Content warning: racism, suicide.
Francis Stevens is the pen name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, the first major female author of science fiction and fantasy. She has been compared to (and even been mistaken for) A. Merritt, and H. P. Lovecraft wrote approvingly of her famous novel Claimed, which is about the summoning of an ancient god in New Jersey. Her short story “Unseen – Unfeared” is billed by the editors of The Weird as a classic weird tale.
“Unseen – Unfeared” is motivated by a curiosity about the unknown things that lie outside of human experience: a greater unknown which science and religion cannot altogether explain. Like in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” curiosity is rewarded with despair and terror at the realization of the grim condition of the human race. The most merciful thing here is the “inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” The story can also be seen as proto-Lovecraftian in its anti-humanism, its racism, and in how the two relate together.
The story begins with the narrator meeting a detective in an Italian restaurant by chance, discussing how Holt, an experimental chemist, has been falsely accused of poisoning an assistant. The people in this part of town are suspicious of Holt, given his experiments, and they accuse him of using the Evil Eye. The detective gives the narrator a cigar and goes on his way.
The narrator wanders down South Street, feeling sick from sour wine, and has several encounters in which he voices his disgust of the ethnic minorities of this neighbourhood–a group that includes Black people, Jews and Italians. This naturally gave me pause as I confronted the racist fear depicted in this story. It reminded me of the essay about Lovecraft, “Why We Can’t Ignore Lovecraft’s White Supremacy.” Racial fear disturbs Stevens’s narrator at visceral level, in a way that is disturbing in itself to read, because it convincingly puts the reader in the shoes of a racist walking through a poor, ethnic neighourhood.
Curiously, much of the narrator’s fear at South Street’s “nameless dread” is directed towards Italians. Italians were considered racial others at this point in American history, and as Catholics, they were viewed as being more superstitious than Protestant Anglo-Saxons, especially when it came to the malocchio, or Evil Eye.
One depiction of a young Italian struck me because of how similar it was to the demonizing language used by police to justify the use of racist violence against Black and Latinx people. The narrator remarks that the young man is “handsome after the swarthy manner of his race, but never in my life had I seen a face so expressive of pure, malicious cruelty, naked and unashamed. Our eyes met and his seemed to light up with a vile gleaming, as if all the wickedness of his nature had come to a focus in the look of concentrated hate he gave me” (126). This look of hatred has no cause, no reason, and so it is attributed to the man’s “nature,” which is a concept not so far removed from his race.
The sense of racial fear is palpable in this description. That Italians are no longer subject to such demonizing descriptions in 2020, but Black people still are, is testament to the unevenness of their experiences of assimilation into white culture. Anti-Black racism in North American society clearly endures today, while Italians and other European immigrants have had the privilege of becoming “racially united through assimilation” into white culture (DiAngelo, White Fragility, 49). (DiAngelo references Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White to develop this point.) However, in 1919, this assimilation had not yet occurred, and this passage reveals what racist fear of Italians might have looked back then.
The racial fear that the narrator experiences, a fear towards all the racialized groups that inhabit it (not just Italians), eventually expands to encompass the whole human race. Like Lovecraft’s fiction, “Unseen – Unfeared” has an anti-humanist philosophy at its core.
To get back to the story, the narrator finds a sign advertising “THE GREAT UNSEEN” (125) and enters the building to sit out his sense of unease and paranoid fear, expecting to find a museum exhibit to distract himself. There he encounters an old man with grey hair and black eyes who shows him inside a laboratory where he has been experimenting with colour photography.
By chance, the old man has stumbled upon a rare, pearlescent-gray plant membrane from South America, which, when applied as a lens to his camera, sets off an abundance of light that reveals the existence of creatures who have never before been observed by the human eye.
The empty air now appears to be crowded with insects, arachnids, and invertebrates–huge, writhing, tentacled creatures who climb all over the room. In addition, there “were the things with human faces. Mask-like, monstrous, huge gaping mouths and slitlike eyes” (129). The fear the narrator has felt up to now becomes a dizzying, as if he has learned to see the panoply of microscopic germs, viruses, and parasites that pervade our world.
