Monday, August 20, 2018

The pulpy pre-Lovecraftian The Citadel of Fear - the grin of it was in no sense funny

Along with Jules Verne, I read another pulpy fantasy recently, a real pulp novel, Citadel of Fear by Francis Stevens (1918), pen name of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, a young Minnesotan widow who started writing for money and proved to be one of the great innovators in her weird field.

The Citadel of Fear is for its first third a “lost world” novel, with a couple of tough guys stumbling into a hidden city of the Aztecs, full of either magic or advanced technology.  One of the Aztec gods is a classic Lovecraftian horror, and it follows the hero back to New England where it causes trouble for a while, partly by generating more Lovecraftian horrors along the lines of The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), except with Aztec iconography.

By “Lovecraftian,” I guess I should say “Stevensian” because in 1918 there was no Lovecraftian.  Bennett is one of the inventors of the eldritch horror that lurks in remote corners and drives men mad when encountered.  Let’s look at one – will we retain our sanity?

Then came the worst, for up from beneath his left shoulder a head rose and stretched itself on a thin, flat, tapering neck.  It was a head that seemed mostly mouth, a great triangular aperture, gaping, tongueless, with soft drooping lips, and behind it on either side a fleck of red that might have been eyes or their remnants.  (Ch. 20)

One difference from Lovecraft is that at this point, two-thirds into the novel, Stevens gives me a good look at her weird critters.  Another difference – a big one – is that her horrors can be fought, even defeated.  There are better – more humanistic – gods balancing the worst.  Lovecraft’s greatest imaginative feat, his metaphysics, his gnostic nihilism, his cosmic anti-epistemology, has no counterpart in Stevens.

Her monsters are good, though.

It was not a good face.  No evil, indeed, could have been too vile for its ugliness to grin at.  A toad’s mouth is wide, ugly – and rather funny.  The mouth of this face was toadlike in its width and narrowness of lip, but the grin of it was in no sense funny.  (Ch. 6)

I was a little surprised by how closely the plot followed what I would now call a standard Hollywood model, again, before there is such a thing.  The big fight at the end was handled much like in a contemporary action movie.  There is a bad guy, a super-villain.  Every character is given a role in the fight, some minor or major act of heroism.  Everything explodes.

I am pretty sure that I learned about The Citadel of Fear long ago in Fantasy: The 100 Best Books (1988) by James Cawthorn and Michael Moorcock.  Their choices begin with Gulliver’s Travels and take their time getting to The Lord of the Rings.  Their list can be seen here; it is an outstanding list, a wonderfully weird list, within its almost entirely English-language limits.  Wuthering Heights and Moby-Dick; Dickens and James and Kafka; but also Edgar Rice Burroughs and Fritz Leiber and The Circus of Dr. Lao, a great mix of the most freely imaginative ends of the prestigious and the pulpy.


  1. In what sense is Moby-Dick a fantasy? I mean, you could say it's not particularly "realistic," but if that's one's definition of fantasy just about everything but Zola and Dreiser counts.

  2. The sense in which the novel portrays a combat between the avatars of sky and sea gods, as I wrote about long ago, maybe most clearly here. For example, the part where Ahab forges a magic lightning harpoon.

    So Moby-Dick is, from this angle, not just a fantasy novel, it's a Michael Moorcock fantasy novel. Eternal conflicts and so on.

  3. I mean, you know this, you say it yourself, Ahab is nuts. If his babbling about storm gods and Fate turns the novel into fantasy, then like I said, just about every novel is fantasy, including all of Dostoevsky. Which is one of those "fun to imagine, useless to implement" categorizations. I enjoy your reading of the novel, but still dispute its inclusion in a list of "Fantasy: The 100 Best Books"; creators of such lists seem to be irresistibly impelled to include famous books that don't belong there just to show how cool/imaginative/inclusive they are. But if I were a fantasy fan, I'd be pissed to see one of the slots (and there are probably other such) taken up with a non-fantasy book thrown in to show off.

    I seem to be turning into a curmudgeon. Oh well, nothing I can do about it.

  4. If Ahab were not nuts, he would not be able to serve as Yahweh's avatar. That is clear enough. That's always the way it works.

    My impression is that relatively few novels make the kind of mythic or allegorical move that defines "fantasy" in this sense, where the metaphors or metaphysics become literal. i do not find the category so hard to implement, and I do not limit it to the swords-and-sorcery stuff.

    There's a second book from the same publisher, written partly for the purpose you mention, to make room for more. The book is David Pringle's Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels. Starts with Peake, gets to Tolkien quickly. There is more overlap between the books than I had remembered, now that I look at it again. The books are blood relatives.