Who Goes There?
Dorothy Quick is a name I recognize but prior to today’s story have not read anything by; specifically I know her as a contributor to Unknown, wherein her most prominent work would be a series of short stories called the Patchwork Quilt series, which sadly only has three entries and which Quick apparently abandoned by the time Unknown died. We don’t know a lot about Quick: we know she started writing SFF in the early days of genre pulp and that she basically stopped once the first incarnation of Weird Tales went under. She seems to be one of those authors whose genre output positively correlates with the state of magazine fantasy, in that once Unknown closed that was a market gone for her, and Weird Tales later closing must’ve been the last straw. She did, however, continue to write fiction in mainstream outlets. Anyway, I feel bad because I don’t have much to say about today’s story and I can’t say reading it filled me with confidence about covering Quick in the future, though I do wanna get to those Patchwork Quilt stories.
First published in the March 1937 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. Judging Margaret Brundage covers, on a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being chaste and 10 being “Is this pornographic?,” I would give this one a 2 or a 3; it’s pretty tame. I didn’t even notice the naked girl with the orchid on her body at first. Anyway, sad reality with most pulp-era lady authors is that their stuff doesn’t get reprinted often, and “Strange Orchids” is no exception. As far as I can tell there’s only one reprint, that being Sisters of Tomorrow: The First Women of Science Fiction (ed. Patrick B. Sharp and Lisa Yaszek), which thankfully looks to be in print in hardcover and paperback. But yep, looks like those are all your options.
We start with Louise, the narrator/protagonist, telling us that everything basically turned out fine in the end: oh sure, her hair is white now from getting spooked so hard, but she came out of whatever ordeal it was fine and she even ended up with this guy she really likes. This might be the fastest way possible to defuse tension, and I don’t know why Quick informs us of the bittersweet ending so far in advance. Within just a few sentences we get one of my biggest issues with this story, which is that Louise is not in any real danger; at most she has a tough time for a bit, we already know she gets better, and thus this is a hard story to spoil.
Whilst at a friend’s party, Louise meets the other two corners of what amounts to a love triangle: Rex, who is obviously a Good Guy™ and the aforementioned handsome fella Louise gets together with; and Angus, who is so obviously the villain that it’s actually not funny. (Never trust a guy named Angus.) Just how obvious is Angus’s villainy? Well, there have been several girls who’ve gone missing as of late, under similar circumstances, and Angus over here is acting incredibly suspicious—to the point where, if not for the plot that unfolds, Angus would probably be the first white man in history to get arrested simply for acting like someone who ought to be arrested. That Angus acts creepy towards Louise, simultaneously insulting her and trying to seduce her, should already make him a suspect.
To make things slightly more complicated, Rex is a G-man who’s part of a task force looking for these missing girls; already this story strains my suspension of disbelief by depicting a federal agent as a good guy who will not do anything morally dubious. I’m getting ahead of myself, as you may guess, but there’s really not much of intrigue here. I will, however, list off a couple things—really little more than references themselves—that I found at least memorable, if not very substantive.
The first is that there are several references to homosexuality sprinkled in the text that ultimately don’t amount to anything, but which are still work mentioning considering this is the ’30s and it was uncouth to mention homosexuality in pulp fiction. Right away, during the party in the opening stretch, we have a reference to “female impersonators,” whom we’re to take as transvestites (probably the word that would’ve been used at the time, or something even less flattering). Any queer man who’s lived in the past century will be at least a little familiar with the term “female impersonator,” which seems to cover anyone from drag queens or just gay men who dress in feminine-leaning attire. Again, not flattering, but Quick even mentioning this at all is above what we’d normally expect from ’30s pulp fiction.
The other thing is the coded homosexuality of Angus, who despite seeking to own Louise (as a wife but also maybe as something else), comes off as a bitchy and effeminate gay man, even being called “Oscar Wildish” at one point. He dresses well and Louise can’t help but notice the soft whiteness of his hands, “the hands of an artist or a dreamer,” which indicate that a) he’s not used to doing menial labor, and b) he pays more attention to grooming himself more than the average man. He’s also obsessed with flowers, especially orchids (I wonder why), with flowers typically being taken as symbolically feminine. There’s another reason why Angus’s heterosexuality is rather hard to take at face value, but I’ll get to that (briefly) in the spoilers section; it’s not like I can talk about much else.
Finally, we get a reference to contemporary cinema here, which does not happen often in genre fiction from any era, let alone one where sound film was still a recent phenomenon. There’s a movie starring Lionel Barrymore (yes, related to Drew Barrymore) wherein a mad scientist “reduced people to dolls” and made them do his bidding. I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be The Devil-Doll, but it goes unnamed in the story—point being it’s almost certainly a real movie. Now isn’t that fun?
Easy to forget I’m a movie buff, but whatever.
There Be Spoilers Here
Okay, I do wanna talk about the ending a bit, if only because it kinda pisses me off; not because the ending on its own is bad, but because it wastes the last chance this story had to become really interesting.
Louise and Rex hatch a plan to nab Angus, since Rex already suspects Angus (as would anyone with more than two brain cells) but lacks hard evidence with which to book him. The plan goes amiss since for some reason Angus is telepathic and can read Louise’s intentions, thus kidnapping her and having a rather protracted James Bond villain moment wherein he explains (at length) what he plans to do: namely he wants to turn Louise into another slave, hypnotized via a special kind of orchid Angus has been breeding, to go along with the other girls he has kidnapped.
But all is well! Well Rex and the other feds are unable to save the other girls, who by this point have become humanoid abominations with orchids sprouting out of their chests, they’re able to save Louise in the nick of time. They uhh, gas Angus’s mansion? I wonder how that would read to a post-World War II audience. Anyway, my main problem here is that Louise is never in real danger, in that she does basically nothing in order to save the day since Rex is at her beck and call and the feds managed to break in without her input. Despite being the narrator, and you’d think the protagonist, Louise is ultimately little more than a damsel in need of rescuing, and I have to say I expected better.
A Step Farther Out
In covering exclusively Weird Tales stories this month I’ve run the spectrum of genres that saw print in that magazine, but also a spectrum of how I feel about these stories, from the sublime (“The Black God’s Kiss”) to the putrid (“The Dreams in the Witch-House”) and everything in between, and “Strange Orchids” is certainly in that nebulous “in between” spot. This is about as middle of the road as you can get for me, in that I don’t dislike it exactly but I also don’t have anything strongly positive to say about it. If this story has committed a crime it’s the crime of being totally predictable, to the point where I was anticipating some kind of twist or catch to what seemed to me like a strictly formula affair, only to find out that no, this is not really a creative story but something that would’ve struck readers even at the time as nothing to write home about. I almost prefer something memorably bad like “The Dreams in the Witch-House” over a story so forgettable.
See you next time.