Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens

The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy (Bison Frontiers of Imagination)The Nightmare and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy by Francis Stevens

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

What I liked about this collection of stories:

The stories within were pretty imaginative. The writing is erudite and fairly polished. Some of the story ideas were very innovative for the time. I can see the legacy that this author has bequeathed to future dark fantasists.

What I didn't like:

1. Story stories were often slow-starters and somewhat long-winded. There were too many novellas and not enough shorter stories. It made for harder reading for me.

2. The blatant racism against black people, Chinese, ethnic whites, you name it. Ugly terms for people of various races were used here and there with a distressing nonchalance. Negative traits being assigned and assumed to people of certain races based on their ethnicity was done very casually. There is also some subtle classism. Most of the protagonists are well-off non-ethnic white men (although the writer was a female who had to work for a living). I imagine this was done deliberately, as this is probably a big audience for these stories. This unpalatable racism, xenophobia, and classism is part and parcel of early 20th century literature, but it's still grating on this reader.

I'm just exhausted after doggedly reading this book. I usually finish most books I start, and I wanted to get this one read, even though my typical MO is to leisurely work my way through a short story collection. Mental note (please heed this time): Do not pick short story collections for monthly challenge reads!!!

Here are my brief thoughts on each story.

The Nightmare

This was a pretty good story. I can see some elements of 19th century fantasy adventure literature used with fairly good effect here. However, with its very slow start and too quick ending, this story did not impress me. Three and 1/2 stars.

The Labyrinth

This was my favorite story. I would have given it five stars except I disliked the racism against Chinese people. Otherwise, the humor was good, the diabolical intent behind the labyrinth, and the various characters and their interactions were well-written. I think this probably provided fertile fruit for many future works involving murderous labyrinthine traps. Four stars.

Friend Island

A short, cute satirical work that shows a world where women rule. I liked it. Four stars.

Behind the Curtain

A brief story (thankfully) about a man's dream of brutal revenge against his wife who asks for a divorce, involving an Egyptian mummy, and poisoned wine. This would have been very at home in a Weird Tales volume. Four stars.


I can see that this story influenced Lovecraft in a massive way. His style, the use of horrifying creatures beyond our comprehension, the narrative focus, and the casual elitism and racism that he seemed to favor in his stories. The last was a big turn off for me. Two and 1/2 stars.

The Elf Trap

The good and the bad are equally weighed here. More xenophobic racism. The message seems to ridicule such prejudice in that the protagonist dismisses the gipsies on first sight, finding out later that they assume a mask to hide their elvish existence. I liked the idea behind it more than the execution. Four stars.


I thought this was going to be a good, scary story. It started out so well-with plenty of supernaturally-sinister elements. It turned into more of a melodramatic piece. The protagonist is steadily possessed by the malevolent spirit of his dead uncle. I didn't much like the direction she took with this story, although it was well-written. More casual racism in the depiction of the medium's black servant. Lastly, it was way too long. Three stars.


A somewhat interesting look at a seemingly deserted pyramid in the Amazonian, which hides a human sacrificial culture and the dangers within to the five men who arrive to explore it. Not a bad story, but it shows the prevalent white racial attitudes of superiority demonstrated in most of the other stories. Three stars.

In Summary:

I don't want to belabor my point about the racist elements, but it made this collection a lot harder to read. I like reading the classics and pulp literature very much. But as a person of color, it is very difficult to see such blithe ignorance and disrespect for people of differing ethnicities and racial backgrounds. Sadly, the author seemed to be a person of intelligence and vision, but the racist/prejudice attitudes that her stories revealed (although representative of her time) dim the light of the promise shown in these stories (this author was the inventor of dark fantasy as a genre). Reading these stories and other authors from this era make me grateful that the books available in the fantasy genres today are free (in my experience) of such objectionable attitudes. Although I find myself disappointed for the racism and prejudice shown in the stories from this collection, I definitely don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because that would be a huge waste. Instead, I hope that authors will continue to incorporate some of the inventive, imaginary ideas of this era of writing, and create stories that show a more enlightened perspective on race, ethnicity, and nationality. After all, fantasy is a genre in which the writer's imagination is boundless. There is no place for small minds.

A completist reader with an interest in classic/pulp fantasy literature from the early 20th Century should check out these stories, because it is quite clear how influential Gertrude Barrows, who wrote under the pseudonym of Francis Stevens, was on future writers.

Overall rating: 3.5/5.0 stars.

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