It’s been a while since I remembered any elements of a Norton novel in this reread, but Dread Companion definitely rang some bells. I remembered the names of the children, Oomark and Bartare, and the weird landscape of geometrical shapes in which the protagonist finds herself. I also recognized the scary hairy beast-man when he appeared, though I didn’t recall much of who he was or how he got there.
What I had forgotten, or maybe just didn’t notice, was how dark and ultimately heartless the book is.
On the surface it’s another entry in the Free Trader/Forerunner universe, with a crèche orphan named Kilda taking a job as a governess (though that word is never used) for a pair of children with an invalid mother, all of whom are moving to a planet named Dylan. Their father has gone ahead to settle into his own new job and get a house ready for his family.
Kilda’s options by this stage in her life are severely limited. She’s been working with a scholar-librarian, but there’s no job for her there; he asks her to record what happens to her and send tapes back, but that’s as far as he goes. She gets the job essentially by default—there haven’t been any other suitable applicants.
The family is dysfunctional to say the least. The mother is fretful, flighty, and weak. Son Oomark is fairly normal, with friends and a life outside the household. Daughter Bartare not only looks weird with her Frida-style unibrow but is strange, fey, and extremely hard for Kilda to either like or relate to.
When they arrive on Dylan, they discover that the father has been killed in an accident. The family will be sent back where it came from, but the next ship out won’t be coming for quite some time. In the meantime the planetary authorities allow the widow to settle in the house her husband set up for her, and Oomark enrolls in school, but Bartare has to be tutored at home.
There’s something going on with Bartare, and Kilda overhears enough to understand that the child has some sort of imaginary friend whom both kids call She. This comes to a head when Oomark goes on a class trip into the countryside, and Bartare demands to go, too. Kilda tries to refuse but is overruled, though she does tell herself that she can keep Bartare separate from the rest of the kids and keep a close eye on her.
Once they’re all away from the port city, Bartare pressures Oomark to leave the group and follow her into the wilderness. They try to elude Kilda, but Kilda is vigilant and manages to pursue them.
Bartare knows where she’s going and how to get there. Oomark is not particularly willing but has always been under his sister’s spell, and Kilda has a responsibility to both children. She isn’t able to stop them but she does her best to stay with them and, after Bartare opens a portal into another world, to protect them.
The world Bartare has taken them to is impossibly, almost inconceivably alien. Kilda sees it as a landscape of mist and alien geometry, but Oomark tells her it’s a normal and comprehensible world of trees, grass, and fruit which he eagerly eats but Kilda instinctively recoils from. She has a few rations in her day pack, and tries to stick to those, though the children refuse to touch them.
But Kilda has lacked the foresight to also bring water, and when she drinks from what Oomark tells her is a stream, she starts to see the world the way he does. She also starts to change into a kind of tree woman, with green hair and roots for toes, even while Oomark gradually changes into a small grey faun creature with ivory horns.
It’s a long, twisting, dangerous road, with dangers not only from roving monsters but also from the land itself. Anyone who eats the native food inevitably changes. One such creature follows Kilda and the children, but not to kill them. He begs her to share her food. At first she runs from him, but gradually she realizes that he doesn’t mean her harm; in fact he tries to help.
In time Kilda learns that this country is ruled by a female creature of great power whose title is Melusa (which I kept reading as Medusa), and that Bartare is a changeling whom Melusa has raised and groomed for mysterious and nefarious purposes. Oomark is collateral damage, as is Kilda.
The hairy black monster meanwhile is a First-In Scout named Jorth Kosgro. Once he starts eating human food, he starts to return to a more human self. He’s able to advise Kilda and help her rescue Oomark from a band of fauns—all, like him, transformed humans—and then force Bartare to open a portal back to Dylan.
But Bartare claims she doesn’t know how to work the portal, which leaves them at an impasse—until Kosgro conjures up Melusa and demands that she send them all home. Melusa refuses, until Kosgro compels her to realize that Bartare isn’t really “at heart” one of the Folk. She can’t pass Melusa’s protective barrier, which means she’s still inherently human. Bartare is crushed, but Melusa rejects her and sends them all through the portal.
To a world Kilda recognizes, but it’s inexplicably changed. The park is gone. So are the people. In the few days since she left it, the planet seems to have been abandoned.
And there is Kosgro, who should not be here at all. He’s a young man in the rags of a Scout uniform, and he says this is the unknown world he found over a hundred years before Kilda came to Dylan.
In a rapid few paragraphs, Kosgro’s survival skills get Kilda and the children to the port, where they find a handful of people and a dreadful revelation: Over sixty years have passed since the field trip. An interstellar war has come and gone, and only a few people remain on Dylan. Everyone else has evacuated. No ship will come to the rescue. This is it, it’s all there is.
Kosgro locked up his ship when he left it. Oomark knows about it. He saw it in a museum—a mystery ship found in the wilderness, inaccessible to anyone but the person who locked it.
