I had the pleasure of answering a Q&A about Fritz Leiber for the Science Fiction Book Club, which is an excellent Facebook group, well worth joining, the Q&A is also on https://chimeradave.blogspot.com/2024/02/interview-about-fritz-leiber.html (There is no good reason of the use of an image from Equinox above, other than I love Fritz’s expression…)
David Hipschman: Any background on how his story I think it was called “Gonna Roll Dem Bones” came about? It was about playing craps with the devil or god. I came across it about 50 years ago or more.
Leiber began to write this story in the early sixties before revising it for Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. He was not the best place in his life, both he and Jonquil (his wife) were drinking and using barbiturates, and were living with his ageing mother. The three of them, monstrously distorted, were the prototypes for Joe, his wife and his mother. Fritz was well aware he was dicing with death given the mixture of sleeping tablets and alcohol he was consuming. The phrase ‘Gonna roll the bones with death’ was something that used to rattle around inside his skull (as the dice rattle in the skull in the story).
It’s a story Fritz was very happy with, and it’s worth looking on YouTube where you can hear a recording of Fritz reading the story, which was released on vinyl. It was well received and got him a Nebula and Hugo award. Fritz never played craps, but the story gave him a love for dice in the form of backgammon.
Tom Portegys: A couple of years ago I ran across a quirky movie called “The Hill and the Hole”, made in 2019. I was surprised later to find that it was based on a Leiber story from 1942 published in Unknown Worlds. Co-directed and co-written by Bill Darmon. So weird to have a movie pop up more than half a century later than the story. Do you know anything about that?
I’ve not seen the film, it seems to be a very low budget film, and knowing the story well, it would have to be stretched somewhat to fit 80 mins, though it obviously shares the starting point of the surveyor. The story itself is a cracker, one of his earlier tales, did indeed appear in Unknown Worlds and his first collection, Night’s Black Agents. It very much fits into his early period of horror stories, in that it used a modern setting, albeit a farm as opposed to a city. I wonder if Fritz had read of gravity hills, where cars appear to roll uphill as a seed for the story.
Michael Compton: His father, Fritz Leiber, Sr, was a great actor of stage and film (pictured here with Theda Bara in Cleopatra). Fritz, Jr, also did some acting. Wondering how his theatrical background influenced his writing.
Shakespeare was hugely influential on his writing, most obvious in stories like The Big Time, No Great Magic and Four Ghosts in Hamlet, where theatre, and Shakesperean theatre itself, takes center stage. The Big Time is essentially a play. A Spectre is haunting Texas ‘ title character is an actor from the moon. The Snow Women sees a theatrical troupe arrived at Fafhrd’s cold waste.
As Fritz Points out in ‘The Stage in my Stories’, later stories such as the Secret Songs, 237 talking Statues, are written as plays, with stage directions.
Leiber himself cites Shakespeare as one of his main influences. He also writes about Shakespeare in the form of essays, such as a great article on King Lear in The Book of Fritz Leiber , which has the great line on Lear “…A victim of exhaustion, grief, and too much character development too late in life.”
I think it does influence his writing more generally, I can’t help thinking his sublime tale Lean Times in Lankhmar, feels like a Shakespearean morality tale, full of humour and large characters.
He writes with affection on growing up the son of actors, the backstage excitement, born into “A world where he could watch fantasy being created… where the need for make believe is never questioned” 1
Fritz only worked and toured with his parents company for a short while (as Francis Lathrop) but enjoyed the backstage camaraderie and the chance to travel and see new places.
His flirtation with Hollywood (Camille and The Great Garrick) was less rewarding, and Bazaar of the Bizarre (one of the more famous Fafhrd and Mouser stories, where a shop vendor sell trash to the hoodwinked citizens of Lankhmar) was written with his dislike of Hollywood in mind .”The Shittier the Junk, the Higher the Price…” 1
Also of importance was the effect of a successful, competitive and somewhat egotistical father had on Fritz. He grew in in a house increasingly surrounded by sculptures and painting of his father, by his father. Upon Fritz learning chess, his father proceeded to learn it and beat him, which also happened with golf and tennis. His father literally built the house they lived in by hand. When Fritz started to be published, his father began to write stories too “I shudder to think how I would have felt if he had sold one” 1
By the fifties and sixties and Fritz became increasingly experimental and weaved Jungian elements into his fiction. The effect of his relationship with his father, his Animus, is amusingly, and poignantly skewered in ‘237 Talking Statues etc. published in 1963.
