BOOK REVIEW: "Selected Stories by Fritz Lieber" (2010)

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

It’s an exaggeration to describe Fritz Leiber as a forgotten writer, but he certainly is not as well known among younger fans or as prominent today as he deserves. Leiber won 6 Hugos, 4 Nebulas and 20 or so other awards such as the Lovecraft and August Derleth. Leiber is a major figure in the field of fantasy, SF, and horror, yet most of his work remains out of print.
This collection is an excellent introduction to Leiber’s work, containing examples of his horror, fantasy, and SF, with nearly every story a classic in its field. Leiber has stated that most of his work is ultimately horror, and the majority of the tales in this volume are grim and dark. Leiber’s work is character driven, with themes that often focus on his personal obsessions and interests, causing him to return again and again to themes such as chess, theater, cats, and dark, urban settings. Leiber’s writing contains a vibrant prose too often missing from genre fiction. His work is clever and sophisticated and rarely makes the reader feel he has wasted his time.
Leiber believed that speculative fiction must “manure” itself with the contemporary concerns of the real world, so that no matter how fantastic the premise, a horror, SF, or fantasy story grows out of the obsessions of its day. Many of his SF stories accordingly focus on the concerns of the atomic age. Leiber wrote a number of postapocalyptic stories in the 50s when nuclear war and the Cold War were the preeminent concerns of the day. Leiber also loathed the McCarthy age, and his response to America in the early 50s is dark and critical.
“Coming Attraction,” which was originally published in Galaxy in 1950, is a character driven story set in the US after a limited nuclear war with Russian. A British traveler observes the US and finds it a disturbing place. Many Americans have radiation scars and deformities. Women wear masks, a fashion that grew out of the protective gear worn during the war. Americans are obsessed with televised masked wrestling between men and women; the story’s strong strain of sadism and masochism reflects the guilt and horror evoked by the war. “America the Beautiful” initially published in 1970 near the end of Vietnam is a story largely about the cold war and its effect on a future American.
In “A Pail of Air,” another postapocalyptic story, a dark star has pulled earth away from the sun. The earth has grown cold, covered in a blanket of snow and air frozen into crystal. A father, mother, and two children are the last survivors and live by keeping a fire going and melting pails of air. The tale is domestic and optimistic in its depiction of the human ability to overcome obstacles, and thus not as bleak as most of Leiber’s fiction from the early 50s.
“Catch that Zeppelin!” is an alternate history story in which Germany responds to the loss of WWI by creating a scientific humanist future with Zeppelins rather than descending into the nightmare of Nazism, all of which avoids WWII and many of the horrors of the 20th century.
The collection does not have any change war stories, which is probably Leiber’s best SF. The change war series depicts a war for the control of time between two forces, the Snakes and Spiders, with each side using soldiers recruited from throughout the entire course of history.
Leiber was one of the first pulp writers to modernize the horror story. Instead of setting stories in gothic mansions, he wrote weird fiction in which the ghosts, monsters, and dark gods were appropriate for the modern urban environment of apartments and factories. In “Smoke Ghost” one character informs the reader that a modern ghost should be “A Smokey composite face with the hungry anxiety of the unemployed, the neurotic restlessness of the person without purpose, the jerky tension of the high-pressure metropolitan worker, the sullen resentment of the striker, the callous viciousness of the strike breaker, the aggressive whine of the panhandler, the inhibited terror of the bombed civilian, and a thousand other twisted emotional patterns? Each one overlaying and yet blending with the other, like a pile of semitransparent masks?” (6) Leiber produced an number of dark urban horror tales, which doesn’t seem that surprising today after the work of writers like Ramsey Campbell and Stephen King, but Leiber was an innovator who tried to make a traditional gothic genre reflect the fears of its age, and his work still stands up today, with “Smoke Ghost” seeming much more modern than 1948.
“The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” (1949) is a vampire tale in which the monster is a fashion model feeding not on the blood of her victims but on their needs, and details the growing power of advertising in the modern world. “Belsen Express” is about a complacent, smug, and narrow-minded man haunted by the historical echo of Nazism.
“Desk Full of Girls” is a story about a blackmailer and spiritualist who keeps the essence of his victims, their ectoplasm. It turns spiritualism into a science, providing a pseudorational explanation for ghosts. It also continues Leiber’s efforts to modernize the horror story, although by contemporary standards the story is slow moving and contains too much explanatory dialogue.
The collection includes three Fafhred and the Grey Mouser stories. This series, which Leiber worked on intermittently throughout most of his life, is arguably the best-written and most sophisticated example of sword and sorcery (a term that Leiber invented for the subgenre). The series avoids the typical clichés of the genre and is remarkably varied in effect, with some tales grim and introspective, and others exemplifying high comedy. In “Bazaar of the Bizarre” F&GM encounter the devourers, the greatest merchants in many universes who sell only trash, using all their powers as merchants to make their worthless products look like the finest wares in the universe. The Devourers have one goal: to amash endless cash and make everyone a slavish consumer of their products, which like “The Girl with the Pointed Eyes” is a rather pointed critique of modern advertising. The F&GM stories modernize S&S by placing the stories in urban settings, with pollution, fog, and grit, with some of the monsters and foes reminiscence of the creatures in Leiber’s horror stories. “Ill Met In Lankhmar” is a classic Hugo award winning F&GM tale. The tale successfully shifts from adventure to high comedy to tragedy, shifts in tone that most writers could not sustain in a novella length.
“The Inner Circles” is an appealing psychological study of a man’s fantasy life as well as an autobiographical portrait. Later in his life, Leiber wrote “Not Much Disorder and Not So Early Sex: An Autobiographic Essay” which described his alcoholism and personal problems, a lot of which he poured into a number of intensely personal short stories. The tale is largely written in the form of a dialogue between the protagonist and various imaginary entities, which also shows Leiber’s interest in the theater.
“Midnight by the Morphy Watch” reflects Leiber’s scholarly fascination with chess and its history, and is a superb work of supernatural short fiction. The protagonist finds the chess themed pocket watch of one of the 19th century’s greatest chess players, which is imbued with powerful psychic energy.
Leiber wrote a number of stories about cats, which were immensely popular among fans. “Space Time for Springer” is a tale told completely from the point of view of a very clever cat and shows Leiber love for the animals, as well as a superb example of the use of point of view.
“Gonna Roll the Bones” is an award winning story originally published in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. It has a riveting style and is a mixture of horror and sf. Although it relies on an old plot, playing dice with the devil, it develops the idea in a unique and powerful fashion.
Leiber’s love of the theater is portrayed in “Four Ghosts in Hamlet.” Leiber was an actor and comes from a family of actors. I found this story overly long, and slow at reaching its climax, but it is a lively depiction of a Shakespearean theater company.
It’s often difficult to separate Leiber’s work into separate genres such as SF, F, and horror because he often mixed them and combined motifs. When the fantasy market contracted in the 50s, he claimed that he rewrote many fantasies as SF so that he could sell them, thus strong undercurrents of supernatural horror runs through his SF. In Leiber’s fantasy he takes as much care with extrapolation and world building as any SF writer.
Will conservatives like it? Sure, if they appreciate fine speculative fiction. After rereading these stories, I feel that Leiber stands out as one of the great stylists in speculative fiction who used genre fiction to explore personal obsessions, and who created his own genre.
Robert Bee is a Republibot staffwriter, a freelance writer, and a librarian. You can reach him here: