Retro Review: “Transparent Stuff” by Dorothy Quick

Unknown June 1940

This cover illustration is not for “Transparent Stuff”, but for “But Without Horns” by Norvell Page.

I’m continuing my reviews of Dorothy Quick’s Patchwork Quilt stories with “Transparent Stuff”, the second story in the series, which appeared in the June 1940 issue of Unknown. The story may be read online here. You can also read Steve J. Wright’s review of the story along with the rest of the issue here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point!

This time around, Dorothy Quick plunges us right into the story by having her protagonist Alice select another square of fabric of the enchanted patchwork quilt to take her into the past. For those who missed the first story, Alice accidentally came across a magical patchwork quilt owned by her aunt Annabel. Many years ago, a witch assembled the quilt from scraps of fabric with powerful and often terrifying memories attached to them. If someone falls asleep under the quilt while touching one of the squares, they will relive whatever memory is attached to the respective square in their dreams.

“Transparent Stuff” is clearly set some time after the previous story “Blue and Silver Brocade”, for while Alice was terrified by her experience in the first story (to be fair, she did relive a black mass complete with bloody sacrifice and then found herself strangled to death), by now she has become almost addicted to the experiences the patchwork quilt can give her. Considering that the quilt has killed at least one person and driven another mad, this is very risky indeed.

The square Alice has chosen for her latest adventure is made of very sheer, nigh transparent linen, interwoven with golden and silver threads that form a floral pattern. And so, Alice falls asleep with her hand touching the square and suddenly finds herself clad in a gown made of the same transparent fabric and wearing elaborate jewellery. She manages to look at herself in a reflective surface and finds her own face looking back at her, though with very different make-up and hairstyle. So is Alice reliving the experiences of an ancestor this time or is reincarnation in play here?

Alice – and the reader – quickly learns that the body she is inhabiting belongs to a Babylonian princess named Star of Light. Star is the only child of King Mi-Bel of Babylon and she is about to be married off to a man of her father’s choosing. There is a rundown of suitors, none of whom sound remotely promising. One is too old and Star’s cousin besides, another is a drunk and a womaniser and the third is rumoured to consort with demons and engage in black magic. Star is understandably none too thrilled about these marital prospects and so she decides to ask the goddess Ishtar for help, aided by a priest named Abeshu.

Abeshu takes Star to a secret sanctuary inside the great temple and summons the goddess. After some ritualising and incense burning, the goddess Ishtar appears and tells Star that she need not marry any of the suitors vying for her hand and that she may marry the one her heart desires. She also promises Star the gift of eternal love, but warns her that there will be a price.

Finally, Ishtar also grants Abeshu his wish, even though he never utters it out loud. When Star asks Abeshu what he wished for, he gives her an evasive answer, but also asks that Star make him her counsellor. Star agrees, but Alice is sceptical about Abeshu’s motives, for she feels that the priest hates the young princess.

Next, Star and her lady-in-waiting Rima take a tour of the hanging gardens, one of the wonders of the ancient world, in Star’s royal litter. Star’s reverence for the beauty of the gardens is interrupted, when a young boy cries for help. Star signals the litter to stop and asks the captain of her guard to bring the boy to her.

The boy tells star that a man saved his mother’s life, when she was nearly trampled by a horse. However, the horse was injured in the process and now a mob is about to lynch the helpful stranger for harming one of the horses of Khian, Prince of Egypt and one of Star’s unwanted suitors. Star orders her guards to save the stranger. When Star lays eyes on the handsome stranger and his exposed muscular chest, it is love at first sight. Star is thrilled, for Ishtar has kept her word.

The stranger turns out to be an Egyptian mercenary named Belzar who was in service to Prince Khian, but quit, because he disliked the Prince. Star promptly engages his services and as she chats with her new guardsman, Belzar confesses that he loves her. Star responds that she loves him, too, and that it’s all Ishtar’s will. Of course, this is also a very convenient excuse for what romance readers call insta-love. However, a novelette doesn’t offer much space to slowly develop a romantic relationship, so divinely ordained insta-love is a handy shortcut.

Meanwhile, Alice remembers that Ishtar promised Star eternal love and since Alice is Star’s reincarnation and/or descendant, she wonders when she will find a Belzar of her own.

But Belzar also has bad news for Star, because Prince Khian is planning to abduct the princess and thus bypass the other suitors. Belzar, Star and the guard captain inform the King, who plans to set a trap for the kidnappers and hides his own guards and Belzar behind the draperies in Star’s chambers. Nonetheless, one of the kidnappers manages to throw a bag over Star and carry her off. But Belzar stops him with a dagger to the eye and rescues Star who is now even more in love with him than before. They kiss, but are quickly interrupted by the other guards.

However, King Mi-Bel still has other plans for his only daughter. Now that the plot of the treacherous Prince Khian has been exposed, Mi-Bel plans to wed Star to her much older cousin Ditmah. The betrothal will be announced at a great feast to be held that very evening, as Star learns from the duplicitous Abeshu. However, Abeshu has a plan to bring Star and Belzar together after all.

