,” which she described as having a single merit: "[a] rather grotesque originality." She decided to submit it to Frank Munsey's pulp magazine Argosy, and to her surprise, it was accepted and published in March 1904, under her own name. This story seems to have been written and published on a whim, and it was her only publication for more than 10 years. She continued to find employment in the regular workforce, working as a stenographer at various companies in the Minneapolis area.
She eventually relocated to Philadelphia by 1910. Now married to a British reporter, Stewart Bennett, and taking his name, she gave birth to a girl, Josephine, in the same year. Their family was short-lived: eight months after the birth of her daughter, her husband perished while the expedition seeking underwater treasure that he was covering was overtaken by a tropical storm. His death placed a heavy financial burden on the new mother and infant daughter. To make ends meet, she began to work for the University of Pennsylvania, where was a secretary for a professor and typed papers for students. She continued this for several more years before her father passed away, leaving her to care for her disabled mother. Largely confined to her home, Stevens turned to an older source of income: writing. She spent much time with her stories; many hours were spent studying her plots, locked away to work in quiet, and often writing out her novels by hand. According to a short biographical introduction by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, she would read her stories to her daughter, who would provide suggestions. Her stories were dark and this suited the mood of the general public: The War in Europe continued to rage onward, with the United States poised to jump in to aid its European allies. The descriptions of the carnage and destruction wrought in Europe likely helped to influence the tone of her fiction.
In 1917, Bennett’s writing work paid off: Her novella, The Nightmare, appeared in the April 14th issue of All-Story Weekly. While she requested that the story be published under the name Jean Veil, the magazine’s new editor, Bob Davis, ignored her suggestion, and published the story under the name Francis Stevens. The story received praise, and so she opted to continue to write under the moniker. It was the start of a three year publishing sprint, where Stevens would continue the growing trend of placing speculative stories in the pages of pulp magazines. Already, numerous authors had turned to tales of science, fantasy and horror, from Edgar Rice Burroughs to A. Merritt and others. The encapsulated, named genre of science fiction was still a decade away, but it’s clear that the genre was already well established in the pages of cheap pulp magazines and their legions of readers.
Her next story was a serial. “The Labyrinth” appeared several months later in the July 27th issue of All-Story Weekly, and continued in the August 3rd and August 10th issues. The story followed a would-be rescuer caught in a deadly labyrinth run by a madman. In September of 1917, Stevens produced one of her best-known short stories, “Friend Island,” which appeared in the September 7th issue of All-Story Weekly. The story is a notable one for its early feminist themes and a blend of realism and fantasy. Stevens envisioned a female ship captain, stranded on a mysterious island which seemed to reflect her moods. Most interesting is society’s disposition at this point in time: “Stern of feature, bronzed by wind and sun, her age could only be guessed, but I surmised at once that in her I beheld a survivor of the age of turbines and oil engines—a true sea-woman of that elder time when woman’s superiority to man had not been so long recognized.” In his 1970 book, Under the Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of “The Scientific Romance” in the Munsey Magazines, 1912-1920, Sam Moskowitz postulates that this story may very well have been influenced by the death of her late husband at sea, and as a single mother, found that she was very able to make ends meet on her own.
There was little time to stop. Just the week after “Friend Island” was published, an even greater work of Stevens was published in the September 14th through October 26th, 1917, issues of The Argosy, another Munsey pulp magazine. Serialized in 7 weekly installments, The Citadel of Fear has been hailed as one of Stevens’ best works. A lost-civilization story, the short novel follows a pair of adventurers in Mexico—one of whom is consumed by an evil god, while another falls in love, before the two come into conflict with one another. The story received accolades from readers following its publication: Augustus T. Swift, a reader from New England, praised the story in 1919: “Citadel of Fear, if written by Sir. Walter Scott or [Vicente Blasco] Ibáñez, that wonderful and tragic allegory would have been praised to the skies…after the profound intellectual and moral impression created by the Citadel of Fear, it is hardly necessary to say that I plunged into Avalon with equal eagerness.” Swift was once thought to be a pseudonym of Rhode Island author H.P. Lovecraft, and while this has since been debunked, it’s clear that Stevens’ style of fiction was a major influence on the author.
Stevens continued to publish with Munsey’s magazines: A short story, “Behind the Curtain,” came out in late September, 1918 in All-Story Weekly (her last for that magazine), while she published another short story on February 10th, 1919, “Unseen-Unfeared” for People's Favorite Magazine, a creepy tale of a spectator to a strange museum exhibit that imparts him with the ability to see horrifying creatures everywhere he turns. After a short break, Stevens returned in the fall of 1919 with a short fantasy story, “The Elf-Trap,” for Argosy in July, and in August, she continued with not one, but two serialized novels: The Heads of Cerberus, which ran for 5 parts in The Thrill Book, a Street and Smith publication (which would later publish Astounding Science Fiction), and Avalon, for Munsey’s Argosy. The Heads of Cerberus is hailed as Stevens’ most science-fictional work of all of her books, where her characters are transported to a dystopian future after inhaling a strange dust. John Clute notes that the book is likely the first Alternate World story published, one that acts as a sort of warning story for what the future could hold. Street & Smith’s Thrill Book was short-lived—launched in March 1919, it was later cancelled in October of that same year. Reportedly, Stevens had several other stories accepted by the magazine, all of which were lost when it was closed down.
1920 marked the last real year of Steven’s run in the pulps—it’s speculated that her mother passed away this year, allowing her to return to the regular workforce, and there’s indications that she may have remarried in the same year. Claimed was published throughout the month of March in Argosy, detailing the fates of those who came into contact with a mysterious box, while her final novel, Serapion, was serialized from June through July that summer, following a man after he was possessed by a supernatural entity. After this story, Stevens took a break, publishing only two further stories in 1923, in Edwin Baine’s Weird Tales magazine in July/August and September issues.
After this, Stevens all but vanishes from the pulp world. In 1930, she moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco, most likely following her daughter after she married. The two appear to become estranged, and her last letter to her daughter in September 1939 was returned, undelivered. Stevens would later pass away in 1948.
Following her death, Stevens enjoyed little recognition for her works, but remained an important figure of the pulp era, helping to influence authors such as H.P. Lovecraft and the rest of the “Weird” subgenre as new publications emerged in the mid-to-late 1920s. Stevens enjoyed champions such as Sam Moskowitz, who proclaimed her as the “most gifted women writer of science fantasy between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C.L. Moore….Stevens was the only woman to rate with the leaders in the art of the scientific romance.” She’s since received some further attention, as her stories were collected in 2004’s The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy, and reprinted in anthologies, such as in 2009’s American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny, from Poe to the Pulps, edited by Peter Straub and published by the prestigious Library of America.
Stevens’ stories mixed genres, preceding the Weird stories that would follow, and were clearly influenced by earlier works of horror and fantasy, often pitting humans against extraordinarily powerful, supernatural forces. It’s no wonder that she’s considered the founder of dark-fantasy fiction, a starting point for a genre that would continue to grow into the future.