Fritz Leiber, Critical Essays

Fritz Leiber, Critical Essays. Ed. Benjamin Szumskyj. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Co, 2008. 207 pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-7864-2972-1. $35.00.

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Reviewed by Darrell Schweitzer

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 27.3/4 (#105/106) (2009): 173–74.]

Whatever its shortcomings, this book is an important step in the right direction. It may not be, as the back cover copy tries to imply, the definitive academic study of Fritz Leiber’s work (if only because only one of the contributors seems to be a genuine literary academic) but it is still a start. It was generally agreed by Leiber’s peers of his own generation that he was one of the greats. Most professionals a generation younger-Baby Boomer writers-grew up reading him, probably encountering his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series as teenagers, then gradually developing a mature appreciation of both the artistry and craft that went into those tales and into Leiber’s more ostensibly challenging work like The Big Time. Leiber has always been a writer’s writer. But, just now, very little of his work is still in print. Younger readers today do not have the opportunity to casually encounter him in mass market paperback the way Baby Boomers did. So anything that helps keep Leiber’s name on the literary map is to be welcomed.

This book then is a beginning, not an end. It has its shortcomings. Some of the prose of a few of the contributors can be pretty tortuous, as if in their attempt to be “academic” they had picked up some of the vices of the academy rather than its discipline. There are writers who don’t necessarily stay on topic, although this isn’t always a bad thing. Fritz’s son, Justin Leiber, sets out to discuss his father’s theory of Time and how it developed, but is actually at his best with personal anecdotes which give us glimpses of Fritz that of course no one else can provide.

S.T. Joshi is very much lucid and on-target as he discusses how Leiber modernized the horror story in such works as “Smoke Ghost” and Conjure Wife. Joshi illustrates this in terms of Leiber applying and moving beyond the principles he learned from Lovecraft, who had been, for a few months at the end of his life, something of a mentor to the then novice Fritz, who was still a few years away from his first genre sales, to Unknown and Weird Tales. What Joshi seems to minimize is the influence of William Sloane, whose To Walk the Night (1937) very powerfully accomplished all of the things that Joshi tells us Leiber did. That Leiber read Sloane is evident enough. His 1950 story “The Ship Sails at Midnight” is a virtual homage to To Walk the Night. Quite likely, the only reason we do not think of Sloane as a figure as important as Leiber or even Lovecraft is that after one more book, The Edge of Running Water (1939), he stopped writing.

One of the areas that Leiber scholarship, such as it exists-there are two previous studies, one by Bruce Byfield, one by Jeff Frane, both too short, and also beginnings rather than summations-must delve into is the matter of influences. With a writer like Fritz Leiber, admittedly, this can be a daunting task. So much has to be mastered: H.P. Lovecraft, Shakespeare, John Webster, Ibsen, Rafael Sabatini, Talbot Mundy, E.R. Eddison, James Branch Cabell, and doubtless quite a lot more. How many Leiber scholars have a thorough understanding of even those writers? Charles Waugh on page 27 lets a Cabell reference slip by (the Gray Mouser referring to himself as “a monstrous clever fellow,” a phrase that echoes throughout Jurgen) without even apparently realizing what it is. Leiber actually stated that Tros of Samothrace was for his generation what The Lord of the Rings has become since. Has anybody explored the Leiber/Mundy connection? Not here. Neither the names Cabell nor Mundy are even found in the index.

So, a beginning. The shadow of Lovecraft looms very large, if only because Lovecraft so defined what Joshi calls “the weird tale” that even Leiber is still distantly in orbit around HPL. Several writers agree that Our Lady of Darkness (1978) is a capstone of Leiber’s weird work, which should, at the very least, make the reader want to go hunt that book out and reread it. John Howard applies close textual analysis to the magazine version of that work, “The Pale Brown Thing,” to show how it was expanded into the finished novel, which is interesting in its own right, though there is no sense that the short version has any distinctly separate merit of its own, the way that, for instance, Roger Zelazny’s “He Who Shapes” exists quite independently of The Dream Master.

There are some good ideas here. The editor himself tries to connect some very early religious stories Leiber write while an Episcopal lay minister with Gather, Darkness! Davide Mana explores the appearances of cats and cat-like beings in Leiber’s fiction. As any Leiber reader knows, the cat motifs are significant, not just Leiberian whimsy. John Langan, himself a horror-story writer of great promise, who may one day be seen as one of Leiber’s successors, gives particularly interesting insights into the seminal “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes.” Bruce Byfield examines “the eccentric” in Leiber’s little-studied poetry and traces it into the fiction. This is, indeed, a connection no one has ever made before, precisely because Leiber scholarship is just beginning, even as this book is a beginning.

A bibliography of Leiber’s work at the end would have been nice. We cannot assume that someone encountering this book in a university library knows much about Leiber, not now, at the beginning of things.

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