Gerald Greg Lutkenhaus: Was he a chess player? I enjoyed the “64 Square Madhouse” and “Midnight by the Morphy Watch”. As a chess player myself, he seems to know the game pretty well!
Fritz took chess very seriously and effectively stopped playing it early in his life so it didn’t interfere with his writing. Only later, when he had recovered from a bout of alcoholism did he allow himself to really start playing, studying and entering tournaments.
Fritz became a very good chess player, winning the Santa Monica open in 1958, and his USCF mark was over 2000, rating him as expert, or in the top 3 or 4% of the USA. He played for most of his life only really stopping in the late sixties. In January 1961, Samuel Reshevsky the USA Grandmaster, gave a simultaneous exhibition against 44 opponents at the Santa Monica Bay Chess Club. Reshevsky won 33, drew 10, and only lost one game — to Fritz Leiber.
Chess appearances in his tales are too numerous to mention, but he did write several stories where chess was a central theme.
The 64 Square Madhouse (1962) sees the introduction of a chess machine, but is it just a Mechanical Turk, or something genuine? This story would have been relevant to Fritz as in 1957 IBM introduced a chess computer. The story is both amusing and still relevant as it shows the tics and idiosyncrasies of chess players.
The Moriarty Gambit sees a young Sherlock take on his nemesis as a chess tournament in London
Knight to Move, is one of his Changewar stories, but uses a chess tournament as it’s setting.
Worth seeking out is The Dreams of Albert Moreland, a more horror, or cosmic horror themed tale about a chess player in New York who simply HAS to play chess…
You mentioned Midnight by The Morphy Watch, which is a great story, weaving fact and fiction into an irresistible mixture. He also has fun with the name, Stirf Ritter. This could be seen as a version of his own name Fritz Reuter (Leiber), but he makes it more fun when one realises Ritter is Knight in German.
Fritz had stopped playing chess by the late sixties, as he fell into alcoholism again (for the last time) following the death of his wife Jonquil. He had moved to San Francisco when he entered his last tournament, which he refers to as a rather slapdash affair. It took place at Paoli’s on Commercial Street, and many of the characters in Midnight by the Morphy Watch are taken from this tournament. He didn’t win it! The obsession of chess which began to take over Fritz again gave us this great story though.
One other obvious point of the importance of chess is that the cover of Night’s Black Agents is a Knight…
John Grayshaw: Michael Swanwick said, “Leiber was one of those Olympians whose work I admired, studied, and assiduously tried to emulate.” Who are some other writers that credit him as an influence? Is Leiber as widely read today as he used to be, and why?
Fritz was influential, I suspect his influence on writers is larger than his popularity with readers, almost like a cult pop band all the other bands admire.
Amongst the Lovercraft circle, his first introduction to writing, he was very highly rated, Lovecraft thought Leiber was a very good writer indeed.
I had a lovely email from Michael Moorcock many years ago saying how important Fritz had been, and one from Terry Pratchett saying how he included Bravd and the Weasel in the Colour of Magic as a nod to Leiber, as Lankhmar was an obvious progenitor for Ankh-Morpork.
Neil Gaiman has written wonderful introductions to the Lankhmar tales, his introduction in particular for Swords of Lankhmar shows the joy and esteem in which he held him.
Michael Chabon is fulsome in his praise, and authors such as C.J. Cherryh, Tanith Lee, George R.R. Martin and Roger Zelazny mention him as an influence. Looking at much modern fantasy, I feel a lot have more to do with Leiber and Vance than the more vaunted Tolkien despite their over arching epic fantasy themes.
If you read Stephen King’s Danse Macabre from 1981, King asks Harlan Ellison “who are the important writers in the fantasy field” and he responds Fritz Leiber.
Ellison mentioned Leiber in several of his forewards and maintains if he was struggling, he would read some of Our Lady of Darkness to remind him how to write well.
“Fritz was the shining light toward which one strode” Harlan Ellison 2
In the horror field he was hugely influential, and Ramsey Campbell (influenced by Leiber himself) always champions stories like Smoke Ghost as being seminal in the evolution of the ghost story in the 20th century.
