Claimed: 3 for 3

Claimed by Francis Stevens speculative fiction book reviewsClaimed by Francis Stevens

At the tail end of my review of Francis Stevens’ 1919 novel The Heads of Cerberus, I mentioned that the author was now a very solid 2 for 2 with me, having loved that book as well as 1918’s The Citadel of Fear, and that I had a feeling that once I took in her 1920 novel, Claimed, that she would be an even more solid 3 for 3. Well, as I predicted, such is indeed the case, now that I have finally read her most impressive third novel. While Citadel had dealt with the discovery of a lost Aztec city and battling gods (Quetzalcoatl and Nacoc-Yaotl), and the dystopian Cerberus with a totalitarian Philadelphia in an alternate-reality future, Claimed has, at its center, a mysterious green box that had been belched out of the ocean depths after a seismic event near the Azores, and the horrific events that befall its later owners. It is yet another minor masterpiece of dark fantasy, from the woman who practically jump-started the genre single-handed.

Again, Francis Stevens was the pen name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1883 – 1948), a Minneapolis-born widow and mother who turned to writing to support her own invalid mother and who, between 1917 and ’23, came out with five novels and seven shorter pieces that are highly regarded today by discriminating fans of the fantastic. Back when, readers believed that the author was a man, possibly the pseudonym of Abraham Merritt, who was indeed a fan of hers, as was H.P. Lovecraft himself, who has been quoted as saying that Claimed is “one of the strangest and most compelling science fantasy novels you will ever read.” Famously, sci-fi critic Sam Moskowitz has called her “the most gifted woman writer of science fiction and science-fantasy between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C.L. Moore.” The authoress, to my mind, is criminally undervalued today, and a perusal of Claimed is as good a place as any to demonstrate her manifold gifts. The novel first appeared as a three-part serial in the March 6 – 20, 1920 issues of Argosy magazine (the original pulp magazine, as it’s been called, which published from 1882 all the way to 1979, and in which Merritt and Edgar Rice Burroughs also placed much of their work), copping the cover illustration for the March 6th issue. The novel was later reprinted in the Famous Fantastic Mysteries pulp in April ’41, and saw its first release in book form in 1966.

In the novel, the reader encounters Jesse J. Robinson, the meanest and wealthiest citizen of (the fictitious town of) Tremont, near the Delaware River; whether in Pennsylvania or New Jersey is never made explicitly clear. A collector of antiquities, the cantankerous old coot has just purchased a doozy from a local curio dealer: a foot-long green box, of unknown material and make, with an inscription on its top in scarlet letters — of an unknown alphabet — that have the most peculiar propensity of always, somehow, moving to the bottom of said box! As the days pass, Robinson and his niece, the silver-haired Leilah, become subject to strange hallucinations of the sea, and of a monstrous dark shape who threatens them in their dreams. A young doctor, John Vanaman, is called in to attend Robinson after the elderly crank is found unconscious one evening, and the young man quickly becomes enamored with the elfin niece, while falling prey to the same ghastly visitations. Soon, it is learned that the sailor who originally picked up the box near the Azores, as well as that curio dealer, have separately purchased white stallions with the aim of slitting the animals’ throats in sacrifice! And when uncle and niece are abducted and brought out to sea, Vanaman conducts a heated chase via hired cargo steamer, all leading to a showdown on the Atlantic aboard a moldering trireme, oared by a crew of the dead…

Mysterious, beautifully written, at times hallucinatory, and with a creeping atmosphere of dread to spare, Claimed is most surely an impressive piece of imaginative work. I mentioned earlier that many readers of Stevens automatically assumed that she must be a man, and a look at the novel in question will perhaps demonstrate why. Stevens’ knowledge of nautical terms certainly smacks of an experienced seaman, as does the tough talk that comes out of the sailors’ mouths. The author does not shrink from the depiction of violence and bloodshed, either. As in The Citadel of Fear, here, an ancient god appears in modern times to stir up trouble, but in Claimed, that god is never named (although Poseidon/Neptune is strongly suggested) or even clearly seen. Much in the story goes unexplained by the tale’s end, and thus, the reader never does learn the facts behind that ghostly galley and what precisely is inside the mysterious casket. The ultimate fate of old Robinson, too, is never clearly delineated. The reader must exercise his/her powers of imagination, hence, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

One thing that Francis does vouchsafe to show us, via a phantasmagoric illusion at sea, is the horrendous fate that befell the continent of Atlantis, and just how the coveted box wound up in the drink to begin with, and it really is some fascinating stuff. Vanaman, Leilah and especially old Robinson, I should add, are all well-drawn characters, with the good doctor being especially likable and sympathetic. Stevens peppers her novel with many memorable and haunting scenes, including an early exploration of the newly risen, barren island where the relic is initially found; a clairvoyant’s unfortunate attempt to perform a little psychometry on the arcane object; and, indeed, the entire final 1/3 of the book, comprising as it does a tense chase at sea. The book has great sweep and drive, and is fairly relentless once it gets moving. Personally, I could not wait to get home after work to get back to it, and the evenings that I spent reading Claimed were very gripping ones, to be sure.

Today, the novel may be easily obtained thanks to a publisher called Sense of Wonder Press (and the book most definitely does have that elusive sense of wonder, in spades!), whose current edition is a very nice one. All lovers of dark fantasy should certainly eat this one right up. Strangely enough, though the book was written almost a century ago, it feels quite modern, and really, there is virtually nothing in it that would preclude the assumption that it is transpiring in the early 21st century. So yes, Francis Stevens is now a very solid 3 for 3 with me. And I have a feeling that when I next read the Bison Books’ collection entitled The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy, which gathers together the Stevens novel The Labyrinth in addition to seven novellas and short stories, in one large 400-page volume, that the woman will be an even more impressive 11 for 11…

Published in 1920. Claimed opens with the recovery of a mysterious artifact, a strange box bearing an undecipherable inscription, from an uncharted island following an undersea volcanic explosion that nearly dooms the ship that discovers it. Brought back to civilization, the box is purchased by a crotchety old millionaire who quickly comes to regret it. Horrible apparitions of the sea appear at night and frightening dreams plague the old man, his niece and the young doctor who’s serving him. While the doctor does what he can to learn of the box’s origin and the meaning of the strange writing, the nonstop macabre visions, and occasional deaths, that have appeared in the box’s wake eventually lead to the abduction of the old man and his niece by persons unknown. In pursuit of his employer across the high seas, the doctor learns of the box’s evil origins from the mad sailor who originally found it. “One of the strangest and most compelling science fantasy novels you will ever read.”

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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