In Praise of Fritz Leiber
During fantasy-SF conventions where my colleague and fellow anthologist David Hartwell and I have served as panelists, I have heard him remark that back in the 1950s and 1960s a devoted aficionado of the genre(s) could read everything published in any given year. But now that fantasy and SF have proliferated into significant marketing categories, it is no longer possible to read everything available in bookstores and online.
But even in the early days when I was only a reader and had not yet launched my writing/editing career, I was unable to familiarize myself with all of the writers whose work filled the pages of magazines and books. I read everything I could get my hands on by Ray Bradbury, and I also enjoyed novels and shorter fiction by Isaac Asimov, Charles Beaumont, Fredric Brown, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Richard Matheson, Robert Sheckley, H. G. Wells, and many others. As for H. P. Lovecraft, I was reasonably familiar with him and some of his “school,” so to speak: August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, Clark Ashton Smith, and the like.
Yet there were also a few scribes that I mostly only knew by name and reputation, and one of them was Fritz Leiber (in those days, he appended Jr. to his byline). This was my misfortune, as I’ve recently come to discover, but it is also my recent good fortune, for I have finally rectified the omission.
Over the past several months, I have immersed myself in no fewer than eleven collections of short fiction, seven novels and miscellaneous other tales in genre anthologies, and I am glad to know that I have not exhausted the treasure lode.
In Fritz Leiber, one finds colorful characters, astonishing fantasy and SF concepts, ingenious content, style and structure, and language that is supple, evocative and thoroughly versatile. He is one of America’s greatest fantasists, surpassing in quantity and quality all but a few of Lovecraft’s best tales.
I first started reading Leiber in the late 1960s. While a reporter for the national newspaper Grit, I became friends with the late Richard Frank, who once discovered and in the first case, published, two forgotten genre classics, A. Merritt’s short fantasy, “Three Lines of Old French,” and Dashiell Hammett’s novella, “Nightmare Town.” Rich heartily recommended Leiber’s Swords and Sorcery (S&S) stories about Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser.
I took his advice, and am very glad I did, though I did not read everything in the series at that time since the last two volumes were not yet available. When I recently rediscovered Leiber, the first thing I did was to procure all seven of the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books and read them sequentially – Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death, Swords in the Mist, Swords Against Wizardry, The Swords of Lankhmar, Swords and Ice Magic, and The Knight and Knave of Swords.
Now S&S was never a category that appealed to me. I have not been captivated by Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, but Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser thoroughly delight me, and for two reasons. Though definitely S&S (Leiber himself coined the term), the emphasis is less on swordplay than on magic. More important, the series is quite humorous, though Leiber’s tone includes the darkest irony as well as horseplay, and many of the risible stations between those poles.
Eight Remarkable Novels
My recent reading binge included four short story collections – The Best of Fritz Leiber, The Mind Spider, Night Monsters and Night’s Black Agents – as well as tales included in other anthologies, which I may discuss in a future column. For this Nth Dimension installment, I will focus on eight remarkable novels, and though I mean to work up to the ones that I liked best, this reverse order is in no way negative; they are all well worth reading!
The seventh title on my list, The Big Time, won the Hugo Award in 1958, while the eighth is its sequel, No Great Magic, which is short enough to be considered a novella. The concept of The Big Time is a huge one: the entire universe is the stage for a war between two mysterious superpowers that call themselves the Spiders and the Snakes. Their recruits are often snatched away just before their deaths; the price of life for them is to become soldiers in a strange series of time-travel campaigns in which the adversaries deliberately change history, sometimes to their advantage, sometimes disastrously. Leiber employs this “world-set” in a few of his short stories as well, but The Big Time merely uses it as background for the doings in a bar-restaurant-entertainment center where troops and officers enjoy downtime between battles. Its action reflects Leiber’s familiarity with the world of theatre: a small cast, basically one “set,” with emphasis on character and dialogue. There is humor, suspense and considerable irony for its narrator/heroine who, though she saves herself and her friends from cosmic disaster, is mistakenly accused of perpetrating the dangerous situation that lies at the heart of the plot. In its semi-sequel No Great Magic, Leiber employs the same narrator as a technician with a New York City theatre company. Her memory is gone and she has become acutely agoraphobic … which, though Leiber does not say so explicitly, the reader concludes is punishment for her misunderstood heroism in the preceding novel.