“Fritz was most crucial in showing me where I wanted to take the field – into areas where urban psychology and the spectral meet and merge.” 3
John Grayshaw: Was Leiber ahead of his time as far as his portrayal of women? Michael Swanwick said “I’d have to mention the strong and convincing women of Conjure Wife, written at a time when men by and large wrote women who were neither.”
Fritz was largely brought up by women, his two Aunts, as his parents were travelling with their theatre company . The women Fritz did come to know, often other writers, were clearly women of considerable intelligence (as was his wife Jonquil).
More generally Fritz was a liberal, his politics were by US standards, left, and in his own way, Fritz grappled with the place women have in men’s lives, and the emergence of feminism, .
I think one key point people can see in Leiber’s fiction is how happy he is to undercut masculinity and male superiority, and while he is happy to eroticise the female in novels and short stories, he is also happy to poke fun at the shallowness of these attitudes.
His classic a Deskfull of Girls is well worth reading, as is Dr. Adams Garden of Evil which both follow this line in different ways.
His two bedhopping heroes Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser are put through the wringer by all their ex lovers in ‘Under the Thumbs of the Gods’, a very funny story (much like Lean Time in Lankhmar, I cannot imagine happening to any other established fantasy heroes).
Strong female characters always appeared in his Lankhmar tales stories. Hisvet dominates much of Swords of Lankhmar, and Ahura is a key character in Adepts Gambit, by the time we reach Rime Ilse, Fafhrd and the Mouser settle down with partners.
The strongly feminist Joanna Russ obviously found Leiber palatable, as Fafhrd appears as one of Alyx’s lovers in ‘Bluestocking’, whilst Alyx appears in Fritz’s The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar (surprise.. it’s not Fafhrd and the Mouser) and the afore mentioned ‘Thumbs’.
The Big Time and No Great Magic feature a strong female central character in Greta Forzane (apparently inspired by Judith Merrill), as does The Green Millenium.
Conjure Wife is endlessly interesting from a feminist point of view, and I should add I am not really qualified to comment on this, the summary of Conjure Wife, as ‘Man discovers his wife and all women are witches’ hugely over simplifies the novel.
Our hero Norman Saylor is invariably undercut and shown to be in error at numerous points throughout the novel. Only when he shakes off the arrogance, that only he alone could have risen to the position he has, can he finally accept the influence his wife has had on his career and life and more importantly her own intrinsic value and importance.
John Grayshaw: Michael Swanwick said, “He (Leiber) may or may not be as someone has claimed, the man who brought the reality of urban landscapes to three genres. And his NY Times obituary said “The most interesting side of Leiber’s fiction is his pre-occupation with the threat of modern urban horror, city life and its web of terrors gradually corrupting the psyche.” Why did Leiber see cities this way and why did it often feature in his writing?
I think it is widely regarded that Fritz was crucial in the development of urban horror. Fritz was obviously influenced by Lovecraft (though he never wrote in the Cthulhu Mythos til much later in life, for a while he was unimpressed with Derleth and the rigid description of the mythos), he also read Machen, Blackwood and James, so was well aware of the structure of a good ghost story.
I think the key difference is that whereas writers before tended to have an intrusion from some other force (the elder gods, the past or nature) for Leiber it was the very environment we lived in, the city (in his seminal Smoke Ghost and Out Lady of Darkness, or even oil, in The Black Gondolier). It is difficult to put oneself if the mind of a 1941 reader, but I suspect Smoke Ghost would have had the charge of William Gibson in 1984. The gothic trappings are gone, as are the somewhat scholarly wrappings of James and Lovecraft in their different ways. Leiber gives us a grey, grimy modern Chicago, that is very much our own, even today the journey the character takes on the overground train looking over the rooftops is remarkably effective due it’s very relatability.
After a long absence Fritz went back to his own brand of quiet horror when he moved to San Fransisco, giving us Our Lady of Darkness, which in some ways allows Fritz’s manifestations from the city join into a structure with more than a hint of James about it.
Later, stories included more self analysis and more autobiography, The Ghost Light, The Button Moulder and strange terrifying tales akin to a David Lynch film like Horrible Imaginings which really communicates the horror of being alone, and old and vulnerable, in an increasingly noisy and busy city.
