Category: fritz leiber

Stephen Leacock, Sherlock Holmes, Boobies

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: edited by John Joseph Adams (2009), containing the following stories:

The Doctor’s Case (1987) by Stephen King;
The Horror of the Many Faces (2003) by Tim Lebbon;
The Case of the Bloodless Sock  (2001) by Anne Perry;
The Adventure of the Other Detective  (2001) by Bradley H. Sinor;
A Scandal in Montreal (2008) by Edward D. Hoch;
The Adventure of the Field Theorems (1995) by Vonda N. McIntyre;
The Adventure of the Death-Fetch (1994) by Darrell Schweitzer;
The Shocking Affair of the Dutch Steamship Friesland (2005) by Mary Robinette Kowal;
The Adventure of the Mummy’s Curse (2006) by H. Paul Jeffers;
The Things That Shall Come Upon Them (2008) by Barbara Roden;
Murder to Music (1989)   by Anthony Burgess;
The Adventure of the Inertial Adjustor  (1997) by Stephen Baxter;
Mrs Hudson’s Case (1997) by Laurie R. King;
The Singular Habits of Wasps (1994) by Geoffrey A. Landis;
The Affair of the 46th Birthday (2008) by Amy Myers;
The Specter of Tullyfane Abbey (2001) by Peter Tremayne;
The Vale of the White Horse (2003) by Sharyn McCrumb;
The Adventure of the Dorset Street Lodger (1995) by Michael Moorcock;
The Adventure of the Lost World (2004) by Dominic Green;
The Adventure of the Antiquarian’s Niece (2003) by Barbara Hambly;
Dynamics of a Hanging (2005) by Tony Pi;
Merridew of Abominable Memory (2008)  by Chris Roberson;
Commonplaces (2008) by Naomi Novik;
The Adventure of the Pirates of Devil’s Cape (2008) by Rob Rogers;
The Adventure of the Green Skull (2008) by Mark Valentine;
The Human Mystery (1999) by Tanith Lee;
A Study in Emerald (2003) by Neil Gaiman;
You See But You Do Not Observe (1995) by Robert J. Sawyer.

Hugely entertaining and lengthy anthology, mostly consisting of reprints, of Sherlock Holmes stories from the two decades previous to the anthology’s publication. Many of the stories involve either science fiction or the supernatural, hence the ‘improbable’ part of the title. That itself riffs on Holmes’ famous quotation, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth.”

Some stories expand upon brief mentions of unchronicled cases in the original Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle (“Merridew of Abominable Memory” by Chris Roberson and “The Shocking Affair of the Dutch Steamship Friesland” by Mary Robinette Kowal both reference the original mention in their titles). Others pit Holmes against the supernatural (“The Horror of the Many Faces” by Tim Lebbon, “The Adventure of the Antiquarian’s Niece” by Barbara Hambly, and “A Study in Emerald” (2003) by Neil Gaiman memorably riff on H.P. Lovecraft’s brand of cosmic horror).

Writers also bounce Holmes off the works and characters of other writers (“The Things That Shall Come Upon Them” by Barbara Roden puts Holmes into a sequel of sorts to the classic M.R. James ghost story “Casting the Runes”) or Doyle’s own non-Holmesian works (“The Adventure of the Lost World” (2004) by Dominic Green). Mrs. Hudson and Doctor Watson get chances to solve crimes before Holmes does. Alternate worlds and science-fictional devices appear. Conan Doyle himself appears as a character. Holmes’ childhood and college years are speculated upon, as is his family history. He even teams up with Stephen Leacock! In Canada!

There are a few duds here, but very few. One doesn’t need to be a Holmes expert to enjoy the stories, and a concise history of Holmes included in the volume will aid those with too little knowledge of the World’s First Consulting Detective. Highly recommended.

The Witchcraft Reader: edited by Peter Haining (1969) containing the following stories: Timothy (1966) by Keith Roberts; The Witch (1943) by A. E. van Vogt; The Warlock (1960) by Fritz Leiber; All the Devils in Hell  (1960) by John Brunner; From Shadowed Places (1960) by Richard Matheson; One Foot and the Grave (1949) by Theodore Sturgeon; Broomstick Ride (1957) by Robert Bloch; The Mad Wizards of Mars (1949) by Ray Bradbury.

Another of the voluminous Haining’s fascinating anthologies. At his peak, he seemed to be releasing one of these a week. OK, he wasn’t THAT prolific. Still, his selections are often immensely valuable because they’re often way, way off the beaten path for this sort of thing.

