RETROSPECTIVE: The Shadow People by Margaret St. Clair

Monday , 3, August 2015 9 Comments

The cover on this one is outrageously mismatched to its actual content. There simply isn’t a Conan clone to be found within the pages of this book. There’s not even anything remotely like a swords and sorcery tale here. It’s as if in 1969, Robert E. Howard had defined fantasy in the minds of typical fans to such an extent that this was the only way to really market a work like this. Either that… or the publisher just had this artwork sitting around and elected to save money by not getting something more appropriate. Either way, if you ever needed a canonical example of why you can’t judge a book by its cover… this is it!

The novel is really about a couple of hipsters in Berkeley which is just about the last thing I’d look for in a book featuring a heroic barbarian.

We did not consider ourselves members of the hip community, though I suppose an outsider would have– I worked on the staff of the local hip newspaper and had a luxuriant mustache, and Carol was ambitious in noncommercial film making. We rarely turned on with anything. (pages 5-6)

And this isn’t quite the “real” world, either. America in this setting is becoming more and more of a police state, primarily due to a hysteria over drug use. The rednecks from “Easy Rider” are pretty much in charge of everything. There are riots and food shortages and oppressive bureaucracies powered by building sized computers. Much of this would be well in line with extrapolations of late sixties social upheaval, but Margaret St. Clair takes it further by introducing robot enforcers:

I had taken a zigzag course through the night, hiding in shadows, listening for the patrol, and trying to avoid the sensors of the robofuzz.

The machine caught up with me on Durant. In quite a pleasant mechanical voice, it told me to halt. Then it sprayed me with a paralyzing nerve gas and felt around my neck with its protheses for the Id disk that ought to have been hanging there.

For some reason, perhaps that I had eaten so much atter-corn, the paralysant had no effect on me. I shoved Merlin’s sword through the grid that covered the thing’s viewer and shorted it out in a shower of sparks. (page 92)

Admittedly the “robofuzz” are not a major component of the plot. St. Clair blithely introduces them and then hardly even revisits the theme again. Nevertheless, they provide quite a shock to anyone expecting a straight ahead fantasy story. And they’re not the sole science fiction element incorporated here, either. Merlin is just short of being some kind of space alien:

“Who was Merlin, though? You surely don’t mean the enchanter in the Arthurian romance?”

“No-o-o.” Fay seemed to arrange her thoughts. “I think Merlin was a great– magician– who visited our Earth between two and three thousand years ago. I suppose the character of the Arthurian Merlin was ultimately derived from him.”

“You said ‘visited our earth.’ Where did the Merlin of the sword come from? Outer space?”

Fay wrinkled up her nose. “No, upper space. Do you remember how, in the basement, it seemed that a greater world than ours was impinging on us? I think that greater world is what Merlin came from. The Macrocosmos.” (page 145)

But again, as with the “robofuzz”, this doesn’t really come into the story all that much, either. The focus is squarely on a psychedelic iteration of Elfland called “Underearth”. Entrances to this place are scattered around the world and the passages through cellars and caves seem to violate conventional notions of space and geometry. Elves routinely journey to our world to do anything from pilfering food, to making rat-like noises in the walls of peoples’ houses, to kidnapping women and forcing them to serve as a wetnurse for their young.

As with many fairy tales, there is a prohibition involved with interactions with this mythical place:

“The most important thing is not to eat or drink while you are gone. Remember that…. You must take food and water with you. Don’t be tempted to eat what you find or what they offer you.” (page 22)

A reddish meal is found in tins scattered throughout the underworld and they are regularly replenished. A person that eats this food of the elves will probably never leave Underearth again. Its effect on people is to first get them high, then cause them to have vivid hallucinations that they’re one animal after another, and then to finally induce a period of prolonged misery. In the aftermath of its primary effects, the user be overcome with fatigue and will usually find a cleft in the caves to crawl into and go into period of hibernation.

The attercorn is not sustaining in and of itself. Elves and men whose diet consists entirely of that meal will eventually become so ravenously hungry for meat, they will be driven to cannibalism. Meanwhile, even if someone can some escape Underearth after consuming attercorn, they will suffer debilitating withdrawal symptoms that range from weakness to severe muscle cramps, and on to seizures and worse. This of course has even more dangerous complications out in the “Bright World”:

“Two or three months ago,” he said, “an interesting sample came into my hand. It was an ounce or so of some reddish cereal, coarsely ground, and it had a bitter taste. It was said to be a powerful intoxicant. I turned it over to our– to some chemists I know– and they were interested.”

