Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Navigating the Weird Mind of Gertrude Barrows Bennett — the Mother of Dark Fantasy (pt. 1)

Share This Post

Content warning: discussion of suicide


When reflecting on her first story’s publication, Gertrude Barrows Bennett wrote, “I had just one merit, as I remember it, and that was a rather grotesque originality.” She was a self-described literary type who persisted against the boot of capitalism: She wrote that story when she was still a teenager working at a department store. Gertrude published mostly under the name “Francis Stevens” and though few remember her, her “grotesque originality” is still felt today. In his 1970 anthology, Under the Moon of Mars: A History and Anthology of “The Scientific Romance” in the Munsey Magazines, 1912-1920, sci-fi historian Sam Moskowitz notes, “Francis Stevens was the most gifted woman writer of science fantasy between Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and C.L. Moore,” (pp. 125-126).

Throughout the late teens and early twenties, as the world grappled with and then crawled out from World War I, Gertrude made a name out of “Francis Stevens”. From 1917 to 1923, she published five novels and seven short stories and novellas. She influenced familiar names like H.P. Lovecraft and A. Merritt. Decades later grown-up fans remembered and still praised her work. Today scholars consider her the mother of dark fantasy. Yet Gertrude had disappeared from public life and memory, as if she just vanished. It’s a story with which we’re all familiar — the marginalized trailblazer who society snuffed out, who burnt the way forward for other visionaries. A woman lost amongst a sea of men.

My goal for this article is to synthesize all the research that’s been done on Gertrude’s life, and my hope is to spark our readers’ curiosity towards this formative period of speculative fiction. (For clarity, I refer to the author by her first name and her husbands by their surnames.) This article will also include what I’ve found through digitized public records, overall focusing on her life from 1882 to 1920. Part two will explore her later life and death, as well as go into my personal adventure into Gertrude’s story. Inspired by the efforts of R. Alain Everts, a Lovecraft scholar, his research propelled me to a small California town in order to find her resting place. Ultimately, I am seeking to better understand how she created her stories, and thus a genre, and how she interacted with a hostile world. To better understand how a culture-maker can disappear.

Geek Girls Breaking Ground:

So much of speculative fiction as we know it rests with the innovation of women. When Gertrude started seriously writing and publishing during World War I, she arrived at the frontline of science fiction, helping to codify the genre as we know it today.

For context, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered to be the first science fiction story. Then in the sci-fi pulps of the early twentieth century, women helped to pioneer the nascent genre. Clare Winger Harris, the first woman to publish under her name within these magazines, released short stories throughout the 20s and 30s. She influenced teenagers Jerry Siegel and Jerry Schuster, and she even contributed an original story to their amateur publication. Several years later, the boys would create Superman (Davin 385). Leigh Brackett, a space opera novelist who also came from the pulps, wrote the original draft for Empire Strikes Back and would have finished had she not died from cancer. She also mentored legendary writer Ray Bradbury. Film editor Marcia Lucas helped to shape the original Star Wars trilogy. In terms of superheroes, Baroness Emma Orczy published The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1909, whose narrative and titular character laid the foundation for the likes of Zorro and Batman.

And these are just a few examples that I could list off the top of my head. This is in no way exhaustive: for example, I need to do more intersectional research on women of color and out queer women in speculative fiction, like Octavia Butler and the Wachowski sisters. The important thing is that women have always been here, and Gertrude was writing alongside them. It’s easy to say that Gertrude was forgotten because she was simply a woman, and society ignores women and our contributions, especially “back then”. That is a bit reductive and ignores Gertrude’s humanity and her life story. It also imagines progress as being purely linear when history has never moved that way.

