Weird #14: “Unseen — Unfeared” by Francis Stevens (1919)

Gertrude Barrows Bennett

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.

An antique camera

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.

MythCon 46: The Arthurian Mythos Part II: Race, Raciness, and the Fifty Shades of Charles Williams

20150802_125245For this post I apologize immediately for the title and would like to state that most (the greater half anyway) of this post will be concerned with how Tolkien treats race in his fiction–not how Charles Williams is racy. The lurid revelations about Charles Williams, ‘The Oddest Inkling,’ that have now come forth were just impossible a) to ignore and b) to avoid association with the infamous erotica novel. I mean, what’s the problem with the world today? First, if you’re Canadian, you have the Gian Ghomeshi scandal, then of course there’s Bill Cosby … now even the lurid deeds of obscure Christian mythopoeic poets are at last coming to light.

Saturday morning was the Scholar Guest of Honour speech. John D. Ratecliff is an Inklings scholar and this MythCon’s Scholar Guest of Honour. With his softspoken Texas accent, he began to lecture on “The Lost Letter.” He discussed the problematic friendship between C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams while contextualizing the textual history of some of Williams’s works in relation to some Modernists, including T.S. Eliot who wrote an incomplete essay on Williams’s drama. He also presented us with a great photo of Williams posing with none other than William Butler Yeats (see below).

Ratecliff during his archival spelunking recovered a typescript of Williams’s thought-to-be-destroyed commentary–a necessary document for the comprehension of William’s work because, of all people, even Eliot, as highly allusive, illusive, and difficult a poet as he is, called Williams’s poetry ‘obscure’! The problem for a long time was that C.S. Lewis was known to have burned away this key commentary, rather brutally altering his friend’s literary legacy.

Williams’s obscure poetry in the Arthuriad is highly mythical and difficult to interpret, although it is fairly evident that his character Taliesin is, more or less, a biographical representation of himself, with other characters occasionally representing people he knew nom-a-clef style. Williams in some ways was like more ‘mainstream’ Inklings, Tolkien and Lewis, in that he wrote about mythic themes from a religious perspective. But Charles was an odd duck: a member of the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, a christianized version of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, as well as practicing ritual magician and an occultist.

He also thought sexual arousal could stimulate poetic inspiration.

Just as Taliesin in one part of Williams’s Arthuriad reaches over the bound, fully naked body of Morgeuse, before sitting down, lyre in hand, to compose great poetry, so did Williams–in actual, real life–have the custom of fondling a woman’s breast before stopping just short of consummation. He could then return to his ink and pad filled with erotic energy to scribble off another verse.

“I made her the victim of Love’s laws,” the poem goes. “The queen of Orkney, the queen Morgeuse!”

Tolkien got his inspiration from ‘the refracted light’ that enters humanity from heaven to make us subcreators within God’s creation. Lewis got inspiration from Christian joy. And now we all know what Williams was up to.

What an exemplary Christian mythopoeic writer! But his dirty mind only gets stranger. Ratecliff also distributed copies of a map of Europe called Williams’s “gynecomorphic map,” showing locations from his Arthuriad. If your Greek is up to snuff, you’ll realize that this map showed Europe as the form of a woman (gynaika)–undressed, naturally. Furthermore her body parts correspond to various cities and culturally-significant locations in Williams’s story. Byzantium is situated at the navel, London at the lips, Rome at the hands. The rest was not PG. Let us say Jerusalem in a mystic, or sorta disgusting, way was located in the crotch area, while Southern France–do I really have to specify?–her breasts (due to the ‘nourishing’ quality of the universities in that part of the world, I’m told), while, rather racistly, Ispahan, an obscure Islamic city below the Caspian Sea, took up the fecal rear. Caucasus made up the rest of the gluteus for some unknown reason.

Oh, yeah, there’s one more thing: the giant swarming tentacles at the woman’s feet do not designate Cthulhu but P’o-lu, the court of a fictitious, headless emperor. Although these appear south of Arabia, P’o-lu is supposedly in Java.

So anyway, the moral is that Williams is unanthologizable, unteachable, and such an obscure cockney that you must read him, like you read Hemingway, in a drunken stupor. And I thought modernist poetry was difficult!

Williams's map from the Arthuriad
Williams’s map from the Arthuriad

Time to leave behind all the other shades of Charles Williams and turn to some other, interesting topics.

Stepanie K. Brownell and Sara D. Rivera gave a wondrous talk on a work I had heard about before, but never really thought about reading, although they totally sold me on it. I’m slowly making my way through the novel right now. Their presentation was “‘Out of Far Harad’: Myth and ‘Mirror’ in The Lord of the Rings and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

Knowing nothing of this novel except that it’s title sounded vaguely familiar, I went to the presentation a bit late, but I was blown away by the subject matter. Oscar Wao wants to be the Dominican Tolkien–he’s a black, fat Caribbean nerd boy totally into magna, DND, and genre fiction. He goes on a sort of quest to the Dominican Republic after experiencing a dream vision of a mongoose, where he seeks answers to the fuku (in English, the curse), that has blighted his family and his people ever since the days of slavery and especially since the days of the dictator Trujillo, who the narrator explicitly compares to none other than Sauron himself.

Oscar Wao is the postcolonial/diasporic novel meets geekness, and I had no idea these worlds have ever joined in a single novel until now. I knew Caribbean fantasy/science fiction to be existent, having read a little Nalo Hopkinson and read criticism about her work, but this is about science fiction and fantasy as much as it was about colonialism and race.

