I think it’s safe to say that, if not for that rather remarkable (and lengthy) chain of recommendations, I would probably have never read this slim volume — which, as far as I know, was published in 1963 and never seen again.
Sign of the Labrys is a post-apocalyptic tale of the sort commonly found in mid-20th century science fiction. What sets it apart is that it is also, although it doesn’t strictly look like it at first, science fantasy. (This becomes clear fairly quickly, but the exact reasons for its fantastical nature constitute a spoiler so drastic that I won’t even hint at it here.)
The ways in which Sign of the Labrys inspired Gygax’s dungeoncraft become both rapidly and intriguingly apparent: Sam Sewell, the protagonist of the tale, lives in a vast underground complex of modified caverns that was built as a refuge before the collapse of civilization. The apocalypse thinned out the population (killing nine in ten) and eradicated central authority, leaving behind vast catacombs of uninhabited space which small, spontaneous societies have repurposed in a variety of ways.
In short, Sign of the Labrys reads like a strange hybrid of Dungeons & Dragons and Metamorphosis Alpha. Here we find a clear predecessor of Castle Greyhawk: A multi-cultural, subterranean menagerie laid out in a pattern of levels and sub-levels connected by both the well-known thoroughfares and a plentitude of secret passages and hidden ladders.
This, by itself, would have made Sign of the Labrys a fascinating and worthwhile novel for a D&D afficionado like myself. But I also found the novel to be very entertaining in its own right. Addictive, in fact. It’s got a page-turning, pulpy pace mixed together with some nigh-poetic language and a strange, enigmatic mystery that leaves you yearning to know the answer.
Stylistically Sign of the Labrys reminds me quite favorably of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. It possesses the strange, otherworldly, and fantastical approach to matters of science fiction which characterizes the best of their work. Particularly Moore’s. Like Moore’s classic Jirel of Joiry stories, Sign of the Labrys reminds me of Alice in Wonderland smashed through the broken mirror of another genre’s conceits and set pieces. If I were to say that Sign of the Labrys periodically reads as if the author had taken a tab of LSD before sitting down at her typewriter it would not be wholly inaccurate. (It would, however, be rather less than charitable, as St. Clair’s writing is not merely a drug-induced rambling. In fact, it works consistently towards a larger stylistic and revelatory purpose.)
In the end, I found Sign of the Labrys to be delightfully entertaining. And since, like me, you are unlikely to encounter it by chance, I shall pass on the same recommendation that was given to me: From Gygax to AD&D to Grognardia to me to the Alexandrian and thus to you…
Find a copy if you can.
Margaret St. Clair
Publisher: Bantam Books
Cover Price: $0.60