Selected Stories by Fritz Leiber

BOOK: Selected Stories by Fritz Leiber
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Fritz Leiber: Selected Stories
 

Introduction by Neil Gaiman
edited by Jonathan Strahan and Charles N. Brown
Night Shade Books San Francisco

Fritz Leiber: Selected Stories
© 2010 by the estate of Fritz Leiber This edition of
Fritz Leiber: Selected Stories
© 2010 by Night Shade Books

Introduction © 2010 by Neil Gaiman
Jacket art and design by Claudia Noble Author photo courtesy of the
Locus
magazine archive Interior layout and design by Ross E. Lockhart

All rights reserved

“Smoke Ghost,” first published in Unknown Worlds, October 1941.

“The Girl with the Hungry Eyes,”first published in The Girl with the Hungry Eyes and Other Stories, Avon, 1949. 

“Coming Attraction,” first published in Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1950.

“A Pail of Air,” first published in Galaxy Science Fiction, December 1951.

“A Deskful of Girls,” first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1958. 

“Space-Time for Springers,” first published in Star Science Fiction Stories No.4, Frederick Pohl. ed., Ballantine, 1958.

“Bazaar of the Bizarre,” first published in Fantastic Stories of Imagination, August 1963. 

“Four Ghosts in Hamlet,” first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 1965.

“Gonna Roll the Bones,” first published in Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison, ed., Doubleday, 1967. 

“The Inner Circles” (AKA “The Winter Flies”), first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1967.

“America the Beautiful,” first published in The Year 2000, Harry Harrison, ed., Doubleday, 1970. 

“Ill Met in Lankhmar,” first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1970. 

“Midnight by the Morphy Watch,” first published in Worlds of If, July-August 1974.

“Belsen Express,” first published in The Second Book of Fritz Leiber, DAW Books, 1975. 

“Catch That Zeppelin!” first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March 1975. 

“Horrible Imaginings,” first published in Death, Stuart David Schiff, ed., Playboy Paperbacks, 1982. 

“The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars,” first published in Heroic Visions, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, ed.,

Ace, 1983.
First Edition
ISBN: 978-1-59780-180-5
Night Shade Books
Please visit us on the web at http://www.nightshadebooks.com

Contents

Introduction by Neil Gaiman
Smoke Ghost
The Girl with the Hungry Eyes
Coming Attraction
A Pail of Air
A Deskful of Girls
Space-Time for Springers
Ill Met in Lankhmar
Four Ghosts in Hamlet
Gonna Roll the Bones
The Inner Circles
America the Beautiful
Bazaar of the Bizarre
Midnight by the Morphy Watch
Belsen Express
Catch That Zeppelin!
Horrible Imaginings
The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars

IntroductIon

Neil Gaiman

I MET FRITZ LEIBER (it’s pronounced Lie-ber, and not, as I had mispronounced it all my life until I met him, Lee-ber) shortly before his death. This was twenty years ago. We were sitting next to each other at a banquet at the World Fantasy Convention. He seemed so old: a tall, serious, distinguished man with white hair, who reminded me of a thinner, better looking Boris Karloff. He said nothing, during the dinner, not that I can remember. Our mutual friend Harlan Ellison had sent him a copy of 
Sandman
 #18, “A Dream of 1000 Cats,” which was my own small tribute to Leiber’s cat stories, and I told him he had been an inspiration, and he said something more or less inaudible in return, and I was happy. We rarely get to thank those who shaped us.

My first Leiber short story: I was nine. The story,“The Winter Flies,” was in Judith Merril’s huge anthology 
SF12
. It was the most important book I read when I was nine, with the possible exception of Michael Moorcock’s
Stormbringer
, for it was the place I discovered a host of authors who would become important to me, and dozens of stories I would read so often that I could have recited them: Chip Delany’s “The Star Pit” and R. A. Lafferty’s “Primary Education of the Camiroi” and “Narrow Valley” and William Burroughs’“They Do Not Always Remember,” J. G. Ballard’s “The Cloud-sculptors of Coral D” not to mention Tuli Kupferberg’s poems, Carol Emshwiller and Sonya Dorman and Kit Reed and the rest. It did not matter that I was much too young for the stories: I knew that they were beyond me, and was not even slightly troubled by this. The stories made sense to me, a sense that was beyond what they literally meant. It was in 
SF12
 I encountered concepts and people that did not exist in the children’s books I was familiar with, and this delighted me.

What did I make of the “The Winter Flies” then? The last time I read it I saw it as semi-autobiographical fiction, about a man who philanders and drinks when he is on the road, whose marriage is breaking down, and who interrupts a masturbatory reverie to talk a child having a panic attack back to reality, an action that, for a moment, brings a family, fragmenting in alcohol and lack of communication, together. When I read it as a nine-year-old it was about a man beset by demons, talking his son, lost among the stars, home again. And both ways of reading it were, I suspect, as right as they could be.

