Hardscrabble #17-- June 1997


Letter From Hardscrabble Creek: Chasing Margaret

By Chas S. Clifton

Needing some back-cover copy for a new paperback novel, a Bantam Books editor typed triumphantly, "Women are writing science fiction!"

When Margaret St. Clair's novel Sign of the Labrys came out in 1963, this indeed was news. "SF" definitely stood for science fiction then, although of course it was speculative too. It was the age of "space opera" starship troopers and slim-finned rockets pulling G's as they strained to leave planetary gravity. Technocrats ruled, while "Beyond the perdurite windows, magnified in the crystalline clarity of the asteroid's synthetic atmosphere, loomed a row of the immense squat turret forts that guarded the Astrophon base--their mighty twenty-four-inch rifles, coupled to the Veronar autosight, covered with their theoretical range everything within Jupiter's orbit."

Women, when they appeared, were "Elora Renee ... the lovely dark-eyed Martian girl" or "his wife, Myra [who] fluffed up her red hair in a distracted fashion."

That is not Margaret St. Clair's writing; the first two quotations came from Jack Williamson's story "Hindsight" and the third from one of my old favorites, "When the Bough Breaks," by Lewis Padgett. I found them by flipping through John W. Campbell Jr.'s 1952 anthology of stories previously published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, one of the classic SF "pulps." It was a masculine world of drawing boards and atomic pistols, and the only witches were female, perhaps interplanetary sorceresses like James H. Schmitz's The Witches of Karres.

Some time in 1995 or thereabouts, I read a brief and enigmatic mention of a science-fiction novel with a Wiccan theme, Sign of the Labrys. The writer was Margaret St. Clair, and the book had been published more than thirty years ago, during my own "Golden Age of Science Fiction." (The Golden Age of Science Fiction, I am told on good authority, is whenever the reader was 13 years old, although some critics use it to mean the late 1930s and early 1940s in particular.)

The use of "labrys" sounded like she had been reading Robert Graves, who suggested back in the 1940s that the double-headed ax was a sign of goddess worship. "I need to find this book," I thought, and so I tried a couple of libraries, starting at my university. No luck. I logged into on-line library catalogs and tried big collections up and down Colorado and in other states. No luck. I started cruising the SF shelves in used-bookstores. No luck. I looked in a couple of science-fiction encyclopedias and a scholarly book about women SF writers, but came away from my initial library research only with brief mention of her as a "forgotten foremother" and a list of her publications.

Looking for Sign of the Labrys--and for more information about Margaret St. Clair--was turning into a Quest. Such Quests, at least the way I undertake them, have certain rules. One is that serendipity has to play a part in the outcome. Were I plugged into SF fandom, I probably could have found her books fairly quickly. I could have posted messages on Compuserve's Science Fiction Forum or something similar. But I preferred to try the indirect method of just thinking about it a lot, following the Law of Attraction. You could call my search a form of pilgrimage.

I got a little closer in Logan, Utah, in June 1996. In town for a conference at Utah State University, I looked in the Yellow Pages for "Books--Used & Rare" and walked from my motel to Logan's sleepy downtown. In a large, tidy second-hand bookstore the fiftyish owner leaned against the counter chatting with a friend, and--how perfect!--they were rehashing the story of Mark Hoffman, the notorious Mormon document forger and bomb-maker who killed two people and injured himself in 1985. The science fiction was upstairs, and there was my first success, The Best of Margaret St. Clair, a paperback collection of her stories reprinted in 1985 by Academy Chicago. My cost: $3.

She had provided her own introduction, "Thoughts from my Seventies." She wrote, "The road from ... Kansas to science fiction writing in California is a tortuous one and one that I don't want to try to retrace. John Clute, who did a critical study of my work in Science Fiction Writers, characterized me as 'elusive,' and it may be so."

