Happy birthday Fritz Leiber

The Blog That Time Forgot informed me it was Fritz Leiber’s birthday last Friday (unfortunately I only checked the blog this morning). As he’s one of my favorite fantasy/SF/horror writers, I figured I should commemorate it.
I started reading Leiber in my early teens when Ace put out a great many of his books. I liked them. When I became a writer, he was a role model of sorts: Not so much that I wanted to write like him, but I wanted to be that good. And rereading all my books a few years ago, I like him even more.
He’s probably best known for Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, a pair of rogues he created as a more down-to-Earth version of Conan. Fafhrd (big, burly barbarian) and the Mouser (sophisticated city rogue) rarely play in the big leagues (I’m not sure the fate of the world has ever depended on them the way it did on Conan a couple of times); in one story, “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” they even have to get day jobs (the story also has my favorite line about the decadent city of Lankhmar: Fafhrd knows he’s met a decent man because “He saw him pat a blind deaf-mute on the head when he couldn’t possibly have known anyone was watching.”). His best stuff, though is probably his non sword-and-sorcery work:
•Modern horror stories such as “The Hound” and “Smoke Ghost.” If supernatural powers are psychic projections of the human mind, we won’t find traditional monsters in the modern world: Ghosts are formed of smog; a witch’s familiar is a little black pistol; and instead of a werewolf, we get a feral hound, it’s coat stained with motor oil.
You’re All Alone. Almost everyone in the world is an organic robot, going through life mindlessly; a few people are conscious, but unaware of how their life has been scripted. Then one day, something happens that jolts the protagonist off-script, and he learns the truth … Both this and it’s novel version, The Sinful Ones, are incredibly creepy.
The Big Time is one I appreciated much more on rereading, because I realize how incredibly hard it is to convey the sense of a war raging across time when working on a one-room set (the usual result of such limited setting is “drawing room SF” where everyone talks and nothing happens). Leiber’s success is probably due to his having a theater background—his father was a Shakespearian actor/director (he has a small part in the Charles Laughton Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Leiber lists Lovecraft and Shakespeare as his main influences (rereading his stuff, the Lovecraftianism becomes very obvious). You can see the same influence in his short story “Four Ghosts in Hamlet.”
Other noteworthy novels include The Green Millenium (an oddball satire on fifties America that holds up pretty well), Gather, Darkness (a technocratic theological tyranny confronts a resistance movement of technocratic Satanists), Destiny Times Three (an alternate worlds novel with some interesting ideas that had to be trimmed before publication) and his award-winning The Wanderer, with the then novel idea of watching ordinary, average people cope with a worldwide apocalypse (if I’m ever foolish enough to read The Stand again, I shall use The Wanderer to cleanse my palate).
Oh, and I almost forgot Conjure Wife, dated by its sex roles but still gripping as a college professor discovers that his supposed stunning success on the tenure fast-track is due to the fact that his wife is a practicing witch. And all the faculty wives (and by implication other women) are practicing witches. And when he convinces his wife that this is all crazy and the only sane thing to do is get rid of those talismans she fantasizes are protecting them … (this was brilliantly adapted as Burn Witch Burn; there’s also a more comedic version, Witch’s Brew, starring Teri Garr and a Z-movie version as well, but I forget the title).
I’m not sure quite what it is about Leiber that makes me love him. I’m inclined to say that his stuff is “quirky” but that has overtones of cute and whimsical, which is certainly not it. But there’s definitely something askew about his ideas, coupled with generally excellent execution, that clicks with me.
Leiber certainly isn’t perfect. Some of the sexy scenes in his later books (Swords Against Lankhmar, for instance) come off uncomfortably like a leering old man watching a hot young girl walk by (and not in a good way). A couple of what are supposed to be (I think) “hip” scenes in The Wanderer feel awkward too.
Overall, though, he’s terrific, and I think it’s a shame he won’t have the post-mortem recognition he deserves. He never made the leap to the level of recognition Howard or Lovecraft did (this is not intended as an insult to them—REH and HPL have more than earned their fame), so now that he’s passed on, I think he’ll be rather like Clark Ashton Smith, one of those Old Writers people have heard are good but probably never read. Though with the Internet making so many used books and small presses available at the click of a mouse, it’s a lot easier to find old masters than it was when I was a kid (as I discussed here). So who knows?
In any case, happy birthday Mr. Leiber. Thanks for all the fun.

2 Comments

Filed under Personal, Reading

2 responses to “Happy birthday Fritz Leiber

  1. Pingback: Iron, Blood and Backstory | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Some indie shorts and a couple of flop pilots | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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