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The Shadow People (1969)

Margaret St. Clair’s The Shadow People (1969) is one of those refreshingly odd books that came out in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that defies genre – there is a little bit of dystopia, horror and fantasy here, all rolled up in one distressing package.

The protagonist, Dick, is not a hippie despite his “luxuriant mustache” and a job at a hip Berkeley newspaper. He breaks up with Carol, his totally not-a-hippie girlfriend, then checks in on her a few days later in her basement apartment (where she sleeps in a sleeping bag rather than a bed) to find signs that she has been kidnapped. Dick searches for her to no avail until the cleaning lady at the hotel he lives in, Fay, explains that people from underground took Carol, probably to eat her. Fay instructs Dick on how to follow a foul wafting smell through a series of interconnected basements into the Underworld so he can continue his search. Along the way, he finds a magic sword. Just hanging there in a cave. It is that kind of book.

All of this is presented matter-of-factly, which heightens the books dreamlike feeling. Dick eventually reaches a vast underground world populated by “elves” made slaves to a hallucinogenic drug by a malignant dwarf. It is a world of cannibalistic violence, and Dick’s long sojourn there is engrossing and strange descent into an altered state of savagery. It is a dizzying book for all its straightforwardness and crisp, to-the-point prose, and there is a hell of a twist, too.

It is a shame it is not very well known today. If The Shadow People has a legacy today, it is thanks to D&D. Gygax cited it in Appendix N and it’s treatment of underground exploration (and a race of subterranean elves) exerted a massive amount of influence over what would become the Underdark and the drow.  

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