Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fritz Leiber and the Problem of the Weird Tale-Part 5

"'It's a rotten world . . . . [f]it for another morbid growth of superstition. It's time the ghosts, or whatever you call them, took over and began a rule of fear. They'd be no worse than men.'"
--from "Smoke Ghost" by Fritz Leiber (Unknown, Oct. 1941)

If you want a good scare before going to sleep tonight, read Fritz Leiber's short story "Smoke Ghost." Published on the eve of America's entry into World War II, "Smoke Ghost" is set in a modern, industrialized city, a place filled with smoke, grime, soot, and cinders. I won't give too much away, but in this story from early in his career, Leiber clearly engaged himself in solving the problem of the weird tale, namely: How does the writer in a genre that is essentially Medieval in nature (rural, insular, supernatural, irrational) update that genre for a new age? The old-fashioned Medieval or Gothic ghost--draped in its shroud, dragging its clanking chains, haunting its lonely graveyard or empty castle--was long gone by 1941. But because there must be ghosts or "whatever you call them," the modern, industrialized city gives birth to a different kind of supernatural creature, embodied in the "Smoke Ghost" of the title. The protagonist of the story, Catesby Wran, explains to his secretary that there aren't any more ghosts. "Science and common sense and psychiatry all go to prove it." Yet men are still haunted. Wran concludes that far from being nonsense, "superstition [is] only a kind of wisdom." The view from the elevated train Wran uses offers him a view of "a dingy, melancholy little world of tar-paper, tarred gravel, and smoky brick," a view that comes "to symbolize . . . certain aspects of the frustrated, frightened century in which he lived, the jangled century of hate and heavy industry and total wars." From this landscape arises a new kind of ghost, the spirit of the urban, industrialized landscape, a spirit sated by recognition, obeisance, and worship--if only for awhile. And the century wasn't even half past.

In "The Inheritance," Leiber continued with the theme of the monstrous city, describing it as "dingy," "dismal," "lightless," "nervous," "ugly," "crowded," and full of criminals and murderers. Like a story by Lovecraft (one of Leiber's mentors), "The Inheritance" is one of loneliness and isolation, a Gothic tale set in a desolate, twentieth century rooming house and in the dream-state of its protagonist. The monster turns out to be of a kind all too familiar to us today--and not from fiction but from real life. Bret Easton Ellis had a name for it: "American psycho."

As in "The Inheritance," "The Dreams of Albert Moreland" is set in a lonely rooming house and in a dream-state. Instead of a Gothic isolation from real events, "The Dreams of Albert Moreland" makes a connection between the horrors of the wider world and the personal horrors in the lives of its people. The action takes place in the autumn of 1939 with the beginning of the Second World War as a backdrop. In Manhattan, an elderly chess player is engaged in a titanic struggle--though perhaps only in his dreams. The antagonist is an unseen dream-creature, represented by its chess-like playing pieces, which are described as if Lovecraft were describing the gods of his Cthulhu mythos. The chessplayer's contest is against the forces of darkness and evil and for earth's survival. It's easy enough to see the opposing playing pieces as symbols of totalitarianism and oppression then (and now) afoot in the world. Published in April 1945--the same month in which Hitler killed himself, yet when the war had not been fully decided--"The Dreams of Albert Moreland" ends ambiguously. An opposing playing piece is captured, but is that a sign of victory for the chessplayer? Does the contest go on? Or is he actually defeated? The seven decades of history since then have yet to answer those questions. (On a final note, Orson Scott Card may very well have read "The Dreams of Albert Moreland" before beginning his novel Ender's Game (1985).)

In "The Hound," from 1942, Leiber treated the problem of the weird tale as nowhere else in this collection. The eponymous hound is in fact a monstrous canine--but more. (In the end, the creature can't even be described.) The haunted protagonist considers a question:
Werewolves? He had read up on such things at the library . . . but what he had read made them seem innocuous and without significance--dead superstitions--in comparison with this thing that was part and parcel of the great sprawling cities and chaotic peoples of the Twentieth Century . . . .
His friend (an obvious stand-in for the author) theorizes further:
Meanwhile, what's happening inside each one of us? I'll tell you. All sorts of inhibited emotions are accumulating. Fear is accumulating. Horror is accumulating. A new kind of awe of the mysteries of the universe is accumulating. A psychological environment is forming, along with the physical one. Our culture becomes ripe for infection. From somewhere. It's just like a bacteriologist's culture. . . . . Similarly, our culture suddenly spawns a horde of demons. And, like germs, they have a peculiar affinity for our culture. They're unique. They fit in. You wouldn't find the same kind any other time or place.
The monster--the hound of the title--is bred in the city. But is it chained to the city? The protagonist hopes so, yet his attempt to escape the hound and the city prove unsuccessful. Only another person--what could be interpreted as an escape from loneliness and isolation--saves him in the end. (It's worth noting that in the Middle Ages, some believed that a person born on December 24--as Fritz Leiber was--are prone to become werewolves.)

The dark spirit of the city, the psychopath, the evil and murderous dictator, the hound of the imagination--where do these twentieth century monsters come from? Fritz Leiber, through his narrators and protagonists, offered as good an answer as any.

From "The Inheritance":
Forces are at work that break people up, and scatter them, and make them lonely. You feel it most of all in a big city.
From "The Dreams of Albert Moreland":
Certainly a person without family, friends, or proper occupation is liable to mental aberrations.
Larger still:
And it seemed to me that social, economic, and physiological factors, even Death and War, were insufficient to explain such anxiety, and that it was in reality an upwelling from something dubious and horrible in the very constitution of the universe.
The Medieval and the Gothic may have been inadequate in the twentieth century, but the Middle Ages did not give birth to monsters. The people of the Middle Ages had monsters fitting for them and their times. So did the people of mid-twentieth century urban America. And so have the people since and all those to come. Monsters have always been with us and probably always will be, though behind an ever-changing disguise. The root of the word "monster" is from the Latin for "warning." If we are to exorcise monsters, we have to see through the disguise to the warnings our monsters bear about ourselves and our society.

Note: At five long parts, "Fritz Leiber and the Problem of the Weird Tale" is more than a blog should bear. Thanks to all readers who have been patient enough to wait for and to read what I have written here. Thanks also to the author of the blog "Good Short Fiction to Read" for the genesis of this article. 

Copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley


  1. This really is a fascinating set of articles, I think because of the immense success of Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser, Fritz is often associated with Unknown Magazine and fantasy in general.

    Horror was an equally important outlet for Leiber, and continued throughout his life, and was much more than Smoke Ghost, which is invariably mentioned.

  2. Dear David,

    Thank you for your kind words. I have begun a new series on a related topic. It's called "What Is the Monster of the Twenty-First Century?". There are certain writers and certain stories that are almost inexhaustible sources for discussion and speculation. Leiber and Lovecraft are two in that category.

    Thanks for reading.