In “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?