This week’s piece of weird fiction being examined over at LibraryThing is from Francis Stevens. She’s not a writer unknown to me, and I want to acknowledge Terence E. Hanley’s influence on this review. He did a whole series on Francis Stevens over at Tellers of Weird Tales.
Review: “Unseen — Unfeared”, Francis Stevens, 1919.
The story is interesting in that, like many of Sam Gafford’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, it links social issues to the “supernatural”.
Like H. P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond”, published a year later, it’s about the discovery that we are surrounded by invisible monsters. (Hanley rightly questions whether Stevens, whatever her merits, had any influence on A. Merritt or Lovecraft as is sometimes claimed.) As Hanley notes, this story mixes several things together: a detective story, a ghost story, and a story of a “mad scientist”.
The story opens with the narrator meeting his friend Mark Jenkins, a police detective, at a restaurant.
The narrator mentions a newspaper story about a Dr. Holt. Jenkins likes Holt and is sorry to see he is suspected of murder. He once saved one of Holt’s assistants from a false charge. Holt is suspect of poisoning Ralph Peeler. The only reason, says Jenkins, Holt is a suspect is that the people in his neighborhood are superstitious, and Holt is also an amateur chemical researcher who probably liked to show off. He supposedly made love potions.
Jenkins has to leave, but, before he goes, he gives the narrator one of his cigars.
The narrator decides to walk home. He likes to walk the unnamed city’s streets, especially at night.
The neighborhood he goes through is unlike the others in the city. It’s poor. The stores have cheap goods in the window. But, this night, the people and the sights don’t appeal to him.
The mixture of Italians, Jews and a few Negores, mostly bareheaded, unkempt and generally unhygienic in appearance, struck me as merely revolting. They were all humans, and I, too, was human. Some way I did not like the idea.
This feeling puzzles the narrator. Generally, he is sympathetic to the poor. But they now strike him as “beastial” and “brutal”. The “sense of evil in the air” gets stronger the further he goes. The “sordid sights and smells” strike him wrong. He senses impending evil “merging into actual fear”.
But he doesn’t want to give into the fear. He believes he will never come back to South Street if he lets the fear get the best of him.
He sees a canvas sign that says “SEE THE GREAT UNSEEN! Come in! This Means You! FREE TO ALL!”.
His unease and dread grows. It’s not caused by the people now. There aren’t any on the street.
He ascends some stairs to go into the building to check out the museum.
As he does so, a group of Italians pass below. One looks at him with an expression of “pure, malicious cruelty, naked and unashamed”.
He throws his partially smoked cigar, his gift from Jenkins, away and goes inside the building. It’s dirty and worn inside with the “sour, musty, poverty-stricken smell common to dwellings of the very ill-to-do”. His terror lessens inside the building.
He’s about to leave when he sees a man in the hallway. He asks the man if he can tell him where the museum is and thus begins a rather strange conversation.
“I can”, replies the man and nothing else. The narrator says to the man that, if he can tell him where the museum is and won’t, he’s leaving. The man tells him not to:
No! . . . No – no! Forgive me for pausing – it was not hesitation, I assure you. To think that one day – one, even, has come! All day they pass my sign up there – pass and fear to enter. But you are different. You are not of these timorous, ignorant foreign peasants. You ask me to tell you the right door? Here it is!
The narrator is still fearful but even more curious.
The man opens the door, which has a window painted white, and shuts it in the narrator’s face. Then he opens it and gestures the narrator to come in. The narrator wonders if there is something dangerous inside the man doesn’t want to let out.
The room is filled with various laboratory equipment and some photographic apparatus. The narrator feels he has walked into a trap.
The man begins to lecture on photographing microscopic organisms. He pauses after saying the narrator is “doubtless familiar” with the single-color transparencies used as filters in the process. When the narrator mentions a lecture he saw last week, the man tells him, “My pause was purely rhetorical.”
We then hear about the museum’s curator’s desire to photograph various microorganisms in color. He stumbles on the key to doing this with the tissue paper a local druggist wrapped some herbs from South American in. (Shades of Arthur Machen’s “The Novel of the White Powder” which also hinges on the unintended consequences of a druggist’s actions.)
The currator won’t tell the narrator what he saw. He’ll show him. The human eye suddenly can new entities because of the effect provided by the color transparencies and the tissue paper. He tells the narrator, “Have no fear!”.
What the narrator sees are manifestations of ugly human thoughts described in terms of strange faces, insect-like forms, and also being like strange sea creatures.
As the narrator is seeing them, the man says “Fear nothing!” The creatures he sees are always all around him. God is merciful and spared man their sight. However,
. . . I am not merciful! I loathe the race which gave these creatures birth – the race which might be so surrounded by invisible, unguessed but blessed beings – and chooses these for its companions! All the world shall see and know. One by one shall they come here, learn the truth, and perish. For who can survive the ultimate of terror? Then I, too, shall find peace, and leave the earth to its heritage of man-created horrors.
The narrator passes out and wakes up in the lab. The scientist is gone. The narrator is in a deplorable mental and physical state and nauseous.
He knows the curator hates him because the curator can see the desires and emotions of the narrator’s mind made manifest. It is no wonder, seeing those creatures, the scientist now hates humanity. The narrator ruminates that he lives in a “grim, evil world, where goodness is a word and crude selfishness the only actuality”. He contemplates immediate suicide with the chemicals in the lab.
Then we get a back story of what Jenkins has discovered. Holt really has been murdering people, and he did it with poisoned cigars, and Jenkins accidentally gave the narrator one of those cigars.
Worried about the narrator, Jenkins tracks him down – paradoxically with the help of the man on the street the narrator thought looked so evil. He noticed the narrator’s distressed appearance and informed the police. It turns out that the narrator went to the building Holt lives in. The man in the museum was Holt who has now committed suicide.
Jenkins finds the narrator and writes off what the narrator saw as the product of his partial poisoning from the cigar. Furthermore, Holt killed himself before the narrator supposedly saw him. Jenkins explains the narrator just saw the reflection of a bust of Holt in the window and his poisoned brain made up the rest.
To further prove there was nothing strange going on in the lab, Jenkins offers to turn Holt’s machine back on.
The narrator tells him not to and agrees it was all a drug hallucination. Maybe what he saw was real, the revelation of a reality that caused Holt to kill himself,
“. . . but I don’t believe it. Ghost or no ghost, I refuse to ever again believe in the depravity of the human race.”
The two men destroy the apparatus and concoct a story to explain Holt’s death.
The story ends on a humane note. Before they destroy Holt’s work, the narrator declines Jenkins’ offer of a taxi and wants to walk through the neighborhood again. He wants to be reminded of the
goodness and kindliness of the human countenance – particularly as found in the lower classes.
The concluding words are
there are marvels better left unproved. Those, for instance, which concern the Power of Evil.
We don’t hear in the beginning that the narrator is particularly despondent, and he certainly didn’t have knowledge of Holt’s discovery. So why is he so fearful that night? Is it because that Holt’s suicide and his (or his ghost’s) stated desire to drive all men to despair has permeated the region?
Stevens’ story differs from Lovecraft’s in a major way. Tillinghast, in Lovecraft’s tale, sees cosmic monsters from another dimension. Once they sense humans, they attack. Stevens’ creatures are sort of tulpas (not a word Stevens uses). They don’t attack. It is their mere presence that is demoralizing to the point of suicide. It is also implied that these creatures can influence the mood of people too. As Hanley noted, Stevens’ tale ends on a note of hope and not nihilism.