The son of a noted Shakespearean actors (Fritz Leiber Snr and Virginia Bronson) in 1910 Fritz was first published in ‘The Churchman‘ while he was training to be an Episcopal minister (he never completed his training, his devotion somewhat lacking). He turned his hand towards the field of weird fiction (corresponding with H P Lovecraft) and got his first commercial sale to Unknown Magazine – Two Sought Adventure in 1939.
In 1943 he published his first novel (as a serial in ‘Unknown’, then as a novel in 1953) Conjure Wife; it still stands out as one of his finest works. Concerning witchcraft in a quiet college town it proves to have the same haunting power as his seminal story Smoke Ghost, the scenes of the stone lizard and Tansy’s drowning remain incredibly powerful.
At the time that Conjure Wife ran as a serial, he had still only published a dozen or so short stories in Weird Tales and Unknown, half of which were Fafhrd and Mouser stories, yet the novel is as thorough and complete as any of his works. Conjure Wife has aged very well, and certainly doesn’t show that it almost predates the Second World War. It sets forth a startling proposition, that all females are witches, which has caused much debate. The central character Norman Saylor could perhaps be seen as a traditionalist (by today’s standards) in his views toward women, accepting his wifes role as a college wife. It is soon revealed how little control he had over his life, and it was far less than he imagined. It has been filmed several times, in the US as Weird Woman and in the UK as Night of The Eagle.
At about the same time, Gather Darkness ran as a serial. It charted the social and political events in a theocracy, in which the state uses science to instil fear in a peasant-like populace and thus control them. In this respect it is a little like Harry Harrison’s Captive Universe, although not in tone or in structure as Gather Darkness is not really a hard SF novel. Once the situation is set up in the first few chapters, the novel follows the personal evolution of the central character. The air of witchcraft (and in particular the ‘Witches House’ scene) gives the book a ‘Weird Tales’ feel. How much of the scorn which Leiber places on the religious state’s use of the supernatural to instil fear/obedience amongst the populace comes from his own experiences as a minister I do not know.
Over the next few years he produced more short stories, but as yet none of his work had appeared between hardcovers. He started to write Destiny Times Three, but during the war multi-part serials in the pulps were not popular. Fritz needed a sale so he was forced to cut the novel heavily, effectively removing all the female characters, something he was never happy with.
In 1947 Arkham House published Night’s Black Agents, the first collection of Fritz Leiber’s work between hardcovers. It must have been doubly delightful to have it published by Arkham House, which was originally set up to print works by H.P.Lovecraft. 3084 copies were produced and remain a sought after Leiber collectible. The ‘Ancient Adventures’ section included the Fafhrd & Mouser story ‘Adepts Gambit’, which was written in the 30’s and upon which H.P Lovecraft had given Fritz advice. It would be, however, another 10 years before Leiber’s tales of Lankhmar would be given a collection of their own. Other stories in the collection included Smoke Ghost, The Automatic Pistol and The Man Who Never Grew Young. The latter of these saw Leiber departing from the area of horror/dark fantasy into the broader area of fantasy (allegory?) a la Ray Bradbury.
1950 saw his novel/novella You’re All Alone published as a serial. The book was (as Leiber explained) cursed. The original story was novel length, but to get a sale he had to reduce the story length to a novella. A few years later he got a publishing company to buy the rights to a novel length version. He had by now however lost the novel length manuscript, so he had to rewrite it all. As The Sinful Ones, the publisher (Universal) added 1950’s soft porn scenes written by someone else (very soft by today’s standards) along with suggestive chapter titles and twinned it with a novel called Bulls, Blood and Passion! Leiber was (not surprisingly) a little miffed at this, but found he could do nothing about it. It was only 30 years later that he managed to buy the copyright back and rewrite the ‘sex scenes’.
