Monday, May 10, 2021

Pulp Fantasy Library: Citadel of Fear

When I began this series at the dawn of this blog, my original intention was to take a closer look at the stories, books, and authors mentioned in Appendix N of Gary Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide. I hoped that, in doing so, I might draw readers' attention to works and writers that, despite their immense influence over the decades, have largely been forgotten by popular culture. Whether I've succeeded in that goal, I'm not in a position to say. What I can say is that my study of these authors has increased my own appreciation of them, as well as bringing to my attention other forgotten authors not mentioned in Appendix N but which nevertheless exercised a great deal of influence on the development of fantasy and science fiction literature.

A case in point is Francis Stevens, the pseudonym of Gertrude Barrows Bennett, whose most well regarded story, Citadel of Fear, was serialized in the pages of The Argosy, starting on September 14, 1918. I'd never heard of Stevens – or Bennett – until comparatively recently, when I was researching the "dark fantasy" sub-genre. Multiple sources referenced her pioneering work at the turn of the 20th century, with at least one going so far as to dub "the woman who invented dark fantasy." I can't speak to the truth of such a claim, but it's worth noting that, at the time Bennett's stories were published, many people believed "Francis Stevens" was the pen name of Abraham Merritt – a testament to how well regarded they were at the time.

Citadel of Fear tells the story of two explorers, Colin O'Hara and Archer Kennedy. The men's expedition seeking gold in a remote region of South America has gone badly. Hungry, thirsty, and injured, they are near death when Citadel of Fear begins. Despite this, O'Hara refuses to give up or leave Kennedy behind. Together, they survive and stumble upon the entrance to the lost city of Tlapallan. There, they meet another man, a former explorer named Svend Biornson, who tells them what he knows of Tlapallan, having lived among its people for some time.

Sometimes I think they are the last remnant of a forgotten race, older than Toltec or Mayan, or even the Olmecs, who have left nothing to archaeology but a memory. And sometimes—I have other thoughts of them, thoughts that I can’t put into words, for there are no words to express them. I know that they speak the Aztec tongue in all its ancient purity, and yet they are surely not of Aztec blood. However it may be, they are good, true comrades, and my own wife is one of them, but I sometimes wonder if I have not—have not lost my soul in living here! 

The people of Tlapallan are divided in their loyalties between those who serve the god Quetzalcoatl and those who serve the god Nacoc-Yaotl. The rivalry between the two groups simmers below the surface, with each supporting the city in different ways. When O'Hara and Kennedy arrived, the followers of Nacoc-Yaotl are ascendant. Reading through this, I found myself reminded of Robert E. Howard's story of Conan, "Red Nails," or the D&D module it inspired, The Lost City. Lovecraft's The Mound also came to mind. They all feature lost cities populated by "Mayincatec" riven with internal factions – a classic pulp fantasy set-up if there ever was one. 

As in so many of these lost world narratives, the arrival of outsiders, in this case O'Hara and Kennedy, upsets the balance of power in Tlapallan. Open conflict eventually erupts and O'Hara finds himself exiled from the city and Kennedy taken prisoner by the followers of Nacoc-Yaotl. O'Hara cannot find his way back to the city to rescue his fellow explorer and has no choice but to return to the civilization he knows. He succeeds but is left wondering if what he thought he remembers was in fact or not simply a hallucination caused by his hunger and thirst. O'Hara returns to the United States and tries to leave behind his weird experiences/

With that, Citadel of Fear shifts forward in time fifteen years. In the years since his original expedition, O'Hara has been haunted by his memories of his expedition and especially what happened to Kennedy. He organizes another expedition to seek out Tlapallan, but finds no evidence to support what he remembers, which only further causes him to question his sanity. Of course, O'Hara is not insane, as he learns when his past catches up with him and endangers those he cares about.

Citadel of Fear is quite long and rambling at times, traits it shares with much turn of the twentieth century fiction. Despite that, the story it tells is a good one, equal to the best work of Merritt, himself a master of the lost world genre. The city of Tlapallan is both mysterious and weird. Bennett does a good job in presenting a place that is simultaneously familiar and sinister. There are plenty of hints that all is not well in Tlapallan and she develops those hints more fully in the later sections of the novel to fairly good effect. It's little wonder that the serialized novel was popular in its day, even if it might not quite meet with contemporary tastes.


  1. Interesting. I've read and enjoyed a few stories by "Francis Stevens" but never registered on it being a pen name. Bennett seems to have had a very successful (if unfortunately brief) career in the pulps, assuming this article is accurate:

    Have to see about digging up some of her other work.

  2. I don't have access to "Citadel of Fear", but your post inspired me to reread the one Stevens book that I do own, the novel [i]Claimed[/i].

  3. "I sometimes wonder if I have not—have not lost my soul in living here!" dum-dum-DUMMMMM . . . !

    1. I felt that way when I was going to college out in Buffalo. :)