From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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

A Review by Rich Horton

Fritz Leiber is indisputably one of the greatest SF/Fantasy/Horror writers of the twentieth century, a multiple award winner, and creator of one of the best known Fantasy duos of all time, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. But now, less than two decades after his death, most of his work is out of print, save for some Fafhrd/Gray Mouser collections. So this book serves as an outstanding introduction to Leiber’s work in the short form.

It is retrospectively organized, beginning with the seminal Urban Fantasy short story “Smoke Ghost” from 1941, and finishing with a late, very good, Fafhrd/Gray Mouser story, “The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars”. In between there are a few of his Hugo and Nebula winners: the wonderful “dice with the devil” story “Gonna Roll the Bones”; the atmospheric and tragic origin story for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, “Ill Met in Lankhmar”; and the clever late alternate history piece “Catch That Zeppelin”. (The missing Hugo winner is “Ship of Shadows”, a fine story that I sense is being unjustly forgotten these days.)

Other unmissable classics are included. From the 1950s, the SF Hall of Fame story “Coming Attraction”, a dark look at a degraded future that I think one of the best pieces of 50s SF; the famous clever story of life in a very cold future, “A Pail of Air”; and the cute, moving, “Space Time for Springers”, about Gummitch the super cat who longs to become a human. From the 60s there is one my long-time favorite Leiber stories, “Four Ghosts in Hamlet”, about a touring Shakespeare company and an aging drunken former star who makes one last tour. And the first Leiber story to really grab me was “Midnight by the Morphy Watch”, from 1974—an excellent story about a haunted watch that once belonged to Paul Morphy coming into the possession of a present day chess player.

As a “selection” it doesn’t really include many surprises—on purpose, I suppose. As noted, it shows off his very early prefiguring of the whole Urban Fantasy genre in “Smoke Ghost”. It shows off his sometimes rather dark sexual content—Leiber was more “adult” in his writing about sex, than almost any—perhaps any at all—SF writer of his era. Even early stories such as “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” and “A Deskful of Girls” make that clear. There is also first-rate sociological extrapolation: not just “Coming Attraction” but “America the Beautiful”, a depiction of an almost utopian U.S. shadowed by endless war. Leiber made major contributions as an SF writer, a Horror writer, and an Adventure Fantasy writer, and all those sides are shown off well here. The three Fafhrd/Gray Mouser stories chosen strike me as a particularly well-balanced set.

Of course I miss a couple of stories—any Leiber enthusiast will—besides “Ship of Shadows” I’d have liked to see a “The Death of Princes” and especially “A Rite of Spring”, two more of quite a few excellent stories Leiber wrote in the 70s. And a Change War story might have been a nice addition, as well. But only one story here disappointed me: the late horror story “Horrible Imaginings” has some excellent writing but is overlong and goes a bit off track, to my mind, towards the end. As an introduction to a great writer now fading, just a bit, from the public memory this book will do excellently—and if there are many more strong stories to look forward to, so much the better!

Selected Stories by Fritz Leiber
Edited by Charles N. Brown and Jonathan Strahan
Night Shade Books
$24.95 | hc | 364 pages
ISBN: 978-1-59780-180-5
April 2010

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