The best character study here is John Brunner’s  “All the Devils in Hell .” It’s a marvelous exploration of a man in conflict with occult powers that ultimately can be opposed. Fritz Leiber’s story puts a modern spin on witchcraft, while Robert Bloch’s story deals with ancient witchcraft during a future era of interstellar travel. It’s a solid little anthology. Also, there are naked boobies on the cover of the paperback. Huzzah! Recommended.

A Bit of the Dark World

Night Monsters by Fritz Leiber (1974) containing the following stories: The Black Gondolier (1964); Midnight in the Mirror World (1964); I’m Looking for Jeff (1952); The Creature from Cleveland Depths (1962); The Oldest Soldier (1960); The Girl with the Hungry Eyes (1949); and A Bit of the Dark World (1962) .

Leiber was probably the best writer of all those science-fiction and fantasy writers who collectively formed the ‘Golden Age’ of science fiction (basically, the 1940’s) and went on to continue to define the genre(s) in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Indeed, his cynical, often dystopic takes on the future in his 1950’s and 1960’s work make him more at home in the company of writers who came of age in those decades, when Leiber (born around 1910) was already middle-aged and older.

Leiber came from a theatre family, and while that isn’t much of a factor here, it was in other stories. He also corresponded with H.P. Lovecraft in the 1930’s. He wrote several Lovecraftian stories over the course of his career, some pastiches, some revisionist takes that explored what one could do with cosmic horror.

“The Black Gondolier” was written for an Arkham House anthology, and it pays homage to Lovecraft in structure (and concluding italics) while nonetheless situating the horror within Leiber’s expert, long-time evocation of terrible horrors with new, modern incarnations and meanings. Here, that places a strange and creeping horror somewhere in or below California’s Venice (Beach) in the early 1960’s, that odd and rundown simulacrum of Italy’s Venice, but with way more oil wells.

Leiber ranges far throughout this collection, which samples Leiber’s dystopic, sarcastic science fiction (“The Creature of Cleveland Depths,” which somehow manages to satirize the current culture of the Smartphone), and his grimy urban twists on traditional horror tropes (the Ghost in “I’m Looking for Jeff” and the Vampire in “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes”).

We also get cosmic horror that seems closer to Algernon Blackwood in “A Bit of the Dark World,” all of it occurring in the sun-drenched hills above Los Angeles, a sort of cosmic Noonday Devil. Leiber’s affection for mathematical problems and chess manifest in the oddly moving ghost story “Midnight in the Mirror World.” Finally, we visit the time-spanning, reality-changing war of his Changewar series in “The Oldest Soldier,” as the war between the time-travelling groups known as the Snakes and the Spiders wanders into a neighbourhood bar.

In all, this is a fairly representative sample of the breadth and depth of Leiber’s decades of writing, with only his seminal and the career-long influence on sword and sorcery fiction being truly neglected. Highly recommended.

Most Peculiar Mummy

Whispers (1977) edited by Stuart David Schiff, containing the following stories:

“Sticks” by Karl Edward Wagner: One of Wagner’s four greatest stories, “Sticks” is a terrific piece of Cthulhu Mythology, with an absolutely riveting first half.

“The Barrow Troll” by David Drake: Typically tough-minded piece of revisionist historical fantasy from Drake.

“The Glove” by Fritz Leiber: Blackly humourous San Francisco-era piece from Leiber, set in a familiar apartment building for Leiber fans.

“The Closer of the Way” by Robert Bloch: Droll bit of meta-fiction from the creator of Psycho.

“Dark Winner” by William F. Nolan: Fascinating bit of Bradbury-tinged horror-nostalgia that would have been right at home on The Twilight Zone.

“Ladies in Waiting” by Hugh B. Cave: Solid haunted-house riff.

“White Moon Rising” by Dennis Etchison: A non-supernatural psychological thriller from Etchison. Stylistically precise, thematically mysterious.

“Graduation” by Richard Christian Matheson: Epistolary creep-out.

“Mirror, Mirror” by Ray Russell: Fun, minor piece.

The House of Cthulhu by Brian Lumley: Lovecraftian sword-and-sorcery.

“Antiquities” by John Crowley: Mummies wreak havoc in England in a most peculiar way.

“A Weather Report from the Top of the Stairs” by James Sallis and David Lunde: Adaptation of a famous Gahan Wilson cartoon (“And then we’ll get him!”) with two different endings.

“The Scallion Stone” by Basil A. Smith: A very M.R. Jamesian horror story from a writer who avoided publication until after his death.

“The Inglorious Rise of the Catsmeat Man” by Robin Smyth: Very much an Ambrose Bierce/Roald Dahl-like exercise in gross-out horror-comedy.

“The Pawnshop” by Charles E. Fritch: Entertaining deal-with-the-devil story.

Le Miroir“by Robert Aickman: An even-more-ambiguous-than-usual story from the eternally ambiguous Aickman.