The Silver Eggheads (Ballantine Books, 1961) is paradoxically somewhat out of date and yet still timely. It is also one of Leiber’s funniest books. Its key plot device is reminiscent of “The Great Automatic Grammatisator,” a satirical 1953 short story by Roald Dahl, who postulates that grammar, when thoroughly computerized, will eventually lead to the creation of the titular device that a trained operator can “play” in a manner reminiscent of an organist playing Bach. But instead of music, after perhaps a quarter-hour, a “performance” on the grammatisator will produce of novel of considerable literary merit.
Leiber sets his story in a world in which, instead of TV and films, its mass audience is addicted to reading an endless supply of computer-generated literary swill. (The notion of a future society “hooked” on even inferior reading matter is sadly Utopian).
Leiber’s viewpoint character, if not precisely the protagonist, is one of the technicians who helps create said swill, and he’s fairly proud of it. Unfortunately for him, many of his peers and compatriots are busy sabotaging the industry he works in. But are his publishers daunted? Not in the least! They’ve got a secret weapon, the silver eggheads, genetically-maintained brains taken from the skulls of once-living writers (with their permission!)
Leiber’s plot takes some amusing twists and turns. I will not offer any “spoilers,” but will only add that along the way there’s quite a bit of affectionate and not-so-affectionate referents and lampoons to SF, fantasy and other writers familiar to readers back in the 1960s, as well as today.
Next on my list of Fritz Leiber novels worth reading is The Green Millennium (Ace Double Book, bound together with the Leiber short story collection Night Monsters, 1953). Technically, I suppose one ought to classify this book as science fiction, though its flavor, to me, is pure fantasy – though, do understand, I’ve long considered SF as a fantasy subcategory. One morning, the usually luckless Phil Gish wakes up feeling utterly wonderful about the upcoming prospects for his life, which is certainly not the way he usually feels in the morning, or any time. Half-jokingly, he attributes his euphoria to the green cat that seems to have wandered into his apartment, but when a wholly bizarre series of events befall Phil, he learns that Lucky, as he has named his pet, is indeed responsible for how he feels – and a lot more! The adventure boasts a particularly wacky cast of characters, all of them eager to get their hands on Lucky, some of them ready to kill, if necessary. I have never read a novel half as wild and wooly, not even John Myers’s Silverlock!
The four remaining novels I recommend share a quintessentially “Leiberian” underpinning: a kind of “glass bead game” correlation between the worlds of fantasy and science fiction. This is a different technique than what the reader will find in some of Andre Norton’s “Witch World” stories, in which sorcery and technology coexist. What Leiber does, instead, is to draw structural parallels between the occult (including theology) and sociological, philosophic and psychological “soft” science.
The plot of Our Lady of Darkness, which won the World Fantasy Award, revolves about a strange occult science, megapolisomacy, in which cities like San Francisco harbor malign entities in its skyscrapers. The protagonist accidentally discovers the existence of one such frightener, and unfortunately, the knowledge is mutual. While I was not especially unsettled by the “thing” when it finally appears, there is much suspense leading up to the story’s climax, and the sweep and scope of Leiber’s style, its diction and syntax, invites one to read many passages aloud.
In terms of their numerical status – 3rd best, 2nd best – I cannot delineate between Gather, Darkness! and Destiny Times Three . . . I found them equally brilliant and thematically akin, though quite different in execution. The latter novel is an intensely painful fantasy. Thorn, its protagonist, has always lives a privileged life, but feels guilty about it, for his dreams are haunted by another, far less fortunate Thorn living in another world. Both not only turn out to be real, but as the book’s title suggests, are two versions of three versions of reality that have been designed by a mysterious group of beings who both Thorns aim to discover and thwart.
This struggle against mystical demigods is taken even further in Gather, Darkness!, in which an extrapolated, though essentially Catholicized future is depicted as a deliberately engineered society run by priests who use unsuspected technology to create a literal celestial hierarchy complete with seraphim and miracles. Naturally, such a system spawns a resistance movement that also finds technological methods for converting the establishment’s worshippers into diabolists. Gather, Darkness! is one short step away from Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, though in the fantasy genre, it also reminds me tangentially of Michael Moorcock’s great time travel paradox, Behold the Man.
