Retro Review: “Blue and Silver Brocade” by Dorothy Quick

Unknown October 1939

This cover is not for “Blue and Silver Brocade”, but for the fairly lackluster novel “The Elder Gods” by Don A. Stuart a.k.a. John W. Campbell himself

I’m taking a bit of a break from Jirel of Joiry, because in my experience, those stories are best, when not read directly one after another. And so I decided to take a look at another underrated woman author of the golden age, Dorothy Quick.

Comrade-in-arms Steve J. Wright recently came across the gothic horror story “Blue and Silver Brocade” by Dorothy Quick in the October 1939 issue of Unknown. The premise sounded interesting, so I decided to review it myself. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

In true gothic fashion, “Blue and Silver Brocade” starts on a cold night in a spooky mansion on the Scottish moors. The narrator, a young woman named Alice, cannot sleep, because she’s cold. Alice would love to have another blanket, but she is loath to wake her Aunt Annabel, owner of the mansion, or the servants.

So Alice searches her room for something that will keep her warm. In a closet, she finds several boxes and looks through them in search of a blanket. In the last box, finally, she finds a patchwork quilt and decides that this will do just fine to keep her warm for the night.

The quilt is quite unusual. For starters, the patches are quite large and made from vastly different materials – velvet, silk, brocade, wool, ancient linen, some kind of parchment that might also be human skin – whereas quilt patches are normally made of the same material, usually cotton, because otherwise the quilt won’t properly fit together (ask me how I know). What is more, the edges of the squares are embroidered and the embroidery seems to spell out words in what looks like runes.

One square made from blue brocade with silver embroidery and tiny crowns particularly fascinates Alice, because the material is so beautiful. And so she falls asleep with her hand resting on the blue and silver brocade square. This turns out to be a big mistake.

Alice suddenly finds herself in an unfamiliar room and equally unfamiliar body, wearing a gown made from the same silver and blue brocade as the quilt square. It quickly becomes clear that Alice is now inhabiting the body of a young woman named Jeanne in seventeenth century France. Alice can see and feel everything Jeanne experiences, but she cannot influence events nor does she know anything about what’s going on apart from what she directly witnesses.

Jeanne is quickly joined by a beautiful woman named Francoise with whom she is about to embark on some kind of dangerous venture, which will put Francoise ahead of her rival, a mysterious woman only known as “the lady”. Jeanne is apparently an attendant of this mysterious lady and wears the lady’s silver and blue brocade livery, though her loyalty is to Francoise. Jeanne and Francoise both put on black hooded cloaks and leave through a secret passage. Outside the passage, they are met by Jeanne’s lover Raoul.

A carriage takes Jeanne, Francoise and Raoul to a shabby house, where a rat-faced, toothless woman awaits them. Alice knows that Jeanne is terrified, though she has no idea of what.

Inside the shabby house, Jeanne and Raoul are taken to a ritual chamber where other cloaked and hooded figures are already waiting. Alice finally realises that she is about to witness a black mass.

Francoise is lying naked on the altar, while the ritual goes on around her. Raoul supplies some helpful dialogue explaining that Francoise – though already beautiful like a Greek statue – is attending the black mass in search of even more beauty, because she wishes to regain the affection of the king – Louis XIV of France – who has transferred his attention from Francoise to the mysterious lady.

We are now treated to a graphic description of the black mass, complete with a blood sacrifice that is initially implied to be a baby, but thankfully turns out to be only a black rooster whose blood is splattered all over the naked Francoise.

Before the black mass can reach its climax and more blood sacrifices can be made, the cultists are interrupted by a patrol of the king’s men who break down the door on the orders of the mysterious lady. The satanic priest commits suicide, Raoul throws his cloak over Francoise’s head and tells her to play dead.

Then the guards break down the door. The guard captain recognises Raoul and is clearly surprised to see him attending a black mass (I can’t even blame him, since I would be surprised to see any acquaintance of mine attending a black mass, particularly one with blood-splattering sacrifices). Raoul claims that it was just curiosity which brought him there. However, the guard captain informs Raoul that he has to arrest everybody present, including Raoul.

Raoul asks if the captain if he could at least let Jeanne go and sweeps aside her black cloak to reveal the silver and blue brocade livery of the lady. The captain, however, insists that he has to arrest everybody – king’s orders and the lady’s will – and that there will be no exceptions for anybody, not even an attendant of the lady.

