Friday, February 9, 2024

Dorothy Quick, Mistress of Dark Fantasy

Mistress of Dark Fantasy is a collection of stories by Dorothy Quick that were published in pulp magazines from the 1930s to the mid-50s. Most of them appeared originally in Weird Tales.

These are horror tales combined with love stories. That’s a common enough combination in gothic romances but these are not gothic romances. Or perhaps they are in a way, but not in the usual sense. They do however all deal with love.

In some of these tales the horror is quite real. In others it’s more ambiguous.

There’s a definite fairy tale vibe to a lot of these stories.

Quick is not a great prose stylist, in fact her prose on occasions is just a little flat. On the other hand she comes up with very clever story ideas. Some are startlingly original but even when they’re not original she gives them fresh twists.

If there’s a weakness to these stories it’s the author’s unwillingness at times to go for a full-blooded horror payoff.

The stories all have contemporary settings but the author shows a lot of skill in introducing familiar gothic trappings to such setting.

The first story is The Witch’s Mark. Aspiring writer Shamus O’Brien has just figured out that he’s in love with Trudy. He’d thought they were destined just to remain friends. Then he meets gorgeous glamorous redhead Cecily. It’s lust at first sight but he starts having some strange memories of events in which he could not possibly have been involved. Memories from long long ago.

Had Shamus and Cecily been lovers centuries ago? The memories seem so real. They may be real, but not in the way he thinks. It’s an effectively spooky tale of a dangerous love.

In Strange Orchids a young woman meets a rather creepy man at a party. She feels him undressing her with his eyes, but then she feels that he’s peering into her soul as well. He gives her a very beautiful orchid. She has the strange feeling that the orchid almost speaks to her. She meets another man as well. He’s looking for girls. Eighteen of them. All of whom have mysteriously disappeared. A very good story.

In The Cracks of Time a woman notices some faint cracks in one of the tiles in her sun room. She fancies that the cracks resemble a face. The next time she notices the cracks the face seems more distinct. She is sure it is the face of Pan. The face even changes expression. She feels it might in some mysterious way be communicating with her. And then she hears the music. A low-key subtly mysterious story, but very effective.

A Year from Tonight
initially seems like a goofy lighthearted story. A guy gets caught in a wild storm on a quiet road in Georgia. His car breaks down. He sees a light and thinks he’s found a house where he might be able to some help. Instead he finds himself held captive my mediæval nights in what appears to be an authentic feudal castle. He thinks he’s found himself among lunatics but slowly comes to think that maybe he really is somehow in the year 1050. The story does slowly become rather darker.

The Horror in the Studio has a Hollywood setting. A young woman is hired to design the costumes for Bryant Holden’s new picture. She had Bryant had once been sweethearts. Bryant is disturbed about the movie, based on an old manuscript someone at the studio found. It’s the story of a man who sells his sold to the Devil and then tries to redeem it by delivering five other souls to damnation. Bryant think the story is pure evil and has a bad feeling about it. He’s right to have that feeling.

A man being possessed by the spirit of someone else, someone truly evil, isn’t a dazzlingly original idea but making the victim an actor, someone whose stock-in-trade is pretending to be someone he isn’t, makes the idea work rather well. A good story.

Edge of the Cliff is not really a story, just a very brief vignette which manages to be very dark and very romantic.

The Gothic Window is about a window that has a long tragic history going back to mediæval Spain. The window now resides in a modern house in America but it has to be kept locked at all times. This is a story that seems to be heading in a predictable direction until Quick throws in a couple of clever twists at the end. A very good story.

In The Lost Door a young American, accompanied by his friend Wrexler, travels to France to claim his inheritance. It is a magnificent chateau named Rougemont. By the terms of his father’s will he must live there for six months in the year, and everything in Rougemont must be kept just as it was in the sixteenth century. The two young men both see and fall in love with a beautiful girl, but the girl appears to be a ghost. There is a curse, and a mysterious door. Good story.

The Man in Purple concerns a haunted hotel room and, once again, a curse.

More Than Shadow has a strong folk tale feel. There’s the shape of a dog that appears on the carpet when water is spilt, then a dog turns up and Mona has a dream that the dog offers her something. It is perhaps an offer that she should not accept.

In The Enchanted River an Englishman in Ceylon falls in love with a girl but the priests forbid the marriage. They get unexpected help. It’s another story in which the distant past has a profound effect on the present. Not a bad story.

The Lost Gods once again deals with supernatural powers from the past. A man is tempted by a Dream Woman. She is perhaps a goddess. He finds ancient jewels that might bring her to him in reality but what will this mean for his wife? A clever story hingeing on the power of belief.

The Woman on the Balcony is a routine ghost story and is rather disappointing.

The White Lady is the first story in this collection to have a period setting. In the England of Henry VIII a young heiress wishes to choose her on husband, against the wishes of a scheming abbot. It’s an OK story.

Turn Over seems to be an attempt at whimsy but it falls very flat and it’s the worst story in the collection.

Final Thoughts

I’d describe most of these stories as gothic romance with some genuine horror elements. The later stories are just romance with the supernatural thrown in to advance the romance plot. These later stories are not very successful.

Overall there’s more good than bad in this collection and Quick does have an approach that is intriguingly different to that taken by most pulp weird fiction writers. This book is worth a look and is definitely recommended to gothic romance fans.

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