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REVIEW: Fritz Leiber: Selected Stories edited by Charles N. Brown and Jonathan Strahan

REVIEW SUMMARY: A wonderful collection by a writer who should never be forgotten.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: 17 stories that showcase Fritz Leiber’s skill at writing stories of science fiction, fantasy and horror.


PROS: Showcases Leiber’s versatility writing in multiple genres; 5 excellent stories: “Coming Attraction”, “A Pail of Air”, “Bazaar of the Bizarre”, “Gonna Roll the Bones”, and “Ill Met in Lankhmar”. (Long live Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser!)
CONS: Some stories didn’t work as well, particularly “The Inner Circles”.
BOTTOM LINE: An excellent collection overall and one that I will always remember for (finally) introducing me to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

Fritz Leiber is considered by many to be one of the premiere science fiction writers the field has ever produced, and with the latest collection from Night Shade, Fritz Leiber: Selected Stories, it’s easy to see why.

Most noticeably, Leiber switches between genres effortlessly and is equally at home writing either science fiction, fantasy or horror. As far as this collection is concerned, Leiber’s sf is filled with wonder, his fantasy is stuffed with derring-do and his horror tends towards the ghostly. It’s an interesting mix of stories – certainly one that keeps any one theme from getting tired by an avaricious reader.

Leiber’s writing style is something of a double-edge sword at times. His stories attack his single-conceit ideas from quite unexpected vectors and it oftentimes takes a bit of orientation to realize where he’s coming from and where he’s going. But once you see what he’s doing, it makes sense and the stories become much more interesting. So much so that I decided that the small handful of stories I had read before were well worth re-reading. Most of the time Leiber’s prose works wonders (“Gonna Roll the Bones”), sometimes it doesn’t (“A Deskful of Girls”); even so, this is a wonderful collection overall that offers clever social commentary, deep characters, and some damn fine stories.

Standout stories in this collection include:

  • “Coming Attraction”
  • “A Pail of Air”
  • “Bazaar of the Bizarre”
  • “Gonna Roll the Bones”
  • “Ill Met in Lankhmar”

Individual story reviews follow…

“Smoke Ghost” is a quaint little horror story about a businessman who sees a ghost; not the white-sheet kind of ghost, but a soot-ridden visage that reflects a modern, destitute man. This story is fairly uneventful, but begins to generate some decent tension when we learn that Mr. Wran was believed in his youth to have extrasensory perception. Is the ghost real? We do find out, but the ending seems to diffuse the tension is a less than satisfactory way.

In “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” a photographer is approached by a beautiful mystery woman wishing to become a model. She’s a natural…with a decidedly unnatural allure; that is, something is not quite right. Could she be the reason men are turning up dead? Good suspense highlights this first-person narrative, and Leiber drops some commentary about advertising along the way, noting the power of it and how it shapes our ideas – an astute observation from the 1940’s when this was written.

“Coming Attraction” shows us a post-nuclear New York where radiation, left over from a Russian-dropped HBomb, is still a danger to the residents still living there. The protagonist, a visiting Englishman, has an encounter with a woman who is looking to leave America. He is intrigued by the woman, partly because he cannot see her face (it is the latest American fashion for women to completely cover their faces) and partly out of chivalry (she is abused by her wrestler boyfriend). Although some of these components feel somewhat disconnected from one another, an unexpected turn of characterization and whip-smart world-building ultimately make this a stimulating story.

[I read Leiber’s “A Pail of Air” six years ago in the anthology Armageddons edited by Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann. I remember liking it so much that I re-read it. It still holds up as an excellent story and what I said then still applies.] This story is set in the aftermath of an Earth that has been pulled away from the sun by a dead star. The air has turned into layers of frozen crystals, and a lone family struggles to survive in their makeshift “nest” melting the frozen oxygen so they can breathe. This story is wonderfully atmospheric and offers an intense sense-of wonder and a hopeful ending.

