Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Retro Review: "Garden of Evil" by Margaret St. Clair

Not an illustration of "Garden of Evil", but a white-washed Eric John Stark from Leigh Brackett's "Queen of the Martian Catacombs".
 

"Garden of Evil" by Margaret St. Clair is a planetary romance short story, which appeared in the summer 1949 issue of Planet Stories and is therefore eligible for the 1950 Retro Hugos, should they ever be held. The story may be found online here.

I came across this story when SFFAudio pointed out on Twitter that the entire summer 1949 issue of Planet Stories, including "Garden of Evil" was now public domain. And since I've enjoyed everything I've read by Margaret St. Clair so far, I decided to make it the subject of my next Retro Review.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following!

The story begins with a man called Ericson – we never learn his first name – waking  up after spending what appears to be several months in a haze. Ericson is not alone. There is a green-skinned woman named Mnathl with him, who gives him something to eat.

We gradually learn that Ericson is on a planet named Fyhon that is not unlike the Venus of the shared pulp science fiction solar system – a place of jungles and seas – except that it has sunshine on occasion. And in fact I suspect that the reason that Margaret St. Clair did not set her story on Venus is because her alien planet needed to have direct sunlight.

Ericson is an ethnographer supposed to study Fyhon and its people. He fell in love with the lush planet and decided to stay. All would have been well, if Ericson hadn't managed to get himself addicted to a drug called byhror, when he got lost in the jungles of Fyhon during a one-man expedition without supplies or food and had to resort to taking the drug to survive.

When we meet Ericson, he has just been through a lengthy and painful withdrawal and is clean for the first time in three years. Mnathl helped him to get clean by taking him to an otherwise deserted island, strapping him down and subjecting him to a combination of injections of human drugs and the healing properties of some local herbs. The treatment is extremely painful and makes Ericson intermittently violent.

The story made me curious whether medical addiction therapy was already a thing in the 1940s, so I did some research. The results, however, were inconclusive. Methadone, the most commonly used substitution drug, had been developed by German chemists in the late 1930s and was introduced to the US market in 1947, after the US had stolen (and yes, that's what it was) German patents and brand names post WWII, so it was already available by 1949. However, methadone was originally marketed as a painkiller and only was used for drug substitution therapy from the 1960s onwards. However, there had been other attempts at medical addiction therapy before, going back to the late 19th century. To help them get clean, addicts were injected with all sorts of substances such as cocaine, a solution of gold and strychnine in alcohol, bromide, insulin and even heroin with predictably horrible results. Was Margaret St. Clair familiar with such treatments? It's certainly possible.

Once Ericson is clean again, he is eager to get back to the human settlement of Penhairn and find a job. However, Mnathl insists that they instead go to a place called Dridihad in the unknown heart of the south polar continent of Fyhon. Ericson doesn't want to go to Dridihad, but he doesn't have any choice in the matter, for Mnathl injects him with a drug that saps his will. "Mnathl had made other things in her cooking pots besides soup", a resigned Ericson notes.

Mnathl's drug eventually wears off, but by now Ericson is no longer unwilling to go to Dridihad. After all, the ethnographic paper he plans to publish about this adventure will hopefully help to get him his old job back. Mnathl teaches Ericson how to kindle a fire and hunt, but she refuses to answer any questions about why they are going to Dridihad and what they will find there.

After a few days, Ericson and Mnathl come across a giant pyramid in the jungle. Ericson is fascinated, Mnathl less so. When he asks her who built the pyramid, Mnathl replies that her people built it.

More days pass and Ericson is bitten by a venomous snake. Once again, Mnathl saves him by sucking the poison from the wound, risking her own life in the process. If you're thinking by now that Mnathl is a little too good and too self-sacrificing to be true, you're not alone.

After sixty-six days, Ericson and Mnathl finally reach the foot of the plateau upon which the city of Dridihad lies. After a laborious climb up the plateau, the gates of Dridihad finally open for Mnathl and Ericson.

The people of Dridihad treat Ericson like a prince, while Ericson dreams of the fame and fortune his paper will bring him. After all, none of the human scientists on Fyhon even knew that there was such an ancient and populous city in the heart of the supposedly deserted south polar continent. Too bad that no one in Dridihad will give Ericson any writing materials.

When Mnathl reappears, she is dressed in splendid robes like a queen or a priestess. She takes Ericson hunting on the plateau, shows him around the city and takes him to a ritual in the main temple of Dridihad, which involves sacrificing an animal and eating it. Mnathl officiates at the ritual, which confirms Ericson's suspicions that she is a priestess.

Ericson also wonders why such an important personage even bothered to help an alien drug addict like him and comes to the conclusion that Mnathl is in love with him. This is a problem, because Ericson is not remotely attracted to her.

After several more days and more rituals, rituals which seem to be leading up to some kind of climax, Mnathl takes Ericson to the top of the pyramid-shaped temple. Ericson tries to have an awkward, "It's not you, it's me" conversation with her, but Mnathl blows him off and starts to laugh. She definitely does not love him, but instead wants Ericson to be the messenger of her people to the gods. "And then", Mnathl says, "we eat."

Mnathl's people, she tells him, became interested in Ericson when they heard of his ill-fated solo expedition into the interior of the continent. They were particularly fascinated by Ericson's unusual colouring, a combination of near golden tanned skin and blonde hair. And so they decided that he would be an excellent messenger to their gods and sent Mnathl to find him, nurse him back to health and bring him back to Dridihad.