Historian Eric Leif Davin refutes the theory that women had to hide behind male pseudonyms, at least in science fiction. He reviewed the 203 women that published in American science fiction magazines through the mid-20s to mid-60s for his 2006 book Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1960. Those women who found success did not find success posing as men; Davin even points out that two successful men used female pseudonyms at one point or another during their career. He explains:

Out of a total of 65 female authors published during our 1926-1949 period, the record reveals only three instances, once in the Thirties, and twice in the Forties, of a female writer using a male pseudonym at all, and none were deliberate attempts to conceal gender identities from the science fiction community. […] In the third case, Mary Gnaedinger, editor of Famous Fantastic Mysteries and Fantastic Novels, reprinted five stories in the 1940s by “Francis Stevens”[.]” (p. 99)

Davin goes on to explain that not only did Gertrude submit under her own name, but she had also chosen a female pseudonym: “Jean Vail”. It was her editor, Bob Davis, that chose the ‘Francis Stevens’ moniker, which she kept using because she gained success while writing under it. Davin further notes, “[B]y the time Bennett’s stories were republished, not only were they considered classics, but it was well known in the science fiction community that “Francis Stevens” was a woman,” (p. 100). The ‘feminist agenda’ is older than any nerd alive today.

The Works of Gertrude Barrows Bennett:

In 2004, scholar Gary Hoppenstand compiled one of the more recent reprints of Gertrude’s work, releasing The Nightmare, and Other Tales of Dark Fantasy under her nom de plume. He writes, “Dark fantasy is defined as a type of horror story (possibly containing science fiction and fantasy elements) in which humanity is threatened with destruction by hostile cosmic forces beyond the normal ken of mortals,” (p. ix). He then goes so far as to acknowledge that in the past he had incorrectly argued that H.P. Lovecraft was the progenitor of dark fantasy. As mentioned earlier, while writing under ‘Francis Steven’ she influenced Lovecraft and A. Merritt. They were her contemporaries and drew on her themes and narrative devices — fans even thought ‘Francis Stevens’ was Merrit’s pen name. Merrit admired her so much he contacted Famous Fantastic Mysteries in 1941 to reprint her work:

“Incidentally, “Claimed” by Francis Stevens, the long story scheduled for the next issue of this magazine, F. F. M., was recommended to the editors by A. Merritt as one of the favorite classics of fantastic fiction and one which he is sure all the readers will like,” (The Editors’ Page, p. 86).

From her first publication, she exhibited an interest in speculative fiction, the story brimming with elements of science fiction. She wrote “The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar” about a man who survives a car accident and wakes up in a scientist’s lab, eventually gaining super strength through a scientific mishap related to a new element. A shady figure injuring the protagonist in a car accident, spiriting them away to a strange place, and the creation of a new element have appeared in 10 Cloverfield Lane and Iron Man 2. I’m not trying to suggest that these tropes started with her, only that she participated in the early writings which laid the groundwork for the pop culture we have now. Tellers of Weird Tales and Jesse Willis of SFFaudio both agree that “Thomas Dunbar” could be seen as a superhero’s origin story, specifically that of the lab-engineered superhero. In a tweet for SFFaudio podcast, Willis contends that Gertrude’s story is, “perhaps the best candidate for the origins of SUPERHEROES.” Such a suggestion is thought-provoking because, across the pond, Baroness Orczy had released The Scarlet Pimpernel as a play in 1903 and 1905, polishing the story until its 1909 publication as a novel. In the podcast, Willis argues that “Thomas Dunbar” is “an artifact” (t. 28:55), elaborating, “It’s such an amazing, remarkable, example of an instance where something in the air is being written down and codified and created that’s still impacting the common culture of today,” (t: 26:21-26:00). It’s possible that the two women responded in similar ways to a new century, one defined by renewed industry and the progression of science and machines.

All that in mind, Gertrude didn’t publish under ‘Francis Stevens’ until 1917 with the release of The Nightmare through All-Story Weekly, a novella that blends adventure and fantasy (Hoppenstand p. xxiii). The story has pacing problems and relies on its title a bit too much, but as with her works that have similar issues, she twists readers’ expectations on the dream trope. As Jeffro from Castalia House notes,

If The Nightmare is any indication, she found stories where the square jawed man punches out evil and gets the girl in the end to be so tiresome that her first order of business upon entering the field was to write an adventure story where the protagonist is an inept coward that accidentally overcomes monsters and doesn’t get the girl in the end.

She would write through the tension of gender politics more than once, and her fertile imagination would engineer weirder settings for her characters.

