A HYMN OF HATE
Margaret St. Clair, of Berkeley, California, writes: “I’ve been a good quiet uncomplainng reader of WEIRD TALES for about ten years—but the prospect of another story by Edmond Hamilton moves me to hysterical outcry. He makes me want to scream and bite my nails—’captured thirty-six suns’ indeed! His style is nothing but exclamation marks; his idea of drama is something involving a fantastic number of light-speeds; he is, in the words of one of my favorite comic strip characters, flies in my soup. He is science-fiction at its worst: all WEIRD TALES needs to make the science-fiction atmosphere perfect is a letter from Forrest J. Ackerman and a story by Hamilton. Oh, and another gripe—I dislike the blurbs you are printing at the first of the stories. They are just a waste of space. I hate vampire and werewolf stories—my blood refuses to congeal for any number of undead clammily hooting about. There was a time when I could be made to shiver by the mention of garlic, but now it’s just something to put in salad. Things like Shambleau are what I like. As long as WT prints stories by Clark Ashton Smith, however, I’ll keep on reading it. His tales have a rounded jewel-like self-containedness that is, artistically, a delight. … And Smith’s drawings are, I think, by far the best in the magazine. … In conclusion, Jules de Grandin is a pain in the neck.”
—WEIRD TALES, June 1934
Margaret St. Clair could be considered a peripheral member of the gang of writers commonly called “the Lovecraft Circle.” She met Clark Ashton Smith while a student at the University of California at Berkeley, and began corresponding with him as early as 1933. (Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 208n1) St. Clair broke into the pulps after World War II, and her stories graced the pages of Weird Tales beginning in 1950, one of the last new voices to find a home at the magazine before its inevitable demise.
“The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles” (first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Oct 1951), is one of Margaret St. Clair’s most famous stories. Her tale is inspired by and directly references Lord Dunsany’s own famous jocular fantasy “How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles” (The Book of Wonder, 1912). Dunsany was a substantial influence on Lovecraft’s early fiction, and some later writers have worked to tie the Lovecraft Mythos more directly to Dunsany, such as “My Boat” (1976) by Joanna Russ and “Meet Me on the Other Side” (2002) by Yvonne Navarro.
Margaret St. Clair is drawing directly from Dunsany here, pursuing her own homage to the British master of fantasy instead of trying to tie it into anything larger, expanding his Mythos but staying true to the spirit of the original story. There is something essential of Postwar America in the piece, a lightness of tone and a focus on money and its pursuit, with an ironic dark twist at the end reminiscent of Charles Addams’ The Addams Family and Robert Bloch’s light-hearted Mythos story “Philtre Tip” (1961).
Nuth looked on for a while from the corner of the house with a mild surprise on his face as he rubbed his chin, for the trick of the holes in the trees was new to him; then he stole nimbly away through the dreadful wood.
—Lord Dunsany, “How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon The Gnoles”
The gnoles were watching him through the holes they had bored in the trunks of trees; it is an artful custom of theirs to which the prime authority on gnoles attests.
—Margaret St. Clair, “The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles”
Dunsany has inspired any number of writers, Lovecraft not least among them. The error most writers make is trying to write like Dunsany, to capture something of his style. Like pasticheurs who ape the cosmetic aspects of Lovecraft’s prose and miss the deeper stylistic structures, themes, and philosophical underpinnings which make his fiction work. St. Clair here does not attempt pastiche, but homage: she pays reverence to Dunsany’s story and the details he gave, while writing her own, in her own voice.
Which is why this is one of the few “Dunsanian” stories which works.
It is not by any stretch of the imagination a story that Dunsany would have written, which is half the point. J. R. R. Tolkien once criticized Dunsany’s story “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”, also published in The Book of Wonder, lamenting:
Dunsany at his worst. Trying so hard for the shudder. But not for a moment making the tale ‘credible’ enough
Whether or not Dunsany was trying for a shudder or a chuckle, readers can decide for themselves. St. Clair by contrast was militantly angling for the lighter side, and the way in which she does so showcases, perhaps, how closely allied some of Lovecraft’s style of hinting was to Dunsany’s:
It was the parlor the gnole led him to. Mortensen’s eyes widened as he looked around it. There were whatnots in the corners, and cabinets of curiosities, and on the fretwork table an album with gilded hasps; who knows whose pictures were in it?
—Margaret St. Clair, “The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles”
The juxtaposition of the Gnoles, strange and terrible as they are, having a very British or American-style parlor full of knickknacks and an album is the same sort of intimate contrast of “the fields we know” and the exotic and impossible which is such a hallmark of Dunsany’s early work. St. Clair’s leading question is in line with the unspoken horrors which Tolkien was so displeased with and which Lovecraft often used to such great effect: letting the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks.
The gnoles, it seemed, would be regular customers; and after the gnoles, why should he not try the Gibbelins? They too must have a need for rope. (ibid.)
“The Hoard of the Gibbelins” immediately proceeds “Gnoles” in The Book of Wonder, and St. Clair’s references to it in this story could have been a step toward stitching together some of Dunsany’s standalone stories into something like a larger Mythos, though she never pursued such a design. It is something readers of Lovecraft take almost for granted—didn’t Lovecraft borrow elements from Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Robert W. Chambers (and Chambers himself from Ambrose Bierce)?
Certainly Margaret St. Clair, who was reading Weird Tales so early and so long, knew what she was doing.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).