Graham Sleight’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Fritz Leiber

Last year’s Selected Stories of Fritz Leiber opens with perhaps his most famous story. ‘‘Smoke Ghost’’ (1941) announces from the start its reinvention of its tradition. In an office in some American metropolis, a woman called Miss Millick is taking dictation from a man called Mr Wran. But he seems distracted, and asks her if she’s ever seen a ghost. He is clear what he means:

I don’t mean that traditional kind of ghost. I mean a ghost from the world today. With the soot of the factories in its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul. The kind that would haunt coal yards and slip around at night through deserted office buildings like this one. A real ghost. Not something out of books.

As the story continues, it becomes clear that Wran is haunted by a ghost like this – and indeed, his imagination may have called it into being. He sees, for instance, a ‘‘shapeless black sack’’ lying on a roof and becomes convinced that this is the creature; he goes to a psychiatrist; he ultimately comes to a conclusion about the nature of the creature. Although a kind of equilibrium is reached, it’s clear that the creature is not going away. From the start, then, Leiber’s vision was an urban one. It’s also one that very deliberately puts the reader in Wran’s place, and allows us to overinterpret the same hints he does. And who, after all, hasn’t seen an inexplicable flicker of movement in some urban setting?

Re-read now, ‘‘Smoke Ghost’’ isn’t without its flaws. It’s one of those stories that very directly tells you what meaning you’re supposed to take from it. The passage I quoted above is pretty representative. There’s a lot of didactic material in the story because its goal is that you accept both the Smoke Ghost and what it means. So rather than an SF story’s infodumps of science (‘‘the world is as it is and cannot be otherwise’’), here we get infodumps of interpretation (‘‘this story is as it is and cannot be otherwise’’). But it’s still deservedly a classic, for its ambition, for its deadly conciseness, and for its newness.

Leiber’s imagination was not just urban, it was one that was determined to be contemporary. The next story, ‘‘The Girl with the Hungry Eyes’’ (1949) is set in the post-WWII boom years, and takes off from the way in which images of women were increasingly being made commodities. The narrator becomes obsessed with a particular woman featured in many adverts and comes to the conclusion that her seeming hunger is more literal and fantastic than he’d realised. ‘‘Coming Attraction’’ (1950) has one of the most famous first lines in SF, ‘‘The coupe with the fishhooks welded to its fender shouldered up to the curb like the nose of a nightmare,’’ telling you all you need to know about its desolate post-nuclear-war US. But notice also how much fun Leiber is having with language there: the almost-rhyme of ‘‘welded’’ and ‘‘fender,’’ the way the stress falls on the nouns he wants you to notice, the alliteration of ‘‘nose’’ and ‘‘nightmare.’’ The same is true in many other stories here, but so is Leiber’s sense of surreal fun, as in ‘‘A Pail of Air’’ (1951), his love of theatre in ‘‘Four Ghosts in Hamlet’’ (1965), or his sense of moral horror in ‘‘Belsen Express’’ (1975).

Of all the pieces in Selected Stories, my favorite is ‘‘Gonna Roll the Bones’’, originally published in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions (1967), because it’s the one that most fully fuses Leiber’s sense of Americana and myth, and that’s surely a highpoint in his skill with words. Almost any sentence is quotable in this story of a man who finds himself gambling against the Devil, and almost any sentence resonates back and forward to illuminate the protagonist’s cramped life, his wanderlust, and what he’s up against. Even the title takes on new meanings once you realise what’s at stake in this casino.


Selected Stories also includes ‘‘Ill Met in Lankmar’’ (1970), one of the stories of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser that make up Swords and Deviltry (1970). This pair of amiable rogues had their adventures chronicled in stories throughout Leiber’s career that were subsequently collected into book form: Swords and Deviltry is the first in internal chronology but not in order of publication (that’s Two Sought Adventure [1957], the title story dating from 1939). In any case, it’s the obvious place to start with these stories, whose distinctively witty take on fantasy has entered the culture – not least because of its influence on various fantasy role-playing games. But what’s most memorable about the stories is not the sword-and-sorcery props per se but the friendship between the two protagonists. One of the best scenes in the whole book is a relatively quiet one, where the two men disguise themselves as beggars in the cause of infiltration, coaching each other in how to limp and hobble, and the Mouser greasepainting up Fafhrd as if they were about to embark on an acting performance. (They are, of course.)

There are plenty of other precedents for this kind of partnership of two equal-but-different people – Holmes and Watson, most obviously, and Michael Chabon lovingly homaged the double-act in Gentlemen of the Road (2007). But even more intensely than the Sherlock Holmes stories are wedded to London, the Fafhrd/Grey Mouser ones are rooted in the imagined metropolis of Lankhmar. Though they sometimes venture outside, it’s clear that this place is the centre of their world, standing for every city. Up to this point, fantasy had almost always had the rural or pastoral as its bass-note; here, that’s the exception rather than the rule. And it’s not without a sense of melancholy, either, as Leiber’s protagonists remember their city of ‘‘beloved, unfaceable ghosts’’.