1953 was a busy year with several short stories and the novel The Green Millennium (plus novel length editions of Conjure Wife and Gather Darkness). The Green Millennium had originally started life as Casper Scatterday’s Quest, appearing in his own hand-duplicated zine New Purposes. Set in the not too distant future The Green Millennium is a very different novel from Conjure Wife and Gather Darkness in both mood and approach. It had more real world social parallels than his previous work, it’s also the first of his work to have cats as a central theme. Cats would go on to play an increasingly large part in his career. The story seems to be set in a world he had hinted at in Coming Attraction, a story published in 1950. It mixes a nightmare vision of America with his usual sense of humour. Several more short stories followed and in 1957 Destiny Times Three was released as a novel. Also in 1957 Gnome Press published Two Sought Adventure . It must be remembered that his Lankhmar stories were few and far between and didn’t command the popularity that they did later. Two Sought Adventure collected together the stories that would eventually be Swords Against Death , with the title story renamed to The Jewels in the Forest; it also contained brief linking material about Nehwon. It received good reviews and soon Leiber set about adding more stories to the series.
1958 saw the story Space-Time for Springers published. Gummitch (the cat), Old Horsemeat, and Kitty Come Here make this one of his most memorable stories (esp. for cat-lovers). Over the years he would add four more Gummitch tales not to mention numerous other cat stories. 1958 was also the year he became a full time writer (leaving his job as associate editor of Science Digest). The next year saw several excellent stories produced. His novel The Silver Eggheads appeared as a serial, using the same satirical (sometimes farcical) modern world he had first used in Bread Overhead and The Last Letter.
He was awarded the honour of an all Leiber issue of Fantastic featuring 5 new short stories, the most notable of which was perhaps Lean Times in Lankhmar. This story launched the (soon to be very successful) return of Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser. It remains one of the most popular of all his stories about the twain that he ever wrote. It proved to be exhilarating and hilarious with the most wonderful climax anyone could imagine.
In 1961 The Big Time was published. It follows the idea of the spiders and the snakes battling across time (The Changewar), trying to subvert the future for their own ends. The Big Time won numerous awards (including the Hugo/Nebula double). Despite the vast idea of faceless sides battling across the endless gulfs of time, the book remains very intimate, portraying the whole battle through the lives of the few people who reside in ‘the place’, a sort of stopping of point for soldiers of time. In many ways it seems to have been visualised as a play with it’s one location and stylized dialogue. It was eventually adapted and performed in 1981 in Atlanta.
1964 marked more changes with the publication of his novel The Wanderer. Written as a giant disaster novel, with the pretext of a giant planetoid arriving next to Earth, it features a myriad of characters. It is relatively mainstream SF unlike much of Fritz Leibers work, but he still manages to make cats the central theme behind the novel. Indeed the central cat/alien Tigerishka appeared in a previous ‘Gummitch’ story. The novel again won awards and is perhaps not as well known as most of his fiction, perhaps because the fantasy elements often found in his work are not present here.
Several short stories were produced in 64 / 65 including several new Fafhrd and Mouser stories. In 1966 he published Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, an official Burroughs project. It remains however very much a Leiber novel, perhaps written more like a Fafhrd and Mouser story. 1968 saw the arrival of Fafhrd and the Mouser to the masses in the form of the popular ACE paperbacks, starting (strangely out of order) with Swords of Lankhmar. Indeed by the 80’s they were well in to their 15th print and had sold millions of copies. They undoubtedly remain the work for which Fritz Leiber is best known, influencing Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny and Terry Pratchett for example.
1969 saw more short stories and his novel A Spectre is Haunting Texas published. Again it was a shift of style for him, for although a ‘satire’ like The Silver Eggheads it is more sharp and cutting in it’s view of some parts of American life. Sometimes it is openly farcical but Fritz’s strong sense of characterisation means it never flies apart. In this novel his control of mood was, perhaps, at it’s best.
In 1969 his wife Jonquil died, the result of a mixture of alcohol and sleeping tablets. Fritz effectively went into an alcoholic wake for 2 or 3 years, until his final separation from alcohol in 1972 when he moved to San Francisco. His production in the 70’s was far less than previous decades, and was dominated by his novel Our Lady of Darkness. It also marked the transition where Fritz would use ever stronger autobiographical elements in his work. Our Lady of Darkness (published as Pale Brown Thing in F&SF), follows the recovery of Franz Westen, a writer of weird tales, coming to terms with the death of his wife, and his emergence from alcoholism.
Many parts are obviously painfully true, and in particular Fritz’s own emergence from alcoholism is cleverly written into the novel. He had suffered alcohol related problems since the early 50’s and despite years of ‘being dry’ he still returned to alcohol and also sleeping pills (barbiturates).