But these are not mere germs or viruses. The old man explains what the creatures are, crying, “Among such as these do you move every hour of the day and night. Only you and I have seen, for God is merciful and has spared our race from sight. But I am not merciful! I loathe the race which gave these creatures birth […] man has made these! By his evil thoughts, by his selfish panics, by his lusts and his interminable, never-ending hate he has made them, and they are everywhere!” (129)
This revelation can be interpreted as justifying the narrator’s vague disgust about racial others due to the fact the human race is beastly as a whole. But it is also a moment where the narrator comes to hate the sight of his own hate–because it is hate that has created these abominations.
The narrator is immediately seized with terror and reaches such a depth of despair and loathing for the progenitors of these creatures that he wishes to kill himself, to prevent himself from birthing any more of the hideous beasts. However, he ultimately faints before he can go through with the deed. The old man is seized by the same impulse, and succeeds.
When he awakens, the narrator becomes convinced the vision was a dream. The detective revives him and explains that his vision of the old man was caused by the drugged cigar he gave him back at the Italian restaurant. However, when the narrator discovers the pearlescent membrane still in the lab, he becomes tempted to try the experiment again, to see if his vision of the creatures was real. In the end, the detective encourages him to burn it and they do, because “doubt is sometimes better than certainty” (132).
This ending resolves the story’s disturbing anti-humanist claims in a way that would have been palatable for readers of People’s Favourite Magazine, where the story first appeared. There’s no doubt that this is a racist story. However, it is remarkable to see how the narrator’s disgust with specific groups of people soon becomes a generalized hatred for the human race as a whole, including himself: for humanity’s brutishness and pettiness, for its sinfulness and its failure to live up to higher ideals. I’m not sure if the narrator’s realization “redeems” the story of its racism, but just as the depiction of racial others as brutish reinforces the narrator’s anti-humanism, his urge towards suicide could imply that he has recognized the hatred and fear that exists inside himself.
I would venture even to say that “Unseen – Unfeared” can be read allegorically (somewhat against the grain) as a reflection on what it means to notice racism in society. In our contemporary society, racism is almost invisible (much of the time), though it is still enshrined in racist policy and institutions. We (White people especially) need the special lens of an anti-racist education to get better at seeing where racism exists: where it infests our society like so many many-legged millipedes and spiders.
Once we do learn to see and recognize the effects of racism, we must resist the temptation to forget it. Unlike the horror that grips the narrator, witnessing the horror of racism in all its grotesquerie won’t kill us.
This being said, I’m not certain Francis Stevens intended such a message to be made of her story. To the anti-humanist, human progress is futile, if not absurd–including progress towards racial equality. Human beings may strive towards progress, but they will inevitably succumb to their base nature eventually and lose any sense of progress that has been made. This worldview is undeniably bleak, though it must have been radical for its time in its condemnation of sins of the human race.
Today, we’re all too aware of how humans behave like a virus, depleting the earth’s natural resources and slowly destroying our environment through pollution and climate change. Rather than express a bland humanistic optimism, “Unseen – Unfeared” expresses a condemnation of humanity itself. It is a vision of humanity that is so bleak, the only rational response is suicide or to forget that this situation exists, as the author makes clear. In light of this, perhaps humanism and the pursuit of racial equality only makes sense if you forget humanity’s meaningless position in the universe.
Perhaps that bleak situation isn’t such a bad thing to try to forget.
N.B.: I noticed a passing parallel to “Unseen – Unfeared” in Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” in which a woman endowed with a rare power notices her Ivy League date’s ugly thoughts, which are described as being “covered in spines and centipede feet, [glistening] with ancient grudges” (The New Voices of Fantasy, 21). Here, hate and misogyny becomes visibly manifested as insects and vermin to those who can see them. It seemed to me that Wong was either inspired by Francis Stevens in crafting this image or inspired by the same broader cultural associations that inspired “Unseen – Unfeared.”
Speaking of centipedes and cockroaches, next week, I’ll be writing about “In the Penal Colony” (1919) by the iconic Franz Kafka, who wrote the most famous cockroach story of all.