Sign of the Labrys: Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered

Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. ClairSign of the Labrys by Margaret St. ClairSign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair

A pleasingly unique — indeed, possibly sui generis — combination of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and (of all things) Wiccan magic and craft, Sign of the Labrys initially appeared in 1963, as a Corgi paperback. Its author, Kansas-born Margaret St. Clair, was 52 at the time and had been writing short stories (well over 100 of them) since the late ‘40s. Sign of the Labrys was her fourth novel out of an eventual eight. And lest you think that the novel’s Wiccan elements were merely a passing fancy of its author, let me add here that St. Clair and her husband were indeed inducted into the Wiccan craft three years after this novel’s publication, when Margaret would adopt the Wiccan name Froniga.

Out of print in English since the year of its release, St. Clair’s truly bizarre novel is easily obtainable today via Dover Publications’ “Doomsday Classics” series of post-apocalyptic books; I had recently enjoyed Fritz Leiber’s The Night of the Long Knives from this same group of novels. In the Dover edition, author Brian Stableford, in his introduction, reveals that St. Clair used, as a research tool, Gerald Gardner’s influential 1954 volume Witchcraft Today, and I suppose that a patina of authenticity thus covers many of the magical feats to be found as her novel progresses. For this reader, the result was certainly engrossing, if not wholly satisfying.

Sign of the Labrys (and this may be as good a place as any to state that a “labrys” is an ancient Cretan double-edged ax; a symbol of the Wiccan faith here) transpires a decade from today, in a world where 9/10 of the human population, as well as most of the trees and many other plants, have been wiped out as a result of the release of toxic yeasts from a government research station. We meet our hero, 25-year-old Sam Sewell, who has been living in a massive, multileveled cave system along with thousands of others — in a locale that may or may not be Peabody, Mass., near Salem, appropriately enough — for the past 10 years.

Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. ClairSam lives a semi-contented existence apart from all the others (no one, it seems, can tolerate the company of his fellows any longer, as in the Leiber novel), scrounging for canned foods, eating the purple fungus off the cave walls, and occasionally working outdoors with a bulldozer crew, shoving around the limitless number of corpses for burial. But Sam’s serene existence comes to an end one day when an agent of the FBY (which the reader can only assume stands for the Federal Bureau of Yeast) asks for his help in the search for a mysterious woman named Despoina. And soon after, Sam is left with a curiously carved ring and a message requesting him to meet Despoina in the lowest level of the cavern’s layers.

Thus, Sam travels from his home floor of E and down through F, G and H, encountering undreamt-of marvels on each deeper level, in search of the elusive woman, who is rumored to be a witch. And once Sam does indeed find the elusive object of his quest, he learns some surprising truths about himself, attains newfound abilities, and becomes embroiled in violent conflict with the FBY, which, as it turns out, has grandiose aspirations that will impact the lives of all citizens, both aboveground and below…

OK, I’m not going to lie to you: Sign of the Labrys really is a strange little book. It is, commendably, the sort of book in which there is just no way to predict what will happen from one page to the next, and each level that Sewell descends into is like a new and more surreal dreamland. Whereas Sam’s Level E is fairly mundane, with cubicle quarters and storage rooms and so on, Level F, the former science section, is now infested with cyclic tides of rats, and as Kyra — a woman of “the craft” who assists Sam there — mentions, it also harbors a gnawing, mutated blob monster that makes irregular appearances (no, we never get to see it ourselves). Level G contains a beach (!), casino, private houses, and a host of former VIPs who stay happy with the assistance of “euph pills.” And Level H, where the president once bunkered, contains surprises of its own. Not for nothing, I suppose, has sci-fi author Gary Gygax suggested that this novel was the inspiration for the game Dungeons & Dragons. (Personally, I couldn’t say, having no familiarity with the game; perhaps you will be in a better position to judge.)

