Weird #35: “The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” by Margaret St. Clair (1951)

“The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles” by Margaret St. Clair was a delight to read, a clever, more modern take on Lord Dunsany’s “How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles” (1912). The title describes precisely what the story is about, and as you might have guessed, it’s a satire on door-to-door salesmen. As you also might have guessed, the salesman does not survive.

Anyone in sales, or anyone who’s ever been a 20-something who’s sold knives door-to-door, or over the phone, as a summer job, will appreciate this story in a deeper way than readers who’ve never been in sales. The techniques that companies use to train young people to sell knives are essentially the same techniques Mortensen uses to sell rope to the gnoles: for example, the notion that the product sells itself; carrying around a sample bag; comparing and contrasting the different materials, uses, and durability of one product over another; handling customers’ knee-jerk reactions; memorizing your sales script, etc.

On that note, I would be interesting in learning what happened to the man who tried to sell a boning knife to the gnoles.

I was once one of those 20-somethings who sold knives–not that I really got anywhere in the job. Being in sales requires a thick skin, the ability to treat others as means to an end while maintaining “unfailing courtesy” (319) as Mortensen’s copy of Manual of Modern Salesmanship describes. It also requires you to view your product as a solution to a problem–you have to actually believe the client will be better off after forking over hundreds of dollars for a new block of knives or a few hundred yards of rope.

Incredibly, this is an instinct that Mortensen has and which he puts to the ultimate test, just as Nuth puts his thievery skills to the test. And Mortensen actually comes incredibly close to succeeding.

Ironically, what destroys him is, in part, his own ethical scruples. After making a thorough presentation of his rope samples to the senior gnole, they agree on a length and material of rope, and he presents his price.

The gnole hesitates, then grabs the smallest gemstone on display in the parlor, an emerald that could nonetheless ransom “a Rockefeller or a whole family of Guggenheims” (321). But taking the gemstone would be in excess of a legitimate profit, violating what the Manual of Modern Salesmanship calls the “high ethical standard” that must be maintained at all times (321).

Mortensen searches for an object of lesser value–and makes his fatal mistake in picking the gnole’s extra pair of eyes from a curiosity cabinet. As St. Clair explains, “The concern good Christian folk should feel for their soul’s welfare is a shadow, a figment, a nothing, compared to what the thoroughly heathen gnole feels for those eyes” (321).

Ignorant of the taboo behind so much as touching one of these extra pairs of eyes, Mortensen, “smiling to evince the charm of manner advised in the Manual, and raising his brows as one who says, ‘Thank you, these will do nicely,’ [drops] the eyes into his pocket” (321). Punishment is swift.

Before he can flee the house, he feels the wrath of the gnole’s tentacles, of which “the best abaca fiber is no stronger” (321). Trapped and stuffed in the cellar, Mortensen is fattened and roasted, as the gnoles serve him for dinner on a plate “with a beautiful border of fancy knotwork made of cotton cord from his own sample case” (321). The end.

I guess the moral of this story is “know your client” or perhaps “the customer is always right.” What I love about this story is how Mortensen gets this close to closing the sale and making a heap of money, but it’s his own inability to adapt and think beyond his rote memory of the Manual that undoes him.

St. Clair’s story serves as a reminder that weird fiction does not always have to strive to achieve a tragic tone–it can take on humorous and darkly satirical tones as well. It also shares a metacognitive dynamic in common with other weird tales: the protagonist perishes because of his inability to adapt his normal way of thinking to a new scenario, a local context.

Next week, I will be writing about Robert Bloch’s “The Hungry House” (1951).


P.S.: I wrote a story once about Morgan le Fay trying to sell Merlin a hero who will bring salvation to England, knife salesman style. You can read “Eternal Guarantee” here.

Eternal Guarantee

salesEvery once in a while, two events in your life happen simultaneously and in their juxtaposition, a humorous situation appears in your imagination. I had just finished reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry and started a job as a salesman. Anyone familiar with the myth of King Arthur, especially as retold by Kay, and the cliches of the sales pitch will find the following short story’s concept amusing.



Eternal Guarantee

Nine Worthies
The Nine Worthies of Medieval Legend: Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joshua, David, Judas Maccabeus, King Arthur, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon. Part of Avalon Enterprises’ Premiere Set of Heroes. Customers can also buy individual warriors.

“We’ll sell you a High King, and if he is ever damaged or killed in battle, just send him back to Avalon, and we’ll return him. That’s our eternal guarantee.”

Morgan le Fay of Camlann Marketing, the sales branch of Avalon Enterprises, smiled with her pearl teeth at the customer, a prophet with a white beard by the name of Merlynn. They were sitting at a stone table in the middle of her grove, while she spun her webs and charms.