Gertrude threaded classic literature throughout her work, rooted in her bookish childhood. Her 1918 short story “Friend Island” centers around a mariness as she survives a sentient island, framed by her future self recounting this formative period to a young man. Its setup recalls The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, an eighteenth-century narrative poem that most of us probably read in high school. The Labyrinth, a serialized novel from earlier that year, pulls from Greek mythology, just like her acclaimed 1920 novel Claimed. The latter’s plot hinges on the sea god Poseidon and the myth of Atlantis. “Behind the Curtain,” tells a revenge fantasy pulled directly from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, while her 1919 short story “The Elf-Trap” reads as a modern fairytale.

These familiar allusions would have helped ground her audience as she tested storytelling convention. The Heads of Cerberus for example, another one of her serialized novels from 1919, takes place in an alternate future of Philadelphia where autocrats enslave the masses. Groff Conklin, when reviewing the book’s 1952 reprint, speculated, “[The Heads of Cerberus is] perhaps the first science fantasy to use the alternate time-track, or parallel worlds, idea,” (p. 124). The story’s central image is a glass vial whose cap depicts the three-headed hound that guarded the Underworld. When the three central characters inhale dust from the vial, they are transported to a dystopian future, and with dystopian literature still in its infancy at the time, the death imagery prepares readers for this new kind of terrain.

In addition, “Friend Island” is a bold proto-feminist utopia that is half-satire and half-dead serious in its depiction of a matriarchy, a future where women have taken over and pushed men into domestic roles, calling them out for their past patriarchal behavior. And it was published in 1918 towards the beginning of her career! Reading this story showed me something that I didn’t know that I needed: grizzled old marinesses who refuse to be interrupted. (If you want to refill your misandrist cup of male tears, I recommend looking up male critics’ reviews of this story.) Its boldness contrasts with some of Gertrude’s other female characters, some of whom oscillate between a spirited headstrong nature and that fainting, damsel-nervousness typical of genre fiction. She probably wanted to write more proactive women but had to still write for her audience, to a degree. But as The Nightmare and “Friend Island” indicate, she could publish stories that questioned the status quo of gender in fiction, with the former even open to a queer reading. Her career centered on playing on the edge of her chosen genres, pushing and stretching them, if not outright breaking them.

In terms of race and xenophobia, her writing demonstrates an anxiety, mistrust, and alienation towards racial and ethnic minorities. Her descriptions of Chinese immigrants in The Labyrinth and Romani in The Elf-Trap — who are referred to by the g*psy slur — are ugly and visceral. Her narrators sometimes slip into foul paranoia, and though it’s unclear if she held those same views, the recurrence of such language should raise eyebrows. It’s a problem she shares with Lovecraft.

In a 1974 issue of Weird Tales, when introducing a separate writer, the editors included Gertrude “in the era of great scientific romancers”, mentioning “Edgar Rice Burroughs, George Allan England, A. Merrit, [and] Francis Stevens,” (p. 30). Overall, she stood beside these giants of early speculative fiction as an equal in innovation and general weirdness.

My Biographical Sources:

While reading about Gertrude, I noticed several inconsistencies in the story that historians presented, a problem exacerbated by publications which don’t include sources, such as SYFY’s Forgotten Women of Genre podcast. So in this section, I will lay out my main sources before I discuss Gertrude’s life and writing.

Most of what we know about Gertrude is thanks to Lloyd Arthur Eshbach. He was one of many readers who had loved Francis Stevens’s work as a child and sought to learn more. In 1952, Polaris Press reprinted The Heads of Cerberus in its entirety, and for its introduction, Eshbach wrote a short biography. He revealed Francis Stevens’s identity as being Gertrude Barrows Bennett, detailing her journey and process as a writer. His contribution stands as an early testament to what fannish curiosity and passion can accomplish. By 1952, Gertrude had been missing for over a decade and dead for four years, so the intimate details he reported indicate that Eshbach spoke with someone close to her, possibly her daughter. Eshbach’s research remains the most comprehensive (published) piece on Gertrude’s personal life.

In regards to her professional life (as far as we know), Gertrude wrote about herself once as seen in the earlier quote. Robert Weinberg included this autobiographical statement in his introduction, “A Forgotten Mistress of Fantasy”, that appeared in the 1984 reprint of her novel, The Citadel of Fear (Weinberg p. 7). He never explained where it originated. I couldn’t find a source until I accidentally stumbled onto a reprint of “The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar”. In the 2010 anthology, The Dream Sex: Early Tales of Scientific Imagination by Women, editor Mike Ashley attributed her statement to a 1920 issue of Argosy (Ashley p. 130). Though I can’t access a digitized copy of that Argosy issue to verify Ashley’s claim, the pulp magazine had published “Thomas Dunbar” in March 1904 and her novel “Claimed” in March 1920.

