Retro Review: “The Gothic Window” by Dorothy Quick

Weird Tales May 1944“The Gothic Window” is a short story by Dorothy Quick, which was first published in the May 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. 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 Gothic Window” starts off, like so many horror stories and murder mysteries, with four couples or prospective couples spending a rainy weekend at a secluded country mansion. Anne, the protagonist and POV character, has arranged the house party to further her romance with Sheridan “Sherry” Crawford and to fix up her friends Bob and Nancy. However, another friend of Anne’s, Claire Rowley, throws a spanner into the works, when she invites herself and her husband Jim along. Anne isn’t happy about this, for not only does Jim cheat at bridge, he’s also a cad and potential abuser and Claire is clearly afraid of her husband. To make matters even more complicated, Nancy is infatuated with Jim, which endangers her budding romance with Bob. And though Jim is married to Claire, he pursues Nancy as well. There is another couple as well, Lou and Gib Silvers, who are not involved in the romantic polygon developing at the country manor and are only there, because bridge requires four players in two pairs, so they need eight people.

During yet another round of bridge, Jim suddenly becomes fascinated by a stained glass gothic window that doesn’t match any of the other windows in the house. He says that the window makes it difficult for him to concentrate, whereupon Anne offers to tell the story behind the window.

Anne explains that she first saw window during the requisite grand tour of Europe with her parents. Anne and her family stayed at a monastery in Spain, where they admired the gothic architecture and the beautiful stained glass windows. All of the windows are regularly opened except for one. And when Anne or her parents ask about that window, the normally so jolly monks fall silent.

One day, when Anne and her mother are walking along the cloister, they notice that the always closed window stands wide open and that a monk is lying on the floor in front of the window. Initially Anne and her mother assume that the monk is just unconscious, but upon closer examination, he turns out to be dead, an expression of unearthly bliss frozen on his face.

Now the monks finally do spill the beans about what is going on. For when the monastery was first built, a man was immured alive in its walls according to medieval custom. The unfortunate fellow had been sentenced to death for sorcery. Soon after he was immured, he started to haunt the monastery and who can blame him? The focus point of the hauntings was the window closest to the spot where he had been immured.

Soon mysterious accidents began to happen near the window. Furthermore, the monks discovered that passing through the window gave them wonderful visions. By now we realise that this particular window appears to be a French window, which also doubles as a door. Never mind that this makes no sense, because there were no French windows during gothic times. Nor can gothic windows be opened – they are fixed.

Because the visions bestowed by the window were so amazing, the monks kept passing through it, until one by one they were found dead, an expression of unearthly bliss frozen onto their faces.

The abbot did everything he could to keep the monks from using the window, but the monks kept findings ways around his measures and they kept dying. So in the end, the abbot walked through the window himself and promptly died, only that the expression on his face was not one of bliss, but of unbelievable horror.

You’re think that this story, plus the physical evidence in the form of a dead monk lying on the ground in front of the window, would be enough to warn anybody with any shred of sense to keep the hell away from the haunted window. However, Anne’s mother apparently does not possess a shred of sense and so she offers to buy the window from the monks who are only too glad to be rid of it. They also kindly offer to exorcise the window, before it is shipped to its new home.

Once the window has been installed in the house, strange accidents start to happen there as well. Anne sprains her ankle, her mother breaks her arm and her father breaks his leg, all after passing through the window. So Anne’s family locks the window, but they stupidly leave the key in the lock and so it eventually kills a friend of the family. A sudden heart attack, the doctor says, but Anne and her family know better and finally keep the bloody window locked, though they still don’t have enough sense to just tear it out.

After Anne has told her story, everybody gradually retires to their rooms, while the romantic drama continues. Claire confesses to Anne that Jim abuses her, that she knows he is stalking Nancy and that she is afraid of her husband, but that she cannot leave him, because Jim knows certain dark secrets about her. Nancy chances to overhear all this and confesses that she is terrified of Jim, too, but also feels inexorably drawn to him and there is absolutely nothing she can do about it.

Once Nancy and Claire have finally gone to bed, Sheridan finally proposes to Anne and they discuss their future life together until the wee hours. When they finally retire – to separate rooms, of course – they once more pass the haunted window and Anne realises that the key is still in the lock.

“But I thought you said that your father kept it in his desk,” Sheridan points out, whereupon Anne confesses that she made the whole story up to interrupt the bridge game and keep Jim away from Nancy. Anne’s mother really did buy the window in Spain, that much is true, but everything else was pure fiction.

Sheridan praises Anne’s imagination, but he also worries about the psychological effects of Anne’s tale. After all, what if one of the guests accidentally hurts themselves near the window? So Anne promises that she will clear up the whole ruse in the morning. But it never comes to that, for the next morning they find Jim Rowley dead in front of the open window, his face a mix of horror and bliss.

“The Gothic Window” is yet another example of the tale within a tale, usually told in appropriately spooky surroundings, that was very common in Weird Tales. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” by Stanton A. Coblentz from the same year is another example of the type.

Nonetheless, “The Gothic Window” isn’t a typical Weird Tales horror story. In many ways, it is reminiscent of the gothic romance genre that was only just beginning to take off with the great success of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca six year prior. All the elements of the gothic romance are here. We have the secluded country house, we have the Byronic hero who may or may not want to harm the heroine, we have the innocent ingenue he is pursuing, we have the good guy love interest and we have a malicious ghost, seeking revenge for an evil done to him centuries ago.

The romantic entanglements at the house are quite complicated and it took me some effort to remember who was in love with whom, who was married to whom and who was cheating on whom. The fact that all the characters have bland, if period appropriate names like Anne, Nancy, Claire, Bob and Jim doesn’t help either. There also are more characters in the story than are necessary. Okay, so the number of bridge players must be dividable by four, but isn’t there anything else they could have done over the weekend rather than play bridge?