At the feast, Abeshu fills the King up with wine to make him more mellow. Belzar, who has been granted noble status as a thank you for saving Star from the kidnappers, is there as well. Just as the King is about to announce who will marry his daughter, Star stands up and begs the king to grant her to choose her own husband. She also asks that she and her chosen husband be allowed to live in a small palace near the temple of Ishtar. King Mi-Bel, who is well and truly drunk by now, grants her both wishes. So Star names Belzar as her chosen husband.

Mi-Bel is not at all pleased by Star’s choice, for what about all the carefully plotted political alliances that Star has just upset? So he asks Abeshu how to undo this match. This is the moment that the duplicitous Abeshu has been waiting for. He whispers his poisonous advice to the King.

The King now announces that Star shall wed Belzar and that she shall have a wedding feast befitting a princess. She and Belzar will also be allowed to dwell in the palace near the temple of Ishtar, just as Star desired. However, they will be immured inside a chamber in this palace, to be buried alive for all eternity, while cousin Ditmah becomes king of Babylon.

Belzar is surprisingly resigned to his fate – after all, the goddess Ishtar said that there would be a price, but she also promised them eternal love for all time. Star, meanwhile, confronts Abeshu about his treachery. Abeshu tells Star that she is the traitor, for she placed her own desires over her duty to Babylon, because women wanted to choose their own partners with no regard for political alliances – well, next they’ll be demanding the vote, too. And besides, Ditmah no more wanted to marry Star than Star wanted to marry him. Instead, he is in love with Abeshu’s niece and now she will mount the throne instead of Star. But Abeshu apparently has second thoughts about the awful fate to which he condemned the lovers, so he gives Belzar two lockets filled with a poison that will grant him and Star a painless death.

After a weeklong wedding feast, Abeshu escorts Star and Belzar to a small niche inside the palace where they will be immured. They both take the poison and once more proclaim their undying love for each other. Before the last stone is in place and the effect of the poison kicks in, the voice of Ishtar appears, telling Star and Belzar that she will remain true to her promise and that their love shall last forever.

Alice awakens, not at all troubled that she just died for love… again. Because the goddess Ishtar promised Star and Belzar that their love shall last forever. And if Alice is the reincarnation of Star, that means that the reincarnation of Belzar is waiting for her somewhere out there. Will she find him? Maybe we’ll find out in the third Patchwork Quilt story.

Amazing Future Tales from the Past

Sadly, this compilation of novelettes eligible for the 1941 Retro Hugos is the only time “Transparent Stuff” has ever been reprinted.

While the first Patchwork Quilt story “Blue and Silver Brocade” mixed historical fiction with gothic horror and some surprisingly lurid violence, “Transparent Stuff” is more subdued – no black masses and graphic strangulation scenes – but the central love story is no less tragic and once again the lovers can only be united in death and beyond. The Patchwork Quilt stories are undoubtedly romance, but not romance in the modern sense, where a happy ending is required.

The downer ending of the forbidden lovers entombed together reminded me very much of Aida by Guiseppe Verdi, which is set in ancient Egypt rather than ancient Babylon, but ends in the same way, with the titular character, an Ethiopian princess turned Egyptian slave, and her lover, Egyptian general Radames, sentenced to be entombed together, because Radames betrayed his country for Aida. Considering how popular and frequently performed Aida is, it is very likely that Dorothy Quick was familiar with the opera. She also did have a thing for immurement – after all, her 1944 short story “The Gothic Window” features an immured sorcerer haunting a window (or does he?).

I’ve been an opera fan since I was a teenager, an age when most people listen only to pop music. Not that I didn’t listen to and enjoy pop music – I did and still do. However, I also loved operas and operettas, because they combined two things I loved, stories and music. And yes, I adored the melodramatic plots of operas, the more melodramatic the better. Concert performances of operas baffle me, because they omit all the fun stuff. And if I want to listen only to the music, I can do so at home.

Aida was always one of my favourite operas. When I was a teen, my Great-Aunt Metel, upon learning that I liked opera, gave me all the opera stuff that my Great-Uncle Rudy, another opera fan who sadly died before I was born (a pity, because I’m sure we would have gotten along just splendidly, since we both loved Italian opera), had left behind. That opera stuff included not just full orchestral scores of various operas, but also the libretti. And one of those libretti was Aida, which I loved so much that I even organised a spoken word puppet show (because though I had the orchestral score thanks to Uncle Rudy, I couldn’t recreate it on a single piano) for friends and family. And yes, that downer ending was tragic, though most operas ended with everybody dying for love, which my teen self thought was so romantic. So my reaction to the Patchwork Quilt stories is basically, “Wow, these stories very much channel everything my teenaged self loved”, which is unusual in itself, because I certainly wasn’t your average teenager. First we had Angelique, whose adventures I devoured, and now Aida.