The separation he made from alcohol in 1972 was permanent, and in the book he uses this to give the character a heightened awareness/interest in everything around him – a waking up into the world – eventually leading him to an awareness of things he’d rather not have found. The novel weaves many interests from Fritz’s life into the story. Astronomy, HP Lovecraft/Clark Ashton Smith, but above all horror literature, which is some ways is the monster in the book. The novel is undoubtedly one of finest works, if not his finest. In some ways it is a dark echo of Conjure Wife. Gone are the happy settings into which the supernatural rears its unbalanced head. The setting is less than cosy, and the central character very different to Norman Saylor. In all it is a much more complex world the characters live in and also a far, far more disturbing and upsetting book (though not necessarily more frightening).
Conjure Wife and Our Lady of Darkness seem to frame his career and the work Fritz continued to produce all seemed to have echoes of Our Lady of Darkness. The Glove, The Button Moulder, The Ghost Light, The Moon Porthole and Horrible Imaginings, the last of which remains a bizarre, disturbing vision through the eyes of a lonely old man. Fritz Leiber has been compared to David Lynch and no more so than in this story.
He did continue to produce more Fafhrd and Mouser stories, eventually culminating in the printing of The Knight and Knave of Swords in 1988 (50 years since their first exploits). These stories were more complex and were certainly a million miles from the relatively simple stories that first appeared in Unknown. I read in an article reviewing the Swords series ‘the first five are Excellent but the last two go off a bit, after all Leiber was very old by then.’ Firstly this seems a bizarre statement, simply relying on the fact that Fritz Leiber was ‘old’ to explain the change in style (and quality) in the stories, seems astonishingly crass. The stories are different, but worse? The Sadness of the Executioner, Rime Isle and the magnificent Mouser Goes Below are superb, adult ( and perhaps that’s an important word) stories, which in some ways have more to recommend them than his more popular early stories.
In 1990 Dark Harvest published the incomparable collection The Leiber Chronicles and in 1992, Donald Grant published all his cat stories together in Gummitch and Friends. This beautiful trade size edition contained a new story written in 1992, Thrice the brinded cat, which he wrote a few weeks before his death. It is a funny and sad expose of himself, but for more insight into this I suggest you find Justin Leibers excellent essay ‘About Men’.
In 1992 he married Margo Skinner (whom he has known for 20 years, and who had just been diagnosed as having cancer) and embarked on a series of train journeys across the country , during which, Fritz collapsed of exhaustion, a process which eventually led to his death on 5th of September. He left behind him a body of work which spanned many genres and many decades . He died as one of the most respected authors that Fantasy, Horror or SF have ever seen. In 1980 Harlan Ellison was asked whom he felt would be the Fantasist for the eighties. His answer was Fritz Leiber. This, in some ways, highlights Fritz Leiber’s greatest achievement – endless creativity. When so many authors in the twilight of their career would sit back with pride on a body of previous work, or write pale imitations of their own notable works, Fritz carried on writing new challenging works until the very end.
Since his death, several excellent volumes have been released, John Pelan’s excellent Midnight House collections, such as ‘Smoke Ghost and other Apparitions’, Subterranean Press’s ‘Strange Wonders‘ and Centipede Press’s beautiful releases of Conjure Wife and Our lady of Darkness.
Much of his work is now available as both Kindle books and Audio books, so there has never been a better time to discover the works of one of the 20th centuries leading fantasists.
Read Fritz’s obitaury in The Times
Read Fritz’s obitaury in The Independent
View Locus Magazine’s ‘In Memoriam’
Article at The Wall Street Journal
FRITZ (REUTER) LEIBER (Jr) (24th Dec 1910 – 5th Sept.1992)
Pseudonym Ocasionally used the name Francis Lathrop
Parents Fritz & Virginia (Bronson) Leiber.
Marriages 1) Jonquil Stephens 16th Jan, 1936 (died Sept. 1969) 2) Margo Skinner 15th May, 1992
Children Justin Leiber (Born 1938)
EducationUniversity of Chicago – Third year Phi Beta Kappa, leading to the degree of the Batchelor of Philosophy in the Biological Sciences. Also attended Episcopal General Theological Seminary.