That said, even if “The Gothic Window” has more characters than are strictly necessary, it is also the story with the highest number of named female characters, four in all, I have reviewed so far. Furthermore, “The Gothic Window” is also one of only two stories I have reviewed for the Retro Reviews project so far which passes the Bechdel test, the other being Ray Bradbury’s “Undersea Guardians”. Finally, “The Gothic Window” is also one of only two stories with a female POV character, the other being once again “Undersea Guardians”.

As soon as Anne tells the story about the murderous haunted window, it’s pretty obvious that someone will succumb to its spell and that that someone will be Jim, the villain of the piece. Nonetheless, Dorothy Quick did manage to surprise me, when Anne confessed that the entire story of the haunted window was fake. Coincidentally, this also explains why neither the monks nor Anne and her family ever did the sensible thing and just tore out the window and/or smashed it.

Anne’s revelation also casts some doubt on whether “The Gothic Window” really is SFF. After all, there is no malicious ghost of an executed sorcerer haunting the window – Anne just made the whole story up. As for what killed Jim, that was most likely the power of psychological suggestion rather than a vengeful ghost.

There is some historical evidence that humans were immured as a method of execution throughout history and occasionally, the remains of immured humans have been found. There are also plenty of legends about people – often young women or children – being immured in the walls of new buildings as a sacrifice found all over Europe. On the Balkan, there is a legend about a young bride being immured. And in Theodor Storm’s famous novella Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse, 1888), protagonist Hauke Haien not only has some unacceptably modern ideas about flood protection and the proper way to build dykes, he also refuses to immure a living being (a dog in this case, because there is no child handy) into the new dyke. As a result, the superstitious locals believe the dyke to be cursed and when it breaks during a particularly vicious winter storm, Hauke’s wife and daughter drown and Hauke sacrifices himself to save the village. Come to think of it, The Rider on the White Horse would not have felt out of place in an issue of Weird Tales.

There is no concrete evidence that human beings were ever immured as sacrifices during the Middle Ages or in modern times in Europe, but there is plenty of evidence of animals being immured or buried inside old buildings and yes, dykes. In the 1960s, my parents and some of their friends restored a 17th century farmhouse as a weekend getaway. During the restoration work, they found the remains of an animal, probably a cat or dog, buried under the threshold. A historian carted the remains away and told them it was a building sacrifice and an important find.

I have no idea if Dorothy Quick has ever read The Rider on the White Horse, though it’s not impossible, since the novella was first translated into English in 1914. And she was certainly familiar with the various legends about people immured as sacrifices. Though the choice of Spain as the origin of the haunted window is a bit strange, since Spain is one of the places in Europe, which does not have such legends.

Weird Tales, March 1937Dorothy Quick is another woman SFF author who was clearly popular in her time, but is nearly forgotten these days. She published a science fiction novel entitled Strange Awakening in 1938, though she mainly seems to have specialised in horror fiction. She published twenty-three stories and twenty-seven poems between 1932 and 1954, mostly in Weird Tales, but also in Unknown, Oriental Stories, Strange Stories and Fantastic Adventures. Dorothy Quick was clearly popular and even contributed the cover story to the March 1937 issue of Weird Tales, illustrated by one of Margaret Brundage’s striking covers.

However, Dorothy Quick rapidly fell into obscurity. As with her fellow Weird Tales contributor Allison V. Harding, very little of her work has ever been reprinted. Nowadays, she is remembered not so much for her writing but for striking up a friendship with Samuel Clements a.k.a. Mark Twain in 1907, when Quick was eleven and Twain was seventy-two and both were passengers aboard the SS Minnetonka. Dorothy Quick frequently talked about her youthful friendship with Mark Twain, who encouraged her to write, and even penned a memoir entitled Mark Twain and Me.

The only place where I found some biographical information about Dorothy Quick was Sisters of Tomorrow – The First Women of Science Fiction, edited by Lisa Yaszek and Patrick B. Sharp, which reprints Dorothy Quick’s 1937 story “Strange Orchids”. In their introduction to the story, Yaszek and Sharp note that Dorothy Quick was strongly influenced by domestic fiction and the gothic romance and that her stories frequently have female POV characters at a time when this was exceedingly rare in SFF. These observations certainly fit “The Gothic Window”.

Mark Twain and Dorothy Quick in 1907

Mark Twain and Dorothy Quick in 1907

“The Gothic Window” is well written and Dorothy Quick was clearly a talented writer, but then she did impress the great Mark Twain himself as a precocious girl of eleven. The question is why has she been almost completely forgotten in spite of a twenty-two year career of writing SFF. Is it because her brand of domestic gothics fell out of fashion? But then, Dorothy Quick’s work wasn’t even reprinted when the domestic gothic romance was at the height of its popularity in the 1960s. Is it because Weird Tales is mainly associated with Lovecraftian horror and sword and sorcery these days, even though the magazine’s bread and butter were far more traditional tales of gothic horror as well as proto urban fantasy?

Nonetheless, it is notable that even though Weird Tales was clearly a good market for women (the May 1944 issue alone contains stories by three women writers and both the cover artist and the editor were female as well), the male authors who penned more traditional horror stories for the magazine, writers like Seabury Quinn, Robert Bloch and Manly Wade Wellman, are still much better remembered than their female counterparts like Dorothy Quick, Allison V. Harding, Greye La Spina, Alice-Mary Schnirring or Mary Elizabeth Counselman, who penned “The Three Marked Pennies”, one of the most popular stories in Weird Tales history and kept writing and publishing horror right up to her death in 1995.

An effective gothic horror story by an unjustly forgotten woman writer of the golden age. Well worth checking out.

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