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).

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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.