I felt a thrill of alarm. “You say ‘a sample came into my hands,” I said, enunciating carefully. “Who gave it to you? What was the source?”

“Oh, a man who worked for one of my employers. His name was Hood. I don’t know where he got it originally. Anyhow, the chemists got working on it. They were interested, very interested. They ran a lot of tests on it.”

Sweat was running down my back. That Howie had narcotics-bureau connections was news, and bad news….

“What’s this got to do with us?” Carol asked. I doubt Howard noticed the tremor in her voice.

“I want more of that meal,” he said. “An ounce doesn’t go very far when there are a lot of tests to run on it. Also, I want information on the conditions under which the meal was produced. The chemists say the reddish color probably comes from some fungus growing on the grain. What were the conditions under which it grew? You see what I mean.” (pages 164-165)

Strange magic is not the domain of Underearth alone, however. The dytopian America of this story is a place where moderately “hip” people can scry with a tumbler of Spanish sherry in order to get a solid lead for whatever adventure hook they’re stumped on. Ordinary guys can get surprisingly accurate readings just laying down Tarot cards and giving them a fumbling “textbook engineer” read.

But the elves of this story are especially strange. They are not the pointy eared Vulcan supermen of typical fantasy fare of today. Neither are they the dainty, elegant sprites of the Cottingley Fairy hoax. They are weird, frightening creatures that live in an underworld where they are on an almost perpetual bad trip. The only reason they come out into our world at all is because they have the munchies. The weirdest thing about them– and I almost have trouble even imagine this– is that they don’t have any bones. They almost couldn’t get any weirder except that they also follow some kind of fairy story logic:

Carol said, “Didn’t Fay say something once about a way of compelling elves to an exchange of gifts?”

“I think so,” I said. “It was when she was having dinner with us once, and she said– umh– yes, I remember.”

I took an even firmer grip on the elf and bent down so my face was only a few inches from its own. “As I to thee, thou to me,” I said as impressively as I could.

The elf blinked three or four times and then looked away from me. But it had blinked; I found the pine cone I had been chipping at, and held it out to the creature. Reluctantly and slowly, it took the cone and stowed it away somewhere in its clothing.

“Give me what you brought,” I told it.

The elf didn’t move. Well, I hadn’t thought this was going to be so easy as Fay had made it sound. “Give me what Fay sent us,” I said. And when it still didn’t show any sign of obeying, I added, “I command you by the hilt and power of Merlin’s sword.”

That did it. (pages 186-187)

Whether your idea of fantasy is something more in line with seventies era heroic fantasy or eighties style Tolkien pastiche, this book is likely to be a shock. It’s just so different. In a lot of ways, it’s very much in line with how C. S. Lewis set up his Narnia stories. There are elements here that are straight out of older works like The King of Elfland’s Daughter and The Broken Sword… but it’s jolting to see them applied in a more contemporary context. It’s also surprising to see this sort of thing done in something other than a “young adult” format. Just as fairy tale lore was once relegated to the nursery, we have largely reserved this type of storytelling as a vehicle for the adventures of school aged children.

Saying that will of course invite counterexamples from more recent authors– Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett not least among them. And it may be the case that readers of fantasy are just not going to be that impressed by some of these older works. In gaming, however, I believe the culture shock is liable to be much more pronounced. And even though D&D was itself inspired by a wildly diverse range of fantasy and science fiction, it nevertheless is the culprit here.

The thing that I would pinpoint as the real kicker here would be the page on designing a wilderness from the old Cook/Marsh Expert rule book. Consider these headings from page X54:

A. Decide on a Setting
B. Draw a Map of the Area
C. Place the Dungeon and the Base Town
D. Locate Areas Under Human Control
E. Place Areas Under Non-Human Control
F. Outline the Base Town
G. Fill in Important Details and Points of Interest
H. Create Special Encounter Tables and General Lairs

Now, I hasten to say that there’s nothing especially wrong with this. In fact, to have a great summer of gaming, all you really need is part “C”. Placed into a moderately detailed wilderness environment as described here, you can run a campaign for years in this sort of framework. Judged solely on the amount of time that people have dedicated to playing this style of game, this is easily the most significant idea to hit tabletop gaming in the past fifty years.

