“Sunfire” (1923) by Francis Stevens

The Golden Atom #9 (Dec 1940)

In the 1940 issue of The Golden Atom fanzine, editor Litterio B. Farsaci (who later changed his name to Larry Farsace) published an article “Science Fiction Pseudonyms” that claimed that “Augustus T. Swift” was a pseudonym of H. P. Lovecraft; as proof of this, elsewhere in the same issue Farasci reprinted two letters from Swift that had appeared in Argosy pulp magazine for 15 Nov 1919 and 22 May 1920. The Swift letters were given as being from Providence, Rhode Island, and Lovecraft was known to have used a number of pseudonyms, and to have written fan-letters to the Argosy (some of which were reprinted in the same issue of The Golden Atom).

The letters were notable in no small part because Swift praised the writing of Francis Stevens (a pseudonym of Gertrude Barrows Bennett), whose fantasy stories ran in the All-Story Weekly, Argosy, People’s Favorite Magazine, Thrill Book, and Weird Tales. To give a taste of Swift comments’, consider his praise for Stevens’ “The Citadel of Fear,” serialised in Argosy from 14 Sep to 19 Oct 1918:

But one story tops them all, “Citadel of Fear.” If written by Sir Walter Scott or Ibañez, that wonderful and tragic allegory would have been praised to the skies. While reading it I often wondred if Francis Stevens had in mind the slimy and diabolic spirit of evil which has so many years dominated the German rulers, until finally the whole nation became prostituted by the devil and his imps. Underlying its amazing and thrilling scenes was the sad but indisputable lesson that once a man gives himself up to evil and to evil deeds only, resulting from selfish greed, that man’s soul is lost. I find also in it a very strong suggestion that real evil does not lie in the so-called personal pecadilloes, but rather in black treachery toward one’s own kith and kin and country, an unmoral endeavor to harm all those who stand in the path of selfish purpose, and a general and studied ambition to spread animalism and degeneration among the human race. Pan-Germanism, class creed, Bolshevism are the present illustrations of the sliminess and abysmal hell portrayed by Francis Stevens.

I feel so much interested in the motif of that curious tale that I should like very much to have my curioisty gratified by the author himself. I believe many of your readers would like a sketch of the life of Mr. Stevens, and particularly the source and development of his motif in the “Citadel of Fear.” That story would make one amazing moving-picture drama, if taken up by the right moving-picture managers.

Augustus T. Swift to The Argosy, published 15 Nov 1919, in H. P. Lovecraft in The Argosy 32

However, Farsace was incorrect: Augustus T. Swift was not a pseudonym of H. P. Lovecraft, but a real person. Nevertheless, the name entered the general store of Lovecraftian lore being compiled in the 1940s; the claim was reprinted in “Pseudonyms of H.P.L.” in The Lovecraft Collector #1 (1949) by Ray H. Zorn, and continued to promulgate in articles and books apparently without question for decades. L. Sprague de Camp’s 1975 H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography repeats the claim, as do many other works. S. T. Joshi took “Augustus T. Swift” seriously as a Lovecraft pseudonym as late as “The Rationale of Lovecraft’s Pseudonyms” (Crypt of Cthulhu #80, 1992). The error was not finally revealed until 1994’s H. P. Lovecraft in The Argosy (Necronomicon Press), where Joshi wrote:

A very simple examination of the Providence city directory for 1919-1920 establishes that there was a real individual named Augustus . Swift living at 122 Rochambeau Avenue in Providence. It is manifestly clear that these two letters are not by Lovecraft at all; they are accordingly reprinted here in an appendix, purely for the historical record. […]

Some further conseqeuences follow upon the supriousness of these letters. ALthough Lovecraft admits to reading A. Merritt’s “The Moon Pool” in All-Story for 22 June 1918,there is now no evidence that he read Argosy at all after 1914, or that he read and enjoyed the work of Francis Stevens (praised in the Augustus T. Swift letters), although it is conceivable that he might have. Stevens’ novels The Citadel of Fear and Claimed have been reprinted in paperback, with blurbs from the Augustus T. Swift letters attributed to Lovecraft! One hopes this sort of thing will not occur again.

S. T. Joshi, “Introduction” in H. P. Lovecraft in The Argosy 6-7

Unfortunately, that has occurred again. And again. A lot of times, including the 2022 edition of The Citadel of Fear by Flame Tree Press. Fifty years of Lovecraft scholarship had been published noting Swift as a Lovecraft pseudonym and that Lovecraft praised Stevens, and the false fact was promulgated in many reprints of Francis Stevens’ work and in works of criticism and genre scholarship, as Terence E. Hanley noted in his Tellers of Weird Tales blog posts for Francis Stevens and Augustus T. Swift. It seems depressingly unlikely that publishers trawling the public domain for works to reprint will make the extra effort to research such claims—and even if they did, the false myth has spread so widely, odds are that they might honestly come across several sources that appear to support the claim, rather than those that accurately debunk it.

As Joshi points out, without the Swift letters there is no evidence that Lovecraft read most of the magazines where Francis Stevens’ work appeared; nor are there any mentions of Francis Stevens (or Barrett’s other pseudonyms) in Lovecraft’s published letters or essays such as “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” She appears to have formed a blind spot in his reading—and that’s not unusual; Lovecraft couldn’t read everything, even in the field of contemporary weird fiction.

Yet there is one story by Francis Stevens that did appear in a pulp magazine that Lovecraft was reading.

