Citadel of Fear by Francis Stevens

Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Feb 1942, Virgil Finlay cover

Citadel of Fear is one of the books listed in Moorcock & Cawthorn’s Fantasy: The 100 Best Books, where it’s described as being the sort of thing you’d find playing as a late-night horror film, if only it had ever been filmed (it has “the authentic air of delirium fitted to midnight viewing”). It was first serialised in The Argosy in seven parts from September to October of 1918, and later revived in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, February 1942, with some gorgeous Virgil Finlay illustrations and cover art. It was only with its first paperback edition (in 1970) that its authorship was confirmed as not being (as the rumour had it) Abraham Merritt under a pseudonym, but Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1884–1948), who had a brief flourishing of pulp output between 1917 and 1920. (She also has the distinction, thanks to her first short story, published in 1904, of being the first US female author of science fiction to do so under her own name. The pen-name “Francis Stevens” came later.)

Citadel of Fear begins as a lost-race novel and ends as a mad scientist tale, with a rather slow-moving weird mystery in between. At the start, our hero Colin O’Hara, “a stalwart young Irishman… who even at twenty excelled most men in strength and stamina” and his older, greedier, and somewhat more useless companion Archer Kennedy, stumble out of a South American desert into a secluded, lush region that proves to be the home of a lost people, “the last remnant of a forgotten race, older than Toltec or Mayan, or even the Olmecs”, still living as they did in the old days. There’s conflict within the city, as the sects of the various gods vie for power, barely kept in check by the powerful Guardians of the Hills. It’s also a region in which the old gods, including Quetzalcoatl and Nacoc-Yaotl (the “maker of hatreds, who would destroy mankind if he could”), take a very much more active interest than dead gods normally do. After being captured, escaping, falling into a lake of burning light and being rescued by a Tlapallan princess, then in turn rescuing her, Colin O’Hara is thrown back out into the desert. Just as the story seemed to be setting itself up for an Edgar Rice Burroughs-style “hero tips the balance in fantastic city’s internal power struggles” narrative, that part of the story is over.

Fifteen years later in America, Colin O’Hara is visiting his newly-married sister, Cliona. When she’s attacked one night by a mysterious creature, Colin begins an investigation that will lead him to the house of the reclusive Chester Reed, who claims to be raising unusual animals for “scientific stock”. It’s no surprise to the reader when Chester Reed turns out to be O’Hara’s old travelling companion, Archer Kennedy, whose greed for gold back in Tlapallan led to his encounter with something that may have been more than a mere statue of the dark god Nacoc-Yaotl. That god’s powers include the ability to reduce life to a sort of essential jelly, from which it can be reshaped into whatever horrors the reshaper requires. And this reshaper, it turns out, requires some pretty weird horrors.

Stevens’s writing can be quite poetic at moments, as with this early description of the desert where O’Hara and Kennedy are lost:

“As liquid iron cools, withdrawn from the fire, so the desert cooled with the setting of the sun, its furnace. Intolerable whiteness became purple mystery, overhung by a vault of soft and tender blue, that deepened, darkened, became set with a million flashing jewels.”

But she also has a relish for a darker sort of weirdness:

“Between the granite pillars, fungoids and some kind of whitish vegetation like pale rushes grew thickly, but though those fungoids and rushes had a strangeness of their own, it was not the vegetable growth alone which made Reed’s marsh peculiar. Its entire space was acrawl with living forms that for repulsiveness could only be compared to a resurgence from their graves of creatures dead and half-decayed.”

Despite being the action hero of this story, Colin O’Hara ends up in the position usually fulfilled, in this era, by the sort of helpless heroine you’d find on the cover of so many “weird menace” pulps: he’s the one who gets captured and tied up by the evil scientist/mad sorcerer and saved from a fate worse than death (though not that fate worse than death — he’s to be turned into “a homogeneous, jelly-like mass” fit for reshaping into something unpleasant and frightening) by the efforts of the two women in the story (one of them corralling her menfolk to do the necessary fighting). He redeems himself by following this up with some solid fisticuff-work, but all the same, there’s a feeling that Francis Stevens was doing some subtle undermining of the gender clichés of the time.

I felt that the fantastic lost-city beginning ended a bit too soon — I don’t remember there ever being a proper explanation for that weird lake of fiery water, or a proper resolution of those internal power battles. And when we skip forward fifteen years, the plot really slows down for the middle third of the novel, until we return to the “Citadel of Fear” (Chester Reed’s mansion, though he actually calls it his “Fortress of Fear”) to find out what’s really happening in the bowels of that dark mansion. Even then, the ending felt a bit strung out, making me wonder if Gertrude Barrows Bennett (who was, after all, writing to support herself and her daughter) wasn’t simply looking to increase her wordage, and hence her paycheque.

But Citadel of Fear, in its moments of fantasy, does get genuinely dark and weird, as wonderfully represented by Virgil Finlay’s illustrations to the Famous Fantastic Mysteries reprint. Pity it didn’t ever get a filmed version, though I can’t help feeling, if it had, that nothing short of modern digital effects could have equalled Stevens’s inventions of weird monsters and, in Tlapallan, beautiful sights:

“It was a huge, mothlike insect, fully ten inches from wing-tip to wing-tip, and the glowing came from its luminous body, in color pale amethyst, coldly afire within. The broad wings, transparent as the globular walls of a bubble, refracted the creature’s own radiance in a network of shimmering color.”

I’ve added an ebook of Citadel of Fear to my free ebooks page.