Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

Corresponding with the Fantastic

The Sorcery of Fritz Leiber

When I was a kid, I wrote to Fritz Leiber, never expecting him to reply. But he did. I was seventeen, I think, and he was one of my favourite writers. Even then, what I liked him for was not the gosh-wow excitement of being swept away by a dazzling plot-which is something that no author can really deliver every time out-but the way he wrote. He had a sense of the language derived from an early familiarity with Shakespeare's plays. His parents were travelling actors, and throughout his long career, his work displayed a theatrical sensibility-not just in the storytelling, but also in the confined space of the book's setting and the surrounding darkness that separates it from real life. This shows up most prominently in his Hugo Award-winning classic The Big Time, which is practically a play already, with its small cast of characters and the single set for all the action. Despite this, it's a time-travel story, one of a series he placed against the background of the "Change War."

(Aside: the expression "virtual reality" entered our language not via computers and cyber geeks, but with the translation into English of Antonin Artaud's masterpiece, The Theatre and Its Double. Artaud was one of my favourite kinds of writers: the insane French intellectual. He believed a play was not successful unless it affected the audience so profoundly that spectators were physically altered by the experience. He said going to the theatre should be like going to the dentist: you leave physically changed.)

Leiber was a different kind of writer, and weird horror was only one of his strengths.

Leiber began his career in 1939 and wrote from the forties until his death in 1992. His career spanned the Golden Age of science fiction, the Silver Age, the New Wave and cyberpunk. Throughout all this, Leiber was one of the most respected writers in the science fiction genre. His greatest innovation may well have been the readability of his prose. In some ways, this marks him as a precursor to the New Wave writers of the sixties. His familiarity with all kinds of literature shows up unannounced in his stories and novels, waiting quietly for the astute reader: hard-boiled noir, Elizabethan drama, Soviet satire, German romanticism. Leiber had an unusual range. He was equally at home with science fiction, modern or urban fantasy, horror stories and sword & sorcery-an expression he coined. For me, though, Leiber will always be a San Francisco writer. His great modern horror masterpiece, Our Lady Of Darkness, is set there, and it's obviously in some ways autobiographical. His voice reminds me of the beat poets and Jack London and Dashiell Hammett-in its masculinity, its urbanity, its confidence and sometimes in its desperation. Perhaps most important, though, San Francisco is where he lived when I corresponded with him.

As a young man, Leiber was a follower of the stories that H. P. Lovecraft was publishing in the now legendary Weird Tales and other lowbrow pulps. But it was Leiber's wife who instigated the correspondence between the two writers. Lovecraft saw himself as trapped in the pulps, his ambitions larger than they could satisfy. He felt Weird Tales accepted his work in spite of its qualities, not because of them, and he was probably right. His was the lot faced by so many pulp writers: to be serious about your work in a world that can't see your chosen genre as anything but disposable, cheap entertainment. But Lovecraft got his due in time. This spring McSweeney's will release an English translation of Michel Houellebecq's book H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Two collections of his stories have already appeared as Penguin Classics. And both Joyce Carol Oates and Borges have paid him homage, which seems to really confirm his appointment as Poe's heir in American letters. Plus, Lovecraft was a bit of a weirdo, always good for artistic posterity.

Leiber was a different kind of writer, and weird horror was only one of his strengths. Among my favourites of his books are the science fiction satires. A Spectre Is Haunting Texas might be worth another look right about now. It's set in the not terribly distant future when Texas oilmen have taken over all of North America. What a frightening thought. How could that ever happen?

Or The Silver Eggheads, in which he takes on the entire writing and publishing world with savage glee. Think writers are pretentious snots? Well, so did Leiber. The plot's not much to write home about, but the jokes are great, especially if you've read enough books to recognize the character's names. I love the hero's sidekick, Zane Gort, a robot who writes pulp novels for other robots.

Leiber's longest novel is more straightforward: The Wanderer, another Hugo winner, details the effect on a large cast of characters of the arrival in Earth orbit of a new planet. Leiber also wrote some parallel-world stories, usually playing up the frightening side of the idea: You're All Alone is genuinely creepy, unlike the merely convoluted shell games that are most such attempts. Little known and never reprinted is his novelization of the movie Tarzan and the Valley of Gold. The ape-man versus the Aztecs! While a much more professional adaptation job than is commonly seen, it's still for hardcore fans only. For one thing, it's impossible to find.