Later I would learn that she had moved with her family to California when she was 17. Presumably that was in 1928, just a year before the economic crash that marked her generation's lives. She attended the University of California at Berkeley, apparently majoring in Classics, and went on to get a master's degree in Greek. She met her husband, Eric St. Clair, at Berkeley also.

In that same introduction, she talks about the craft of science-fiction writing. She liked the freedom that the genre gave her as a writer, but she seemed perplexed by fandom. "I am often puzzled by the intensity of feeling people bring to [science fiction]. Is it a sacred cause? Have science fiction writers become the seers, the prophets, the moral teachers of our age? Can they give us guidance on levels unknown to the writers of detective or gothic fiction? I don't find the qualifications for these elevated roles among my colleagues or in myself."

In her opinion, SF's "predictive and prophetic value, in which public respect for science fiction seems to be rooted, have not proved very great." Instead, she offered, "the historic task of science fiction is to develop a global consciousness....It may be that science fiction writers, without ever being conscious of it, have been moved as a group to blow on the spark of a new awareness in human beings: that we live on a sacred planet."

If she was right, then Jack Williamson's story "Hindsight" unconsciously fit the mission, for despite its space-opera trappings, its plot turned on the desperate attempt by the citizens of Earth to break loose from the rule of the Astrarch, a space pirate who became dictator of our solar system. (That the Earth people all seemed to be Americans was another matter; Astounding Science Fiction was an American magazine.)

But when I started reading the my first of her stories, "Idris' Pig," the sacred planet was Mars--an inhabitable Mars, like that of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles. The title itself leaped out as a clue: "Idris Seabright" was one of her pen names, and if she got "labrys" from Graves's White Goddess, she cannot have missed his references to Idris, one of the Three Happy Astronomers of Britain, according to the Welsh triads, and to Cader Idris, a Welsh mountain with a stone "chair" at its summit, "where," Graves wrote, "according to local the legend, whoever spends the night is found in the morning either dead, mad, or a poet."

George, the male protagonist, traveling on an interplanetary spaceliner between Earth and Mars, "planet of perfumes," accepts a mysterious commission to deliver an odoriferous miniature pig to someone who will recognize his password at the spaceport. There are various mix-ups, some violent, and eventually he becomes allied with Blixa, a "good-looking [Martian] girl" with dark red hair. Just when two drooling bad guys have George and Blixa cornered, she plays her trump card:

"'Ando djar,' Blixa said. She raised one hand and swept the red curls back from her forehead.

"'D-d-dai?' the shorter addict said.

"'Andor,' Blixa replied. George, peering at her obliquely, saw that on her forehead shone, in pale blue fire, the intertwined symbols of the full and crescent moon."

The bad guys beg the priestess's pardon and retreat, leaving George and Blixa to complete their mission.

The moon symbols naturally made me pause. Two pages later came the original publication date: 1949, in Startling Stories. That was only a year after Graves's White Goddess. Things were getting interesting.

A few weeks later, in July 1996, I walked into a used-bookstore in Calgary and out of habit ran my eyes over the SF paperbacks. I saw the spine of a book called Amazons!, a 1979 anthology edited by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, and took it down, knowing somehow that it would contain a St. Clair story. And it did: "The Sorrows of Witches," a tale of "Morganor, a queen of Enbatana, one of the great Enbatanid line of necromantic queens." Unfortunately, this story seemed woodenly archaic, with neither the subtle humor nor the plot twists of her stories in the Greenberg anthology. Heroic fantasy was not St. Clair's forte.

Until this point, however, I had not seen the promised Wiccan connection. Many writers of high fantasy have conjured up their witch queens, after all. Then one day the following autumn I was collecting my mail in the English department office when I spotted a professor whose name also was Margaret. Something of a loner with her office tucked away in the Biology building, she was usually out of sight except at the monthly department meetings. And, it hit me, she taught a genre course on science fiction.

"Margaret," I said, "do you know of a science-fiction writer named Margaret St. Clair?"