“The Willow Platform” by Joseph Payne Brennan: Nice bit of regional Maine Lovecraft-tinged cosmic horror in the backwoods.

“The Dakwa” by Manly Wade Wellman: The Southeast backwoods play host to a particularly gruesome Native-American monster.

“Goat” by David Campton: Really solid, evocative piece of particularly British small-town horror.

“The Chimney” by Ramsey Campbell: Award-winning story of childhood horrors that may or may not be real.

The first anthology of stories from Schiff’s semi-prozine Whispers really almost bursts with heady goodness. In all: Highly recommended.

13 Steps Lead Down

13 Short Horror Novels: edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh (Collected 1987), containing the following stories:

“Jerusalem’s Lot” (1978) by Stephen King: Fun riff by King on Lovecraft’s horror stories, most obviously “The Rats in the Walls”, told through a series of letters. Has nothing to do with ‘Salem’s Lot.

“The Parasite” (1894) by Arthur Conan Doyle: The creator of Sherlock Holmes indulges his love of the paranormal, specifically hypnotism, here. Boy, people thought hypnotism (or ‘mesmerism’) could do some crazy stuff in the 19th century. Here it allows for the telepathic takeover of other people’s bodies!

“Fearful Rock” (1939) by Manly Wade Wellman: Excellent Civil War period piece from Wellman, as a patrol of Union soldiers finds itself confronted with supernatural evil.

“Sardonicus” (1961) by Ray Russell: Classic story from Russell is a blackly humourous character study written in a 19th-century epistolary style. Made into a movie called Mr. Sardonicus.

“Nightflyers” (1980) by George R. R. Martin: Once upon a time, the Game of Thrones creator was an excellent horror and science fiction writer. He combines the two here for a locked-room-in-space horror show. Made into a terrible movie of the same name.

“Horrible Imaginings” (1982) by Fritz Leiber: Weird, relatively late-career novella from the great Leiber riffs much more grimly on his years in San Francisco after his wife’s death than similar works of the same period that include “The Ghost Light” and Our Lady of Darkness. Not great, but spellbinding nonetheless, with a completely bizarre conclusion.

“Jane Brown’s Body” (1938) by Cornell Woolrich: Interesting combination of the horror and hard-boiled crime-fiction genres. Gangsters, mad scientists, and a tragic ending you know is coming, as inevitable as death in a world where death has been temporarily conquered.

“Killdozer!” (1944) by Theodore Sturgeon: Sturgeon goes full-on Basil Exposition here as he explains pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about how to operate a bulldozer and a backhoe. I kid you not. There’s pages and pages of handy bulldozer operation knowledge here. An interesting premise (an electromagnetic monster takes over a bulldozer; hilarity obviously ensues) bogs down in interminable explanations of how everything works. If you’re fascinated by the heavy machinery of 1944, this novella is for you. Made into a movie of the same name.

“The Shadow Out of Time” (1936) by H. P. Lovecraft: One of Lovecraft’s least horrifying, most science-fictiony and sublime meditations on cosmic stuff and time abysses. The aliens here — 12-foot-tall rugose cones dubbed “the Great Race” — are probably Lovecraft’s least threatening, most benign race of super-aliens. Also, they’re socialists.

“The Stains” (1980) by Robert Aickman: Aickman is at his creepy, ambiguous best here in a story of a buttoned-down widower who starts a new life with a young woman who is…well, I don’t know. Baffling, oblique, and utterly haunting, but not for anybody who wants some sort of minimal explanation of what is actually happening.

“The Horror from the Hills” (1931) by Frank Belknap Long: Gonzo Exposition from Long’s Gonzo Exposition Cosmic Horror Period that also yielded such distinctive, Lovecraft-lecture-series gems as “The Space-Eaters” and “The Hounds of Tindalos.” A man-sized, vaguely elephant-shaped idol comes to life and threatens all life on Earth. And only a museum director, a cop, and an occult inventor can save us in a final battle staged in…New Jersey! Paging Jules de Grandin!

“Children of the Kingdom” (1980) by T. E. D. Klein: I’ve read this novella at least ten times over the course of 32 years and find something new to ponder every time. This time around, it’s the fact that in this story of racism and xenophobia in the decaying, crime-ridden New York of the late 1970’s, the ultimate horrors that move literally beneath the surface are fish-belly white.

“Frost and Fire” (1946) by Ray Bradbury: Disquieting and propulsive bit of science-fiction-as-metaphor by Bradbury, as humans stranded on a highly radioactive planet by a spaceship crash are born, age, and die in the space of eight days (!). A telepathy mutation allows the children to rapidly learn, but can one determined man find a way to reach the last extant starship and find a way off the planet?