So Raoul, Jeanne and the rest of the cultists are arrested. Jeanne is glad that at least Francoise will be able to escape, since the guard captain thought she was dead, because her naked body was covered in (chicken) blood, and left her behind.

The captain grants Raoul and Jeanne a few minutes alone in a cell. Raoul says that this is good-bye for both of them. For the lady will be furious that Francoise escaped the trap she set for her and will have everybody who was arrested at the black mass tortured. However, of all the cultists, only Jeanne and Raoul know Francoise’s name. Raoul also casually drops Francoise’s full name, so Alice is able to use her knowledge of history to piece everything together. Francoise is Madame de Montespan, mistress of Louis XIV. The “lady” is her successor, Madame Scarron a.k.a. the Marquise of Maintenon. So Francoise’s attempts to regain the king’s favour by satanic means were ultimately futile.

Raoul now asks Jeanne if she is strong enough to withstand torture. Jeanne says that she hopes she will be strong enough, but she is afraid. However, Jeanne also declares that she would rather die than betray Francoise. So she begs Raoul to kill her. Raoul kisses Jeanne and strangles her. We get another quite graphic description of Jeanne being throttled to death, while a desperate Alice wonders what will happen to her, when Jeanne dies.

However, Alice does not die. Instead, she wakes up screaming, while her Aunt Annabel and Annabel’s maid Hester stand over her bed. Both Annabel and Hester are horrified to see that Alice has found the quilt. Hester says that the quilt should have been burned long ago, while Aunt Annabel finally tells Alice the story of the quilt.

The quilt, it turns out, was made by an old witch who collected scraps of fabric with terrible histories connected to them. She pieced the scraps together with her magic, so that if someone falls asleep with their hand touching one of the squares, they will relive whatever terrible memory has been encoded in the square.

The quilt ended up with an ancestor of Aunt Annabel’s late husband who put it in a guestroom and then waited for his guests to tell him about their nightmares. But then, one guest went mad and another died and the quilt was packed away. Aunt Annabel’s husband showed her the quilt and Annabel slept with it for two nights, until she could not stand it anymore. However, she could never bring herself to destroy the quilt either.

Aunt Annabel wants to destroy the quilt now, but Alice won’t let her. She wants to try sleeping under it again and she also has just the square picked out that she wants to try, the one which looks like parchment or human skin…

Madame de Montespan

A painting of the historical Madame de Montespan by an unknown artist

“Blue and Silver Brocade” is a highly effective and – by the standards of the time – remarkably graphic story of gothic horror. It’s yet another example of the “tale within a tale” stories that were popular during the golden age and that particularly Dorothy Quick was clearly fond of. But unlike other “tale within a tale” stories, here we don’t have people sitting around a fireplace or dinner table telling a spooky story. Instead, there is a unique delivery vehicle, a haunted patchwork quilt that transports those who sleep under it into other eras and lives.

I have to admit that I love the idea of a haunted patchwork quilt that contains spooky stories and not just because I have been known to make quilts myself (not haunted, though). And making a real world replica of Dorothy Quick’s fictional quilt – hopefully not haunted – sounds like a great craft project. Maybe an idea for a future Worldcon.

However, the haunted quilt is simply a great premise for a series of interconnected stories, though keeping the quilt in a box in a room where guests can stumble upon it unaware of the danger does strike me as very negligent. And indeed, Dorothy Quick wrote two more stories about the haunted patchwork quilt, which I will eventually review, if only because I love the premise.

While the framing story offers a standard gothic spooky mansion on the moors set-up, the dream story takes us into a completely different genre, namely that of historical fiction. Francoise de Montespan and her romantic rival, Francoise, Marquise de Maintenon a.k.a. “the lady” (probably because Luis XIV going for two women with such similar names would have been very confusing for readers) are both actual historical figures, though Jeanne and Raoul are fictional. There even is a portrait of Madame de Montespan wearing a dress of golden brocade like the one she wears in the story.

Madame de Montespan really was rumoured to have been involved in black masses where a rogue priest named Étienne Guiborg pouring blood over her naked body. She was also rumoured to have been a client of Catherine Monvoisin a.k.a. La Voisin (implied to be the rat-faced woman mentioned in the story), poisoner, abortionist and sorceress to the French aristocracy, who implicated Madame de Montespan after her arrest. Historical fiction generally is not kind to Madame de Montespan and tends to portray her as a villainess of the worst kind, even though we cannot be sure how many of the terrible stories told about her are really true and how many are the result of people arrested in connection with Catherine Monvoisin during the so-called affaire des poisons in 1677 (the story is implied to be set during this time) giving false confessions under torture. Interestingly, both history and fiction are much kinder to the Marquise de Maintenon who is generally considered to have been a good influence on Louis XIV, to have treated his legitimate wife well (unlike Madame de Montespan) and who founded a school for impoverished aristocratic girls.