“I see,” said Merlynn, arching his eyebrows. “And when would that be?”

“There will be a prophecy in the end. He’ll wait on the island for when he is needed once again. Now,” she said, opening her illuminated codex. “Let me show you the wide variety of saviours Avalon Enterprises has in its collection of Worthies.”

Merlynn nodded and pressed his forefinger above his eye, to furrow his brow. Morgan le Fay was always troublesome, but when she’d asked for him to listen to her presentation, for the sake of the nation he could not have refused. Uther was dead and Wales needed a king. He listened to her litany of saviours, as she pointed to a picture of a warrior in bronze armour.

“Hector of Troy,” she said. “Customers like him, because he is strong, agile, and versatile for mostly every occasion. However, he is not stronger than Achilles. He’s perfect as a strongman, but his temper makes him poor for politics, which means you might want King David. He killed the giant Goliath with a slingshot when he was only a young man, and thereafter ruled as a great king. However, he was not resistant to the sin of adultery with Bathsheba, which means you might need Godfrey of Bouillon. A French crusader sworn to the ideals of chivalry, he took Jerusalem from the Saracens and ruled as king, although he refused the title. However, though a virtuous knight, he was not the ruler of a kingdom that endured, which means you might need Frederick Barbarossa …”

“The German makes are never quite as good,” said Merlynn, shaking his head sadly. “And I don’t see this country moving in that direction.”

“That’s all right,” said Morgan le Fay, lending him another pearl smile. “Besides, maybe what this land needs is another sort of king. Not an Alexander the Great, but perhaps a Christ, a Buddha, or a Gandhi?”

“Gandhi?” asked Merlynn. He closed his eyes and focused on the name. Threads of time, centuries of civilization, wove themselves through his synapses and he tasted the future. “Not the violent type of man, I see. But it’s my impression that all these saviours have some fatal defect or another. Either that, or they die a martyr.”

“There is always a price,” said Morgan le Fay, sounding concerned. “But if the weight of that knowledge sounds like too much at once, you can make three equal payments. And if you find you don’t like him, you can return him during our free-trial period.”

“A free hero does not sound like much of one,” said Merlynn, folding his arms. “But what about the payments?”

“Your saviour will endure an even amount of grief over his or her lifetime,” she said. “You might be interested in Hercules, perhaps: that’s a twelve payment plan.”

Merlynn sighed with such a deep longing that he could not encompass just how much he wished for the world to be different. But the earth was still there, in so much need. “You know … I don’t think Wales can pay such a hefty price for a saviour. In this age, after all, who needs a hero who causes so much more grief? Sure, these heroes legends, but I really don’t think Wales is ready for this investment.”

Morgan le Fay nodded and smiled. “That’s why we have our free-trial period. If you are in any way dissatisfied, we can return your hero to Avalon for a full refund.”

Merlynn cursed himself for a fool. He wanted heroes to lead Wales as they had in the days of old, but time had moved on and the every year brought a steeper decline in glory. He supposed it was simply not possible in this age, for heroes to be born the way they used to be. Ever since the goddesses had formed Avalon, their corporate machine had experienced unprecedented successes, selling high-quality heroes to lands bereft of them. This was the way of the future, and the past was done.

He grumbled from behind his white beard, a throaty old-man sound. When had he gotten so old?

“Him,” he said, pointing to an illumination in Morgan le Fay’s codex. A golden crown rested heavily on a man’s bearded head, a silver sword sheathed by his side and a red-tipped spear in his hand.

“That is the dux bellorum, lord of battles,” said Morgan le Fay. “He is expensive, but it’s worth it, because he comes with Caliburn, his famous sword, Ron, his great spear, and a host of eight other gallant knights. Is this who you want?”

“I’m on the verge,” said Merlynn, nodding, and trying not to think of the cost. “But I cannot justify saturating this world with so many heroes. There could be glory in it, but evil as well.”

Morgan le Fay squeezed her lip together. “I can give you a deal. If you agree to rid the world of one or two of your more common heroes, I can give you the Knights of the Round Table—which, by the way, includes the world’s greatest knight, Lancelot du Lac.”

Merlynn wondered what her game was, but there was no doubting that she was giving him an excellent deal. He thought he would surely weep later, if he passed up the chance for such a bargain.

He smiled. The promise of future glory, the shortcut history could take towards remaking the social cohesion of the pax romana, was too tempting. It was an investment in the future. He owed his decision to succeeding generations.

“He will be called Arthur Pendragon,” he said, and signed by Avalon’s wax seal.

merlin and morgan.


Photo Credits:

Morgan le Fay:

Nine Worthies: