“More Than Shadow” is a horror short story by Dorothy Quick, which was first published in the July 1954 issue of Weird Tales. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.
Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.
The protagonist of “More Than Shadow” is Mona, a wife and mother of three. Mona lives in a suburban house with her lawyer husband Hal, the children Carol, Meg and Harry Jr. and the housemaid Ellen.
At first glance, Mona would seem to have a pretty cushy postwar life. However, her 1950s domestic bliss is interrupted by strange occurrences that keep happening in her house. Cause whenever someone spills some kind of liquid – milk, tea, water – the liquid coalesces into a puddle shaped like a cuddly little dog. As hauntings go, this one is certainly creative.
The first two times it happens, Mona dismisses the dog-shaped puddles as a coincidence. By the third time, however, Mona realises that there is something very strange going on in her house.
Just to make sure that she isn’t imagining things, Mona calls over Ellen, the maid, and asks her what she sees in the puddle of spilled water. Ellen confirms that the puddle looks like a dog, but not just any old dog either, but the little dogs on which the leprechauns ride on moonlit nights. For Ellen just happens to be Irish and therefore a fount of Irish folklore.
Intrigued, Mona asks where the leprechauns go on those little dogs. A little spooked, Ellen, who – being Irish – of course believes in leprechauns, replies that no one really knows, but that according to legend the little dogs carry the leprechauns over the mountains to the land of youth.
The legend is familiar to Mona, because it reminds her of a quote about the land of faery from the 1894 play The Land of Heart’s Desire by William Butler Yeats, which is extensively quoted in the story, copyright apparently being no issue in 1954.
I’ve remarked before that for supposedly disposable trash fiction for the masses, the pulps were quite literary at times and are often full of literary references and allusions, many of which are not immediately recognisable to the modern day reader, even if they likely were to a golden age audience.
Unlike other authors of the era, Dorothy Quick does not assume that all readers will be familiar with the play (or have Google at hand to look it up), so she briefly has Mona sum up what the play is about, namely a newlywed bride being enticed by a faery child to come with her to the land of heart’s desire. The bride eventually succumbs and promptly dies in the real world.
Dorothy Quick also offers up a reason why Mona is familiar with the play, since she isn’t simply a fount of random Yeats quotations. For it turns out that Mona’s high school graduation class performed the play and that Mona played the doomed bride. More importantly, the night of the premiere of the play was also the night that Mona’s husband Hal, then still a young college freshman, proposed to her.
Seeing the dog-shaped puddle not only brings back memories of that long ago school play, it also reminds Mona that at the time, she wondered whether getting to live in the land of faery, forever young and carefree, wasn’t worth losing your life and soul for. Now, many years later, Mona feels the longing for the land of faery again, but she quickly dismisses it. After all, she’s happy, isn’t she? She’s got a great husband, three wonderful children, a beautiful home. She’s living the dream.
About a week after the incident with the dog-shaped puddle, a real dog comes into Mona’s life, when her kids find an adorable black poodle just sitting by the garden gate. Naturally, the kids want to keep it. Mona and Hal are quickly won over, though they caution the children that the dog probably already has an owner and just got lost. But until the legitimate owner shows up, the kids may keep it.
However, no previous owner appears and so the family keep the poodle, whom they name Jet, because he was jettisoned. The whole family loved Jet, only Ellen the maid is wary of the dog and insists that there is something strange about him. Being Irish, Ellen is apparently more sensitive towards the supernatural.
Whenever Mona cuddles with Jet, she has visions of Yeats’ land of heart’s desire, visions that are so vivid and realistic that she worries she might be going mad. When she confesses her worries to Hal, her husband admits that being with Jet makes him want to abandon his work and just go fishing all day long. However, Hal, being the rational type, believes that the presence of Jet simply loosens their inhibitions.
One day, while Mona is napping (Mona naps a lot), Jet cuddled up beside her, she hears strange music, as if in a dream. Jet suddenly starts talking and tells her that he can take her to the land of heart’s desire, where no one ever grows old and there’s only happiness, no pain. Jet also suddenly grows to the size of a small pony, big enough to ride upon. Jet tries to entice Mona to climb on his back and come with him to the land of heart’s desire. Mona is sorely tempted, but then she looks into Jet’s eyes and sees an ancient evil there. She also noticed that Jet has very sharp teeth, like fangs. But the temptation is stronger and Mona is just about to climb into Jet’s back and ride away, when her children burst into the bedroom, the otherworldly music stops and Jet shrinks to normal size.
Mona dismisses the whole incident as a nightmare. She tells Jet to play with the children and gets dressed – in a Dior taffeta gown – for a date night with Hal. Mona also realises that she has everything she ever wanted and that she would never give up Hal and her family, not even for eternal life and eternal bliss, even if it took her a nightmare to realise this.
