Social Settlements, Bacteria, & Horror

Francis Stevens’ 1919 horror story “Unseen – Unfeared” brings together a number of my personal interests. “Francis Stevens” is  the pen name of writer, Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1883-1948). Since I am teaching Literature of Science Fiction and Fantasy, which too often seems dominated by male writers, I am on the lookout for stories written by women. So, I am happy to find that Bennett/Stevens has a whole corpus of dark fantasy stories.

Secondly, this story takes place in NYC’s Lower East Side, making me feel right at home. The story begins near the seaport. After a late dinner, the protagonist, a journalist, decides to walk home through the LES streets; he usually enjoys walking the neighborhood because it is “fascinating” and “foreign.” However, this evening the neighborhood seems preternaturally menacing. Feeling a little woozy, the main character pops into a tenement apartment-turned-museum of the “Great Unseen.”

Via lamplight projection the apparent proprietor of the strange exhibit displays images of microscopic monsters and the main character becomes even more depressed and frightened. Lest I spoil the story, I will skip to what I find interesting about this tale.

I know there are other weird tales from this period that use bacteria and magnified images to invoke dread in the reader. In fact Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, an American classic though not part of the weird genre, includes an unsettling description of the miasma that exists in the Lower East Side tenements.

It would be very interesting to examine how the rise of bacteriology and the invention of the microscope gave rise to stories about monsters of the unseen world. Monsters in the microscope.

Scientific advances changed theories about the origins of sickness. Before, disease was divinely–or demonically–caused, but by the end of the nineteenth century scientists established germ theory. This transition provides fertile ground for the writer who wishs to horrify the reader with the realities that live unseen on or about our person. An author might ask: what if germ theory did not preclude demonic origins of disease? What if germs had a malign source? The microscopic entities in Bennett/Stevens’s story are depicted as demonic . . . and foreign.

Disease, according to germ theory, is transmitted locally, through touch, proximity, exchange of fluids, etc. Therefore places with the most disease are easily depicted as the most frightening to occupy. Place and population can become implicated in the frightening narrative. The almost invisible horrors in “Unseen – Unfeared” become linked to the immigrant population of the Lower East Side through a reference to public hygiene education. The building housing the “Great Unseen” exhibition is also used by the local social settlement to educate the local population:

next door to Doctor Holt’s the second floor have been thrown together into a lecture room, where at certain hours a young man employed by settlement workers displayed upon a screen stereopticon views of various deadly bacilli, the germs of diseases appropriate to dirt and indifference. He knew, too, that Doctor Holt himself had helped the educational effort along by providing some really wonderful lantern slides, done by microphotography. (131)

Here the link between xenophobia (the fear of the foreign) and mysophobia or bacilliphobia (the fear of germs or contamination) is made. The story can function as a nativist work that feeds the fears of the “true American” or as a parody–poking fun at the paranoid hallucinations of a self-proclaimed streetwise journalist.