Between 1952 and 1997, scholarship on Gertrude stalled. Then R. Alain Everts dug up her birth certificate, death certificate, and burial place, and published his findings in a mailing list. That list was for the Esoteric Order of Dagon (EOD), an amateur press association. It took me emailing several men connected to this publication to get PDF scans of Everts’s article, and in the process, I was put in touch with Everts. We emailed throughout the fall. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t access the EOD issues as a whole so I can’t provide fully accurate page numbers to Everts’s articles.) Most of my other sources build on Everts’s work, as I used FamilySearch, a genealogical site, in order to find government records that reference her. I will discuss these essays in more detail and the context behind their inaccessibility in my next piece.

A Girl Named Gertrude, 1883-1904:

Gertrude M. Barrows was born on September 18th, 1883 in Minneapolis, and she spent most of her childhood and early twenties there. Eshbach reported her birth year as 1884, and most census records reflect this. Everts speculates that she believed this about herself as he found her birth certificate, which actually listed 1883 (Everts p. 2). Her father was Charles A. Barrows, a Civil War veteran; her mother Caroline “Carrie” P. Hatch. She had two older brothers, Clark and Reginald. Though people assumed she lived in Minneapolis until she got married, the 1885 census actually shows her and her family living in Villard Pope, Minnesota, indicating they moved away for a brief time before returning to the city. Hoppenstand mentioned that her family called her ‘Myrtle’ after her middle name, though he didn’t cite his source (p. xii). (Writers have referred to her as ‘Gertrude Mabel’ and ‘Gertrude Mary’ as well.) I found a young “Myrtle Barrows” listed in the 1895 census. She fits Gertrude’s age at the time, city, and her family, listed below a “Caroline” and “Reginald Barrows”.

Per her own words, her parents nurtured her love of reading, but she left school early in order to work (Weinberg p. 7). (She referred to school as “the end of grammar grades” and some scholars have interpreted that as meaning eighth grade, but I couldn’t verify.) She expressed her creativity, writing “verse and short prose pieces” (Eshbach p. 14) and wanting to be an illustrator, she went on to study at a night school for several years before quitting (Weinberg p. 7).

According to the 1891-1892 City Directory, Clark had lived with their father while attending the University of Minnesota (Everts p. 2). (Everts spells Clark with an ‘e’, but I’ve seen both spellings so I go with the more common version.) School documents from that period reference a “Clark Barrows” studying animal biology (with and without an ‘e’). Eshbach described Gertrude as studious herself, doing research for her stories as she outlined them (p. 14), so it’s possible this scientific curiosity ran in the family and/or was encouraged by their parents. Her writing often employed scientific language and described complex feats of engineering in her work, such as the titular labyrinth from her later novel. Though she never advanced beyond an early education, her intellectual home life provided her with a foundation to articulate her raw imagination into visceral settings, as well as provided her with an outlet for the emotional instability that plagued most of her life.

Gertrude endured significant grief throughout the 1890s. Her father died on May 6th, 1892, her brother Clark on January 20th, 1899 (Everts p. 2). While browsing, I found part of a newspaper clipping that had tagged her and Reginald, then looked at the full piece from the Star Tribune. It illuminated how chaotic her childhood likely was.

Though no piece of information is safe from yellow journalism, the family presented in this article aligns with what we know about Gertrude. It’s not definitive but useful in figuring out new ways to research her life and to better understand her work. She never appears in the text, but her connection runs beneath the surface.

At the age of sixteen, Reginald “Reggie” Barrows committed suicide on December 23rd, 1896 (p. 1). The article detailed the circumstances and subsequent investigation of his death, and according to the Star Tribune, the reporters were the ones who later informed Carrie Barrows. The widow expressed little shock, having braced herself for the worst of her son’s psychological instability. Reggie Barrows had struggled with long-term mental illness since he was eleven, and his mother acknowledged this, not demonizing her son but working instead to help him. This care included taking him to Tennessee for a time. Such compassion likely influenced Gertrude, who later cared for her mother throughout the 1910s. Carrie Barrows said, “[Reggie] was always studious and a great reader, much preferring to read than to run around town as most men do,” (p.1).