The novel offers a postcolonial critique of Tolkien and his project. Tolkien attempted to write a ‘myth for England’ but what about the Dominican Republic, which is much more desperately in need of narration, having been subject to various tyrants and colonizers in its history? As an imperial subject, DR needs narration.

Oscar falls out with his idol, Tolkien, when he cannot reconcile the man he sees in the mirror with the figures represented in LOTR. One passage reads “out of Far Harad, black men like half-trolls…” While Oscar naturally identifies with the Elves and Men and Hobbits of Middle Earth like any other reader, when he comes to this passage he realizes that there is no place for heroism in Middle Earth for those of his skin colour.

Junot Diaz, the author of Oscar Wao, wanted to give readers–especially black readers–a mirror so they can see their own race represented in fiction without feeling that it is a monstrous one. “If we were orcs, wouldn’t we, at a racial level, imagine ourselves to look like elves?” (178), he writes.

This novel straddles a grey area between magical realism and fantasy, although as far as I’ve gotten in my reading, it is a quirky but still an essentially realistic story. It’s epigraphs are from Derek Walcott and Stan Lee–a peculiar mix that represents the book’s themes.

While I continue my readings for my MA Thesis, which is partly about analyzing fantasy as a global form, I can’t help but think about this novel and how works of fantasy, like The Lord of the Rings, are receive and interpreted by readers and other authors in nations such as DR. Does the transference of forms from Europe to the ‘periphery’ and the Third World carry a progressive or a detrimental effect towards local literature and national self-image? This talk raised a whole lot of questions that seem to me vital about getting a full picture of what fantasy is doing worldwide.

Once again the issue of race emerged–and specifically, Tolkien’s ideas of race–with Roger Echo-Hawk’s presentation “Ya Hoi! Tolkien’s Mongol-type Orcs.” Here Echo-Hawk, a Native scholar and author of Tolkien in Pawnee Land, argued that Tolkien borrowed descriptions of Mongoloid skulls when describing his orcs. He related this argument to the discourse of eugenics that was ripe around the time Tolkien was writing–the creation of an ideal human race through selective breeding. I can personally contest to this discourse being ‘in the air’ at the time because I noticed several book ads during my searches through early issues of Canadian Forum during my RAship. Supposedly it was guaranteed that ancestry and genes carried the destiny of a society. There were supposedly four ‘races’ in Europe: Mediterranean, Alpine, Tutonic, and Celtic, with the Negoroid and Mongolian types on other continents.

Although Tolkien was aware of Huxley’s arguments about such racial ideas being unscientific, he still approached race from a Eurocentric sense of mission to the ‘lesser’ races. Tolkien would come to begrudge Hitler’s perversion of the idea of the great Northern racial spirit. In fact, in a 1938 letter Tolkien called such racial theories a “holy pernicious and unscientific doctrine.”

Echo-Hawk continued by referencing an Encyclopaedia Brittanica description of the Mongoloid race and finding close correspondence between its specific description of Mongoloids and Tolkien’s descriptions of the “slant-eyed” orcs. Orcs had “sallow” skin–in other words, the yellow skin corresponding to East/Central Asian ancestry. Furthermore his “squint-eyed Southerner” in the Inn at Bree had nothing to do with Clint Eastwood, but rather invokes the same Mongoloid race as a trait of evil.

Another observant bit of scholarship on Echo-Hawk’s part was proposing that Tolkien was aware of the discovery of a negroid Malay skeleton during the war, which may also have influenced his depiction of orcs. Tolkien kept tabs on the Eastern theater during WWII, a note about a Japanese attack on Malaya having been found behind one of his exam papers. Did he note Malay because he had been paying attention to the discovery? Unfortunately, we may never know. What we do know is that Tolkien’s attitude to race was not entirely straightforward and that his placing of importance on race as a stable entity unfortunately reifies–or stultifies–societies into distinct groups characterized by absolute difference.

To close off the day, I attended a discussion panel on Rudyard Kipling, whose short fiction occasionally ventures into the fantastic, but whose journalistic representations of India still define how people–even Indians themselves–see India today. There were no terribly fascinating theories discussed, but it was an opportunity to hear some things about this complex colonial author. Although his novels like The White Man’s Burden is usually seen as trite, jingoistic, and complicit with imperialism, he presents an honest and surprisingly deep picture of Indian society that frequently find sympathy with the locals instead of representatives of the British government.

The panel mentioned how Kipling’s prose actually scans, like poetry. I almost wanted to quote Ondaatje’s The English Patient, where the patient tells Hana, “Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do.” Another author who writes as carefully as Kipling is Kenneth Morris, whose fantasy short fiction was collected in a volume called The Dragon Path–he even wrote fiction inspired by Beethoven.

Fantasy authors who refer to Kipling and acknowledge their debt to him include Poul Anderson and Tim Powers, whose novel Declare refers to The Great Game. C.S. Lewis in Selected Literary Essays also has an essay on Kipling in which he calls him the “Poet of the Inner Ring,” which is code for male friendship.

And … that’s about all I could pack in to this post. That Saturday was packed full of lectures. In another week, I will be publishing my Sunday notes, including a brief report on my presentation.

Modernism meets classic modern fantasy: Charles Williams and W.B. Yeats
Modernism meets classic modern fantasy: Charles Williams and W.B. Yeats