Sometimes you find little gems in unexpected places. This is the case with THE LABYRINTH, a novel by Francis Stevens that was originally serialized in the pulp ALL-STORY WEEKLY in 1918. A new edition will be published later this year by Beb Books. (Email me for info about that if you’re interested, and I’ll put you in touch with the publisher.)
THE LABYRINTH doesn’t start out too promising. The narrator is wealthy playboy Hildreth Wyndham, whose cousin Veronica disappears under mysterious circumstances. Veronica is the former secretary of the state’s governor (Stevens doesn’t specify which state, but it’s vaguely Midwestern), and Wyndham believes that the politician may have something to do with her disappearance. Along with Veronica’s fiancee Rex Tolliver, Wyndham embarks on a search that takes them to the corridors of power and hints at a sinister conspiracy.
For its first half, THE LABYRINTH is concerned with that search and seems to be nothing more than a pretty lightweight romantic thriller. But then there’s an abrupt plot twist that changes everything, and it’s only the first of a dizzying series of reversals and revelations and grim, eerie scenes that are nothing like what has come before. I love books where nothing is what it seems to be, and Stevens delivers the goods on that, at least for a while.
Unfortunately, if THE LABYRINTH is a gem, it’s a flawed one, because Stevens allows the plot to spiral out of control and the ending is terrible. Also, while the old-fashioned writing style didn’t bother me (I’ve always been able to sort of project myself into whatever era a story was written), some modern readers might find it too stilted. So while I recommend THE LABYRINTH for the offbeat risks that it takes and some creepy, highly effective scenes, it’s not the book that it could have been.
I’d never read anything by Francis Stevens before. Her real name was Gertrude Bennett, and she’s remembered today as one of the first American female authors of fantasy and science fiction, having published quite a few fantastic-themed stories in pulps like ARGOSY and WEIRD TALES, some of which were reprinted in paperback during the Seventies. The promise she demonstrated in THE LABYRINTH is intriguing enough that I’d read more of her work if I came across it.
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