Mon
Dec 2 2013 3:00pm

Advanced Readings in D&D: Margaret St. Clair

The Shadow People Margaret St ClairIn “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.

Margaret St. Clair is up this week, for her novel The Shadow People. An underworld story about skulking elves and blood magic, of bell bottoms and psychic powers.

Tim Callahan: It’s like underground comix meets Timothy Leary meets AD&D module D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth. It’s this slender little mostly-forgotten novel called The Shadow People! And I don’t know if it’s any good by any objective standard, but I found it unsettling enough that I can’t even think back on the novel without feeling a bit queasy.

Maybe it’s the decaying paper with the sickly-green-tinted edges, but this Margaret St. Clair novel makes me uncomfortable. It’s like a lingering nightmare that does many of the things I didn’t at all like with the Roger Zelazny Amber book—like the tonal shifts and the juxtaposition of high-fantasy elements with pop culture and pop psychology and general weirdness—but all that stuff seems to work much better here. I think that’s because The Shadow People doesn’t position itself as some kind of important symbolic fantasy epic. It’s a seedy little fantasy. It’s kind of brutal.

Mordicai Knode: Yeah, this starts off like the rantings of a paranoid schizophrenic. “The Shadow People are always watching! They track our thoughts!” So yeah, the first thing I thought of was Richard Sharpe Shaver, the source of Dungeons and Dragons’ derro, which were of the stripe of “weird fiction” where the author claimed it all to have happened, just so. The Shaver Mystery gave us the creepy maniacal half-dwarves, but it may also have reflected very real mental health struggles the author was having. So yeah, if your novel starts out the kind of creepy that makes me wonder “is everything okay?” then yes, you’ve got my attention.

Here is the really creepy thing. I was just walking through my neighborhood, looking at basement apartments and un-used basements, thinking about the slow process of how a city is buried and forgotten, waiting for new layers to be put down, daydreaming about getting a basement, unfurnished, cheap, and renovating it into a residence. I am not the All-American Handyman, so that is a weird fantasy. And then I cracked the book. Lo and behold, it is a spooky story about scary basement spaces? You know, given my fondness for House of Leaves and Silent Hill, that sort of thing is...right on point.

Margaret St. Clair starts out swinging, too; the protagonist and his ridiculous mustache might as well be a hipster from Brooklyn instead of a hippie from Berkeley—the “not quite hip” youth thing is pretty timeless. The argument between him and his significant other, escalating into a fight for no good reason? Yep, that reads true; the last fight I had with me wife was over being lost and looking for the subway. All the pseudoscience, pop psychology, pop parapsychology—all that stuff is great, that’s why I like Grant Morrison so much! I’m in, I’m digging it.

The thing is...this seems more like something that would inspire the World of Darkness more than Dungeons and Dragons. Our world, but the secret underworld just out of sight? Cryptic clues from otherwise normal people? The most Dungeons and Dragons angle so far has been the discussion of grey, black, green (and maybe white) Shadow People. From goblin, hobgoblin, bugbear or hill giant, frost giant, fire giant, that is built into DnD. Which can I just mention here— I really dislike that logic applied to dragons. I don’t need white dragons to be weaker than red. I like what fourth edition did; differentiate them by role, not challenge rating.

TC: Oh yeah, the color thing is important in this St. Clair novel, just like in most versions of D&D, but more in terms of just creating a sense of weirdness. Of psychedelia. This is definitely a book that reads like a paranoid fever dream, and it relates to that whole old-school gaming concept of the dungeon as “mythic underworld.” In this case, it’s not just the underground that’s full of crazy things that don’t make sense—it spills over into the “real world,” but in such an extreme way that it calls into question everything we think we know.

In The Shadow People, we aren’t just dealing with an unreliable narrator, we’re dealing with an unreliable reality.

That’s a classic D&D sensibility if I ever saw one.

Though, in this case, it’s wrapped in the literary equivalent of Volkswagen busses and tie-dye slacks.

MK: I do sort of think it would be a nice read for a DM who is thinking “you know, elves in forests and dwarves in mountains are played out.” Oh, really? Let me tell you about the ergot-insane elves of the underworld, who act out Carlo Ginzburg’s ideas of European shamanism. Plus there is a messed up dwarf, you’ll love it! Also, Orwellian dystopia. Calling them elves really gets me because you know what else they remind me of? The elves of Mirkwood, in The Hobbit. Where are those skulking cave dwellers? Hard to imagine Legolas as one.

