‘Unseen-Unfeared’ (1919), by Francis Stevens, is rather different in character to its predecessor, ‘The Hell Screen’. We are unequivocally back in the USA, in Philadelphia’s South Street, where the narrator, Blaisdell, is dining with his friend, the ‘ever-interesting’ Mark Jenkins, in a little Italian restaurant, and yet something is not quite right. It is a chance meeting, because ‘Jenkins is too busy, usually, to make dinner engagements’ (124), which makes one wonder just a little about the nature of this friendship. A little jealousy in play, perhaps? Jenkins is described as a detective, and when he speaks of ‘little odd incidents and adventures of his profession’ it is ‘[n]othing very vital or important, of course’ (124). Jenkins is not the kind of detective, we are told, who brags about his achievements, though one has the suspicion the narrator rather wishes he would, just a little. The food is highly seasoned, the wine is sour and thin, and the narrator’s account of the meeting exudes a general dissatisfaction, not least when Jenkins has to leave: ‘He so clearly did not invite my further company that I remained seated for a little while after his departure’ (125). Prior to this, Jenkins has offered Blaisdell a cigar, so we must imagine him lighting it before he starts to walk home.
‘These streets always held for me a certain fascination, particularly at night’ (125), says Blaisdell.
They are so unlike the rest of the city, so foreign in appearance, with their little shabby stores, always open until late evening, their unbelievably cheap goods, displayed as much outside the shops as in them, hung over the fronts and laid out on tables by the curb and in the street itself. (125)
It is a short but revealing passage. Streets that are unlike the rest of the city, and Balisdell’s apparent sustained interest in them, throw up ideas of his wanting something different, deliberately seeking it out indeed, underlining that sense of unease already noted. He comes to these streets as someone who doesn’t belong in them, as a tourist, a voyeur, a flâneur, to view the spectacle of lives very different to his own. Whether it was in Stevens’ mind when she wrote this or not, I don’t know, but I thought of de Quincey’s accounts of roaming the streets of London at night, and Poe’s ‘A Man of the Crowd’, but for reasons that will become clear later, of de Quincey in particular. Note too the emphasis on abundance, goods overflowing the shops, spilling out into the streets, and people everywhere, activity until late at night. The word that springs to mind, perhaps, is teeming.
Blaisdell clearly enjoys the scene as a rule, but tonight things are different, he believes: ‘neither people nor stores in any sense appealed to me’ (125). Instead, he struggles to make connections between himself as a human and people who he knows to be human but who, ‘bareheaded, unkempt and generally unhygienic’ (125), now revolt him. Blaisdell claims to be ‘rather a sensitive, impressionable sort of chap’ (235|), but we assume that this has never happened to him before in this neighbourhood, otherwise why come back?
Tonight, though, it is as though his anxieties can barely be controlled. There is a ‘sense of evil’ in the air. People seem ‘bestial’, ‘brutal’, and there is ‘a warning of things which is wise for a clean man to shun and keep clear of’ (125). Is it the Chianti? Is it contaminated in some way? Over and over the narrator refers to dirt, grime, dread, horror, shabbiness, stickiness, sourness, mustiness, poverty. It is as if he is experiencing an acute recoiling from the world around him and its people. Everything is sickly, him most of all. ‘I could feel the grit of dirt under my shoes, and it rasped on my rawly quivering nerves’ (126). It is as though Blaisdell’s senses have merged one another, and one cannot help but wonder what on earth is going on.
Simultaneously, he also knows this to be wrong (and one might think back momentarily, to Ewers’ ‘The Spider’, and the splitting of Bracquemont’s apprehension of his situation, as he realises that something is wrong, and attempts to fight it). Blaisdell is determined to get the better of the feeling, but at the same time is driven by a need to find sanctuary, quietness, somewhere where he can sit down, recover. Possibly a museum of fakes, a promise to See The Great Unseen, is not the best way forward, but this is where he finds himself.
