Monday, June 11, 2018

Women in Science Fiction – Francis Stevens

Ruth de Jauregui

While little known among the current fans of science fiction and fantasy, Gertrude Mabel Barrows (1883-1948) was one of the first women who wrote for the pulp magazines of the early 20th century. Her career was short, but made an indelible mark on the genre later known as Dark Fantasy.

Her first published story was produced while she was working as a stenographer at a department store office. "The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar," published by Argosy in March 1904, appeared under her real name.

She married British journalist Stewart Bennett in 1909. Widowed in 1910 and with an infant daughter to support, she continued working as a stenographer. It wasn't until her father died and she had to care for her invalid mother that she returned to writing for the pulp magazines. "The Nightmare" was published in All-Story Weekly in 1917. Although she'd requested the pen name Jean Vail, the editor published the novella under Francis Stevens. The positive response by readers led to Bennett's decision to continue using Francis Stevens for her work.

For the next few years, she wrote short stories and novellas for the pulps. Focused on science fiction and fantasy, her stories were dark explorations of the future and the failings of human nature. "Friend Island," published in 1918 by All-Story Weekly, featured a world dominated by women, and a fantastic tale of a woman sailor and the shipwreck that nearly led her into matrimony. Alas, he turned out to be less than a perfect mate by the end of the story.
CoverArt by Ric Binkley
PolarisPress 1952

She published her first novel, The Citadel of Fear, in 1918. The lost world story about a forgotten Aztec city is considered her best novel. Her only science fiction novel, the dystopian The Heads of Cerberus, was published as a serial by The Thrill Book the following year, and her supernatural novel Claimed was first published in 1920.

Although there is speculation that her work influenced H.P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt, there is no real proof that this story is true. She did influence many of her contemporary science fiction and fantasy writers. In fact, she was called "greatest woman writer of science fiction in the period between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C.L. Moore" by critic Sam Moskowitz.

Her last known story was published in 1923 by Weird Tales. The two part story, "Sunfire," was also reprinted as a trade paperback in 1996. While her writing career ended after the death of her mother, her stories have been published in several collections. Sadly, she was estranged from her daughter from approximately 1939 until her death in 1948.

Read a free copy of "Friend Island" on Project Gutenberg.
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