I knew I liked Fritz Leiber from that story on. He was someone I read. When I was eleven I bought 
Conjure Wife
, and learned that all women were witches, and found out what a hand of glory was (and yes, there is sexism and misogyny in the book and in the concept, but there is, if you are a twelve-year-old boy trying to make sense of something that might as well be an alien species, also the kind of paranoid “what-if-it’s-true?” that makes reading books such a dangerous occupation at any age). I read a 1972 issue of 
Wonder Woman
 written by Samuel R. Delany, featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser and was disappointed that it felt nothing like a Chip Delany story, but had now encountered our two adventurers, and, from the magic of comics, knew what they looked like. I read 
Sword of Sorcery,
 the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser comics that DC comics brought out in 1973, and finally found a copy of 
The Swords of Lankhmar
 at the age of thirteen, in the cupboard at the back of Mr. Wright’s English class, its cover (I would later discover) a bad English copy of the Jeff Jones painting on the cover of the US edition; and I read it, learned what the tall barbarian and the little thief were like in Leiber’s glittering, half-amused prose, and I loved it, and I was content.

I couldn’t enjoy Conan the Barbarian after that. Not really. I missed the wit.
Shortly after I found a copy of 
The Big Time,
 Leiber’s novel of the Change War, a war across time and space being fought by two incomprehensible groups of antagonists who use human beings as pawns, and I read it, convinced it was a stage-play cunningly disguised as a novella, and when I reread it twenty years on I enjoyed it almost as much (aspects of how Leiber treated the narrator bothered me) and was still just as convinced it was a stage-play. Some of Leiber’s better SF tales were Change War stories.
Leiber wrote some great books, and he wrote some stinkers: the majority of his SF novels in particular feel dated and throwaway. He wrote some great short stories in SF and fantasy and horror and there’s scarcely a stinker among them, even when the SF elements feel tacked on or redundant or protective colouration for the fantastic.
He was one of the giants of genre literature and it is hard to imagine iNtroductioN •

the world of tales we read today being the same without him. And he was a giant partly because he vaulted over genre restrictions, sidled around them, took them in his stride. He created—in the sense that it barely existed before he wrote it—witty and intelligent sword and sorcery; he was the person who put down the foundations of what would become urban horror; and he wrote SF that resonated in its time for its readers, and some that did more than that.

Leiber at his best has themes that repeat, like an artist returning to his favourite subjects—Shakespeare and watches and cats, marriage and women and ghosts, the power of cities and booze and the stage, dealing with the Devil, Germany, mortality, never repeating, usually both smarter and deeper than it needed to be to sell, written with elegance and poetry and wit.

Good malt whisky tastes of one thing; a great malt whisky tastes of many things. It plays a chromatic scale of flavour in your mouth, leaving you with an odd sequence of aftertastes, and when finally the liquid has gone from your tongue you can still find yourself reminded of, first, honey then woodsmoke, and bitter chocolate or of the barren salt pastures at the edge of the sea. Fritz Leiber’s better short stories do the thing a fine whisky does, but they leave aftertastes in memory, an emotional residue and resonance that remains long after the final page has been turned. Just as the stage manager he describes in “Four Ghosts in Hamlet,” we feel that Leiber had spent a lifetime observing, and he was adept at turning the straw of memory into the bricks of imagination and of story. He demanded a great deal of his readers—you need to pay attention, you need to care—and he gave a great deal in return, for those of us that did.

Twentieth-century genre SF produced some recognised giants—Ray Bradbury being the obvious example—but it also produced a handful of people who never gained the recognition that should have been their due. They were caviar (but then, so was Bradbury, and he was rapidly taken out of SF and seen as a national treasure). They might have been giants, but nobody noticed them; they were too odd, too misshapen, too smart. Avram Davidson was one. R. A. Lafferty another. Fritz Leiber was never quite one of the overlooked ones, not in that way: he won many awards; he was widely and rightly seen as one of our great writers. But he was still caviar. He never crossed over into the popular consciousness: he was too baroque, perhaps; too intelligent. He is not on the roadmap that we draw that takes us from Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell back to H. P. Lovecraft in one direction, from every game of Dungeons and Dragons with a thief in it back to Robert E. Howard, in another.

He should be.
I hope this book reminds his admirers of why they love his work; but more than that, I trust it will find him new readers, and that the new readers will, in turn, find an author they can trust (as much as ever you can trust an author) and to love.

Neil Gaiman In Transit February 2010

Smoke Ghost

MISS MILLICK WONDERED just what had happened to Mr. Wran. He kept making the strangest remarks when she took dictation. Just this morning he had quickly turned around and asked, “Have you ever seen a ghost, Miss Millick?” And she had tittered nervously and replied, “When I was a girl there was a thing in white that used to come out of the closet in the attic bedroom when you slept there, and moan. Of course it was just my imagination. I was frightened of lots of things.” And he had said, “I don’t mean that traditional kind of ghost. I mean a ghost from the world today, with the soot of the factories in its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul. The kind that would haunt coal yards and slip around at night through deserted office buildings like this one. A real ghost. Not something out of books.”And she hadn’t known what to say.

