“The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles” (1951) by Margaret St. Clair

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’ inded! 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. 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.

But 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).

“Meet Me on the Other Side” (2002) by Yvonne Navarro

Bethmoora,” Paul said. “And no, it’s not Israeli. Actually, the roots aren’t traceable to any specific language or dialect. But it’s still…foreign.”
– Yvonne Navarro, “Meet Me on the Other Side” in The Children of Cthulhu 141

Four million people asleep, dreaming perhaps. What worlds have they gone into? Whom have they met? But my thoughts are far off with Bethmoora in her loneliness, whose gates swing to and fro. To and fro they swing, and creak and creak in the wind, but no one hears them.
– Lord Dunsany, “Bethmoora” in A Dreamer’s Tales (1910)

A few years after the birth of the 21st century, Anglo-Irish aristocrat Lord Dunsany was inspired to create his own artificial mythology⁠—not a substitute national mythos a la J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but something new and largely unprecedented. He combined the love of the commonplace with the desire for the exotic, and wrapped it together in language reminiscent of the King James Bible and ancient Grecian odes. Stories like “Idle Days on the Yann” directly inspired the dream-quests of Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter…and many others besides.

For Yvonne Navarro, the questers are Paul and Macy.

“Meet Me on the Other Side” is smarter than just an update of Dunsany’s old formula where seekers tired of mundane life look for the key of dreams, the path that leads Beyond the Fields We Know, escape from the here and the now. Like many a goof Mythos story, it mixes fact with fiction; Paul first finds reference to Bethmoora in that ancient and terrible tome the Encyclopedia Cthulhiana (1994) by Dan Harms. The questers too are not run down by everyday life—they’re thrill-seekers, adventurers, explorers in their own right.

Bethmoora was out there, all right. Just waiting to be rediscovered.
Revitalized.
And they were just the people to do it.
– Yvonne Navarro, “Meet Me on the Other Side” in The Children of Cthulhu 144

The discoveries and revelations when they come are almost perfunctory; old tropes dusted off and brought out because that’s the cycle of a Mythos story: Macy is the latest Lavinia, destined for a bit of cosmic miscegenation and birthing of eldritch abominations. Yet the response is different, and what makes the story.

Paul and Macy like a challenge.

Navarro is an old pro at genre fiction; she could easily have spun this story off into an entire novel. Urban explorers in the not-quite-abandoned city in the Dreamlands, flashbacks to old adventures, the slow peeling-of-the-onion, one layer of revelation coming at a time as things build inevitably to a climax—instead, she rips the bandaid off in a couple paragraphs of exposition. The backstory is something Mythos fans have read again and again for decades. “Meet Me on the Other Side” seeks to give the readers something new, and it delivers.

The benefit of having tropes and formula is that they’re building blocks, stepping stones and shortcuts that writers can use to go beyond—and one of the great failures of many Mythos writers is that they try to only ape Lovecraft or Dunsany, to regurgitate old ideas rather than to subvert expectations or push forward with fresh takes.

Navarro does make the leap. How many other writers have had their protagonists look on conceiving and birthing tentacled horrors and the inevitable end of the world as a challenge? It is absolutely a subversion of the typical Lovecraftian attitude that humans are so small in the grand scheme of things that there is little they can do…and not an unwelcome one. The Dreamlands stories do not all embrace or express Lovecraft’s cosmicism, nor need every echo of his work embrace nihilistic horror.

“Meet Me on the Other Side” was published in The Children of Cthulhu (2002), and has not been reprinted. Navarro’s other Lovecraftian fiction includes the novelization of the film Hellboy (2004) and “Feeding the Masses” (1992) and “WWRD” (2018).


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“My Boat” (1976) by Joanna Russ

I’d always thought Alan was pretty much a fruitcake himself—remember, Milty, this is 1952—because he used to read all that crazy stuff, The Cult of Cthulhu, Dagon Calls, The Horror Men of Lengyeah, I remember that H. P. Lovecraft flick you got ten percent on for Hollywood and TV and reruns—but what did we know?
Joanna Russ, “My Boat” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990) 360

The trick of “My Boat” is that Joanna Russ is not telling the same story. The frame is a kind of confession, Hollywood pitch-patter, cynical and jaded and full of bad taste. The confession itself opens as a kind of bildungsroman, focused on the integration of a handful of black teenagers into a rich, all-white highschool, and one drama club kid tagging along. Then there’s the twist, with the title-drop, into straight fantasy; shades of magical realism, skirting the edges of the Dreamlandsbut the narrator isn’t ready. Scoot ahead twenty years, 1972, and it’s a story about regret, missed opportunities realized at lastand the frame comes back around around, past catching up to the present.