The thing that concerns me most here is part “A”:

The DM should decide what the area will be like overall. It may be mountains or steppes, woods or desert. It may be based on a fantasy novel or created entirely by the DM.

It’s pretty clear that this passage is concerned almost entirely with the purely naturalistic aspects of terrain. All of the many things that could play into what we mean by “setting” are omitted from discussion here. The implication is that the the DM will simply lean on the classes, races, and monsters of the core rules and pretty well take the overall implied setting of the game at face value. And this makes sense given that this is a follow up to the introductory product that was designed to ease new players into gaming without the benefit of being initiated by someone that had sat in at least once with veterans of the Geneva, Wisconsin sessions.

Nevertheless, it’s often the things that people take on uncritically in this manner that most impacts the way that they view things. And it’s a fact that even though the game emerged from such wildly diverse inspirations, there’s nothing really here to put the gamer in touch with the kind of creativity that inspired the game in the first place. It’s gone, really. And what’s worse, there’s nothing here that really indicates that it’s gone, either.

But maybe I’m expecting too much from an intentionally simplified product. That’s fair to say. But you can see this overriding philosophy carry over into later, more sophisticated supplements as well. Consider this passage on setting design from The Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide:

A few fundamental decisions must be made before the world design can properly begin. The scope of the campaign must be determined so that the DM knows what to define. An underground campaign, for example, requires little detailing of continents, seas, and nations on the surface world. A city, town, or village location is probably still necessary if the PC’s are themselves surface dwellers– this provides them with a base of operations. (page 100)

That exact same sequence from the Expert book is still the main driving force here. And note that when the question of fundamentals is addressed here, little more than geography is what’s being referred to. Granted, this is still a very focused supplement for a very focused game system. Yet, I don’t see the kind of breakdown I’m looking for in a much more comprehensive book like GURPS Fantasy Fourth Edition, either.

Now the first edition of that tome consisted of a magic system and a single setting that was a pretty good fit for the earliest incarnation of the game. This latest iteration tackles the whole of fantasy. However, as is often the case with GURPS, you pretty well have to know what you want beforehand in order to make the toolkit produce the sort of thing you’re looking for. The sections on genre and setting are so concise, there’s time for little else than to name drop a few signature authors, for instance. And though the information that’s contained here is solid and hits most all of the major themes, the impression that the material leaves is that all of these different types of fantasy amount to little more skins to overlay on the GURPS engine.

What’s really needed here is for more of the dials and options involved with setting design to be exposed. And that’s why I think Margaret St. Clair’s offbeat novel is so useful as gaming inspiration. It’s so far out of the range of what most people even tend to think of as fantasy that it can make people think about things that they don’t even realize that they are taking for granted. Following her lead, here are a few things I would pay especial attention to when creating a setting for fantasy gaming:

  1. How the Milieu is Connected to the Real World — Establishing the setting’s relationship to the real world was once de rigueur, but this is increasingly seen as optional. Just as one example, this was the first thing that was done to AD&D when it was adapted to Saturday morning cartoons, but it doesn’t have to be kid stuff. On ABC’s “Lost”, it was the mundane details of everyone’s backstories that gave meaning to the action on the Island. An ongoing traffic between Elfland and the real world is not something you tend to see due to its inherently elusive nature, but that’s one thing that we get to see in The Shadow People.
  2. Science Fiction Elements — Margaret St. Clair could drop Robocop into the middle of her fantasy novel like it was no big deal. And even Tolkien had his share of anachronisms. Truth be told, neither Lobelia’s umbrella, Bilbo’s waistcoat, Sam Gamgee’s potatoes, nor Denethor’s heathen kings belonged in his mythic past setting. Science fiction does not have to be off limits! And there can be more to it than just the presence of laser pistols and powered armor.
  3. The Nature of Elves — It interesting how dropping hobbits and their ilk from a setting has significant impact on the overall tone of a fantasy game. But if you start messing around with elves, there’s no telling what will happen. They’re that elemental, that fundamental to peoples’ views of how fantasy should be. And if you’re the sort of person that’s irritated with how vampires and werewolves have lost their edge over the years, it’s well to remember that elves got the “sparkle” treatment far earlier.¹
  4. What is at stake? — If the worlds of elves and men collide, there is bound to be conflict. Too often, elves simply remain in their forests providing an endless supply of player characters for adventuring groups to throw into the maw of the nearest dungeon. While Lord Dunsany and Poul Anderson both showed how interactions with Elfland could spill over onto significant changes on the campaign map, Margaret St. Clair keeps things focused here on an individual kidnapping victim. This wasn’t actually sufficient for the publisher, though– their back cover blurb implies that the drug addict elves are planning to subjugate all mankind and reduce them to being mere cattle!
  5. Cosmology — This one has suffered the most over the past few decades. Part of this was that there was a period in the eighties where more realism was the answer to practically every gaming problem. Eliminating a spiritual dimension was often justified as a means to avoiding offending people, and some of the stranger aspects of fantasy got toned down by people that thought they could better avoid trouble. While I can see the pull of that sort of thinking, if there should be a default for fantasy setting design, it is that creators should at take a stab at coming up with some kind of cosmology for it. Certainly, the creatures that populate the fantasy world will have their own views on how reality is organized. Margaret St. Clair’s breakdown between Middle Earth, the Underearth, and the Overworld is a venerable and very workable approach that can serve as a great starting point if you don’t know where to begin.

