|Art by Jeff Jones|
The Shadow People was published fifty years ago and it does not seem to have been reprinted in English; although an electronic version was made available a couple of years ago. Why should I care about this book? Well, I heard that it involved elves and the CIA. Anything like that needs to be part of my life. (Unfortunately, even though the CIA is mentioned in story, its actual presence is speculative.) Perhaps more importantly, why should you care about this book? The Shadow People is one of two Margaret St. Clair books listed in Appendix N.
First, let's talk about the cover. The illustration is a worthy painting by Jeff Jones, but it's not something created specifically for the book. The protagonist does use a sword; however, in the book's sixth paragraph, we learn that he has a “luxuriant moustache.” As Schlock Value is wont to point out, the cover text is equivocal. The front cover proclaims, “They came from Underearth to take over the world.” The back cover exclaims, “The invasion of the hallucinogenic people from Underearth!” Also on the back cover:
They had existed from time immemorial, hidden in a space warp far beneath the surface of the earth. Until now, their only form of nourishment had been a strange hallucinogenic grain. Now they hungered for human flesh. The earth was to be their stockyards and mankind their meat. . .Rather than Tolkien elves, the elves in this book are more like the elves of folklore. They are creepy bastards that reside in Underearth (also called Otherworld). At times, they venture into the world of men to steal items or people – hardly an invasion. They consume a grain, atter-corn, which is hallucinogenic (and addictive). The grain is hallucinogenic, not the people. Also, atter-corn is not “their only form of nourishment.” Aside from what foodstuffs they steal, they occasionally eat human flesh and have done so for ages. The elves couldn't form an invasion force if they wanted to, because when they scent their own blood (which has a “faint blue phosphorescence”), they start attacking one another. So, there is no invasion, no taking over the world, and the earth is not to be their stockyards. Then there's the “space warp far beneath the earth.” There's no indication of a “space warp.” It is possible that Otherworld may occupy a space distinct from physical reality, but it is usually described as something contiguous with our surface. “Otherworld is big,” one character describes, “bigger than any of us on the surface realize, and it has many entrances. . . [and] runs in a belt around and under our world.” The upper world is called the Bright World, the Clear World, and even Middle-Earth.
I suppose selling the story as an invasion with the future of humanity at stake is necessary marketing. The actual story transpires on a much smaller scale. In essence, the protagonist ventures into Underearth in order to rescue his girlfriend. Acknowledging the basis of this plot, St. Clair has one of the characters refer to the protagonist as “The new Orpheus.” More broadly, the story is a quintessential hero's journey.
There are several types of elves: white, black, gray, and green. We are not educated as to the distinctions among them but “Green is the worst.” One of the antagonists – Carl Hood – is a green elf who passes as human. Elves and humans can interbreed, so he doubtless has some amount of human heritage.
The story begins in late 60s Berkeley and the hero, a journalist named Dick Aldridge, realizes that his girlfriend, Carol, is missing. After spending the initial chapter trying to find her, he takes the advice of a woman named Fay and ventures into Underearth via the basement of the hotel where he resides. Given her name, it will come as no surprise that her elf associations are eventually revealed. Fay advises him to follow a “cold-odor-moisture gradient” which acts as a path to Otherworld. Although the path is usually through “a chain of basements and cellars,” it sometimes surfaces. He comes across one of Carol's earrings; this removes any doubt that Carol has indeed been kidnapped by elves. Eventually, he finds a sword which turns out to be magical. I found it suspicious that the hero would have such an easy time seeing in darkness and sensing the gradient, but happening upon a magic sword seemed downright contrived. Yet it all has a good explanation. After the Aldridge retrieves Carol and as they approach the water barrier that separates “the Bright World from Underearth,” Carl Hood re-appears.
Hood explains that Aldridge is “of elf descent,” but Aldridge doesn't believe him. (“Your name – 'Aldridge' was originally 'eldrich,' or elfish – ”) Fay warned Aldridge not to eat Otherworld food, but Hood causes Aldridge to ingest some atter-corn through a clever tick. As a result, Aldridge is trapped in Underearth. Hood also explains that he is the owner of the magic sword and he left it for Aldridge to find. Since Aldridge can't return, he asks Hood to escort Carol back to the Bright World. Carol doesn't like Hood, but she falls under his power. This was all a convoluted plan by Hood to get Carol for himself.
Aldridge has various adventures in Underearth and even encounters two elves “copulating dog style.” Through a fortuitous accident, Aldridge overcomes the effects of the atter-corn and he returns to the Bright World. Although it seems to him that he spent only a few weeks in Underearth, nearly three years have passed in the Bright World. St. Clair's projection of the future was clearly colored by the times in which the book was written. America has become a police state where everyone is required to wear an “identity disk.” Fay hides Aldridge in her apartment and manages to obtain an identity disk for Aldridge. She conveniently works in a data center where she can “forge a record.” His new identity is Richard Eldridge. Eventually, Aldridge rescues Carol from Hood.
The Bright World is also called Middle-Earth because there is an over-world beyond human ken. In the climax, we are treated to this description of this Macrocosmos:
The walls of the room seemed to shake like a curtain made of painted cloth. Reality – the reality of our world – was being twitched aside. In that moment I felt – I knew – that everything in our universe – galaxies, viruses, time, matter, energy, space, everything – was nothing but a flimsy cover for the horrors and splendors of a vaster cosmos than ours. And these horrors and splendors were funneling down indescribably on the spot in which I stood.One of the problems with The Shadow People is that it continues too long after the climax. The story could have ended with chapter 16, but let's allow a chapter or two to wrap up the loose ends. Chapter 18 presents appropriate closure but the book continues for three more chapters. Perhaps the publisher demanded St. Clair bolster the page count. A new character, Howard, is introduced on page 155. Aldridge and Carol believe that Howard works for a “shadowy power.” Likely possibilities include “[the] Mafia, CIA, [and the] internal-security agency.” Howard obtained from Hood a small sample of atter-corn. Howard's employers examined the sample and they want more; in fact, they want to cultivate it. Hood is no longer around and Howard thinks Aldridge has information about the grain. Howard addresses our hero as Aldridge, even though his name has been Eldridge since his return from Underearth. This might be an indicator that Howard is aware of Aldridge's history but, since it's never followed up, it could just as easily be sloppy writing.
In the last chapter, Aldridge and Carol obtain a magic item – the Glain:
It was a dull, translucent pebble, like unpolished moonstone, about an inch and three-quarters in length. One side was perfectly plain, the other bore a series of three concentric bosses. There was no other marking. The pebble had an air of great antiquity, of something that had been formed when tools were few and rude.When activated:
There was no sense of limit or confinement in it; we stood within a deliciously glowing sphere, radiant as moonlight. It was no color, all colors, the moon melted up and diffused into a glorious rainbow of colors. They are different from the colors of the sun.Regarding the effect of the item:
Carol didn't seem to be standing within anything. There was no light around her, nothing. She was just standing quietly in the thickening darkness. But when I put out my hand toward her, I failed to touch her. My hand didn't connect with her. It was like an error of refraction. She wasn't at the spot where she seemed to be.