Shortly thereafter I stationed myself at the department photocopier and started reproducing her brittle copy of Sign of the Labrys. A few days later a copy of St. Clair's The Dancers of Noyo, published in 1973, was in my mailbox with a note that she had found it on further searching of her office's bulging bookshelves. The science-fiction encyclopedias gave only a birth date, but I had finally learned in August 1996 that Margaret St. Clair had died on 22 November 1995 at age 84.

Sign of the Labrys begins, "There is a fungus that grows on the walls that they eat. It is a violet color, a dark reddish violet, and tastes fresh and sweet. People go into the clefts to pick it."

By the second paragraph, the reader is into a familiar scenario of Cold War-era science fiction: a post-catastrophe world where huge underground shelters were constructed and "never actually occupied, and there had been no need for peace to be made for them to be abandoned entirely. People live in them now because they are quiet, even luxurious."

Sam Sewell, the narrator, lives in "the tier called E3" under an unnamed city in the former United States. Due to global "yeast plagues," Earth's population has plummeted, government and commerce dissolved, and the survivors merely drift through their days, finding what they need in the massive stockpiles of emergency supplies, their chief meaningful, organized labor being the collecting and mass burial of victims of the continuing, although abated, plagues.

By page 2, Sewell has been contacted by an agent of the FBY (Federal Bureau of Yeast?): "As far as we can be said to have a government nowadays, it is the FBY; I don't know why we dread it so. Perhaps it is the background of 'science,' which, to a man of my generation, is automatically dreadful."

The FBY is hunting a woman named "Despoina, or Spina, or just D ... . We suspect that she may be a sower [of infectious yeasts]." Despoina, the agent informs him on his next visit, is a witch.

Sewell's reaction is predictable: he thinks first of old hags, broomsticks, and so forth, whereas Despoina is described as a "girl ... slender and small-boned, with a remarkably fair skin [and] very heavy red-gold hair."

If you have guessed that Despoina is the priestess, that Sewell will become her partner, and that the FBY will play the role of the Inquisition, you have the bare bones of the plot. And if you detect a parallel between Sam Sewell and Jan Bonder and between Despoina and "pliant and graceful" Morven the witch (with "pure ivorine flesh" and "red-gold hair"), you might wonder if Margaret St. Clair had picked up a little-known novel of 1949 called High Magic's Aid, by a writer using the pen name "Scire."

Most definitely she had read the same writer's next book, Witchcraft Today, published in 1954 under his own name, Gerald Gardner. Sign of the Labrys is sprinkled with signatures of the Gardnerian Craft: people saying "Blessed be" to each other, use of ligature and drugs to gain "the sight," recovered memories of the Burning Times and an ancient Sabbat rite ("Horse, Horse and hattock!"), ritual nudity, ritual garters, and Sewell's initiation by a man in a stag mask with a scourge (a detail which would cause St. Clair some small problems later).

Sign of the Labrys carried a publication date of August 1963, which is significant, because according to mainstream Wiccan history, the Gardnerian tradition arrived in North America in the persons of Raymond and Rosemary Buckland slightly later. I raised this matter with a Canadian Gardnerian Witch, and we shared five minutes of excitement at a possible clue to the existence of another lineage before skepticism took over.

"But really," I said, "anyone with a copy of Gardner's Witchcraft Today and a good literary imagination could have come up with everything about the Craft that's in Sign of the Labrys."

And that, according to Raymond Buckland, is exactly what had happened. Both St. Clairs were interested in magic and were, in effect, Neopagans before the term was in common use. Margaret's background in Classics contributed largely to that fact; she would have read such scholars on Greek mythology as Jane Hamilton, who contributed a lot to the mythos of "ancient matriarchies." The St. Clairs had been in touch with Gerald Gardner circa 1962, and, Buckland said, "Gerald put them on to me." Margaret St. Clair sent him a copy of her new book, Sign of the Labrys: "Perhaps a little late in the day, she asked me if I would critique it for Craft details. I thought they were very good at the time except for the fact that she had a man initiating a man."

