Sign of the Labrys — Margaret St. Clair (1963)


Publisher: Bantam Books

First Bantam Edition, August 1963

Cover Art: William George

Plot Synopsis (of cover): Dire financial times have fallen across two young lovers. It was not a fantastic year for Mindy’s stationary store, and Mark’s self-published book of beat poetry was not selling enough to make end’s meet. Nevertheless, their three-year anniversary was upon them, and the couple refused to be undercut by their fiscal burden. They managed to plan, within their budget, a patchwork magical day sewn together with Groupons and public exhibits. However, the night was not progressing as they had hoped. They had both lost their shoes on the rusty Ferris wheel at the state fair, and a bird had messed Mark’s vintage “Frankie Says Relax” t-shirt outside Denny’s, forcing him to abandon it. The last hope to resurrect the evening was the open-air performance of Henry V at the local park. Sadly, the avant garde nature of this particular interpretation was not to the couple’s tastes, though perhaps they were a little harsh in their dismissal. While it is true that the mostly-rat cast seemed incapable of expressing the depth of emotion required to produce a coherent narrative, the homeless man’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech was quite stirring.

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: This book tries reeeeeeeeally hard to blend a dystopian high-technology future with Wiccan folklore. It mostly does a bad job at it, for various reasons. There’s a lot of hallucinating, a lot of drug use, and, given that the protagonist’s favorite foodstuff is fungus that grows on the walls, it’s entirely possible that none of the things happening in the narrative are as they appear to be. Sounds right up my alley, and it is, but this book is less than 140 pages long and moves so quickly through its explanations of what’s happening that I found myself flipping back and forth trying to figure out if a) I missed something, or b) I’d accidentally grabbed the abridged version. It approaches greatness—weaponized yeast alone justifies a closer look—but falls short because it’s… short. And that’s where the problem with the Wicca comes in. Now, I’m a staunch skeptic, but I’ve been to a couple of Beltane bonfires in my early college days, more than enough to know that St. Clair is really excited to put her knowledge of actual Wiccan principles to use here. However, she’s  built a rich universe that she already doesn’t have room to describe in the novella format she’s chosen. Adding magic-with-a-k to it caused this reader to whiskey-tango-foxtrot more often than he should’ve had to. After the setup, essential plot points are given cursory brushes-off, to the point where it’s insulting to itself. All complaining aside, it’s still a pretty fun read. You can get through it in a few hours, if that’s your thing. And you should also look up Margaret St. Clair herself, who is quite the character. One last bonus bit: click here to see the amazing back cover of the book. My female readers should then leave a comment re: any buried memories they may have of humankind’s obscure and ancient past.

Rating: 7.2 Double-Brained Dogs

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

* Is that a fur loincloth, or a butt-hair comb-over?

* There’s probably a bunch of rat turds on the floor—do you suppose people regret not wearing shoes?

* Should someone tell Hugh Jackman that he’s kinda let himself go?

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