So it’s interesting that Dorothy Quick turns Francoise de Montespan into a semi-sympathetic character who commands loyalty unto death from Raoul and Jeanne, though it’s never clear just why these two would be willing to die for her, while Madame de Maintenon is portrayed as the villainess of the story.

Angelique by Serge and Anne GolonThe tragic adventures of the doomed lovers Jeanne and Raoul in seventeenth century France reminded me very much of the Angélique series by Serge and Anne Golon, which my teenaged self devoured with great glee. Not just because of the setting – seventeenth century France during the reign of Louis XIV – but also because of the quite graphic violence and bloody happenings. And trust me, the Angélique series has a lot of that and is full of torture, executions, murders, sexual violence, pirates, harems, the inquisition, etc… Madame de Montespan actually does appear as a supporting character in some of the Angelique novels (as does Louis XIV), once again engaged in black masses, poisonings and other mischief. Though the first Angelique novel, Angélique, the Marquise of the Angels, did not appear until 1957, eighteen years after “Blue and Silver Brocade” was published, so it can’t possibly have inspired this story.

Which begets the question, what did inspire this story? For while there are a lot of historical sagas full of romance and quite graphic violence with female protagonists, the examples that come to mind – the Angelique novels, the Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor – all postdate “Blue and Silver Brocade”. And the historical fiction of the era, works by writers like Raphael Sabatini, Georgette Heyer, Talbot Mundy, Harold Lamb, Margaret Mitchell, Hervey Allen, etc… is quite different from the historical scenes in “Blue and Silver Brocade”. The rivalry between Madame de Montespan and the Marquise de Maintenon and the affaire des poisons has been frequently chronicled, often in a quite sensational manner, so Dorothy Quick may well have come across the story. The graphic violence may have been inspired by the Theatre du Grand-Guignol, but the blood-drenched horror plays presented at that famous Paris theatre were usually not historical. So was Dorothy Quick the first to merge romantic historical drama with graphic violence? This is certainly a mystery to be explored further.

Steve J. Wright was quite shocked at how graphic the violence in “Blue and Silver Brocade” was. And indeed, the story is remarkably graphic by 1930s standards. We not only get a graphic description of a blood-drenched black mass and an equally graphic description of a woman being strangled to death from the POV of the victim, we also have nudity and several passionate and thrilling kisses, including one kiss which happens as Jeanne is strangled to death (which hints at erotic asphyxiation). By 1930s standards, this is strong stuff.

What makes this even more remarkable is that “Blue and Silver Brocade” was not published in the fairly liberal Weird Tales, where graphic violence, satanic rituals, passionate kisses and hints of sex all showed up more or less frequently, but in John W. Campbell’s much more prudish Unknown, which was focussed more on proto-urban fantasy, humorous fantasy and Arabian Nights type adventures than on gothic horror. I’m not surprised that Dorothy Quick chose to submit this story to Unknown. After all, Campbell paid better and much more promptly than Weird Tales, which was notoriously slow to pay, particularly under Farnsworth Wright. However, I’m surprised that Campbell bought it, because “Blue and Silver Brocade” is so very much not a John W. Campbell type story and would seem much more at home in Weird Tales or even the likes of Spicy Mystery or Spicy Adventure.

“Blue and Silver Brocade” is also a depressing story, because the actions of the characters in the historical flashback are ultimately futile. Jeanne dies by the hand of Raoul, it is strongly implied that Raoul will be executed for his part in the conspiracy (and for killing Jeanne) and Francoise does not regain the affections of the King, but will be banished from court. It’s very much a downer ending, which also heightens the impact of the graphic violence.

“Blue and Silver Brocade” passes the Bechdel test with flying colours, something which is exceedingly rare for golden age SFF stories. What’s even more remarkable is that except for Raoul, all named characters are female. The other Dorothy Quick story I reviewed for the Retro Reviews project also passed the Bechdel test, which shows that Quick centered women characters and their experiences in her fiction.

Next to Fritz Leiber’s justly beloved Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, Dorothy Quick’s Patchwork Quilt series is certainly one of the most interesting and unusual works to appear in Unknown. Dorothy Quick is vastly underrated and I for one will be very interested to read the other two stories in this series.

 

 

 

 

 

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