Sunday, November 17, 2019

Book Review: The Shadow People (spoilers)

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.

Sunday, November 3, 2019


Art by Stephen Sullivan
Over the course of a page, the Timetricks supplement describes a theoretical concept called a Time Storm (two words):
A Time Storm is a series of completely random, unpredictable changes that could affect any number of Parallels, even intermixing people, things, and events among the Parallels.  To get some idea of what a Time Storm would be like, imagine a box of dry spaghetti.  Take the dry strands of spaghetti out of the box and lay them out, one next to the other, on the surface of a table.  You have a rough model of the Continuum now:  each strand of spaghetti is like a Parallel.   Now, imagine that you’ve cooked all those strands of spaghetti and dumped them in a heap on a plate.  That’s roughly what the Continuum would look like after a Time Storm.  And, just to make matters interesting, it is possible (at least in theory) that a Time Storm would never end; the tangling and mixing of people, things, and events from all Parallels could go on forever.
In 1986 – the year after the publication of Timetricks – Pacesetter released Timestorm™ (now one word).  At 96 pages, “Timestorm™ is a short campaign of six adventures, each one playable in an evening or two.”  The back cover admonishes, “These adventures are so tumultuous, so wild, and so deadly that we recommend you don't use regular Time Corps agents.”  Included with Timestorm™ are “eight ready-to-play heroes from the Corps' infamous 'Last Resort Division'. . .”  Timetricks describes this division:
          The Interparallel Tactical Command for Temporal Realignment is the most exclusive, elite force in the Time Corps.  This division consists of 500 hand-picked agents recruited from throughout the Continuum.  Included in the division are the duplicates of some of the greatest heros [sic] from both history and literature in over 100 Parallels. . .
          This division is reserved exclusively for two types of missions:  those that other agents have already tried and failed to accomplish, and those considered so dangerous, difficult, or both, that no other group of agents would have any chance for success.
With regard to the player characters provided in Timestorm™, we learn that “each one is a 'duplicate' of a hero or heroine from Earth's history.”  'Duplicate' in this sense means an analogue from a Parallel where the person had negligible influence on the timeline.  These characters are preferred for the Timestorm™ campaign in that each “has a special ability that PCs from the Earth Specialty Division do not have.”  Although eight characters are provided, “The optimum number of PCs is six.”  Half of the characters are male and the other half, female.  Here are synopses of the eight characters:

Presuming a lack of name recognition on the part of the consumer, the back cover informs us that she is “a Celtic warrior queen.”  In addition to Paranomal Memory (which all of the characters have), Boudicca has the Ignore Pain talent.  Her special ability is an “ancient Celtic battle cry,” which causes a single opponent to be terrorized if the opponent fails a Willpower check.  This ability can be used “against a given foe only once per encounter.”  Other than skills a Celtic warrior queen might be expected to have, Boudicca has the following skills at Master level:  Time Corps Stunner, Pilot, and Investigation.  (All of the characters have Time Corps Stunner and Pilot at Master level.)

Sgt. Striker, U.S.M.C.
About Striker, we are informed by the first sentence of his description:  “a gung-ho sergeant from the U.S. Marine Corps in World War I, is an almost unstoppable human fighting machine.”  Actually, there are suggestions that Striker is a veteran of WW2 rather than WW1; he was born in 1905 and his Historical Specialty is “United States and Japan, 1805 - 1945.”  His additional talents are:  Ignore Pain, Paranormal Talent Detection, Parallel Identification, and Temporal Tracking.  When Striker suffers an injury in combat, he takes only half damage with a successful Luck check.  (His Luck score is 56.)

Amelia Earhart
Timestorm™ describes her as:  “One of the greatest pilots of all time.”  Actually, Earhart was not a great pilot; she was a capable pilot with a knack for self-promotion.  If I were choosing a team of adventures and the fate of the Continuum was on the line, I would be reluctant to select someone whose career ended as hers did.  Fortunately, there are alternate, contemporaneous aviatrices; to name merely three:  Ruth Nichols, Elinor Smith, and Pancho Barnes.  Earhart's special ability regards aerial combat:  “she can choose which side has initiative in a given round” and she has a +20 attack modifier.

Robin Hood
“Since he is one of the greatest longbowmen of all time,” Robin can “fire two arrows at the same time” and he can “ignore completely the reload time required of other characters.”  His Longbow skill is 131, one less than his skill with Polearms or Swords.  (His Time Corps Stunner skill is 133.)  His Agility score is 80, which is the normal maximum, and his Dexterity is 78.  I can't find fault with Robin Hood, but I might be more inclined to select an archer with experience on a cosmic level; someone like Shen Yi.  If I had a concern with female representation in the party, I would consider Annie Oakley.

We learn, “Egalitarian values seem unnatural to her, and even as an agent of the Corps, Cleopatra longs for days when she held power on an almost world-wide scale.”  For a more 'egalitarian' heroine, I would select Mata Hari or either of the Claflin sisters.  Anyway, Cleopatra's special ability allows her “to gain the special attention and favor of individual human males.”  Her Personality score is 80 and she receives +20 modifier when making a Personality check.  An “NPC male falls in love with Cleopatra” on a “C” result.  Her paranormal talents include:  Telepathic Probe, Significance Sensing, Adaptation, Telepathic Sending, and (somehow) Demorean Telepathy.

This version of Merlin has adapted to technology since his recruitment by the Time Corps.  His skills include:  Computers, Demolitions, and Advanced Temporal Engineering.  Given that the Timestorm™ Introduction states that Advanced Temporal Engineering is necessary for the campaign, it would seem that Merlin is a requisite member of the party.  His special ability equates to three magic spells:  Dragon's Breath (projection of fog that Merlin and his companions can see through), Enchant Weapon (a melee weapon gains a +20 modifier), and Change Appearance (“This spell changes the appearance of one person or creature. . . [which] can be made to appear up to 50% larger or smaller than actual size.”)

Agatha Marple
Agatha Marple is a fictional personality “once removed.”  She arose from a spoof of the mystery novels written by Agatha Christie . . . who created the character Miss Jane Marple.  Unknown to Christie, Agatha Marple became part of historical reality on Parallel M-14. . .
Seriously?  Miss Marple?  The very Continuum is threatened and Miss Marple is on the 'Last Resort' team?  If Reality is about to be destroyed, I want a detective who can bust heads and take a punch; someone like Mike Hammer.

The description for this character begins, “Hercules originated on Parallel M-7, a Parallel where T-0's Greek mythology is a part of historical reality.”  Of course, Hercules isn't part of Greek mythology; he's part of Roman mythology.  Just go with Roman mythology if you want to use Hercules; otherwise, use his Greek name – Heracles.  Anyway, “Hercules” has a Strength of 100 and a Stamina of 120.  The normal maximum for both of these abilities is 80.  Whether Hercules or Heracles, I would rather not leave the fate of the universe in the hands of someone who flipped out and killed his family.  Why not give other strongmen a chance?  Milo of Croton, for instance.