All three Dorothy Quick stories I reviewed for the Retro Review project had female protagonists and POV-characters, which is rare in golden age speculative fiction. All three stories also pass the Bechdel test – though “Transparent Stuff” only passes it due to a quick conversation between Star and her lady-in-waiting Rima about the hanging gardens – which is even rarer.

Another thing I find notable about Dorothy’s Quick’s stories is that their protagonists are all women who know what they want in life, romantically and otherwise, and are not afraid to go after it, even if this doesn’t always end happily for them. Star wants to marry for love and not politics and gets her wish, even if it ends with her death. Francoise from “Blue and Silver Brocade” is willing to do literally anything to keep the attention of King Louis XIV of France and the influence it brings and her friend/companion Jeanne is willing to do anything to protect her. Anne from “The Gothic Window” arranges a weekend getaway in a house that may or may not be haunted in order to persuade her own boyfriend to propose, to fix up two friends with each other and protect another friend from her abusive and cheating husband. Unlike Star, Francoise and Jeanne, she even succeeds and does not die either. And finally, Alice, the protagonist of the framing stories linking the Patchwork Quilt tales, decides to explore the experiences the quilt can give her, even against all warnings.

The first Patchwork Quilt story, “Blue and Silver Brocade”, has only one named male character, Raoul, doomed lover/killer of the equally doomed Jeanne whose life and death Alice gets to relive. “Transparent Stuff” has more named male characters, but nonetheless it’s still a very woman-centric story. Star’s three unwanted suitors remain cyphers. Cousin Ditmah is the only one who actually appears on the page in a brief cameo. Prince Khian stages a kidnap attempt, but otherwise remains off stage. As for the third suitor, I can’t even remember his name – all I remember is that he is rumoured to be involved in black magic. Star’s father King Mi-Bel gets more screen time, but he also remains vague and indeed, Star notes at one point that her relationship to her father isn’t close, since she barely sees him. And of course, Mi-Bel is a hot candidate for the 1940 Retro Darth Vader Parenthood Award for Exceptionally Horrible Fictional Parents.

Of all the male characters in “Transparent Stuff”, the one who is the most fleshed out is the villainous priest Abeshu. He is also more complex than the average pulp villain, since his motivation is understandable. In many ways, Abeshu is a more sympathetic character than Mi-Bel who is just plain awful.

What’s interesting is that Belzar, Star’s one true love for all time, is not particularly fleshed out either. His role in the story is basically generic love interest/hero. Come to think of it, the love interests in the other Dorothy Quick stories I’ve read were mostly generic hero types as well. In fact, it’s fascinating how woman-centric Dorothy Quick’s stories are, for Quick completely reverses the common pattern of pulp era SFF. Instead of having several at least reasonably fleshed out male characters, while the women are generic love interests or equally generic femme fatales/villainesses, Dorothy Quick features more complex female characters and generic men.

Dorothy Quick is the sort of writer who likes to delve into details and describes clothing, buildings, interiors, etc… And her description of ancient Babylon impressed me with how fairly closely it matches what we know of ancient Babylon today, especially considering how bad Unknown was about historical accuracy otherwise. True, Quick is vague in her description of the hanging gardens, but then we still have no idea what they actually looked like in bloom. So I dug a bit into the exploration history of Babylon and found that the archaeological exploration of Babylon began in the early nineteenth century. Of particular note is the German team of archaeologist Robert Koldewey and orientalist Eduard Sachau, who started their excavations in Babylon in 1897 and found among other things what remains of the hanging gardens as well as the spectacular Ishtar Gate with its blue glazed tiles. The reconstructed Ishtar Gate may be seen in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin (and I recommend that everybody who visits Berlin go and see it, because it’s very impressive). The reconstruction was finished in 1930, i.e. ten years before “Transparent Stuff” was published. Again, it is likely that Dorothy Quick was familiar with Koldewey and Sachau’s work and the Ishtar Gate and incorporated this knowledge into her story.

Though this is only the second of three Patchwork Quilt stories, the central gimmick of an enchanted quilt which can make those who sleep under it relive the past is already well established by now, so well that Dorothy Quick introduces a new element in the form of reincarnation and fated soulmates. It’s a great way to maintain interest in the series. After all, the readers wants to know when/if Alice will find her own fated soulmate, the reincarnation of Belzar. This reader at any rate wants to know. Considering that Unknown seems to have been aimed mainly at the same nerdy young men as its sister magazine Astounding, as Steve J. Wright notes here, I’m not so sure about other readers. And it is notable that the Patchwork Quilt series had only three instalments, the last of which appeared in December 1940, even though Unknown would continue until 1943. So did Campbell drive away Dorothy Quick like he drove away so many other talented writers over the years?

I don’t know, but I’m definitely looking forward to reading the last Patchwork Quilt story. Next to Fafhrd and Gray Mouser, this is definitely the best series to come out of Unknown. A pity that it has never been reprinted.

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