The error in ritual did not prevent a friendship from developing. "They were absolutely wonderful people, very warm and loving," Buckland recalled. After correspondence and visits, the Bucklands flew from New York to California and initiated the St. Clairs, who used the Craft names Froniga and Weyland, on 15 April 1966. Eric's Craft name reflected his interest in smithcraft and jewelry-making; he made the silver witch queen's crown that Rosemary Buckland wears in photographs in Raymond's book Witchcraft from the Inside.

The St. Clairs' house "was a great place to visit," Buckland recalled. "It was high up in the hills [above Berkeley] with a fantastic view--an all-wood house; the walls were plain, bare wood. They had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and the most incredible collection of the first editions of all the Oz books by Frank Baum. Margaret was very much into herbs and had an herb garden."

Another visitor to that same house was Ed Fitch, a younger American who found the Craft through the St. Clairs. He confirmed that their interest in magic predated their Gardnerian initiation.

"When I first walked into their house down at the end of Skyline Drive in Richmond (California) in 1964, the hardwood floor had a triple circle with a pentagram inscribed in it. Me being the innocent, I figured, 'Oh, how very interesting,' And I saw the ceremonial sword on the wall, but I did not connect two and two to make four. The key thing about the circles on the floor is that that's not the way the Gardnerians would have done it. That is pre-Gardnerian, although it's conceivably out of High Magic's Aid. What they had there predated their association with the Bucklands."

Like the majority of 1960s Wiccans, Fitch made his initial connection through books. He had already read Gardner's Witchcraft Today; then, "I was living in Baltimore at the time with my parents after I got out of the Air Force the first time. When I started getting restless, I would go out to the airport and watch the planes go in and out. I browsed through their really good book section and came across Sign of the Labrys. I flipped through it, put it back on the shelf, took a couple steps, stopped, and said, 'Wait a second! Moon phases ... priestess ... this fits with what Gardner said and what Robert Graves said.' I read it carefully and said, 'Aha, this is the Craft.' I read it and re-read it. Once I began writing to Margaret in care of the publisher, I began a steady exchange of letters, and they invited me to come out and visit them. Late that year I did exactly that."

When Fitch rejoined the Air Force and was stationed in Massachusetts, "they sent a report on me to the Bucklands and said that I was good material for the Gardnerian Craft. I got a letter from Rosemary, and as soon as I got settled in at the air base, I contacted the Bucklands, went down [to Long Island] to pay them a visit and we were friends instantly. That was how Margaret and Eric got me connected in with the Craft."

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Fitch continued to visit the St. Clairs. "We would settle down and talk and talk and talk&emdash;they were willing to go all night, but I would start collapsing at about 3 a.m." Neither he nor Buckland remember them ever leading a coven. Childless by choice, bookish, both writers, the St. Clairs preferred their long-distance friendships to taking a hands-on role in the growing 1970s Pagan renaissance.

By then the St. Clairs were in their sixties, and as Fitch recalls, there was a certain generation gap between them and the new psychedelic Pagans. Not that they were prudes, he continued. They were well-traveled, stayed at nudist colonies, and "while they approved of a lot of the liberal attitudes, they disapproved of most of the people that were putting things forth and thought that they were pretty gauche. Also, they were 'hardshell Gardnerians,' I guess you'd say. About the time that they were initiated, we were all convinced that the Gardnerian Book of Shadows was cast in granite and that it had been that way with every word unchanged for centuries. We don't believe that anymore, but at that time, they did, and so they had a strong suspicion of anybody that would call himself or herself a Witch."

Nevertheless, Fitch said, "If anyone deserved the term 'elders,' they did."

The St. Clairs had also disconnected themselves somewhat from the Bay Area, moving to a new home on the Pacific coast near Point Arena. They had read Dion Fortune's novels The Sea Priestess and Moon Magic, and recreated their atmosphere in a house where every window had an ocean view.

