Francis Stevens’ first novel appeared at a time (and in a venue) in which horror, fantasy, and science fiction had yet to separate as distinct genres. In the populist spirit of the early general fiction pulps, The Citadel of Fear contains elements of all three genres, along with healthy dollops of romance, adventure, and mystery.
The Citadel of Fear is part of the lost-race fantasy tradition popularized by H. Rider Haggard in his tales of Allan Quatermain and She, particularly with its suggestion of human beings caught up in the working out of mythological destinies. It bears comparison to work by Stevens’ contemporaries Edgar Rice Burroughs and Abraham Merritt (for whom some readers thought “Francis Stevens” was a pseudonym) in its emphasis on the notion that mystical beliefs of certain ancient cultures derived from advanced scientific knowledge never passed on to present civilization. It differs in one important respect from Burroughs’ Pellucidar series (1922-1963) and Merritt’s novels The Moon Pool (1919) and The Face in the Abyss (1931), in that the bulk of the tale is set in the everyday world, many years after the discovery of the lost race’s world and its countless marvels. This technique allowed Stevens to forgo the usual piling on of wonders most writers of lost-race fantasies employed in the creation of their magical worlds. Instead she suggests the alien nature of Tlapallan by showing the horrifying strangeness of one element from it intruding upon the commonplace world.
The ritual of Nacoc-Yaotl by which Kennedy perverts biology to create grotesque monsters in the image of his sick imagination is one of Stevens’ most original contributions to fantasy literature. At the same time, the drama Kennedy enacts within the story is typical of the subgenre. Lost-race fantasy literature abounds with tales of unscrupulous characters who bring about personal and cultural downfall through the misuse of godlike powers. Stevens gave the obvious moral to such...
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