Entirely different is The Wanderer (1964), one of Leiber’s two Hugo winners for Best Novel. A summary of its plot might make it sound like a Roland Emmerich film: a vast, mysterious object appears in the skies above the Earth, natural disasters ensue, and a small bunch of plucky protagonists have to find out what’s really going on. Yet the story keeps getting bent out of its expected shape by Leiber’s peculiar obsessions: cats, astronomy, UFOs, cats, Californian geography, cats. In many respects, it fails as a disaster novel because of its wildly varying tonalities, its sense that the story isn’t that driven. But the other side to that coin is that it’s a book that constantly surprises, that keeps taking left turns. For example:

Although felinoids or cat-people formed a large majority of The Wanderer’s crew, especially near the planet’s surface, there were beings that seemed an end-product of almost every line of terrestrial evolution, and un-earthly lines too: great-headed horses with organs of manipulation nesting in their hooves; giant, tranquil-eyed spiders pulsing at their joints with a strongly pumped arterial blood-flow; serpents with large and small grasping tentacles…

…and so on. Part of the particular delight of The Wanderer is that it does have a truly global set of viewpoints, and so it enables Leiber to take joy in lots of obscure bits of knowledge. For instance, a particular plot-point turns on the tidal bore of the River Severn in the UK – something that I lived close to for some years but never actually witnessed. It’s the same with, for instance, the list of animal-aliens quoted above, or the book’s plentiful allusions to mythology. It’s the book in which, above all, Leiber let himself off the leash and threw in everything. It’s probably no surprise if such an all-encompassing book is a bit of a mess – but also that it’s so full of incidental pleasures.


Conjure Wife (1943) is billed on the cover of its new Orb edition as ‘‘a masterpiece of urban fantasy,’’ which is a neat piece of positioning given the way that term has gained two different meanings over the last few years. Is it urban fantasy as in fantasy set in a city with corresponding levels of grittiness and realism a la Miéville? Or is it urban fantasy as in proto-paranormal romance? Actually, it’s both. Put simply, it’s about a man who discovers that his wife is a witch. The man, a university professor named Norman Saylor, finds out progressively that there is in fact a whole society or network of witches of which his wife Tansy is a part. The central plot of the novel is him discovering what this means for the life that he’s constructed – or rather, that has been constructed for him.

There’s a problem here that has to be admitted straight off. As Neil Gaiman says in his introduction to the Selected Stories, ‘‘Yes, there is sexism and misogyny in [Conjure Wife] and in the concept, but there is, if you were a twelve-year-old boy trying to make sense of something that might as well be an alien species, also the kind of ‘what if it’s true?’ that makes reading books such a dangerous occupation at any age.’’ But what if you were, say, a 12-year-old girl? Unlike many male SF authors of his time, Leiber didn’t ignore women – he was clearly fascinated by them and loved them. But his books very often treat them as objects rather than subjects, things for the male narrators to perceive and understand. ‘‘The Girl with the Hungry Eyes’’ is as close as I’ve seen in his work to a kind of self-analysis, and even that tries to have things both ways, both registering the objectification of women and enjoying it.

None of this is to deny the extreme slickness and skill with which Conjure Wife is told, or the sense – unlike The Wanderer – that this is a cumulative book, gradually building to a satisfying resolution. The obvious companion-piece for it is Jack Williamson’s Darker than You Think (1948), another book of the supernatural embedded in the sexual that reads now as highly charged in all sorts of ways.


Our Lady of Darkness (1978) is a very much later work than any of the others I’ve discussed, and feels more personal. The protagonist, Franz Westen, is easy to read as a stand-in for Leiber – he’s a writer recovering from all kinds of personal traumas. The book is profoundly rooted in the landscape of urban San Francisco, where Leiber lived for many years. It takes as its starting point a particular view of a hill in the city, Corona Heights, a nondescript brown hill on which something might be seen moving, like the smoke ghost. But it quickly moves into other territory, particularly the invented science of ‘‘megapolisomancy,’’ the idea that the shape of the world and its future might be inferred from the shape of great cities. Plenty of other writers, like Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair, have played with this notion in other ways, but in Leiber’s hands it becomes a way into an oddly old-fashioned ghost story, complete with ancient texts to be deciphered and curses to be understood.

San Francisco, in Our Lady of Darkness, ends up being not just a haunted city but a place almost entirely composed of haunting. Franz’s own life, and his hard-won recovery, is put at stake because he cannot stop himself finding out about the city, and so finding himself more deeply enmeshed in its ghosts. The book is also self-knowing in its homages to its tradition and, miraculously, manages this without descending into coyness. At the very end, for instance, Franz tries to get in touch with a character who seemed to have a way into the mysteries:

[Franz] learned that the affluent poet and essayist, accompanied by Fa Lo Suee (and Shirl Soames too, apparently), had gone for an extended trip around the world.

‘‘Somebody always does that at the end of a supernatural horror story,’’ he commented sourly, with slightly forced humor. ‘‘The Hound of the Baskervilles, etcetera. I’d really like to know who his sources were besudes Klaas and Ricker. But perhaps it’s just as well I don’t get into that.’’

But there is a kind of peace to be found in the end, a hard-earned sense that the city and its ghosts can be lived with, that fellowship with the living can outweigh the burden of the dead. Our Lady of Darkness ends up being so moving because of the sense that it’s facing down Leiber’s lifelong obsessions. The smoke ghost is not, in the end, granted a victory.


This column was first published in the April 2011 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

4 thoughts on “Graham Sleight’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Fritz Leiber

  • April 26, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    The Selected Stories is a fine anthology, but I very much miss Marianna, one of Leiber’s most haunting and disquieting stories. They could have easily included it – it’s only about five pages long.

  • April 26, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Oh – and Marianna is an exception to your “women as object rather than subject” objection.

  • April 27, 2011 at 6:44 am

    Excellent collection, and an excellent review. There’s a sore shortage of literary criticism around Leiber’s work, considering he’s easily as influential as Lovecraft or Howard. I’m currently writing about the Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser stories on my web site, with the hopes of turning it into a book.

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