Could he and Gertrude have bonded over reading? How did she react to his death and to the social repercussions? His suicide was the culmination of a public breakdown that included law enforcement trying to intervene. She wouldn’t have been shielded from the details forever. The reporters mentioned Clark but not her, a noticeable gap in a very detailed piece. It generates even more questions: Did Carrie send Gertrude away from the scene when the reporters came, either to another room or to a neighbor’s? Did the reporters not mention Gertrude, who was only thirteen at the time, in order to spare her from the media? There had been a “young lady friend” who supported Carrie as the reporters “broke the news”, so maybe she had been the one to shield Gertrude from the initial spectacle of grief.

It appears that Gertrude came from a loving family hindered by traumatic loss, financial struggles, and an ineffective institution of mental health treatment. Later in life, she struggled with poverty and addiction (Everts p.4, p.7), and it would be understandable if some of her psychological issues stemmed from these devastating losses at such a formative age.

When it comes to her writing career, those lifelong interests in storytelling began to manifest around 1901 or 1902. She said, “I wrote my first story when I was seventeen and working in the office of a department store,” (Weinberg 7). Everts discovered that in the early aughts she worked as a stenographer, having browsed some of Minneapolis’s directories:

“[I]n 1901 Gertrude M. Barrows is listed as a stenographer, living with her mother Carrie[.] […] A Gertrude L. Barrows is listed in the 1902 City Directory as a stenographer for the Powers Mercantile. Co. There is a Gertrude M. Barrows in 1904 as a stenographer, Security Bank of Minnesota but there is no listing for her mother Carrie[.]”

Thanks to digitized records, I could affirm what Everts found. She also appears in the 1903 directory as a stenographer (p. 207), though after 1904 she disappears from the city directory, indicating a job change. (Unfortunately, Philadelphia hasn’t digitized its city directories past 1907.) With regards to 1902, the “Gertrude L.” is a misprint. It’s actually “Gertrude M.”, lending further credence that this woman and Gertrude were one and the same. That year Gertrude would have been eighteen (though thought herself seventeen), and Powers Mercantile Company was a department store, meaning that Powers Mercantile was likely where she had been employed when she wrote “The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar”, a now-classic piece of early science fiction. (Raises fist in solidarity with retail workers.)

Pulp magazine Argosy published “The Curious Experience of Thomas Dunbar” in March 1904, several months before her twenty-first birthday. She published under “G.M. Barrows” then (though not necessarily to hide her gender as Davin has argued). Soon after, The Youth’s Companion accepted to publish some of her poems (Davin p. 409-410). It was a brief moment in a career characterized by a sharp reset, one embodied by her opting for a pseudonym.

A Scandal on a Boat:

As far as we know, Gertrude stalled in terms of published material, though we don’t know if she stopped writing period. (She had requested a pseudonym in 1917 for her second piece of published fiction, The Nightmare; it’s possible she submitted work under a different pseudonym from 1905 to 1917.) This period in her life — the early aughts and teens — is defined by early change and chaos, having to readjust in order to survive as a working-class woman. Inconsistencies surround scholarship on Gertrude’s personal life, especially this period, which happens to be the most documented and discussed. This section will be my attempt to reconcile the numerous contradictions.

Around 1909, she married English writer Charles M. Stuart Bennett, and they moved to Philadelphia, where she gave birth to her only child the following year. It was here that Gertrude would grow eventually into a consistent, dedicated writer for the sci-fi pulps. But she seemed fated to lose the men around her: Bennett died before their daughter’s first birthday. The general story, as reported by Eshbach, was that he drowned at sea seeking treasure — the kind of dramatics expected in the pulps, not in real life.