It’s a story about lost youth. Intimately, if not directly, it’s a story about H. P. Lovecraft.

H. P. Lovecraft’s novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was never published during his lifetime. Lovecraft who was inspired by his dreams to write some of his most famous stories. Who took inspiration from Lord Dunsany’s “Idle Days on the Yann” and built up his own cycle of stories set in a mythical Dreamlands—”The Cats of Ulthar,” “Celephaïs,” “The White Ship,” etc.—which tied back around and into his “Arkham Cycle,” stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” and At the Mountains of Madness. Yet there is a sequel to “Idle Days on the Yann,” which is echoed in Lovecraft as well:

For I thought never again to see the tide of Yann, but when I gave up politics not long ago the wings of my fancy strengthened, though they had erstwhile drooped, and I had hopes of coming behind the East once more where Yann like a proud white war-horse goes through the Lands of Dream. Yet I had forgotten the way to those little cottages on the edge of the fields we know whose upper windows, though dim with antique cobwebs, look out on the fields we know not and are the starting-point of all adventure in all the Lands of Dream.
—Lord Dunsany, “A Shop in Go-By Street”

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

“My Boat” is a sequel to the idea of those stories, Lovecraft and Dunsany. Like Russ’ earlier story “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) it is also self-referential. Lovecraft lived, wrote some fiction, and died. The characters are familiar with his works, at least in passing. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is just a weird novel, to a kid in 1952. A fantasy. A dream that teenagers grow out of… and that grown people might try to reclaim, once they’re older and wise enough to realize what they’d missed.

I think Cissie knew what I expected her mamma to be and what a damned fool I was, even considering your run-of-the-mill, seventeen-year-old white liberal racist, and that’s why she didn’t take me along.
Joanna Russ, “My Boat” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990) 369

Russ was a woman and a feminist; she was a science fiction fan and writer in a period when the majority of the writers, audience, and editors were white menand for good measure, most of the protagonists too; their love-interests tended to blonde, whether Terran or Martian. She was a perceptive enough critic to know that, and to be able to use it. The race and gender of her small cast of characters says a lot about them, with no apologies.

Jim, the narrator, is a cutting depiction of a young white man who isn’t aware enough of his own prejudices to know that stereotypes aren’t true; Cecilia “Cessie” Jackson doesn’t have that luxury. We don’t get to see Jim grow up, exactly, but hearing his 37-year-old self talk about his 17-year-old self, we see the older Jim is wise enough to be honest and cynical about how wrong he was then. And we get to see a young black woman, mentally scarred by the traumatic murder of her father, not needing any white man to help or heal her.

This is a story that would have been difficult to write before the death of August Derleth in 1970. It’s not just that it references the integration of schools, segregation being officially outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or Malcolm X who was assassinated in 1965. It’s a Mythos story that lives in the shadow of the Civil Rights movement, but which looks back at an earlier decade with jaded eyes, looking for what it missed the first time around.

In a Lovecraftian sense, Cessie Jackson is a very different kind of dreamer. Randolph Carter lost the key to the Dreamlands; Dunsany’s unnamed narrator could no longer sail on the River Yann. They both became too mired in mundane life and realitybut not her. Jim is the Lovecraftian protagonist, and Cessie Jackson initiates him into a world he had not even guessed at…and then she makes the transition that Jim is afraid to make. That’s the key and the catalyst to the plot, what drives the older Jim in the final act. How vapid and empty is the agent’s pitch for the “beautiful blonde girl Martian” compared to the strange reality that was Cessie Jackson, the plain-looking black girl with natural hair?

It took fourteen years for “My Boat” to find its way into a Mythos anthology, the revised edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990). That is perhaps less surprising when you look at the kinds of Mythos anthologies being publishedup until Derleth’s death, Arkham House had an effective monopoly, interspersing Lovecraft stories with contemporary works, pastiches, posthumous collaborations, culminating in the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969). “My Boat” is an odd fit if filed next to 1930s pulp reprints or pastiches of the same; forty years on Joanna Russ’ still feels relevant and timely today.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)