Episcopal Minister 1932-1933,
Shakespearean Actor 1934-1936,
Editor with Consolidated Book Publishers, Chicago 1937-1941,
Speech and Drama Instructor – Occidental College Los Angeles 1941-1942,
Precision Inspector at Douglas Air Craft Company, Santa Monica 1942-1944,
Associate Editor ‘Science Digest’ Magazine 1944-1956,
Freelance Writer 1956-1992
Other Activities Lecturer Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshops at Clarion State College and San Francisco State University. Avocational Interests included Science, Metaphysics, History, Backgammon, Chess (rated expert), Poetry and Cats.
Membership Science Fiction Writers of America
Awards and Honours
- 1958: Hugo – in the Novel category for The Big Time
- 1962: Hugo – Special Comittee Award (use od SF in advertisements, Hoffman Electronic Corp.)??
- 1965: Hugo– in the Novel category for The Wanderer
- 1967: Nebula – in the Novelette category for Gonna Roll The Bones
- 1968: Hugo – in the Novelette category for Gonna Roll the Bones
- 1970: Hugo – in the Novella category for Ship of Shadows
- 1970: Nebula – in the Novella category for Ill Met in Lankhmar
- 1971: Hugo – in the Novella category for Ill Met in Lankhmar
- 1975: Hugo – Grandmaster of Fantasy Award (Gandalf)
- 1975: Nebula – in the Short Story category for Catch the Zeppelin!
- 1976: Hugo – in the Short Story category for Catch That Zeppelin!
- 1976: August Derleth -Bbest Short Fiction – The Second Book of Fritz Leiber
- 1976: World Fantasy – Best Short Fiction – Belsen Express
- 1976: World Fantasy – Life Achievement Award
- 1977: Fritz Leiber Award ??
- 1978: World Fantasy – Best Novel, Our Lady of Darkness
- 1980: British Fantasy – Best Short Fiction, The Button Moulder
- 1980: Clark Ashton – Book of Ebion Award, best Fantasy and Macabre Poetry
- 1981: Balrog – Special Award
- 1981: Nebula Grandmaster Award
- 1985: Locus – Best Collection
- 1986: Univercity of Chicago, Proffesional achievemant citation
- 1986: Gigamesh – Best Short Story, House of Thieves
- 1986: Gigamesh – Best Short Story,Bazaar of the Bizarre
- 1987: Gigamesh – Best Fantasy Collection, Swords in the Mist
- 1988: Bram Stoker – Life Achievement Award
- 1988: Anne Radcliffe Award – Conjure Wife
- 1965: Nebula in the Short Story category for The Good New Days
- 1965: Nebula in the Short Story category for Cyclops
- 1965: Nebula in the Novelette category for Four Ghosts in Hamlet
- 1967: Nebula in the Short Story category for Answering Service
- 1969: Nebula in the Novella category for Ship of Shadows
- 1977: Nebula in the Novelette category for A Rite of Spring
- 1982: Nebula in the Novella category for Horrible ImaginingsOther Awards: Four Lovecraft’s; One Second Stage Lensman at Moscon.
TV, Radio, Film and theatrical adaptations.
- Conjure Wife adapted as an episode of Moment of Fear, NBC, 1960
- A Pail of Air, X Minus One
- The Moon is Green, X Minus One
- Appointment in Tomorrow, X Minus One
- Conjure Wife adapted (very loosely) as Weird Woman, 1944 starring Lon Chaney, Jr.
- Conjure Wife adapted as Night of the Eagle, 1962 starring Peter Wyngarde.
- The Big Time, adapted by Jim Tucker and staged at the Babcock Theatre, Salt Lake City, 18/11/82 for 12 nights.
- The Winter Flies, adapted by Joanna Russ and staged in New York 1969.
- Gonna Roll the Bones/Witches Tent, LP released by Alternate World Records (AWR3239, 1976). Read by Fritz.
- Lankhmar, A game by Leiber and Fischer, produced by TSR. I also believe there are several D&D? add ons.
Fritz Leiber on Film
Being the son of a leading Shakespearean actor, and silent film star (Fritz Snr.), he made a few appearances in films himself, most notably in Camille alongside Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor, Fritz apparently stood in a hole because of his height! I also understand he appeared in a low-budget film called “Equinox” (also released on video as “The Beast”), in which he had a supporting role (mostly because Forrest Ackerman talked him into it), he wasn’t able to make the sound session, so his character is mute through the whole film.