He’d never been like this before. Of course it might be joking, but it didn’t sound that way. Vaguely Miss Millick wondered whether he mightn’t be seeking some sort of sympathy from her. Of course, Mr. Wran was married and had a little child, but that didn’t prevent her from having daydreams. She had daydreams about most of the men she worked for. The daydreams were all very similar in pattern and not very exciting, but they helped fill up the emptiness in her mind. And now he was asking her another of those disturbing and jarringly out-of-place questions.

“Have you ever thought what a ghost of our times would look like, Miss Millick? Just picture it. A smoky composite face with the hungry anxiety of the unemployed, the neurotic restlessness of the person without purpose, the jerky tension of the high-pressure metropolitan worker, the sullen resentment of the striker, the callous viciousness of the strike breaker, the aggressive whine of the panhandler, the inhibited terror of the bombed civilian, and a thousand other twisted emotional patterns? Each one overlaying and yet blending with the other, like a pile of semitransparent masks?”

Miss Millick gave a little self-conscious shiver and said,“My, that would be terrible. What an awful thing to think of.”
She peered at him furtively across the desk. Was he going crazy? She remembered having heard that there had been something impressively abnormal about Mr. Wran’s childhood, but she couldn’t recall what it was. If only she could do something—joke at him or ask him what was really wrong. She shifted around the extra pencils in her left hand and mechanically traced over some of the shorthand curlicues in her notebook.
“Yet, that’s just what such a ghost or vitalized projection would look like, Miss Millick,” he continued, smiling in a tight way. “It would grow out of the real world. It would reflect all the tangled, sordid, vicious things. All the loose ends. And it would be very grimy. I don’t think it would seem white or wispy or favor graveyards. It wouldn’t moan. But it would mutter unintelligibly, and twitch at your sleeve. Like a sick, surly ape. What would such a thing want from a person, Miss Millick? Sacrifice? Worship? Or just fear? What could you do to stop it from troubling you?”
Miss Millick giggled nervously. She felt embarrassed and out of her depth. There was an expression beyond her powers of definition in Mr. Wran’s ordinary, flat-cheeked, thirtyish face, silhouetted against the dusty window. He turned away and stared out into the gray downtown atmosphere that rolled in from the railroad yards and the mills. When he spoke again his voice sounded far away.
“Of course, being immaterial, it couldn’t hurt you physically—at first. You’d have to be peculiarly sensitive even to see it, or be aware of it at all. But it would begin to influence your actions. Make you do this. Stop you from doing that. Although only a projection, it would gradually get its hooks into the world of things as they are. Might even get control of suitably vacuous minds. Then it could hurt whomever it wanted.”
Miss Millick squirmed and tried to read back her shorthand, like books said you should do when there was a pause. She became aware of the failing light and wished Mr. Wran would ask her to turn on the overhead light. She felt uncomfortable and scratchy as if soot were sifting down on to her skin.
“It’s a rotten world, Miss Millick,” said Mr. Wran, talking at the window. “Fit 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.”
“But”—Miss Millick’s diaphragm jerked, making her titter inanely—“of course there aren’t any such things as ghosts.”
Mr. Wran turned around. She noticed with a start that his grin had broadened, though without getting any less tight.
“Of course there aren’t, Miss Millick,” he said in a sudden loud, reassuring, almost patronizing voice, as if she had been doing the talking rather than he.“Modern science and common sense and better self-understanding all go to prove it.”
He stopped, staring past her abstractedly. She hung her head and might even have blushed if she hadn’t felt so all at sea. Her leg muscles twitched, making her stand up, although she hadn’t intended to. She aimlessly rubbed her hand back and forth along the edge of the desk, then pulled it back.
“Why, Mr. Wran, look what I got off your desk,” she said, showing him a heavy smudge. There was a note of cumbersomely playful reproof in her voice, but she really just wanted to be saying something. “No wonder the copy I bring you always gets so black. Somebody ought to talk to those scrubwomen. They’re skimping on your room.”
She wished he would make some normal joking reply. But instead he drew back and his face hardened.
“Well, to get back to the letter to Fredericks,” he rapped out harshly, and began to dictate.
When she was gone he jumped up, dabbed his finger experimentally at the smudged part of the desk, frowned worriedly at the almost inky smears. He jerked open a drawer, snatched out a rag, hastily swabbed off the desk, crumpled the rag into a ball and tossed it back. There were three or four other rags in the drawer, each impregnated with soot.
Then he strode over to the window and peered out anxiously through the gathering dusk, his eyes searching the panorama of roofs, fixing on each chimney, each water tank.
“It’s a psychosis. Must be. Hallucination. Compulsion neurosis,” he muttered to himself in a tired, distraught voice that would have made Miss Millick gasp. “Good thing I’m seeing the psychiatrist tonight. It’s that damned mental abnormality cropping up in a new form. Can’t be any other explanation. Can’t be. But it’s so damned real. Even the soot. I don’t think I could force myself to get on the elevated tonight. Good thing I made the appointment. The doctor will know—” His voice trailed off, he rubbed his eyes, and his memory automatically started to grind.

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