Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, November 23, 2012


The Green Queen by Margaret St. Clair (1956)

[Here's last week's intended Forgotten Book.]

The Green Queen, St. Clair's second published book, is an expanded version of her novella "Mistress of Viridis," which was published in the final issue of Ray Palmer's Universe Science Fiction magazine in March 1955 -- something that may help explain the book's weaknesses.  Palmer was as much a huckster as he was an editor, publisher, or author.  Reaching about four feet tall and a hunchback, Palmer was an enthusiatic science fiction fan and author who talked his way (with the help of a recommendation by SF author Ralph Milne Farley) into the editorship of Amazing Science Fiction magazine.  Palmer immediately turned that staid magazine into a wild and garish vehicle for juvenile space opera.  To the disgust of many science fiction fans, Palmer's Amazing was an immediate hit and the magazine's sales figures went through the roof.  Writing skills took a distant second place to action for Palmer's lurid pulp sensabilities.  I'm pretty sure Palmer never met a pseudo science he didn't like; I'm not that sure he believed in all the stuff he promoted.  He cofounded Fate, a magazine that deified pseudo science.  He started the whole flying saucer craze when he cowrote and published Kenneth Arnold's The Coming of the Saucers.  Through his interest in spritualism, he published an unabridged edition of the Oahspe Bible (the first full repint since 1888) written by dentist John Newbrough via "automatic writing."  He fervently supported and publicized the "Shaver Mystery," which proposed the existence of an underground race that controlled the world, and parts of which may have been absorbed into L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology.  In later life, he promoted a man who claimed to be a not-killed-by-Robert-Ford Jesse James.  By 1955, though, Palmer's science fiction career was drawing to an end and the science fiction magazines he edited were uninfluential and struggling.

Case in point, this final issue of Universe Science Fiction.  (The magazine would continue under the name Other Worlds Science Stories, bringing back a title of one of the science fiction magazines Palmer edited prior to Universe Science Fiction;  This incarantion ran for another twelve issues, when Palmer changed the title [once again] and the focus as Flying Saucers From Other Worlds.)  A look at the contents of the final Universe is revealing.  Besides  the St. Clair novella, the issue had six very short stories, including one by Palmer ("The Atomic Age...Sex Murders" -- Palmer did like sensationalism), one by T. P. Caravan (who published a total of seventeen stories, thirteen of which were published by Palmer and one of those thirteen was published without the author's knowledge or payment), and four stories that could well have been written by Palmer under pen names -- three of the four were credited to authors whose only stories appeared in that issue; the fourth author is credited with two stories, one in this issue and one in the previous issue.  All minor stories marked by haste and little editorial interaction.

"The Mistress of Viridis" (disclaimer:  I have not read the original story) was expanded the following year and published as one half of an Ace Double as The Green Queen.  (It was backed by a reprint of Thomas Calvert McClary's 1938 3 Thousand Years.)  The Ace Doubles are very collectable and the publishing line came out with many good and important books, but also produced a number of slap-dash clunkers.  The Green Queen comes across as slap-dash while avoiding a complete clunker status.  The book (and I presume the original magazine version) needed a sure editorial hand and, had it not had fit into Ace's length restrictions, could have benefited by a further expansion by about fifty per cent.  As it stands, The Green Queen is jumpy and skitterish, making uncomfortable plot leaps in inconvenient places.  It book is not helped by a number of jarring and confusing typos.

And the writing?  In the third paragraph, we have this:

     "He ought, by now, be showing some sign of the cargo he had taken on, even of such a superior intoxicant as ethel-eugenool."

That's the only intoxicant mentioned in the book and it is imbibed a number of times.  I assume the drink was intended as a tribute to Ethel Merman and Eugene O'Neill.  Or maybe not.  In either case, the writing throughout the book displays St. Clair's pulp origins and evinces little of the controlled and flowing style of many of her short stories.

