Illustrated with images by Virgil Finlay, from the original editions of Stevens’ work.
In a career that spanned a mere three years, Gertrude Barrows Bennett (writing as Francis Stevens) published half a dozen books that came to define the genres that followed on. she is most popularly known as the woman who invented dark fantasy, but on the way she also invented a new, creepier kind of dystopian Sci Fi.
Gertrude Barrows Bennet is better known by her pen-name, Francis Stevens. With a career that only spanned three years between 1917 and 1920, when she stopped writing after her mother’s death, she is credited as “the woman who invented dark fantasy”. She was a direct influence on H.P. Lovecraft, and in the words of Sam Moskowitz was the “greatest woman writer of science fiction in the period between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C.L. Moore”
?In the novel, the reader encounters Jesse J. Robinson, the meanest and wealthiest citizen of (the fictitious town of) Tremont, near the Delaware River; whether in Pennsylvania or New Jersey is never made explicitly clear. A collector of antiquities, the cantankerous old coot has just purchased a doozy from a local curio dealer: a foot-long green box, of unknown material and make, with an inscription on its top in scarlet letters–of an unknown alphabet–that have the most peculiar propensity of always, somehow, moving to the bottom of said box! As the days pass, Robinson and his niece, the silver-haired Leilah, become subject to strange hallucinations of the sea, and of a monstrous dark shape who threatens them in their dreams. A young doctor, John Vanaman, is called in to attend Robinson after the elderly crank is found unconscious one evening, and the young man quickly becomes enamored with the elfin niece, while falling prey to the same ghastly visitations. Soon, it is learned that the sailor who originally picked up the box near the Azores, as well as that curio dealer, have separately purchased white stallions with the aim of slitting the animals’ throats in sacrifice! And when uncle and niece are abducted and brought out to sea, Vanaman conducts a heated chase via hired cargo steamer, all leading to a showdown on the Atlantic aboard a moldering trireme, oared by a crew of the dead….
Mysterious, beautifully written, at times hallucinatory, and with a creeping atmosphere of dread to spare, “Claimed” is most surely an impressive piece of imaginative work. I mentioned earlier that many readers of Stevens automatically assumed that she must be a man, and a look at the novel in question will perhaps demonstrate why. Stevens’ knowledge of nautical terms certainly smacks of an experienced seaman, as does the tough talk that comes out of the sailors’ mouths. The author does not shrink from the depiction of violence and bloodshed, either. As in “The Citadel of Fear,” here, an ancient god appears in modern times to stir up trouble, but in “Claimed,” that god is never named (although Poseidon/Neptune is strongly suggested) or even clearly seen. Much in the story goes unexplained by the tale’s end, and thus, the reader never does learn the facts behind that ghostly galley and what precisely is inside the mysterious casket. The ultimate fate of old Robinson, too, is never clearly delineated. The reader must exercise his/her powers of imagination, hence, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
One thing that Francis does vouchsafe to show us, via a phantasmagoric illusion at sea, is the horrendous fate that befell the continent of Atlantis, and just how the coveted box wound up in the drink to begin with, and it really is some fascinating stuff. Vanaman, Leilah and especially old Robinson, I should add, are all well-drawn characters, with the good doctor being especially likable and sympathetic. Stevens peppers her novel with many memorable and haunting scenes, including an early exploration of the newly risen, barren island where the relic is initially found; a clairvoyant’s unfortunate attempt to perform a little psychometry on the arcane object; and, indeed, the entire final 1/3 of the book, comprising as it does a tense chase at sea. The book has great sweep and drive, and is fairly relentless once it gets moving. Personally, I could not wait to get home after work to get back to it, and the evenings that I spent reading “Claimed” were very gripping ones, to be sure.? [Sandy Ferber, fantasyliterature.com]