This is a truly weird piece of fiction. It pretty well has everything: pulpy adventurers, remote and exotic locations, a mythical city that is a plausible real world Elfland, monsters, terrors, encounters with gods, and– finally!– a mysterious moth-girl worthy of a particularly lurid pulp cover. This is light years ahead of Francis Steven’s first story “The Nightmare”. And if you wanted to see the work of someone that wrote like A. Merritt before he’d even figured that out for himself, then you won’t want to miss this.
How does it compare to Merritt’s more refined and better known “The Face in the Abyss”? Stevens has two contrasting protagonists instead of the more popular lone hero type cut from the mold of a John Carter or Conan. She also splits the party, which allows her to take the reader on a tour of two very different aspects of the fantastic city of Tlapallan. Finally, she ends the first third of the book by fast-forwarding fifteen years and (perhaps) introducing consequences into the outside world in response to the adventurers having meddled in affairs that are far above them.
The biggest difference between Merritt and Stevens here is, I think, that Merritt knew to “get to the bangs” as quickly as possible. He put the Margaret Brundage type scene right away in the first chapter while Stevens takes her time in getting there. Her style has aspects of the slow buildup people occasionally complain about in Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness”. In this case, the culture of Tlapallan and its wild Aztec mythology is so out there, I really don’t mind that the author takes her time in getting me up to speed. In fact, I’m really disappointed that she breaks away from all that just as it was starting to get good!
But it is the introduction of the moth-girl that is the key to this story’s vitality. There really is more to it than fodder for sensationalized pulp covers:
The form was that of a young girl of fifteen or sixteen years — if she reckoned her age by mortal standards, which Boots for his part seriously doubted. But elf or human maiden, she was very beautiful. Her skin was white as that of Astrid, the wife of Biornson, and she watched them with wonderful, dark eyes, not in fear, but with a startled curiosity that matched their own.
All about the black mist of her hair the luminous moths were hovering. One, with slowly waving pinions, clung to her bare arm.
Now, most people would simply marvel at their good fortune at getting to see something this awe-inspiring. Other people would fail their fright checks and run away. But the typical adventurer would only notice that this dame is wearing jewelry worth 3d6 x 100 gold pieces. And that’s exactly what we have here:
What opals!” he cried softly. “Look at them, man! Why, that Indian girl has a fortune round her neck. By Jupiter, here’s where we square accounts with Biornson! There are opal-mines in these hills, and for some reason he doesn’t want his holdings known. You went right for once, boy! We’ve stumbled straight upon his precious secret!”
BEFORE Boots had grasped his companion’s meaning, or guessed his purpose, Kennedy had crossed the short space between them and the lovely apparition. Like a child that has never been frightened by brutality, she watched his approach in grave, wide-eyed curiosity.
When, however, with one hand he grasped, her shoulder and with, the other snatched at the necklace, she gave a little cry and attempted to draw back. The moths fluttered wildly, dazzling Kennedy with then flashing bodies, beating their iridescent, panic-stricken wings in his very face. He released the necklace to strike at them, brush them aside.
Then at last Boots ran forward, but before he could reach them a sharp report shattered the heavy stillness and a bullet whined by so close to Kennedy’s head that he jumped back and instinctively flung up his hands.
This type of situation really is fundamental to any good encounter with the Elfin. It’s an old story, really, going back to the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden. Its echo can be found in fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel where even starving children must pay a price for stealing ginger bread from a witch’s house. And thanks to the fact that we have one character that thinks he can do wrong in this isolated locale and get away with it and another that has character enough to know better, we are treated to seeing the outcomes of both choices. The results are very nearly transcendent.
Elfin women are beautiful, sure. But they are also perilous. And while there is inevitably a bit of spicy romantic tension introduced from the moment they enter a scene, they also fill a role in weird fiction that is largely unimaginable to science fiction and fantasy authors of today. The effort to divorced fantasy from the real world and to eschew ordinary men as protagonists has simply gone too far. New approaches of storytelling have been developed to correct the supposed excesses of depictions of damsels in distress created by writers suffering from Madonna-whore complexes, but that’s not what’s going on here at all. In both “The Citadel of Fear” and “The Face in the Abyss” the reward for doing right by an elf princess type is passage into the heart of an Elfland… and the means of returning to civilization alive.
There’s a message in that, I suppose– and it’s a superversive one as well. But the net effect is to retain Elfland as being something fundamentally alien to mankind while at the same time making it both relatable and comprehensible. It’s a neat trick. It’s such a good basis for a story, it’s no wonder that that A. Merritt thought it worth developing and exploring in multiple novels. If Francis Stevens really is responsible for setting Merritt on this course, then she had a tremendous impact on the course of fantasy and science fiction in the twentieth century. As a pioneer in the field, she helped lay the groundwork that created the demand for the kind of stories that Weird Tales was created to serve up.
That’s such a big deal, it’s surprising that her name doesn’t come up more.