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Book cover art by Hokusai.
Review © 2002 by Thomas M. Wagner.

Here's someone you've probably never heard of, people, and yet she may be one of the genre's most important authors from a historical standpoint. Francis Stevens was the pseudonym of one Gertrude Bennett, and right around the time World War I was wrapping up, she was serializing some highly acclaimed fantasy stories in magazines like Argosy and Weird Tales. She was a pioneer female fantasy writer, at a time when perhaps the only other one you could name was Mary Shelley. Carroll & Graf quietly re-released some of her work in the mid-80's, and if you're as lucky as I was you can stumble across copies while trolling for used books.

Claimed isn't anything like the greatest fantasy novel ever written that's been lost to time, or anything as melodramatic as that. But it is a nifty little yarn, the kind you'd like to hear told around the fireplace on a cold, dark, rainy night. And it's remarkable how accessible it is to read over eighty years after it first appeared! There are very few aspects of Stevens' prose or dialogue that sound sufficiently antiquated that they'd prove a stumbling block for contemporary readers. Indeed, what little there is of Claimed that does show its age shows it in a way that enhances its charm; you could easily imagine this being an old Hammer film from the late 50's, with Peter Cushing racing around the set in full "I will not rest until this evil is stopped!" mode.

Claimed opens with the recovery of a mysterious artifact — a strange green box bearing an undecipherable inscription — from an uncharted island following an undersea volcanic explosion that nearly dooms the ship that discovers it. Brought back to civilization, the box is purchased by a crochety old millionaire who very quickly comes to regret it. Horrible apparitions of the sea appear at night, and frightening dreams plague the old man as well as his niece and the noble young doctor who's serving him. While the doctor does what he can to learn of the box's origin and the meaning of the strange writing (which always appears on the bottom of the box no matter how you set it down), the nonstop macabre visions (and occasional deaths) that have appeared in the box's wake eventually lead to the abduction of the old man and his niece by persons unknown. In pursuit of his employer across the high seas, the doctor learns of the box's evil origins from the mad sailor who originally found it.

Veteran readers of Lovecraft will notice more than the occasional similarity to his themes in Claimed, although nothing I've read indicates Stevens was a protegé or collaborator of Lovecraft's. But Lovecraft certainly knew of her, as there is a blurb on this book's cover by him. Stevens' tale is more a macabre dark fantasy, and not the full-bore excursion into cosmic horror that was Lovecraft's stock in trade. But such story elements as the mysterious artifact and the use of the ocean setting as a backdrop for terror will strike a familiar chord with Lovecraft devoteés. In any event, it's a well-executed and satisying (if not earth-shakingly original) tale, and Francis Stevens herself is much like the artifact that is at the center of Claimed — a forgotten historical relic, but one whose impact upon the lives of those who discover her will be just a bit more positive than that facing the unfortunate cast of Claimed.