When Mona and Hal return from their night on the town, they’re met by a panicked Ellen who tells them that their youngest daughter Carol and Jet the dog have both vanished. The two older children last saw Carol playing with Jet in a corner of the garden.
Hal wants to call the police, but Ellen – being Irish and therefore superstitious – insists that the police won’t be able to help, because the faeries have taken Carol and Jet was their emissary. After all, it is May Eve a.k.a. Walpurgis Night a.k.a. Beltane, when the little people have power. Ellen also tells Mona and Hal that some neighbours saw a happy and laughing Carol riding on a black poodle the size of a pony.
Hal, being the rational type, dismisses Ellen and her Irish superstitions, but Mona knows better. The nightmare she had was no dream after all. Jet really did grow to the size of a pony and when he couldn’t entice Mona to come away with him, he took her daughter Carol instead.
“Away with the faeries” stories are dime a dozen, but Dorothy Quick manages to put a new spin on that old familiar tale. Indeed, my initial impression of “More Than Shadow” was, “This is atmospheric and well written, but also really predictable.” Because Mona is your stereotypical 1950s suburban housewife who seems to be suffering from what Betty Friedan would eventually term “the problem with no name”. Indeed, Mona’s frequent naps seem to point at depression. And it was clear to me with my twenty-first century expectations of what stories about suburban housewives in the 1950s were like that Mona would go away with the faeries in the end, leaving behind her husband and kids, just like Lucy Jordan from the eponymous song. It was also clear to me that “away with the faeries” was probably intended to be a metaphor for the many real life 1950s suburban housewives who descended into alcoholism and substance abuse.
However, that is not the story that Dorothy Quick wrote. For while Mona is sorely tempted by Jet and his promises of the land of eternal youth and joy, she resists the temptation in the end. And what brings her back from the brink are her three children. Furthermore, the incident with Jet helps Mona to realise that she is happy with her life. She loves her husband and she loves her children and does not want to give them up for vague promises of eternal youth in the land of heart’s desire. And so in the end it is her daughter Carol – who’s only three years old and not able to consent – who is taken away to the land of faerie.
Considering how many portrayals of unhappy suburban housewives in the postwar era there are – from Betty Friedan via Lucy Jordan to Betty Draper – it is refreshing to see a suburban housewife who is not unhappy. For while there were many unhappy marriages and depressed housewives in the 1950s, there also were many women who loved their husbands and children and were happy with their suburban existence, though these women are often forgotten today.
Besides, Mona really does not have any visible reasons to be unhappy. Her husband Hal is no philandering Don Draper nor a permanently absent workaholic in a grey flannel suit nor is he abusive. Indeed, Hal is portrayed as kind and supportive throughout. He does not yell or complain when the kids or Mona spill something on the carpet (and one of the dog-shaped puddles is caused by a cup of tea that Hal spills), he does not dismiss Mona as hysterical, when she confesses her dreams of the land of faerie to him and he’s clearly still in love with his wife after several years of marriage. Okay, so Hal does not believe that the faeries took his daughter, but I don’t think we can blame him for that. Indeed, one thing I’ve noticed in all of the Dorothy Quick stories I’ve read is that Quick always portrays supportive and loving relationships. Even if the central couple dies horribly, as in the two Patchwork Quilt stories I reviewed last year, the relationship is still supportive.
Another thing that sets Dorothy Quick apart from other writers of the pulp era is that her stories always pass the Bechdel Test, something that is extremely rare during the golden age, even in stories by female writers. “More Than Shadow” is no exception and passes due to a scene of Mona talking to Ellen about leprechauns as well as several moments of Mona talking to her daughters.
What also strikes me about Dorothy Quick’s stories are her detailed descriptions of clothes, fabrics and interiors. Again, this is most notable in the Patchwork Quilt stories, where pieces of fabric trigger a kind of mental time travel. But “More Than Shadow” is also rich with description, whether it is Mona’s blue satin bedspread, her Dior taffeta gown with a bell-shaped skirt or the lacy negligee Mona wears in the scene where she is almost tempted to go away with Jet.
A cute little black poodle as an agent of evil and temptation may be unexpected, but there is a precedent. For in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s take on the Doctor Faustus legend, Mephistopheles initially appears to Faust in the guise of a black poodle. Was Dorothy Quick familiar with Goethe’s Faust? I have no idea, but it is not unlikely.
“More Than Shadow” is a neat little spooky story with an unexpected twist. The story appeared in the penultimate issue of the original run of Weird Tales, proving that the quality remained high until the end, even if half of the July 1954 issue of Weird Tales consists of reprints from earlier years of the magazine. Recommended.