Adding to the strangeness quotient are some of the outré characters whom Sam encounters, including a double-brained dog who helps him on his way, and a cookie-munching simpleton in charge of a teleporter device. Not to mention the inclusion of an anti-grav shaft, an entranceway from one level to another via autoclave, a fountain with a floating corpse hiding a matter transmitter, and on and on. And then there’s the fact that Sam, as he begins his transformation/reawakening, is subject to hallucination-inducing fevers, and the fact that he is given numerous consciousness-altering drugs by Kyra, and the fact that he is subject to very strange and suggestive dreams. (Sadly, I’m afraid that I will be unable here to adequately describe in words how very strange Sign of the Labrys feels to read.) Thus, between the fever hallucinations, drugs, dreams and straightforward bizarreness of his actual surroundings, poor Sam just cannot tell what is going on, and the reader can only breathlessly hold on tight and hope that all will eventually become clear.

Fortunately for the reader, it kinda sorta does. But St. Clair deliberately chooses to withhold much, ultimately resulting in a story line that just barely hangs together, while at the same time engendering a sense of phantasmagoric weirdness throughout. Stableford compares her to A. E. van Vogt in this regard, and correctly tells us that:

the particular ambience created by continual conscientious omission and understatement contrives a teasing perplexity that makes the novel highly distinctive and a fascinating delight to read…

Personally, this reader could have done with a bit more concrete detail, but then, I suppose, we might have lost some of the unguessable strangeness that is the hallmark of St. Clair’s work here. Happily, the author turns out to be both highly readable and compelling, and I must also admit that, bizarre as the novel is, I found Sign of the Labrys to be quite unputdownable. St. Clair’s language is simple, clean and direct, even if what she is writing about is somewhat vague, and she pleasingly throws in scattered literary references (ranging from Shakespeare to Dante to Victorian poet George Meredith) to make things feel, if possible, even more off-kilter.

And then there is the matter of those Wiccan elements themselves. As her book progresses, St. Clair shows us what Despoina — and, increasingly, Sam himself, after Kyra’s tutelage — is capable of: namely, the ability to see with one’s eyes closed; the ability to count any number of objects automatically; fith-fath, or the power to seemingly alter one’s appearance; dwym-dight, or soul-paining, a sort of compulsory hypnosis; and the “bull-leap,” by which one is able to take command over another person’s body. It is an interesting bag of tricks, to be sure, and if any Wiccans in modern-day America are truly capable of even half these abilities, it is amazing that they haven’t used them to conquer the world. (Fortunately, I have a feeling that such power grabbing is not consistent with their philosophy.) Interestingly, St. Clair shows us that each of these abilities has specific rules and limitations, and reveals how enervating their practice can be for those who would wield them.

As I mentioned up top, Sign of the Labrys is a truly one-of-a-kind experience, and most decidedly recommended as a “stoner book;” something akin to Robert Silverberg’s Son of Man, in that regard. It could easily have served as the opening salvo of an entire series, in which the Wiccans go on to counter the further dastardly deeds of the power-hungry FBY, but sadly, this was all that Margaret St. Clair left us. The book is a strange one, but not off-putting enough to prevent me from wanting to check out more of St. Clair’s work, as I hope to do one day. Give it a try … you might find it bewitching enough to cast its spell over you…

Published in 1963. Like others who withstood the pandemic, Sam Sewell lives in a subterranean shelter. The vast catacombs were built before the military’s biological weapon leaked out, killing nine out of ten people and leaving the survivors so traumatized that they can barely tolerate each other’s company. So it’s quite peculiar that some government agents seem to think that Sam lives with a woman, Despoina, who’s suspected of conducting germ warfare. Pressured by the agents to locate Despoina, Sam must literally go underground to discover the truth about a hidden world of witchcraft and secret rituals. This Wiccan-themed science fiction novel was cited by Gary Gygax as an inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons. Enthusiasts of the role-playing game will recognize the forerunner of Castle Greyhawk and its labyrinthine setting of multiple levels connected by secret passages. Other readers will savor the fantasy on its own terms, as the poetic recounting of an otherworldly mystery.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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