Publications tend to spell her first husband’s name as “Stewart”, based on Eshbach’s introduction. Everts remains one of the premier experts on Bennett’s life, and he referred to her first husband as ‘Stuart’, so I believe that is the correct spelling. It also falls in line with most documents that concern him. Articles about Gertrude, such as Moskowitz’s piece in Under the Moon of Mars, often assume that he died in 1910 without primary sources to back up this belief. These articles reference her daughter, Josephine, as being eight months old at the time. This is likely rooted in Eshbach’s introduction, as people repeat his information like a game of telephone, not sourcing or directly quoting his text: “Eight months after the birth of her daughter Josephine in 1910, her husband was drowned in a tropical storm while on an expedition seeking sunken treasure,” (p. 14). Eshbach mentions Josephine’s birth year, and over time people’s abstractions could have muddled it with Bennett’s death. With the consideration that Eshbach may have published more inaccurate information, I examined the timeline.

Pennsylvania Births and Christenings, 1907-1950” lists Josephine Christy Bennett as being born in Philadelphia on May 12th, 1910 to CM Stuart Bennett and Gertrude Barrows. Another record, this one from “Pennsylvania, Philadelphia City Births, 1860-1906”, reports a ‘Josefehine C Linoky Bennett’ as being born on May 12th, 1910. The baby girl has the same parents, though this document also clarifies that her father was born in Liverpool and was thirty-three in 1910. FamilySearch specifies that a volunteer indexed this record, which might explain the bastardization of Josephine’s name, but I can’t verify this as the document isn’t available online. Records like birth registers, death indexes, and census reports can be difficult to decipher thanks to cramped, cursive handwriting. With her birthday in May, Josephine couldn’t have been eight months old if her father died in 1910.

Eshbach likely miscalculated Josephine’s age in relation to her father’s death, which indicates that Bennett died in late 1910. I had seen references to Bennett having drowned in Florida, and it makes sense for him to have visited Florida in December 1910 due to the peninsula’s notorious heat, so I used that to narrow my search. It is important to acknowledge the inconsistencies as these cracks lead us to question what we know about a subject. Questioning led me to trawl through digitized newspapers for a ‘Stuart Bennett’ in Florida 1910. Thanks to the Internet and being able to highlight search terms, I soon discovered several publications that confirmed Eshbach’s story.

On Christmas 1910, Captain Stuart Bennett drowned near Key West after his yacht, the Lebra, was shipwrecked. No reports mentioned a storm, however, instead attributing the shipwreck to a collision, the Lebra either striking a rock or a railway piling (Singer p. 394). (In the immediate aftermath of the accident, some articles erroneously referred to the yacht as ‘Phra’.) Contemporary papers described him as a magazine writer and cited connections to New York City and Philadelphia, the latter through the Curtis Publishing company (misprinted as ‘Curtiss’). Bennett appeared to have been estranged from Gertrude, since he had a different “Mrs. Bennett” with him on the trip and who also drowned. The April 1910 census documented Gertrude as lodging in Philadelphia. Though it listed her as “married”, Bennett was not listed at her address. The census was enumerated on the 15th, just under a month from when Josephine was born. The New-York Tribune also reported, “[Bennett] was known in New York yachting circles,” (“Bennett’s Body Found” p. 3). The man did not appear to spend much time in Philadelphia, to say the least.

The census also lists a sixty-nine-year-old ‘Caroline P. Barron’ who was born in New York as a lodger at the same residence, and she is most likely Gertrude’s mother. Some sources, like the aforementioned 1895 Minneapolis census, list Carrie as having been in New York; the age range also fits. Mother supporting daughter as they transitioned into new stages of life.

The Working & Writing Years:

In addition, an Eshbach detail that’s gone unexamined until now is this: “[Bennett] had been a newspaper reporter, a fact which probably led his widow to contribute feature articles to the newspaper,” (p. 14). That paper may have been connected to the Curtis Publishing Company. Readers have not uncovered any additional fiction or poetry pieces from Gertrude throughout the aughts and early teens, but Gertrude may have still been writing at this point, leaning into nonfiction and/or journalism. Eshbach goes on to elaborate that Bennett’s death prompted Gertrude to return to office work:

Faced with the necessity of supporting herself and her infant daughter, Gertrude Bennett worked for a time as secretary to a University of Pennsylvania Professor, increasing her income by typing theses for students at night. With the death of her father, several years later, her invalid mother became an added responsibility—and since it now was necessary for her to spend most of her time in her third-floor apartment, she turned to fiction writing. (p. 14).

Again, from a personal standpoint, one must wonder if this connected back to her earlier life. Clark Barrows had been a college student. Could she have picked up typing from him and/or helped him type up his assignments? Impossible to know more for now, but important, compassionate questions nonetheless.