I also find the dystopia really charming because...well, it is such a specific dystopia. Much like how certain UK dystopias speak to local national politics, The Shadow People is anchored historically, to the hippie movement. I went to Kent State when I was in college, home of a famous tragedy where the National Guard shot four students, and it is very much part of the school’s history; reading this made me think of that, very strongly. Almost like a muscle memory.

TC: Wow, yeah, I can see how that would resonate as you read this book. St. Clair does reveal a particular brand of paranoia here, but it’s one in which authority figures and neighborly folks betray dark secrets and outright murderous intent. But underneath it all, it’s also this Arthurian fantasia. You know what it reminds me of? I mean, it’s not a real thing, but it’s like a cruel Terry Gilliam interpretation of Matt Wagner’s Mage with elves and dwarves as portrayed by the CHUDs from that Descent movie.

It’s kind of sickening, though, not in its gruesome events, but in the overwhelming instability of its entire world. It’s definitely the most frightening book I’ve read out of the whole of Appendix N, and I like that about it. But I also don’t really like thinking back about the book. There’s not a lot that I would actually use to inspire my D&D games, beyond trying to remind myself that the underground should be weird and actually scary.

But I mostly just want to put the book in a drawer somewhere. A nice white drawer, clean and sanitized, because The Shadow People feels like it should be put in quarantine. Or go through some kind of Stanley Kubrick decontamination chamber. I appreciate the heck out of a book that can make me feel that way, but I still feel gross flipping back through its pages and looking for highlights. There are no highlights, just well-crafted moments of anxiety and despair!

I mean, there’s kind of a happy ending. Sort of. Or the pretense of one. But it’s not actually happy at all. Maybe this book is closer to what D&D would be like if it was run by a game master raised in a Call of Cthulhu laboratory.

MK: “Matt Wagner’s Mage with elves and dwarves as portrayed by the CHUDs from that Descent movie.” Wow, you are really picking up my verbal tick of combining two off the wall things by way of comparison...and you are really good at it! Yeah, this is like that; sort of like a game of Changeling: the Dreaming only you know, instead of stained glass grandeur, the Otherworld is cramped and clammy, full of LSD and CHUDs. See why I was saying it seems more like the World of Darkness and less like Dungeons and Dragons?


Tim Callahan usually writes about comics and Mordicai Knode usually writes about games. They both play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons.

31 comments
Colin Bell
1. SchuylerH
Paging James Nicoll... Paging James Nicoll...
David Levinson
2. DemetriosX
I originally thought this was another of the few authors in this series that I'd neither read nor heard of, but a little poking around tells me that isn't quite so. I haven't read this particular novel, but St. Clair does have one story (under the name Idris Seabright) that made an impression on me when I was 12 or so: "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles". I may have read one or two others, but that one stuck with me.

She also wrote a story that was tirned into a Night Gallery episode that freaked me out as a kid and still disturbs me when I think about it: "The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes". That one is about a kid (played by Clint Howard) who becomes a huge TV star by making all sorts of accurate predicitons. Then one day he predicts that everything is going to be absolutely wonderful, universal love and peace and all that stuff. After the show his producer pressures him about it and he says that what's really going to happen is the sun going nova. I don't know if I saw that when it first aired when I was 9 or a couple of years later in reruns, but it still bugs me.
Colin Bell
3. SchuylerH
@2: Unfortunately, "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles" is the only St. Clair I have read. I hope to correct this.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
4. hoopmanjh
I had no idea she was also Idris Seabright; that means I've also read at least one story by her. I did recently pick up a copy of The Shadow People when I discovered that she was my one big hole in Appendix N; now I'm thinking I need to move it closer to the head of my queue.
Alan Brown
5. AlanBrown
Some of these Appendix N books I haven't recognized. In this case I didn't even have any idea who the author was.
From the comments, it doesn't sound like I missed much. Although, this does sound like some sort of prehistoric ancestor of what has become the Urban Fantasy genre, so perhaps we should give the author credit for some originality.
ClintACK
6. ClintACK
I'm enjoying these Appendix N restrospectives. It's a shame none of these books are available electronically, though.

