Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Fritz Leiber and the Problem of the Weird Tale-Part 4

Night's Black Agents, published by Arkham House in 1947 and reprinted in 1978, was Fritz Leiber's first book. It's divided into three sections: "Ancient Adventures," "Transition," and "Modern Horrors." The last section, "Modern Horrors," is the longest and most significant, at least in artistic terms. In the original edition, it included the following stories:
  • "Smoke Ghost" (Unknown Worlds, Oct. 1941)
  • "The Automatic Pistol" (Weird Tales, May 1940)
  • "The Inheritance" (Weird Tales, Jan. 1942, as "The Phantom Slayer")
  • "The Hill and the Hole" (Unknown Worlds, Aug. 1942)
  • "The Dreams of Albert Moreland" (The Acolyte, Issue #10, Spring 1945)
  • "The Hound" (Weird Tales, Nov. 1942)
  • "Diary in the Snow" (original to the Arkham House edition, 1947)
These stories appear in the book almost in chronological order of their first publication. The exceptions are "Smoke Ghost," which is put to good use as the opening story, and "The Hound," a story very similar to "Smoke Ghost" and therefore perhaps purposefully separated from it by several intervening tales. All but "Diary in the Snow" were published during the war years. The remaining stories betray a feeling of anxiety, dread, and despair that must have pervaded the world between 1939 and 1945. All but "The Hill and the Hole" and "Diary in the Snow" take place in the city. Despite their rural setting, even those stories are modern (as opposed to Medieval) in that they include elements of science fiction and disturbing twentieth-century anxieties.

Throughout the 1930s, the world moved inexorably towards war. The fantasies of the Depression Era, whether authored by Busby Berkeley or H.P. Lovecraft, must needs have retreated as armies advanced. During his own writing career, Lovecraft had advanced the weird tale from a Dunsanian fantasy or a Poesque Gothic romance to semi-science fiction. You could argue that his best and most accomplished works--"The Call of Cthulhu," "The Whisperer in Darkness," "The Dunwich Horror," "At the Mountains of Madness," for example--are a fusion of those three forms. However, Lovecraft--an inhabitant of his own very real Gothic landscape--was essentially conservative, even reactionary. Few of his stories are set in a recognizably modern world where people go to movies, read magazines, talk on the telephone, carry on love affairs, or trudge off to work every day. A key element of the Gothic tale is physical isolation, usually in a remote place peopled (if at all) by rural characters, most of whom are simple, superstitious, even backwards. Anyone who has read Lovecraft's stories is familiar with the setting. On the other hand, the city and its worldy, sophisticated inhabitants play only a minor role in his work. Significantly, when he set one of his tales in the city, he described it as a place of horror, "a horror beyond all human conception--a horror of houses and blocks and cities leprous and cancerous with evil dragged from elder worlds." (1) Lovecraft knew whereof he wrote, for he lived in New York City for two years between 1924 and 1926. Still, his prose is a little overwrought, his sentiment a bit of an abstraction. You get the feeling that his revulsion at the city had more to do with his fastidious, small-town waspishness than true modern anxiety. It would take someone like Chicago-born Fritz Leiber--who also called New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco home in his lifetime--to write more accurately, concretely, and effectively of the horrors the city had to offer.

H.P. Lovecraft died a year almost to the day before the Anschluss. The world was slouching towards war by then, but there was still time in the mid-1930s to enjoy the fantasies provided by American popular culture. The song from the closing of the First World War went like this: "How 'ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" You might ask the same kind of question about World War II: How does fantasy--which relies so heavily on isolation from the real world--survive when its authors and readers are so violently thrust into that same world, a world in which the truest and most horrifying monsters are human beings? Cthulhu is a scary monster, effective as an artistic creation because, being based in a material, scientific universe, he is made more real. Vampires and werewolves may also be scary, but they are creatures of an earlier time, when the supernatural was a part of everyday life. (2) The vampire, the werewolf, the witch, and the ghost of the Middle Ages have been replaced in our modern age by the psychopath, the cryptozoological creature, the space alien, and the android. Put another way, the supernatural has been replaced with the "natural," that is, the material and the scientific. Alternatively, the twentieth century monster is generated in the mind, its breeding ground, the city, with all its isolation and alienation. "Each culture creates its own ghosts," says a character in Fritz Leiber's story, "The Hound." So what kind of ghost haunts the modern world? I hope I can answer that question and conclude this ramble next time.

(1) From "The Horror at Red Hook."
(2) The only truly fearsome monsters of the twentieth century were real and psychopathic: Fritz Haarmann (1879-1925), "The Vampire of Hanover," and Peter Kürten (1883-1931), "The Vampire of Düsseldorf," for example. There were countless others, called "Beasts," "Killers," and "Rippers," among other things. There were of course political monsters as well, mostly socialists and other assorted true believers, such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. As for twentieth century werewolves--again, real, and again, German: as the defeat of Nazi Germany drew near, Joseph Goebbels announced plans for a commando force that would operate behind Allied lines. As with their supernatural counterparts, Nazi Werewolves proved more of a legend than a reality.

Copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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