Witchcraft and Wonder: The Weird Fiction of Margaret St. Clair



Women are closer to the primitive than men. They are conscious of the moon-pulls, the earth-tides. They possess a buried memory of humankind’s obscure and ancient past which can emerge to uniquely 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 rights.”

-back cover, Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair. Bantam Books, 1963.



It’s easy to forget how much things have changed in the world of fiction publishing until you bump into this kind of high-grade idiocy. Clearly, sexism is still a problem in our world, but I can’t imagine beginning a chat with as august a literary personage as Anne Rice, Naomi Novik, Elizabeth Moon, or Robin Hobb (all of whom I’ve had the great pleasure to interview) by asking them if they felt “closer to the primitive” because of their gender.

I wonder what Margaret St. Clair must have felt after she saw this on the back of what would become her best-known novel. Imagine laboring for something for weeks, months, or years—I don’t know how long it took for her to write the novel—only to witness its birth marred by such tone-deaf sexist ugliness. It must have really hurt.

The very premise is ridiculous, of course: Mary Shelley more or less established the science-fiction genre in 1818 with the publication of Frankenstein, which she then followed up with a post-apocalyptic novel titled The Last Man. I get the impression that with one book about the walking dead and another about the apocalypse, Shelley would probably have a major development deal were she alive today.

Even back in the benighted days of 1963 when love-bead wearing dinosaurs roamed the Earth, St. Clair wasn’t exactly the first female science-fiction writer on the block. Leigh Brackett and Andre Norton were both getting on to be well-established, if not already so, and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time had been published one year prior.

coverTo be fair, life for a woman science-fiction or fantasy author wasn’t exactly peaches and cream, and Brackett and Norton both had names that readers of the “girls-are-icky” persuasion might have assumed belonged to male writers. Other female writers labored under male pseudonyms; James Tiptree, for example. So did St. Clair from time to time. Still many more were probably never published at all.

While L’Engle, Norton, and Brackett are known to many science-fiction and fantasy fans, Margaret St. Clair isn’t a name that many recognize. I can’t make a claim to any special knowledge, myself. I only learned about her while reading through “Appendix N” of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, a list of books Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax considered influential in the development of the game. Gygax recommended Sign of the Labrys and another of St. Clair’s eight novels: The Shadow People.

Sign of the Labrys is such an odd novel, even by the standards of the sixties. It’s brilliant, have no doubt, but it’s not like anything I’ve ever read. It’s an occult work of science-fiction/fantasy.

Sometime in the future, humanity is laid low by a fungal disease—a yeast, actually—that escaped from a laboratory. As the plague ravages the surface, survivors retreat to massive subterranean cities that were constructed for a future nuclear war. Survivors like protagonist Sam Sewell spend their days bagging and burying bodies and sorting through supplies, the monotony occasionally broken up by moving from one vacant living space to another. One night, Sam receives a visitor at his door: a man purporting to be an agent of the FBY, an agency responsible for managing the yeast plagues. The agent is tracking a mysterious woman that he believes may be spreading a new kind of yeast plague. He’s certain that she’ll contact Sewell, because he’s that same kind of person she is: a witch.

A “labrys”, by the way, is an ancient symbol: a double-axe head associated with goddess worship.

Witchcraft? Science-fiction? Plagues and Goddess worship? That’s an unruly mix, but one that might be better understood if you’re aware of one very important part of the author’s life: Margaret St. Clair and her husband Eric were practitioners of witchcraft.

Born in 1911, Margaret missed the hippy generation by several decades, but she and Eric were California bohemians of the first water. They frequented nudist colonies, grew herb gardens, and were very much interested in magic and the occult. Margaret, no stranger to esoteric philosophy, discovered Wicca during her research for Labrys and struck up a friendship with witchcraft scholar and practitioner Raymond Buckland shortly thereafter.

Wicca is an Earth-based religion that—depending on who you ask—is either an ancient faith that has persevered over thousands of years or a modern imagining of what the pre-Christian faiths of Europe might have been like. There are versions of Wicca that incorporate a male and female god, and others feature a goddess only. It doesn’t really matter for our story, except to say that Buckland was an initiate of Gardnerian Wicca, the oldest and best-known strain of Wicca. It was founded by English occultist and writer Gerald Gardner, and it was an acolyte of Gardner’s who initiated Buckland.

At the time that the St. Clairs established a friendship with Buckland, he was the heir apparent of the tradition and its most prominent public figure. When he initiated the St. Clairs in 1966, he was as close to a Pope of Gardnerian witchcraft as you could get: Margaret and Eric were only a few steps away from the source of their tradition. (Presuming, of course, that you are of the opinion that Gardner invented Wicca. He claimed to have been initiated into it by a coven in his area.)

Margaret’s pagan influences are just as apparent in The Shadow People, the other book recommended by Gygax. Published three years after their initiation, The Shadow People is the story of a young man, Dick, who must descend into a secret underworld of feral “elves” to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend. Magic swords, blood magic, and liberal quotations from Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth are but a few of the magical tips of the hat included in this tale, and if you’re detecting an Orphic quality to Dick’s journey into the under-earth to rescue his girlfriend, then you’re on the money: the author had a masters degree in Greek classics.

St. Clair wrote six other novels and several short stories, and unfortunately, it’s all out of print. Without owning them in my collection, I can’t say how much her faith must have influenced these other works, and since the author passed away decades ago, I can’t ask her.

So what did St. Clair think of all of the “moon-pulls” and “earth-tides” stuff on the back cover of her book? I think that it reads like an attempted “othering” of women, but I wonder how her Wiccan faith may have colored her perception of that godawful paragraph? It’s hard for me to imagine. Was she angry? Amused? A little bit of both? Maybe it’s not for me imagine. I’d hate to attempt to speak for someone who had such a singular voice.