Eric St. Clair died in 1987. Ed Fitch last saw Margaret in early 1994, a little more than a year before her death. "She was so very frail that afterwards [some other friends] and myself felt that she might not survive the trauma of when her old cat died. Her cat seemed to be the one friend that she still had left. More people should have visited her."

Perhaps Margaret St. Clair felt she had given away too much in Sign of the Labrys, for her subsequent novels were not so overtly Wiccan, even though a feminist Pagan outlook continued to inform them. Despite wearing the camouflage of the male-oriented "Golden Age of Science Fiction," she had always tended to deflate the heroic ego in her stories. Her "successful" male characters, like Sam Sewell, were skeptical and humble; when more heroic, grasping types defeated them, the long-term prognosis for humanity was going to be bad. Her 1949 story "Hathor's Pets" undercut the traditional "Golden Age" female characterizations: helpless, inferior, or evil. Although the narrator's sister "was never very logical" and hardly "violated the cult of feminine delicacy," she is a product of her times: "the government-sponsored cult of feminine modesty, chastity, and brainlessness in the late 1980s had put an end to [feminine intelligence and independence]. Nowadays a woman was a cross between a dripping sponge and a vegetable." Perhaps St. Clair was prophetess enough to foresee the rise of the Religious Right and Focus on the Family.

In The Dancers of Noyo she entered the sub-genre of Northern California After The Big Collapse, similar territory to that explored by Ursula LeGuin in her Always Coming Home or Ernest Callenbach in Ecotopia. Maybe she had witnessed some members of the Psychedelic Generation engaging in what we called at the time psychedelic fascism: "Be hip, or else." Dancers' world is divided into coastal tribes, back-to-the-land hippies who have aged and become the Mandarins, "all the old activists .... the most self-righteous generation since Queen Nefertiti." They enforce vision quests and the production of hallucinations upon the younger generation. "I've never been able to understand, though, why the Mandarins prize visual illusions so much," the young narrator says. ".....The trouble was that the people my own age, though they hated the whole mystic bit, confined their action against it to bitching.

Dancers is less Wiccan than Labrys but none the less magical. Its magic, however, is more shamanistic and bioregional than Gardnerian; after earthquakes and plagues, the children of the wannabe Indians are in fact beginning truly to inhabit the land. "It seemed to me that the legends were coming back," says the narrator, another Sam. "The coast was repeopling itself with figures from its ancient past .... The old ways were coming back." As in Sign of the Labrys, this Sam and his female companion must uncover and destroy an evil conspiracy.

St. Clair's 1981 story "Wryneck, Draw Me" (the title echoes a late Classical magical text) was bleaker, at least as far as humanity is concerned. I had encountered it years earlier in my reading, although I had forgotten its author's name. Its vision of a polluted, computerized world civilization that collapses into itself is bleak; humanity has failed, and coming to investigate the supercomputer that is the greatest work of humankind are "my adorable stripe-tailed darlings," a troop of raccoons. "The future is safe in nonhuman hands."

I am still looking for some of her other novels, including The Dolphins of Altair, written between Labrys and Dancers but on one of her favorite themes: how humans and other life might work to save the environment, and also the intriguingly titled Message from the Eocene (1969). But I figure that the Law of Attraction will bring them around one of these days. I keep checking the shelves.

Chas S. Clifton lives in the Wet Mountains of southern Colorado. He edited Llewellyn Publications' Witchcraft Today series, which included The Modern Craft Movement (1992), Modern Rites of Passage (1993), Witchcraft & Shamanism (1994), and Living Between Two Worlds (1996) and was the co-author with Evan John Jones of Sacred Mask, Sacred Dance. He is now writing a history of American Paganism tentatively titled Her Hidden Children for AltaMira Press.


Letter from Hardscrabble Creek" is a self-syndicated column furnished on a non-exclusive basis and copyright © 1997 by Chas S. Clifton.For more information, click here to send me E-mail.

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