The Heads Of Cerberus by Francis Stevens (book review).

In a recent review, the novel ‘The Heads Of Cerberus’ by Francis Stevens was noted to be the first story utilizing alternate realities. This claim intrigued me, leading me to acquire a copy for confirmation. Information gleaned from the book reveals that Francis Stevens was the pseudonym of Gertrude Barrows Bennett (1884-1948), a female author specializing in science fiction novels. This book, initially published in 1919, is thought to have been written under a gender-neutral pen-name to disguise the author’s sex, common during that period.

The story revolves around Robert Drayton, a former lawyer turned burglar after his law firm falls prey to criminals and his partner is subsequently incarcerated and dies in prison. Unbeknownst to Drayton, his friend, an Irishman named Terry Trenmore, resides in the house he targets for his nefarious activities. Trenmore relays his woes to Drayton. Commendably, Stevens captures the nuances of an Irish accent on paper quite brilliantly. The pair discover a mysterious grey powder in a bottle. Upon rubbing it, Trenmore vanishes, leaving Drayton in shock, assuming his friend has disintegrated.

Subsequently, Trenmore’s cousin, Viola, arrives, since the house is her property. Disbelieving Drayton’s tale about the grey powder, she rubs it and disappears too. Desperate, Drayton uses the powder as a potential escape from his dilemmas. However, rather than meeting his demise, he materializes in a futuristic city, reuniting with Trenmore and Viola. This city bears a slight resemblance to their original locale, yet is distinctly different. I’m halfway through the book, and my initial assumption of it being a time-travel story has shifted towards the concept of alternate realities. I’m left pondering: how could Stevens have predicted what 2118 would look like?

The book’s title references the tube cap that safeguards the grey powder, and also alludes to the mythological guardian of hell. This has an ironic undertone as the trio find themselves charged with dress code violations and resisting arrest, and are promptly presented before a judge. Their journey also intersects with Arnold Bertram, a fellow burglar sent to retrieve the grey powder vial, who unwittingly winds up in the future as well. Interestingly, he adapts better to this new world. Terry Trenmore’s combat skills provide a temporary reprieve for the group.

Gradually, the narrative reveals how this future came into existence, with an underlying plot concerning a new judge’s ascension. The method to return to the past involves a specific object’s vibration, but further details would spoil the story. Evidently, Stevens’ theories on time travel were as inventive as H.G. Wells’ concepts. Her portrayal of the future city’s regime and her distinct narrative vision stand out remarkably.

The events that transpire after the main characters’ apparent disintegration lead Drayton to logically assume that they’ve been transported through time, rather than having disintegrated. This makes one wonder, what would your reaction be if someone in front of you suddenly vanished? The concept of teleportation was yet to be conceived back then.

‘The Heads Of Cerberus’ is undeniably a work of science fiction. The methods through which time travel is achieved will always involve elements of the extraordinary. Although modern interpretations might have different stylistic approaches, they essentially serve to progress the narrative. The fact that a story from 1919 still holds relevance is truly remarkable.

Is it an alternate reality? Not in the contemporary understanding of the term, but rather an extrapolation of events leading to a distinct future. It’s essential to remember that not all authors writing about SF fully understand it or have read the scarce books on the subject.

GF Willmetts

July 2023

(pub: Mint Edition Books, 2021 reprinting the 1919 book. 167 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-5132-8196-4)

check out website:


Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.