Not too long ago, I took a first look at the weird short fiction of Francis Stevens (1883-1948), a groundbreaking author who has been credited with helping create the genre of “dark fantasy“. Though Stevens was a somewhat uneven writer when it came to character development, she came up with some wonderfully diabolical plots and weird imagery.
Stevens was sadly not very prolific, and wrote only a small number of novels, primarily to support her invalid mother. I’ve picked up a few of them and am working my way through them; the first on my list was the novel Claimed! (1920):
The novel is a short and fast read — only 135 pages — and tells the story of a stubborn man’s battle with a supernatural power of the seas. I enjoyed the story, though I felt it was a somewhat average weird tale, albeit punctuated with some wonderfully creepy moments and one character whose personality really shines and is the focus of the story.
The tale begins with the discovery of a new volcanic island off of the course of Portugal. As recounted in the log of Captain Jessamy of the Portsmouth Belle, a landing party is dispatched to the island which sees strange red rock formations which might be the ruins of a city and finds a strange volcanic fragment, green in color and perfectly rectangular in shape. One of the sailors takes this “box” as a souvenir of the visit to the island, which will soon be reclaimed by the sea.
In short order, we are introduced to the “hero” of the story, Dr. John Vanaman, who responds to an emergency call at the house of wealthy curmudgeon Jesse J. Robinson. Robinson has had a seizure after meeting with an unknown visitor late at night — and is found by his niece Leilah Robinson. He awakens unexpectedly and demands a strange green box which lies in the room.
“I got it!” he croaked. “What I want I get, and — what I get I keep! They can’t take it away from old Jesse Robinson! Nobody — can take it! You — hear me?” His voice rose to a kind of discordant shriek, hoarse and dreadful with effort. “Nobody can take it! Nobody! Not — even him!”
The old man recovers quickly and, much to Vanaman’s astonishment, hires him to watch over his bed at night. Though Robinson is crude and rude, and the job beneath Vanaman, the pay is excellent and he finds himself wanting to spend more time with the lovely Leilah.
However, no amount of money is worth the horrors that arrive in Robinson’s room every night. The original owner of the box is an ancient and inhuman power of the seas, and it wants the box back. Nightmarish visions descend upon the house, and the sanity of the occupants is threatened. Vanaman and Leilah must rush to uncover the secret of the box before losing their minds — and possibly their souls.
Overall, the story is a well-crafted but not exceptional tale of weird fiction. What distinguishes it, in my opinion, is the wonderfully odd and cantankerous character of Jesse Robinson. He is willing to square off against an inhuman and nearly omnipotent power, and subject himself to indefinite torture, for possession of the box, but not because he really wants it — he simply likes owning something which someone else wants! Furthermore, he is perfectly willing to subject Leilah to the same horrors if Vanaman quits the job, even though he clearly loves his niece and tries hard to protect her. The obstinate character of Robinson makes the novel quite interesting, and his stubborn nature actually plays a very nice role in the dénouement of the story.
Overall, Claimed! is a nice weird tale with some quite effective moments, though not one of the most memorable I’ve read. Those interested in tales of nautical horror, however, will find it worth investigating. At the very least, it has encouraged me to continue reading Stevens’ other works of weird fiction!