Ericson now knows what his fate will be. Not only has he witnessed several religious rites by now, he also recalls a remark in another ethnographer's paper that the people of Fyhon are definitely not engaging in ritual cannibalism, which strikes him as very ironic.

However, Ericson is also remarkably resigned to his fate. After all, he is free of his drug addiction now and besides, he got the ethnographic experience of a lifetime, even if he never got to write that paper and never got tenure either. And so Ericson smiles, as the temple guards chop off his head. Mercifully, Margaret St. Clair spares us what comes after.

 

Margaret St. Clair in the 1940s

This is a fascinating story, in spite of the downer ending. On the one hand, it's pure pulp science fiction with a human explorer on an alien planet who falls in with an indigenous beauty and comes to a sticky end. And indeed, if you're the protagonist of a pulp science fiction story, it's never a good idea to hang out with alien women, no matter how beautiful, seductive and helpful they seem to be, because they will inevitably want to enslave you, steal your body, kill you or eat you. Just ask Northwest Smith and Eric John Stark, who narrowly escaped such a fate more than once. In fact, Eric John Stark escapes a similar fate in "Queen of the Martian Catacombs", the lead novella of that very same issue of Planet Stories.

However, Ericson is no Eric John Stark or Northwest Smith. He's a nerdy academic and a recovering drug addict besides. And indeed, the fact that the protagonist is a junkie makes "Garden of Evil" feel almost like a New Wave story from the 1960s at times. Not that the drugs never appeared in the science fiction and fantasy of the pulp era – indeed, a lot of SFF of the 1930s and 1940s is absolutely drug-soaked to the point that I'm glad all that stuff went over my head as a teenager. But while descriptions of alien landscapes may be nigh hallucinogenic and alien opium dens abound in golden age science fiction, the protagonists usually do not dabble in mind-altering substances.

In fact, the only other golden age science fiction story with a drug-addicted protagonist I can think of is Leigh Brackett's "The Moon That Vanished" from 1948 (the protagonist of Brackett's 1944 novelette "Terror Out Of Space" is also high as a kite on amphetamines for most of the story, but he's not an addict). Interestingly, "The Moon That Vanished" bears striking similarities to Margaret St. Clair's 1952 story "Island of the Hands", which I reviewed for Galactic Journey last year. In fact, I wonder whether Brackett and St. Clair knew each other, especially since they both lived in California at the same time, published in the same magazines and tackled similar themes.

Both Brackett and St. Clair deal with colonialism in many of their stories from the 1940s. "Garden of Evil" is no exception, because it's a story about indigenous people turning the tables on a western explorer. Even though he's an ethnographer, Ericson assumes a lot about the indigenous people of Fyhon, that they're primitive, but harmless, that they're stoic and unemotional, that Mnathl is in love with him, that her people definitely do not practice ritual cannibalism. Every single one of those assumptions is wrong. And what makes Ericson a target is his blonde hair and golden tanned skin.

Aliens in pulp science fiction are often stand-ins for indigenous people, usually the indigenous people of North America. "Garden of Evil" is an exception here, because the names, the religious practices and the pyramid-like temples are reminiscent of Central America. Furthermore, the drug that Ericson gets himself addicted to is a powerful natural stimulant found in a type of leaves native to Fyhon, which brings to mind cocaine.

Planet Stories is often dismissed as a purveyor of cliched space opera adventures and indeed, there are many of those to be found in its pages. However, even at its most cliched, the fiction in Planet Stories is always entertaining. Furthermore, the magazine also offered a home to stories, which did not fit the rather narrow editorial standards of the more upscale science fiction mags like Astounding or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which had only just started in 1949, or Galaxy, which would start up the following year and would never publish "that pulp stuff". Or can you imagine John W. Campbell publishing a story like "Garden of Evil", where the protagonist is a down and out drug addict (even if he also is a scientist), who does not triumph due to his human ingenuity, but instead loses his head at the end?

Margaret St. Clair is one of the neglected woman authors of the golden age (though her careers spans both the silver age and the New Wave as well and she kept writing into the early 1980s). I have no idea why she isn't better known, since Margaret St. Clair can easily stand alongside Leigh Brackett, C.L. Moore and Andre Norton with regard to quality of her fiction. She was also very versatile – more versatile than any of the others except maybe C.L. Moore with her work spanning science fiction, fantasy and horror and ranging from screwballs comedies like "The Sacred Martian Pig" (which I should really review for Retro Reviews sometime, since it's such a delightful story) to downers like "Garden of Evil".

Yet when her name comes up at all these days, it's usually in connection with Appendix N, the one page list of inspirational science fiction and fantasy authors and novels for further reading to be found in the back of the first Dungeon & Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide. Even though the Dungeon Masters Guide was published more than forty years ago, there has been a renewed interested in works listed in Appendix N in the past few years. And whenever Appendix N is discussed, Margaret St. Clair is often mentioned as the most obscure author on the list (here is a recent example), though personally I find several others (John Bellairs, Sterling Lanier, Andrew J. Offutt) more obscure.

Like many of Margaret St. Clair's stories, "Garden of Evil" has never been reprinted, which is a pity because it's a fascinating story which combines the adventure of pulp science fiction with the sensibilities of the New Wave. Highly recommended.

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