“A Deskful of Girls” is a potboiler of a ghost story about a psychologist named Slyker who keeps the ghostly auras of his patients hidden in his office desk like trophies. An investigator is hired by the protective ex-husband of a Hollywood starlet (Evelyn Cordew) to retrieve her ghosts, although the investigator thinks he is only meant to stop the doctor from blackmailing the starlet. I was originally put off by the awkwardness of the prose for the first act of this story, it just seemed to be going nowhere. But then things took a turn towards the bizarre when the doctor invited the undercover investigator up to his office where details of the story begin to become more apparent. A palpable suspense is subsequently created, and a plot twist makes it all the more chilling.

“Space Time for Springers” looks at life through the eyes of a cat named Gummitch. Gummitch sees himself as a super-cat who alone knows the truth about life. He thinks cats will change into humans once they grow up and that coffee will enable him to talk (for the only people who can talk are his owners, and they drink coffee, QED). Particularly interesting is how Leiber uses this point of view to describe Gummitch’s explanation for mirrors and windows, which (particularly when coupled with a realization of what’s going on with between the young girl Sissy and her baby sister), raises this story above and beyond mere cute cat story.

“Bazaar of the Bizarre” isn’t Leiber’s first Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story, but is my first Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story and I found it to be intoxicatingly brilliant. The two swordsmen, prompted by their respective patron wizards Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes, encounter The Destroyers, alien merchants who charm customers into trading lots of money for literal garbage. What’s interesting is how Leiber turns a fantasy story into humorous social commentary without sacrificing the story at all. The consumerism aspect of the story is reminiscent of Pohl’s and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, but Leiber spins it into his own classification of Swords, Sorcery and Satire. Well done.

A Shakespearean theater company’s production of Hamlet may be haunted in “Four Ghosts in Hamlet”, a story that sadly doesn’t really get interesting until the last third of the story. The only saving grace here is Leiber’s excellent characterizations of the actors, which alone are not enough to carry the story.

To say that “Gonna Roll the Bones” is merely a story of how a poor, working-stiff miner named Joe Slattermill gambles with the Devil would shortchange the pleasure derived from Leiber’s glorious prose and deft characterizations. I’m not entirely sure I have all my questions answered about what happened, but it was so intriguing and richly drawn that I don’t much care. [I also note that this story can now be used as another example (in addition to Wells’ The Time Machine) of a story re-read that fared way better the second time around.]

A man talks to mysterious black figures that he alone can see in “The Inner Circles”. The entire scene takes place in his living room with his wife and son nearby. It was hard to determine if this was real or just his imagination. I’m inclined towards the latter, since there is some discussion of sanity, but even so, this story seemed to trade some much-needed narrative drive for cryptic symbolism.

“America the Beautiful” is a story, written in 1970, about a Brit visiting America in the year 2000. America, though participating in many wars and waiting for the big one, is an almost serene locale, with smogless skies, a vibrant ecology, and a population without a care. Seen through the eyes of the visiting poetry lecturer, an outsider looking in, it’s all a façade. Between interesting prognostications of future tech, Leiber presents interesting universal perspectives that hold true today as much as when they were written.

Unlike “Bazaar of the Bizarre”, “Ill Met in Lankhmar” is a more traditional swords and sorcery story, with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser going up against the Thieves Guild. What’s interesting is how it happens: how the two fighters (both portrayed through strong characterization) become fast friends, become drunk in celebration of a victory, and then are prompted to go against the Thieves Guild at the behest of their women. Their drunken reconnaissance mission snowballs into a full-on fight that’s action-packed, a bit humorous, and surprisingly dramatic. There’s something to be said for a fantasy story that can make this fantasy-agnostic reader eager to see what happens next. Another well done story.

“Midnight by the Morphy Watch” feels like a Twilight Zone chess story as it describes a man who stumbles upon a rare, collectible artifact: a chess-themed stopwatch once owned by chess champion Paul Morphy and two other famous chess players. The chess-playing protagonist, Stirf Ritter-Rebil (a play on the author’s full name, Fritz Reuter Leiber), believes that the watch will make him a better chess player as it has absorbed the thoughts of its previous owners. Expected weirdness ensues yet, sadly, never escalates into anything significantly dramatic or notably interesting.