Viridis is a radioactive planet controlled by a small minority called the Uppers.  The Uppers live in the capital city of Shalom, behind a dome that protects them from the radiation.  There's a menial class -- the Body-servants -- of servants and breeders.  And then there's the Lowers, the short-lived slave caste that lives in the radioactive areas below the stairs to the dome.  An important function for the Uppers are the masks.  Derived from a type of hypnotic instrument called a Verbal and now created by something called a Veridal which uses from three to five senses in the creation of living images, these masks can draw the Uppers from their living circumstances.  One of the greatest mask creators is Bonnar, an Upper who -- with one  popular mask -- created the myth of the Green Queen, a psi goddess (for want of a better word) who would free Viridis from the deadly radiation.  Bonnar's lover is the Earth-born Upper Leaf Amadeus until Bonnar is ordered to break off the relationship and to convince Leaf to join the (approved) cult religion of the Apple Pickers.  Leaf has some small ESP powers and the Apple Pickers use that to slowly convince her that she is the true Green Queen.  The government then orders Bonnar to renew his affair with Leaf even though Leaf is now involved with the historian Horvendile.

In jumps and starts we learn about a power battle using an Anti-Leaf who tries to usurp the title of Green Queen, and about the tree, an object that would allow the Green Queen to feed the Lowers and to usher in a new age with her consort -- whoever that might be.  In the end there are plots and counterplots an the discovery of a twenty million-year-old insect which turned Viridis into a sprawling mess of psychosis.  If this recap sounds jumbled, that's because it is.

And yet...and yet there is great power to this book.  Underlying themes strike hit the reader hard.   Leaf is a strong and powerful character whose stength becomes her downfall.  Bonnar may or may not have been redeemed.  The social structure of Viridis displays a struggle that has plagued mankind throughout its existence and resonates to today's one percent and forty-seven per cent. 

The Green Queen is a pot-boiler and I wish that St. Clair had the time to refine the bones of this book into something great..  Throwaway ideas and passages need expanding.  Viridis -- with its flying frogs, writhing trees, and two-brained raptors -- is a planet that could, and should, have been better explored.  In the end The Green Queen is a pot-boiler, and I wish that St. Clair had made the time to refine it into something great.  It coulda been a contender.


  1. Ah, well. He also published a lot of good work, if not nearly as much as the hack and the ballyhoo nonsense, was the last steady market for Edgar Rice Burroughs, and was a steady market for decent work by Robert Bloch and the emerging William McGivern. "T.P. Caravan" also published in F&SF, with better work, no doubt. Had Bea Mahaffey left UNIVERSE by this time? Probably...but when the magazine started, with the other split off part of OTHER WORLDS called simply SCIENCE STORIES and still more under Palmer's direct control, UNIVERSE was publishing the likes of Theodore Sturgeon's "The World Well Lost"...and I suspect it wasn't as much the sf titles weren't selling reasonably well, in the depressed sf market of the late '50s, as they didn't sell as well as FATE. And, as you almost note, Palmer wasn't the only major editor to eventually specialize in pernicious bullshit to the detriment of the fiction he published, and to society as a whole to some extent.

    1. Mahaffey was around for this one (and for the next four issues of OTHER WORLDS SCIENCE STORIES). In fact, she had a filler piece in this issue of UNIVERSE titled "I'm Bea." (Palmer also had a piece titled "I'm Ray.")

      Caravan's four other stories were published in F&SF -- one of which was a version of the story purloined by Palmer.

  2. Meanwhile, I can only agree, as far as I got with a copy of THE GREEN QUEEN I picked up somewhere, years back, and put down again quickly without getting very far with it...St. Clair's worst published work I'd read, and still, with any opportunity for improvement, probably as you suggest a potential contender.

    1. This was actually the first St. Clair novel I have read, Todd, but I have always enjoyed her stories, both under her own name and as "Idris Seabright." A far better introduction to St. Clair would be 1985's THE BEST OF MARGARET ST. CLAIR, edited by Marty Greenberg. For me, I think I'll concentrate on her later novels from now on.