The Sign of the Labrys (1963)

I was excited to read The Sign of the Labrys (1963) because Margaret St. Clair’s novel The Shadow People (1969) was such a punch in the face. Alas, Labrys doesn’t reach the same heights for me. It is still good, though, and strange.

The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic US where 90% of the world’s population (and many plants and animals) have been killed off by a plague of killer yeast. Most people now live underground in a vast, man-made complex. Sam Sewell is one of them, though he works on the surface, using a bulldozer to bury corpses. He soon becomes embroiled in a quest to find a witch (in the Wiccan sense) and stop the FBY from…something. It isn’t entirely clear but it involves world domination. Neither is what FBY stands for ever explained – Federal Bureau of Yeast? Anyway, they wear purple and have access to a diluted form of Wiccan magic. Which works a bit more like fantasy magic than it does in the real world (presumably). You can probably make a case for the magic here informing some of D&D’s enchantment and illusion spells.

Anyway, this novel is on Gygax’s list in Appendix N and, despite the psychedelic drugs and surreal visions and rat tides, there are some clear inspirations for D&D in Sign of the Labrys. First, like Shadow People, it goes a long way to explain D&D’s preoccupation with fungus – there are mushrooms, molds and yeasts everywhere.

More crucial is the underground complex, arranged in alphabetical levels (that word!), going ever downward, while getting stranger and more dangerous as they do. “It is important to understand what a level is,” says the book. “It is not much like a floor in an office building. A level may be a hundred or a hundred and fifty feet deep, and subdivided into several tiers.” That’s a description of a D&D dungeon if I’ve ever seen one, which is important, because D&D dungeons are strange places that are unique to the game – there aren’t many, if any, comparable examples in the real world and very few in literature. Certainly none so close as the one in Sign of the Labrys. So there you go: the origin of one of the two Ds!

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