“Sunfire” by Francis Stevens was serialized in two parts in Weird Tales (Jul-Aug & Sep 1923). Lovecraft’s letters do not mention this tale, but neither does Lovecraft report on most of the contents of these early issues of Weird Tales in his early letters. Regardless, it is likely that Lovecraft did read this story, especially since it was the cover story for the Jul-Aug 1923 issue.

Unfortunately, this final effort is not Francis Stevens’ best work, lacking the imagination and subtlety of stories like “Unseen—Unfeared” (People’s Favorite Magazine, 10 Feb 1919), “Serapion” (Argosy, 19 Jun-10 Jul 1920), or “Claimed” (Argosy, 6-20 Mar 1920), the stories which are the most “Lovecraftian” in theme and mood. Instead, “Sunfire” is a rather typical lost world/lost race novella which Stevens has attempted to tell in a brisk style that contrasts humor and horror—light, zippy dialogue fights with efforts to express fantastic visions or dangers. The characters are only lightly sketched, and there is a Keystone Cops element to their portrayal, the five protagonists almost tripping over themselves at the sight of a pretty young blonde, lampshaded by their own self-awareness of what utter boobs they’re being. It would almost qualify as a parody of the genre.

It was part of a genre. The massive expansion and consolidation of European colonial empires in the 19th century had been an age of exploration and conquest, and in the early 20th century the romantic notion of the white man’s expedition was swiftly running out of unknown regions with uncontacted indigenous peoples to exploit. H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain novels were only one starting point that typically involved white men penetrating some exotic region, encountering indigenous peoples, and often contacting lost white tribes, ancient cities and ruins, and quite possibly unfeasibly sized jewels and monsters, natural or supernatural. “Sunfire” may in this respect be compared and contrasted with stories like Henry S. Whitehead’s “The People of Pan” (Weird Tales Mar 1929) and “The Great Circle” (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror Jun 1932), Robert E. Howard’s “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” (Weird Tales Oct 1931) and “The Valley of he Worm” (Weird Tales Feb 1934), A. Merritt’s “The Moon Pool” and “The Metal Monster”…and dozens of other stories that ran in the pulps. Even Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness follows the form of an expedition story…but there, the similarities with “Sunfire” largely end.

Francis Stevens obviously cracked a book or two researching this story; the first couple of chapters include a number of details relating to Brazilian culture that are more or less accurate (caboclos, farina, chiheh, assai wine, giant centipedes, etc.). The depictions aren’t perfect (how the indigenous guides died of beri beri in a week is beyond me), but it’s obvious that she put at least a minimum of effort into actually centering the story when and where it should be. So too, while finding a beautiful blonde white woman in a place where it was believed no white person had gone before is straight out of the lost world story playbook, the actual descriptions of some of the weird phenomena and architecture show that Stevens was very capable of fantastic prose:

Then all paused uncertainly. The abruptness of a tropical sunset had ended the last of the day. Great stars throbbed out in a blue-black sky. The breeze had increased to a chill wind. All the pyramid was a mass of darkness about them, save that about the flat peak there seemed again to hover a faint, pale luminescence.

These clear, evocative bits of prose are, however, sandwiched in between a lot of zippy dialogue by a group of racist, sexist, and relatively horny and violent white men. This is very much of a piece with the other elements of lost world fiction; the kind of casual racism and sexism expressed in lines like:

She is of white blood, but she disgraces it. Any Indian woman, feeling as she pretends to feel, would dare the wrath of her people on earth and the gods beyond and be true to the humane instinct.

Is very much in keeping with the colonialist ideals and ethics that inform this piece. The casual assumption of white supremacy and feminine nature were a part of the language of such fiction. They didn’t have to be, but it was nearly universal to such pulp fiction, and while those elements haven’t aged well, they should also be seen as explicitly part of the trope-driven nature of this particular narrative. The light tone and humor contrast with the inherent horror of the piece, and the dialogue has aged about as well as the racism and sexism, coming across as stilted and unrealistic, though in the context of the 1920s it definitely captures the tone and language of that now-alien vernacular of the 1920s.

Some of Stevens’ fiction shares elements with Lovecraft’s own fiction, like the dark sea-god intimated in “Claimed” or the unseen presence in “Unseen—Unfeared,” illustrating that Lovecraft was himself working inside a kind of weird tradition, playing with many of the same concepts as other contemporary weird writers. Unfortunately, her story “Sunfire” shares almost nothing with Lovecraft’s fiction in theme or style. At one point she uses the word “Cyclopean” to refer to the pyramid, but aside from that bit of vocabulary, there isn’t much there that can be pointed to as potentially influential on Lovecraft.

However, Francis Stevens’ fiction should not be read from the perspective of “what did Lovecraft take from his?” It should be enjoyed in its own right. “Sunfire” isn’t a story I would recommend as an introduction to her fiction, or to anyone except diehard completionists of lost world fiction, but as an example of that mode of fiction, it stands up okay. Not some lost classic to be rediscovered, but a competent working of the familiar tropes and elements. Her other fiction, however, is worth reading. Not because Lovecraft read it (he probably didn’t), but as an example of what other people who weren’t Lovecraft were writing and publishing in Weird Tales at the time.

Francis Stevens might not have been an influence on Lovecraft, but she was a contemporary, and reading her fiction gives readers more insight into the literary traditions in which Lovecraft himself was working. In her own way and in her own style, she touched on some of the same elements completely independent of Lovecraft—because the pulp fiction tradition, and the weird fiction tradition, is bigger than Lovecraft and his contemporaries, bigger than the Mythos and cosmic horror, and many elements of what we now often call “Lovecraftian horror” were far from exclusive to Lovecraft himself.

“Sunshine” can be read for free in Weird Tales Jul-Aug 1923 and Weird Tales Sep 1923.

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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