Leiber could be serious, he could be playful, he could be humorous, he could be clever, he could be wicked. All of these things he was by turns in his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, the only body of work in the entire sword & sorcery genre worth rereading as an adult. The series owes little to Robert E. Howard, but much to the exotic epics of E. R. Eddison, to C. S. Forester and to Norse myth. It also retains connections to Lovecraft: Ningauble and Sheelba are clear incarnations of the cosmic Cthulhu horrors, so infinitely dreadful their names are unpronounceable by human tongues. Moreover, it's always reminded me in some indefinable way of E. T. A. Hoffman: for instance, when the Gray Mouser shrinks and involves himself in the intrigues of the rats aboard ship in The Swords of Lankhmar, one of the best and longest stories in the series. An added pleasure is the playful way each story, or chapter of a longer story, is given a summation in the table of contents that is itself a delight to read-and just as intriguing to reread, because it turns out to have been both completely accurate and completely misleading. Like the way the table of contents in Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler comes at the end, giving you one last joyous blast of the trumpet just when you thought it couldn't get any better. Or like the list of objects at the end of The Circus of Dr. Lao, which includes foodstuffs eaten; for some reason, the whole story suddenly changes.

The thing about Leiber is, he had everything necessary to be a truly great writer, but too often he fell back on pulp conventions to resolve otherwise brilliant feats of storytelling.

In the fiftieth-anniversary issue of Amazing Stories, there's a great story (as far as I know not reprinted anywhere) that's part Lovecraftian horror and part mock literary history, and it shows the older Leiber at full strength. "The Death of Princes," which concerns Mark Twain, Haley's Comet and a nameless dread from the stars, is only a longish short story, but the density of idea and atmosphere is startling. I bought this June 1976 issue new at a corner store on Park Avenue in Montreal. There are so many heavy hitters listed on the cover-Asimov, Ellison, Benford, Malzberg-that the Alfred Bester interview inside doesn't even rate a mention.

(Trace this line: Bester's The Stars My Destination, Delany's Nova, Gibson's Neuromancer. Lay it parallel to Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac and Thomas Pynchon. Guys' books, sure. Cool as jazz, though. One fascinating thing about SF is what Gibson calls, in language typically borrowed from science, its recombinant nature. SF is so new still, we're so close to its basic roots, that its maturation is visible not just by the century but by the decade. Inherent in mid-twentieth-century SF is the scientist's credo that information wants to be free and available to all. SF writers intentionally riffed off one another's ideas, sometimes in the spirit of collaboration, sometimes just for fun. But two categories of SF writer emerged: the serious and the frivolous. In the sixties, the serious ones split into two camps: the scientists and the artists. The New Wave writers owed everything to their serious precursors, except the idea that serious SF could also be literature. The next big deal was cyberpunk, which broke the choke hold that Outer Space had had on SF since Sputnik. Suddenly, the future was right here on earth. And it was just as deadly as any plague of locusts from the Crab Nebula. Never mind the great books; the evolution of science fiction itself was mind-blowing to watch.)

Not long after I read "The Death of Princes," I wrote Leiber a letter. And he wrote back. I have a small handful of personal letters he wrote, with the greatest patience and good will, replying to the questions I naively posed. I treasure them. Someone had just put out a fanzine called the Silver Eel, a title taken from his work; he mailed me a copy. I didn't know it then, but this was not long after his wife and lifelong companion had passed away, either during his three-year drinking bout or when he was detoxifying after. Either way, I'm left thinking, This was one nice guy.

But then I grew up and away from science fiction. When he finally wrote a new Fafhrd and Gray Mouser book, sadly, it really disappointed me. The thing about Leiber is, he had everything necessary to be a truly great writer, but too often he fell back on pulp conventions to resolve otherwise brilliant feats of storytelling.

Nevertheless, his is a unique voice. It's a curious thing that so many American writers have toiled away at commercial work. But let's not forget, so did Rembrandt, and Virgil, and Shakespeare, and da Vinci. And remember: in America, the marketplace is the final arbiter of excellence.

Michel Basilières, a novelist and new father based in Toronto, is the author of Black Bird. Basilières' column on alternative literature, The Outer Edge, appears the second Saturday of each month.