The protagonist of the 1975 story “The Belsen Express” has seemingly unjustified fears of Nazi persecution, but his daily routine seems to be headed towards his worst nightmare. The power of this story is how Leiber described the man’s commute which paralleled the Nazi death trains. Spooky stuff.

Leiber dabbles in alternate history with his story “Catch That Zeppelin!” In it, a man in 1973 visits the past of parallel world where Germany has risen as a technological superpower. The setting, New York City in 1937, is a shining example of what the world would have become: electric cars, smogless skies, and racial and religious equality. Leiber’s alternate retro-future is vividly described, but is not all it could be: the story is essentially plotless, told from the perspective of a man who, in this alternate timeline, sees himself as an aged Hitler-who-never-was, a reveal whose foreshadowing (small, horizontal moustache) is a dead giveaway.

Ramsey Ryker, a retired widower, is having nightmares and seeing a ghost in “Horrible Imaginings”. Ryker’s recurring nightmare is one of being confined in a coffin-like space of utter blackness while the sounds, feelings and smells of being abused (sometimes sexually) by Lilliputian beings fill his other senses. An explicitly described trip to an erotic parlor seems to cure him of his nightmares, but he then begins catching glimpses of a mysterious woman in his apartment building. (The building’s stark hallways and elevator is where the large majority of this story takes place.) The woman is elusive and ghost-like (Ryker refers to her as the Vanishing Lady) and he is drawn to her. Leiber’s edgy narrative throughout this story of dark eroticism is very descriptive, oftentimes lingering (seemingly) too long on Ryker’s point of view, making the reader wonder when he will get on with the story. But these long descriptions (which, for some reason, reminded me of how Stephen King handles characters…perhaps in the way they both dote on lots of details and embellish stories with memorable flourishes?) go a long way in fitting the story elements together which, in the end, hang together quite nicely. Two-thirds into the story, when the perspective suddenly changes to that of the Vanishing Lady, it takes on a much more urgent tone — not in any traditional horror sense, but with a bittersweet understanding of the true nature of these hallway encounters. And then Leiber does the completely unexpected to wonderfully finish the story out with an excellent finish.

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are the targets of “The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars”. Thanks to the machinations of patron wizards Ningauble and Sheelba, who realize that their powers are weakened with Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser living in the distant Rime isle instead of Lankhmar, the gods (the spider god Mog, the brutish Kos, and the effeminate Issek; briefly seen but marvelously characterized) cast a curse on the warriors. Fafhrd is distracted with stargazing while Mouser is preoccupied by the smallest things – distractions that could spell their doom as doppelganger assassins are sent to kill them. This is a decent plot, as it goes, but is slightly hindered by the fact that our heroes are mostly off their game and are only able to survive – there’s never any doubt they will – through the actions of others.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

2 Comments on REVIEW: Fritz Leiber: Selected Stories edited by Charles N. Brown and Jonathan Strahan

  1. Man, I love Leiber. Never really liked his sci-fi all that much–a little too self-consciously pulpy for my tastes–but as one of the godfathers of heroic fantasy and weird fiction, he was just brilliant! One of my favourite goth-rock bands, Two Witches, used “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” as the basis for one of their best songs.

  2. Bob Blough // April 21, 2010 at 12:42 am //

    Leiber is still – after 40 years of reading SF – a favorite for me  Personally I love his SF.  Love THE BIG TIME  and others.  So many of his stories are so ahead of their time that it boggles the mind – of the above examples “Smoke Ghost”, “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” “Coming Attraction” and “The Inner Circles”  (which I like a lot better than you, it seems!) come to mind.  Don’t miss others that couldn’t be included in this selection such as “The Man Who Made Friends woth Electricity” and “Poor Superman” or “Ship of Shadows” or…  There are so many more that his best couldn’t fit into one volume.  I hope Strahan does a volume 2 and 3 and so on!

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