Sunday, May 01, 2011

Grand Master

Stuck in the back of The Ghost Light are two obituaries on Fritz Leiber, one from The New York Times and one from Locus. Did he really pass away in 1992? It seems both just yesterday and so long ago. Just yesterday because he is one of my favorites and many of his stories have had a great impact upon me. Long ago because his books have faded from the shelves other than a couple of recent collections and an occasional reprint of the tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.

Ah, me. Time for a visit with one of my favorites. Maybe this will spark some interest out there!

Fritz Leiber; The Ghost Light (Berkley; 1984; ISBN 0-425-06812-9; cover byJohn Jude Palencar).

An excellent collection on several fronts. Great selection of stories (I only miss a few entries such as Catch That Zeppelin! and A Pail of Air, plus maybe Ill Met in Lankhmar instead of Bazaar of the Bizarre to make this a better set), plus superb artwork: folks, if you can find this book as an illustrated edition, and as a trade paperback instead of a mass market paperback (the better to appreciate the author photograph in the beginning, of Fritz Leiber in front of a bookstore filled with items from the collection), I urge you to do so. This book was an early production by Byron Preiss and is one of the best results of that now-lost publishing effort. The stories represent some of Leiber's best efforts and represent entries into each of his series (unless I'm forgetting, as it has been a number of years, only the Change War series is not represented) or attempted series (unless memory is incorrect, I seem to recall Leiber writing descriptions in previous collections where he said both A Pail of Air, also not represented here, and Coming Attraction would have been parts of serial works). Topping off the collection is a long autobiograpical essay, amusing and interesting, and making one wish that Leiber had done a book-length version of his life.

There seems to be two themes to the stories in the book. The themes apply to most, if not all of the stories. The first is that each story is inspired by some sort of ordinary-seeming object. A night light. A mask. A chess set. A store full of odds and ends. For the second, the characters are haunted by real or imagined ghosts.

The Ghost Light opens the collection with a short work about a family visiting the estranged father of the main character and attempting a reconciliation. The father is a recovering alcoholic who lost his wife several years ago. Mystery grows as it is revealed that he may have played a role...passive or her death. Toss in a couple of night lights, some paintings, and a storm and you get a tale that equals anything written by Tim Powers or Neil Gaiman. Magical realism, indeed.

Coming Attraction is equally creepy. New York City, after World War III with the stump of the Empire State Building dominating the landscape (it seemed to have made off better than the World Trade Center with a smaller attack). Women wear masks to give themselves an air of mystery (or to cover up burns and mutations), wrestling dominates the airwaves (hey, is this science fiction or the SyyyyyFyyyyy Channel?). Leiber was often writing about sex and our fascination with sex and this is one of his takes on the subject. And a scary tale as well.

A Deskful of Girls explores Leiber's fascination (fear?) of sex. A famous psychologist is removing ghosts from various female clients. The main character is sent to try to recover what he thinks is blackmail material, but finds something quite different.

I recall reading Space-Time for Springers in its first appearance, so this might be my earliest encounter with Leiber along with A Pail of Air. Gummitch is a superkitten, but only he seems to know it.

Four Ghosts in Hamlet ties Leiber's own experiences on the stage into a fascinating horror story. Or is it? Was there a "real" ghost during the performance of That Play? One of my favorites by him.

Made up of: Introduction; The Ghost Light (illustrated by John Jude Palencar); Coming Attraction (illustrated by Brian Humphrey); A Deskful of Girls (illustrated by JoEllen Trilling); Space-Time for Springers (illustrated by Pat Ortega); Four Ghosts in Hamlet (illustrated by Thomas Canry); Gonna Roll the Bones (illustrated by David Wiesner); Bazaar of the Bizarre (illustrated by Robert Gould); Midnight by the Morphy Watch (illustrated by Steve Leialoha); Black Glass (illustrated by Paul Rivoche); Not So Much Disorder and Not So Early Sex: An Autiobiographic Essay.

Counts as six (6) entries in the 2011 Year in Shorts.

Addendum: Fritz Leiber's works at Project Gutenberg. Fritz Leiber's works at LibriVox (Big Time is forthcoming). A recent Fritz Leiber collection from Subterranean Press. A recent Fritz Leiber collection from Night Shade Books. Books by Fritz Leiber at Amazon.


Paul Weimer said...

...Catch That Zeppelin! and A Pail of Air...

Figures. Those are two of my favorite non-Lankhmar stories that Leiber did, although #3 would be Coming Attraction.

I seem to recall, Fred, that Leiber wrote a sequel to Coming Attraction, or it was set in the same world anyway. Sound familiar?

Fred Kiesche said...

I can't recall a sequel to "Coming Attraction" or even a story set in the same world. However, other than a re-read of the F&GM tales a few years ago, I haven't read through Leiber since the late 80's, early 90's. With the appearance of two collections in the past couple of years, plus a missing book, I decided it was time to go through again. Maybe I'll come across a sequel in the current run through.

Paul Weimer said...

Ha, I found it, Fred!

Fred Kiesche said...

I'll re-read it (only have the vaguest of recollections of that story), but other than being set post-WWIII, I'm not sure if it is a sequel. It actually sounds more like the genesis of either "Silver Eggheads" or "Gather, Darkness".

In other news, I need to update the entry overall, as I've gotten several more stories into the collection. A delight, as usual.