A lot of game masters today have radically different assumptions about fantasy than what Margaret St. Clair had. But the thing is… Gary Gygax had more in common with her than with most of us! Questions of cosmology were front and center for him, from the player’s choice of alignment to the various planes of that corresponded to them in the game’s multiverse. The iconic cover of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide depicts “three adventurers and an efreet on the Elemental Plane of Fire”. If that’s not epic enough, the back cover depicts “the fabled City of Brass… floating over a flame-swept sea of oil.” I know for myself that over the years I would have hesitated to take a group of players to such places– my own imagination just wasn’t up for the job. But after sitting down and reading the books that inspired the game’s contributors in the first place, I have to say that that sort of thing really does seem to be in line with how the game was meant to be played.

¹ A naturalistic approach such as was done in Underworld: Evolution reduces vampires and werewolves to goth-themed superheroes whose battles reflect the action of a first person shooter more than anything else. The movie version of Legolas is little different.

This page AD&D Players Guide indicates that the game has infinite possibilities, sprawling out beyond the confines of dungeon, wilderness, and even domain level play:

This incredibly famous cover takes– now socially unacceptable for three distinct reasons– is an illustration of gameplay taking place on the Elemental Plane of Fire. Individual DM’s may have elected to pass over exploring this aspect of the game, but in Gary Gygax’s view, it was central:

Here is the City of Brass and a sea of oil, a locale for truly epic level play:

  • Cirsova says:

    One thing I’m coming to realize is that what everyone is calling “gonzo” is actually pretty bog-standard D&D if you go by the inspirational materials.

    • Jeffro says:

      Gonzo was practically the default setting. It was displaced first by derivative sword & sorcery and then by Tolkien pastiche. A touchstone of pink slime is the rejection of “weird” in favor of “realism” and/or “naturalism”.

      • Cirsova says:

        D&D is that moment when a Barbarian steps onto an elevator for the first time and shouts “I, Valeron Barbaros car Nadh called Mighty, Warlord of Branarius, command you to close,” at the automatic doors.

  • Astrosorceror says:

    My thoughts on campaign settings: The first part of the campaign either needs to be familiar, yet strange (so that the players can comprehend what is going on) or strange and majestic to shock the players into the awe to come. The problem with the latter is the need to deliver soon, or they will get grumpy.

    A good compromise I’ve found is to start with the familiar and strange, and hint, show a glimpse of, the wonder potentially to come. Then, slowly accelerate the wonders and scale of what they are dealing with.

    This works with sci-fi too, I find.

    • cirsova says:

      Warmech showing up as a random secret boss on the final dungeon of the original Final Fantasy makes so much more sense now.

      Especially given the context wherein the implied D&D setting is an alien world after the fall of an interstellar empire…

  • Kenny Cross says:

    I only ever get nostalgic for old time D&D when I see the AD&D original covers of the DMG, Players Handbook, the original Monster Manual and two other books, Deities & Demigods and the picture of the Githyanki on the Fiend Folio.

    A great post Jeffro.

  • The Shadow People is about human beings stumbling upon the dark fairy world that exist just behind the walls of certain places in the world, whe 1000 re twisted, emaciated elves lay in wait, plotting the downfall of the world above. Addicted to hallucinogenic fungi, their plots often go awry thanks to their penchant for treachery against their own kind, a trait that has probably saved humanity far more than outright heroics against the dark elves.

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