One might wonder if the plot is a little too mechanistic at this point, or whether we should read Blaisdell as being drawn to that which he most fears; either way, he finds himself in a rather tatty laboratory, presided over by a man of rather startling appearance, black eyes and white hair, overly eager to see him: a man who on the one hand assures him that he is nothing like ‘these timorous, ignorant foreign peasants’(126), and who exhorts him to ‘Have no fear at all – of anything’ (127).
By this time, the story has clearly taken a very odd turn, almost as though we are now part of a story within a story, as the unidentified man lectures Blaisdell about his work, something the reader is mostly spared as Blaisdell drifts in and out of awareness. Time, like his senses, is contracting and expanding; we have no idea how long he has been in the room, and nor does he. The lecturer’s story has shifted from an account of microphotography to an story of a mysterious membrane which reveals the room to be alive with hitherto invisible creatures, and thus he demonstrates it to Blaisdell. The man claims that these creatures are made from the thoughts of man himself:
By his evil thoughts, by his selfish panics, by his lusts and his interminable never-ending hate he has made them, and they are everywhere! Fear nothing – but see where there comes to you, it’s creator, the shape and the body of your FEAR! (129)
What Blaisdell’s self-created Thing looks like, we never learn, for at this moment he loses consciousness, and when he wakes it is to find himself alone in the laboratory, shocked by his experience, stripped as he believes of self-delusion, and convinced that the only good he can contribute to the world is by removing ‘my monster-creating self’ (130) from it.
The final section reveals what is allegedly really going on. Blaisdell has been accidentally drugged by a poisoned cigar taken by Jenkins from the man responsible for poisoning a third party, a poisoning widely believed to have been carried out Doctor Holt, the man whom Blaisdell encountered, except that by the time Blaisdell allegedly met him, he had already committed suicide. A chance encounter with the same man who had, according to Blaisdell, stared at him so unpleasantly as he entered Holt’s building had brought Jenkins to the laboratory. The young man had been concerned for Blaisdell rather than expressing hatred of him
The wrapping up is all very tidy. This is Jenkins the detective at work, rescuing Blaisdell, finding explanations to the various points of his story, restoring rationality. Holt, it turns out, had provided microphotographs of bacilli for a settlement house initiative to show people how germs cause disease. Jenkins has an explanation for every point of Blaisdell’s experience until Blaisdell spots the flaw in his argument and then discovers the membrane still sitting in the projector. It is when he holds it up to the light that Jenkins’ composure is finally shaken We are left with the implication that Holt committed suicide not because he had been falsely implicated in a poisoning but because of what he in turn had seen.
But that in turn is a tidy ending to what is, the more one looks at it, a very odd story indeed. While it might present initially as a fairly conventional pulp offering – men encounter something abnormal, solution is found, order is restored, or is it? – it seems to me that this story doesn’t really start from the place it pretends to. Blaisdell’s unease is, in my view, already manifesting itself before he smokes the poisoned cigar. The drug strips away his self-control and allows him to fully articulate his latent xenophobia, his fear of contamination, and enhance his paranoia rather than inducing it in the first place. There is the sense that Blaisdell was already teetering on the brink of some sort of shift in his own behaviour, which the drug simply accelerated, ripping aside the polite fiction of enjoying the strangeness of South Street, suggesting his visits instead are more a matter of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.
And what of the role of Holt in all this? If we, like Blaisdell, refuse to accept the comforting certainties of Jenkins’ explanation and instead believe that he actually met Holt although he was already dead, what is Holt doing? Is he trying to encourage others along the route he has already taken? Or is this some sort of perverse warning to Blaisdell to mend his ways, drawn from Blaisdell’s own unconscious? Or is Holt himself the disruptive element in this story, having discovered what lurks beneath the surface of the world, or more pertinently, how to see what lurks beneath the surface, how people fill the world with unarticulated thoughts. Or, perhaps, a combination of all these roles. Which leads to interesting moral implications when Blaisdell and Jenkins decide to burn the membrane, because, according to Blaisdell, ‘there are marvels better left unproved’ (132). And that, I think, is what brings this over to the weird, that sense of uncertainty even to the last.