In regards to inconsistencies, Gertrude’s father had died in 1892, decades before she was said to start caring for her mother. Eshbach, again, does not cite who told him all these personal details, though I lean towards it being Josephine. She seemed open to people researching her mother and supportive of her legacy: She gave Bob Weinberg photos of Gertrude (Everts p. 2), and somehow Eshbach received a copy of Gertrude’s last letter to her daughter, having quoted it for his introduction (p. 16). Josephine could have muddled some family stories, especially if she were interviewed in the early 50s, as she could not check back with Gertrude on the specifics. That “father” may have been a possible stepfather or close male relative, and then Josephine or Eshbach could have mixed up the exact family role.

From what few details we have, mother and daughter appeared to be close, even after Gertrude moved to California in the mid-20s. The women fit into the classic trinity of maiden, mother, crone, and maybe this matriarchal setup influenced “Friend Island”, as Eshbach characterizes the household as supportive. Gertrude passed some of her parents’ literary interests to her daughter, sharing her art with her:

When writing, she locked herself in one room of her apartment, and motherly Annie Orloof, from whom the apartment was rented, took care of Josephine, or “Connie” as her mother preferred to call her. When stories were completed, the writer read them to her daughter, who became her critic. Incidents which “Connie” did not like were changed before manuscripts were submitted to editors. (Eshbach p. 14)

Census records support this, as the 1920 census reports that a “Gertrude” and “Constance Bennett” lived with an Albert Orloff, a Russian immigrant, and his family. He had a wife named Annie, and Gertrude and Constance were listed as “boarders”. This creative process spanned three years, as her story in 1923 was likely an older piece. It’s also generally accepted that Carrie Barrows passed away that year, and noticeably, she does not appear on the list of residents. Scholars believe that Gertrude stopped writing in 1920 as her mother’s death freed her to get a job outside the home. If Carrie had died in 1920, then Gertrude had buried her entire family of origin before she was forty. That kind of loss would have generated a huge amount of stress and could have triggered repressed feelings related to the traumatic loss of the men in her family. But again, we know so little that most of this is conjecture. It’s only with more digging and with greater awareness can we fully understand Gertrude Barrows Bennett, the woman behind the legend.


If you click on Gertrude’s Wikipedia page, you won’t find a picture — only a scan of a magazine cover featuring one of her stories. A black-and-white photograph of a smiling woman circulates around the Internet, and I backtracked it to a family tree site. Theoretically, she shared the same name as Gertrude. But I sent it to Everts, and he confirmed that it wasn’t her. No picture of her has been released, so she floats through one’s imagination, unseen. It’s so much easier to remember someone when you can put a face to name, don’t you think?

In a quote attributed to show-creator Bryan Fuller, he asserts, “Women love genre, they’re more open to genre in a strange way.” It’s exciting to consider where speculative fiction stories will go in the future and how women-centric projects of today will influence that. From writers like Carmen Maria Machado queering up short fiction to the women wearing down Hollywood’s male gaze. That includes Patty Jenkins and Cathy Yan directing Wonder Woman and Birds of Prey respectively, as well as Anna Boden who co-directed and co-wrote Captain Marvel. Women keep tearing open genre and examining its innards like modern haruspices. The feminist agenda is alive and well, but for it to succeed, we can’t forget where we came from. So let’s p*ss off the gross geek boys by restoring the history of weird fiction, one foremother at a time, and share their stories as Gertrude shared them with her daughter.


Featured image courtesy of Tellers of Weird Tales

Latest Posts

Help Your Littles Ones Read Better With Popped: The Reading Game

Popped! The Reading Game is a card game combined...

From the Vault: “Panther Squad”

In his essay on bad movies, critic J. Hoberman...

Finding Magic (& Stuff) In Animation: The Team Behind Buzzfeed’s First Actual Play Talks Dungeon Jitters And Saturday Morning Cartoon Adventures

Dan sits down with creators Meredith Kesh and Elizabeth Riley, as well as director Derek Benig, to learn more about the new series

Next Installment Of Horrified Goes Global With ‘World Of Monsters’

Celebrating Five Years of Horrified with New Mix-and-Match Playability with Previous Horrified Editions