If only a major publisher were willing to get the rights to these and put them out in ebook format... *nudge* *nudge*...
Mordicai Knode
8. mordicai
2. DemetriosX
&
3. SchuylerH

What are "gnoles"? Any similarity to hyena-headed demon worshippers?

5. AlanBrown

I don't know, I mean, yes, there is a lot of urban fantasy here, but not really the tropes or even tone of urban fantasy. This was worth checking out; it was weird, & that weirdness is hard to come by genuinely these days.

6. ClintACK

A bunch of them are available on Gutenberg but I assume you mean in a clean re-flowable format, yeah. Unfortunately, I bet the rights situation for ebooks-- since they are old, & since they are from so many publishers-- would be a nightmare.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
9. hoopmanjh
8. Mordicai -- "Gnoles" are actually from a Lord Dunsany story originally -- "How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles"; the Margaret St. Clair story is an (unauthorized, I assume) sequel.

Apparently (although I didn't know this until Wikipedia), D&D Gnolls are, in fact, based on Dunsany per a note in the original 1974 D&D, where Gygax describes them as a "cross between gnomes and trolls (... perhaps Lord Dunsany did not really make it all that clear)".
Colin Bell
10. SchuylerH
@8: Dunsany didn't describe the Gnoles but St. Clair did: "The senior gnole is a little like a Jerusalem artichoke made of India rubber, and he has small red eyes which are faceted in the same way that gemstones are."
ClintACK
11. manglar
Margaret St Clair's Agent of the Unknown, originally published in a 1956 Ace Double with Dick's The World Jones Made, is an interesting novel which has been praised by John Clute, who considers it an ironic inversion of the protagonists to be found in so many American SF novels from the 1950s.
In addition, there are other elements in the novel -such as a subtle and effective erotic subtext- that show St Clair to be a writer of skill.
Colin Bell
12. SchuylerH
@11: That's probably the easiest St. Clair to find, since there's a recent Wildside Press edition. I've just bought it on your recommendation, so thankyou.
Colin Bell
13. SchuylerH
Since Sign of the Labrys didn't get read, I'll quote its legendary back cover copy in about 24 hours (while the topic is still fairly fresh) unless James Nicoll wants to do so before then.
Pamela Adams
14. Pam Adams
I was thinking that she had a story in one of the Dangerous Visions anthologies- can't remember which I was thinking of....
T.A. Wardrope
15. TAWardrope
"There’s not a lot that I would actually use to inspire my D&D games, beyond trying to remind myself that the underground should be weird and actually scary."

Yeah, I think it is easy to forget how weird and underground D&D was when it first emerged in the 1970's. As the game became more mainstream and more sanitized it lost this spirit of the uncanny and unknown. I'm looking forward to reading this one.
Colin Bell
16. SchuylerH
@14: I can't find a St. Clair story in either anthology. Are you thinking of
Miriam Allen deFord?
Mordicai Knode
17. mordicai
9. hoopmanjh

& nothing about them using nunchucks? (I kid, I kid, but I do find the "Flind bar" to be a super funny piece of DnD esoterica.)

10. SchuylerH

Well that is very "Tekumel" or Dream-Questy!
Colin Bell
18. SchuylerH
As an aside, Sign of the Labrys is a post-apocalyptic novel whose setting is reputed to have inspired the "dungeons" part of D&D. The now legendary blurb reads:

"Women are writing science-fiction!
Original!Brilliant!!Dazzling!!!
Women are closer to the primitive than men. They are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They posses a buried memory of humankind's obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely color and flavor a novel.

Such a woman is Margaret St. Clair, author of this novel. Such a novel is this, SIGN OF THE LABRYS, the story of a doomed world of the future, saved by recourse to ageless, immemorial rites...
Fresh!Imaginative!!Inventive!!!"
David Levinson
19. DemetriosX
@18 SchuylerH
Dear God in Heaven! Even for 1963 that's pretty appalling. Is that the Corgi or the Bantam copy? I'm just... just stunned.
Colin Bell
20. SchuylerH
@19: Bantam I think, though I wouldn't put a Corgi reuse past them. I like the insane overuse of exclamation marks. We could get a whole topic out of dubious blurbs.