It’s still there. Its drive core is exhausted, but there are others in the port, in ships that can’t otherwise be flown offworld.
While he works to get his ship back up and running, Kilda and the children are accepted into the community. Oomark settles in quickly, finds friends and makes a life. Bartare is much slower, but with time she forgets her fey past and becomes a normal child.
It’s Kilda who can’t seem to fit in. She has multiple suitors pressing her to settle down and start producing a new generation of colonists. But Kilda doesn’t like any of them. Nor does she want to live out her life as a wife and mother. She wants more.
In the end she gets it. Kosgro gets the ship repaired and asks her to go away with him. Others of the colonists want to go, too, but the couple leaves them behind, blasting off together into the night.
That is such a heartless, selfish thing to do. It’s exactly what Bartare tried to do in the world of the Folk, but Kilda was bound and determined to drag her back to her human origins. She didn’t even manage to be enough of a changeling to stay where her heart most wanted her to be. As nasty and unlikable as she is, her fate is heartbreaking. She wanted to be so much more, and she ended up becoming so much less. She wants exactly the same thing Kilda does, and Kilda deliberately and relentlessly forces her to become the thing Kilda least wants to be.
For Oomark it’s not so bad. He’s a normal kid. Once he’s back with humans, he’s as happily ordinary as he ever was. Most of Kilda’s energies throughout the book are spent trying to keep him human. Bartare is less of a priority, though Kilda feels responsible for her. She’s evil and fey and wicked and selfish.
But then, at the end, so is Kilda, and not just to Bartare. One colonist in particular desperately wants to get offworld, and she ditches him without a qualm. There’s an excuse, of course. They don’t know where they’re going or what they’ll find. It could be dangerous, even fatal.
This is the ultimate sin in the spacer’s code, explicitly so. You don’t abandon a fellow human, even if he’s your worst enemy. You take him with you. You do your best to save him.
I had quite a few thoughts as I read this novel. It seems to be the point at which Norton openly acknowledged the limitations of this particular fictional universe. Here is where she spells out why Free Traders are so relentlessly patriarchal: They have so few women that they can’t spare any of them from breeding. She also recognizes how miserable a universe it is for women in general, with no options open to them but marriage or a handful of menial forms of employment. Kilda sees her future on Dylan as a narrowing of all her horizons, but she didn’t have many more options even before the war broke down the social order.
In its way the novel is a feminist manifesto. It casts a hard, bright light on the role of women in the Fifties and Sixties in the United States. Kilda casts off the shackles of patriarchy—but not of heteronormativity—and escapes into the unknown.
For its time it’s a kind of triumph. But Kilda’s coldness toward her fellow colonists, her willingness to break the first rule of spacefaring, reminds me quite a bit of James Kirk of Star Trek (which might have still been airing when this novel was written) and his weekly violations of the Prime Directive. Unbreakable laws are all very well until the series star decides he’s righter than anyone else. Then it doesn’t matter who gets hurt. He’s right, you see. What’s bad and awful and unacceptable when anyone else does it is Just Fine when he’s the perpetrator.
There’s another, literary parallel, for me at least. I wonder if Norton read Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. It’s a very strange late Victorian novella, one of the early classics of psychological horror. In it, a young woman is hired as governess to the son and daughter of a distinctly dysfunctional family, and becomes almost pathologically attached to the little boy. The atmosphere is foreboding, the surroundings dark and weird. There’s a sinister, subtly monstrous male who corrupts the boy. The governess tries to save him, but ultimately fails. There may be ghosts. Or they may be illusions of the mind.
It’s a dark, brooding, atmospheric story, and I kept catching hints of it in Dread Companion—whether Norton intended them, or even knew of it, I have no way of knowing. But the undertones are similar, and it’s a similar setup, even a similar world view.
There are certainly numerous echoes of other Norton novels. The Green Lady is a staple of many novels and series, including the Five Senses books; Dahaun of the Witch World is one of her most benign incarnations. Alien transformations happen in the Janus books, though closest of all to Dread Companion is Kaththea and her brother Kemoc turning into monsters in a hell dimension in Warlock of the Witch World.
Norton had a thing for certain types of monster. She really, really did not like toads, and she was perceptibly creeped out by featureless round or ovoid heads. Maybe she had recurring nightmares, and wrote them into her works.
She tried over and over, too, to portray truly alien landscapes, to take her readers to places beyond human comprehension. For me, Dread Companion is one of her more successful attempts. Kilda’s ordeal is uniquely horrible because her perceptions are so thoroughly skewed—but the more normal the world looks, the more dangerous it is to her hope of returning to the human universe.
And then, when she does, the nightmare doesn’t end. She’s been in the land of Faerie, and time as well as space have been distorted. She’s trapped in the future; she can never go back. There’s no home for her anywhere, unless she finds it in Kosgro’s ship.
Next up: Three Hands for Scorpio.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.