Monday, December 28, 2020

Pulp Fantasy Library: Sign of the Labrys

One of would think, after over two hundred entries in the Pulp Fantasy Library series, I would have covered all of the entries in Gary Gygax's Appendix N. While I've made a very good go of it, there are still a handful of explicitly named titles I've never discussed, one of those being Margaret St. Clair's 1963 novel, Sign of the Labrys. I've discussed St. Clair in a couple of previous posts, but she's not an author about whom I know a great deal or whose work I'd read until comparatively recently. From what I've gathered, she was quite an unusual individual, not merely being a woman in a field dominated by men – though, given the prominence of writers like C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, I sometimes think this is overblown – but also being an early enthusiast for the burgeoning Counter Culture. Some of this comes through in this novel, which gives it a rather odd flavor, particularly when compared to the other books Gygax chose for his list of recommended and inspirational reading.

The novel takes place in the near-future, about a decade after

yeast cells escaped from the scientists who had been working with them, and started the great plagues [and] it was not only the sorts that were deleterious to human beings that escaped.  Our domestic animals died too—the mortality was even higher among them—and our food plants too were affected. 

Approximately 90% of the human population died as a consequence of this yeast plague and most survivors have retreated into multi-level, subterranean fallout shelters, built in the years prior to the plague in anticipation of nuclear war (remember when this novel was written). The shelters have immense stores of food and other necessities for life, the former of which are now scarce on the surface because of the plagues. 

Sam Sewell is a young man living in one of these underground complexes. His existence, like that of most of the survivors, is largely solitary, eschewing contact with others, except when necessary. It's suggested that this isn't solely due to fear of contagion but simply because "we dislike contact with one another nowadays." Sam spends his time hunting for canned food or edible fungus, occasionally venturing aboveground to work with crews disposing of the untold numbers of corpses that now litter the earth.

One day, an agent of what remains of the government approaches Sam, asking him about his association with a woman named Despoina. Sam has never heard of such a woman and asks why the agent is looking for her. He explains that she's wanted for her supposed role in releasing the plagues that overthrew human civilization. According to him, she has been seen traveling to and from the lowest levels of the same complex that Sam calls home. The agent then tries to pressure Sam into helping him find her. After all, he's traveled widely underground, seeking out food and other items; he'd be perfect for this job. Initially reluctant, Sam changes his mind once he finds a ring carved with the sign of a double-headed axe – a labrys – along with a message asking him to meet Despoina, the very woman the government agent had asked him about.

What follows is a bizarre journey that is simultaneously a Gamma World-esque exploration of a ruined, high-tech complex beneath the earth and a journey into a mythic underworld, leading to an initiation into occult mysteries. St. Clair and her husband's Counter Cultural activities included involved in neo-paganism and and Sign of the Labrys is filled with symbolism derived from such alternative religious practices. Much more interesting, though, are the levels of the subterranean complex itself, each of which has a distinct character of its own. I have read others surmise that it was for this reason that Gary Gygax recommended the book, with the complex being a prototype of the dungeons of D&D. I'm agnostic on this particular point. In the absence of a quote from Gygax where he specifically credits St. Clair for having inspired dungeons, I think it's much more likely that this was one of his inspirations rather than being the primary (or sole) one. Regardless, Sign of the Labrys is worth reading if you have an interest in odd, idiosyncratic science fantasy of the sort the 1960s and '70s produced in abundance.


  1. I read it this year and felt similarly. I think it's the *levels* that Gygax took from it --- the progression downward through increasing dangers, the secret links and passages between levels he has to find, the dominance of different levels by different factions. The only comparable precedent I can think of is Dante's Inferno, and that's not about the puzzles and logistical challenges that are preoccupations of Sign of the Labrys and of early D&D.

  2. The concept of the multi-level dungeon, the challenges of which get more dangerous as one goes deeper down, pre-dates Gary's involvement with what became D&D. That was straight from Dave Arneson, with assistance from Dave Megarry with his Dungeon Board Game which explicitly translated the Chainmail combat rules to the board game combat rules and canonized the "deeper is more dangerous, monsters are more monstrous" concept.

    Dave's inspiration for running players through a "dungeon" as opposed to playing the Blackmoor "Junta" style game apparently came from a weekend binge on Hammer Horror films and reading Conan stories by REH, likely either "Red Nails" and/or "The Scarlet Citadel," both of which prominently feature dungeons.

    The Dungeons of Castle Blackmoor built on from there, and the idea of the multi-level dungeon with the more dangerous levels deeper down was well developed by the time Gary became involved. We know more about his process with Castle Greyhawk because he recorder more about it and talked more about it, whereas Dave, sadly, apparently did not keep records like Gary did (witness "First Fantasy Campaign" in all its gore and glory) and was not nearly the "salesman' for the idea of dungeon adventuring as was Gary...

    1. I think you're correct about this. While I am prepared to believe, with evidence, that Gygax might have been influenced in his conception of dungeons by this book, I don't think dungeons as such owe much to it.

  3. I read the book earlier this year. It was a strange experience during the pandemic.
    The book hasn't aged well. The decision of 1 character to release the plagues killing 90% of humanity to avert the certain destruction of 100% of humanity in the inevitable nuclear war between East and West seems both crazy and evil decades after the fall of the Soviet Union.