For elegance and simplicity, I'm still fond of one by Gordon R. Dickson from a Baen reprint of Keith Laumer: "Unrivalled, not only in its class, but in a class by itself." Just try and parse that sentence...
David Levinson
21. DemetriosX
@20
Any idea who was running the show at Bantam at the time and might have signed off on that? My first thought was that Betty Ballantine would have never approved of that copy, but she and her husband had already moved on to Ballantine Books by that point.

That Dickson blurb sounds like Jim Baen hit him up for an emergency blurb when they'd both had a few and went with whatever came out.
Colin Bell
22. SchuylerH
@21: I'm not entirely sure. SFE only says that in the 50's and 60's, Bantam weren't considered a major SF publisher. There are quite a few reprints on the Bantam list at that time and not many original authors. The most successful Bantam title of that era appears to be Daniel F. Galouye's Dark Universe, which came close to tying for the Hugo with Stranger in a Strange Land. Also, while that Dickson blurb is bad, it had several thousand times more thought put into it than any of Baen's cover illustrations.
Mordicai Knode
23. mordicai
20. SchuylerH

That's some real "the set of all set's including itself" paradox right there.
Colin Bell
24. SchuylerH
@23: The class of all classes where Laumer is in a class by himself... but I digress. I was wondering whether you had successfully managed to obtain Andrew J. Offut's Swords Against Darkness III.
ClintACK
25. Tim Mayer
I managed to read through most of Margaret St.Clair's published works over the past few years. You can find some of the reviews on my www.z7hq.com blog. It's a damn shame she is so forgotten today. St. Clair considered herself a short story writer and was never satisfied with her novels. As a short story writer, she was one of the 21st century's best.
Mordicai Knode
26. mordicai
24. SchuylerH

Yeah, a pricey tome, a $28 used mass market in poor condition!

25. Tim Mayer

I don't think of myself as a short story reader, but whenever I say that I think of Howard, or Lovecraft, or Borges...
ClintACK
27. Kirth Girthsome
Grrr... I was overseas when this entry was posted. The Shadow People reads like the outline of a novel- there are so many ideas left hanging, the book could easily have been three times its length. There are hints in the later parts of the book, when the narrative takes an unexpected turn into dystopian sci-fi complete with robot police, that the elves have something to do with the rise of a totalitarian regime, but these ideas are never developed. Another annoying factor is the revelation, late in the plot, that underworld/surface connections are not always deleterious to the surface dwellers, but nothing is really made of this theme.

I enjoyed the novel, but I could have been so much better if it had been longer, and the editing a little tighter. My favorite scene in the book (MINOR SPOILER) has the protagonist mugging an elf so he could steal the elf's hotdogs.
ClintACK
28. Tim Mayer
27. I agree. My main criticism of the book is the final third where it goes full-bore dystopian fantasy. Huh? Wha? The surface world has created robotic police and earth movers in 18 months? That was pushing things quite a bit. Even St. Clair admitted her novels had problems,which is why, I think, she quit writing them.
ClintACK
29. Kola Krauze
Just discovered this amazing thread. A friend of mine and I have been slowly plowing through Appendix N (in no particular order) for quite a while now without realizing that others have done the same (duh!). I just gave up on SIGN OF THE LABRYS as early as page 24. It does seem to me that it might have been an influence on S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. It also contains a lot of fungi. But neither of these factors were enough to keep me going. (The back cover -- I have the 1963 Corgi edition -- is priceless!) I had earlier struggled through St. Clair's non-Appendix N novel THE DOLPHINS OF ALTAIR, which I bought for Lehr's beautiful cover, so I guess St. Clair just isn't for me.
Mordicai Knode
30. mordicai
29. Kola Krauze

There are plenty of these where giving up is probably the right answer; & there are plenty where switching to another book by the same author would have been the right move. Welcome!
Kola Krauze
31. Kola Krauze
I'll have my friend read THE SHADOW PEOPLE. Right now I got side-tracked into Ted White's The Sorceress of Qar (Lancer Books, 1966), which is where Terry "Plagiarist" Brooks stole the name Shannara from. It's not bad thus far...

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