Conjure Wife (1943) is one of the two best witchcraft novels in American and perhaps English literature, the other one being A. Merritt’s Burn Witch Burn! – which, curiously is the title of one of the three cinematic adaptations of Leiber’s novel. Conjure Wife also bears some resemblance to That Hideous Strength, the final novel of C. S. Lewis’s theological science fiction/fantasy trilogy that began with Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra. Both Leiber’s and Lewis’s stories are set in contemporary academia and treat incursions of supernatural evil into campus life. To my mind, Conjure Wife is far superior to its British cousin.
Leiber’s protagonist, Norman Saylor, is a professor and author whose career is on the rise at Hempnell College, somewhere near Jersey City. The possibility that he might be appointed to the chairmanship of his department pleases his wife Tansy, but not the spouses of other professors, and this stirs up sinister doings by these women.
Norman is a sociologist committed to rational thought and has devoted his literary endeavors to the debunking of superstition. Thus it comes as a great shock to him that his wife Tansy is deeply involved in witchcraft, though only to shield him from the black magic that she intuitively knows has been invoked to ruin their lives. Once Norman learns her secret, he insists that she burn all of her protective talismans – and of course the reader knows that is Not Good!
It is a plot well suited to dramatization, and Conjure Wife has served as the basis for three films (not surprising considering Leiber’s strong personal theatrical background, and as the son of the old-time movie actor, Fritz Leiber Sr.)
I am not familiar with the last cinematic adaptation, Witches’ Brew, except that it was a comedic spoof of the story. That is the reason I avoided it when it was first released in 1980. I have since heard it has its merits, one of them being an excellent cast featuring Richard Benjamin and Teri Garr as the professor and his wife, and the wonderful Lana Turner in her final movie role, presumably as the villain.
The other two films both deserve to be seen. The first is an effective low-budget entry in the short-lived creepy Inner Sanctum series: Weird Woman starring Lon Chaney, Jr. It is remarkably faithful to Leiber’s plot and characters – well, up to a point. The professor’s wife indeed believes in shamanistic magic; she prays at night in a cemetery and hides voodoo-esque items throughout their home to ward off evil. When her spouse forces her to destroy her cache of totems, bad things instantly begin to happen, enough to confirm her fears and even her husband begins to wonder whether he should worry, after all, about witchcraft. Ultimately, though, the villainy (unlike the book, it is confined to the machinations of a single character) is accomplished through malicious gossip and manipulation, and when the tables finally begin to turn against her, she is brought down by psychological trickery, although a small whiff of the supernatural is still suggested at the dénouement. Weird Woman makes its points with great economy, running only a few minutes over one hour.
But the next cinematic version of Conjure Wife is much more powerful. Shown in the U. S. as Burn, Witch, Burn!, it was originally released in 1962 in England as Night of the Eagle, with a screenplay by no less than Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson! Psychology certainly figures in its unfolding drama, but it is essentially a tale of malevolent black magic. Make no mistake: this is one of the most chilling films in all cinematic fantasy.
And yet, despite the virtues of both films, each rejects Leiber’s key plot element, and by doing so, they short-changed themselves of the novel’s page-turning power.
A lesser author, you see, might have made Conjure Wife’s protagonist lose his objectivity as occult forces almost overpower him and his wife. But this book is not a thematic variation of Rudyard Kipling’s famous weird tale, The Mark of the Beast, in which rational Englishmen stationed in the jungle must accept with great reluctance the threat and danger of tribal magic.
Norman inevitably accepts the evidence that witchcraft is being used against him and his wife, but his disciplined mind concludes that if sorcery does exist, it must be subject to its own laws, logic and limitations. Because his wife’s life is in grave danger and her protective spells have been stolen by their enemies, in a nail-biting race against time Norman works out a brilliant analysis of what modern tools might serve as substitutes for the arcane and unavailable ingredients of witchery. One remarkable example is a recording of Scriabin’s so-called “Black Mass” piano sonata, a grim composition that its own composer allegedly never performed in public.
Conjure Wife is therefore a rich intermixture of dark magic and contemporary technology and thought. It is that combination of old and new worlds that distinguish the modern terrors Fritz Leiber so ably created.