John Grayshaw: David Hartwell said about Leiber, “Early on he chose the fantasy fiction field as his home, and proceeded to transform it by creating, first, a new form of sword and sorcery fiction; second, by assisting in creating contemporary urban horror fiction; and third, by writing pivotal science fiction stories in the sf revolution in the early 50s.” Did Leiber prefer one genre over the others? What did he like about each of them?
I think overall, like many writers following the trends of pulp magazines, he wrote what he could get published. His horror output dried up for many years and he submitted mostly speculative fiction and fantasy only arriving back in horror in the seventies, when the market had returned.
I think Fritz mainly loved writing, and he loved his science fiction, fantasy and horror. It is probably one of his problems that he didn’t stick to a genre or style, it probably would have helped his career if he had!
John Grayshaw: Leiber said in a 1973 interview “My sf stories have tended to be of the warning, prophetic, ‘If this goes on…’ variety, rather than the problem-solving sort. My Change-War stories, such as ‘The Big Time’ and ‘No Great Magic’ are essentially pessimistic since they picture an apparently pointless cosmic war.” Why did Leiber tell these kinds of stories?
Well Fritz was a lifelong pacifist, and was also deeply cynical about our the way our countries are run and the way we are advertised at and consume! I always felt Fritz liked people and places, and this comes over in his stories, but was far more pessimistic about the forces around them. He also tended to write in some way as an outsider, or at least an observer who sees things from a counter view. The protagonist of Our Lady of Darkness sees the world too clearly as he reconnects following alcoholism, America the Beautiful is just seen by a visitor, a British one at that. In You’re All alone, being outside the norm has possibilities that are wonderful, but invariably it is that darker side that is seeming to dominate.
A Spectre is Haunting Texas, despite it’s satire and humour, is pretty grim towards the end, and paints a dark picture of Texan toxic masculinity and racism. The Silver Eggheads, whilst much lighter in tone, speaks of the standardization, and from that intellectual deadening of people through the wordmills.
The Green Millenium I find a rich novel, it clearly starts from a place of McCarthyism but inverts male and female stereotypes and really has a dig at the culture that abounded in fifties America.
Much of his fiction through the fifties and sixties was speculative fiction, he drifted at times into more traditional SF (and Fantasy of course) but mostly he speculated on people and society and where they might go. With the views he had, which I always felt were firmly on the side of counter culture (see Bread Overhead or The Beat Generation) it is not surprising many of his stories ended up with a less than optimistic view of the future.
That said, The Wanderer, despite it’s cataclysmic events and deaths, is an optimistic novel. It positively breezes along, maybe it took the near destruction of Earth for Fritz to see what he loved about it!
I remember saying to Fritz’s son that his Father’s last story (Thrice the Brinded Cat) seemed very melancholy, and Justin told me he remembered speaking to his Father on the phone just as he had finished the tale, and how excited and happy he was!
So whatever demons Fritz had fluttering around, maybe writing was his exorcism!
John Grayshaw: Leiber’s obituary in the Independent said, “The friendship of the gullible Nordic Fafhrd with the trickster like Mouser provided the field with a convincing model of [friendship] and their adventures, hilarious and secular and sly, influenced generations of imitators.” Another place talked about how the heroes were allowed to grow as characters, get married, and grow older. What made Leiber return to the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series so often?
I think he really loved the characters, and of course they started with his fried Harry Fischer at university, so they really were a lifelong companion. Fritz had enjoyed Fantasy, Dunsany, Cabell and Eddison, and of course R.E Howard, hence his allocation of the words Swords and Sorcery.
“Howardian fantasy-adventure is … a field which I feel more certain that ever should be called the sword-and-sorcery story. This accurately describes the points of culture-level and supernatural element and also immediately distinguishes it from the cloak-and-sword (historical adventure) story — and (quite incidentally) from the cloak-and-dagger (international espionage) story, too! The word sorcery implies something more and other than historical human witchcraft, so even the element of an alien-yet-human world background is hinted at. … At any rate, I’ll use sword-and-sorcery as a good popular catchphrase for the field” 4
There was some commercial reason at work here, as Fritz emerged from a bout of alcoholism, he had a great opportunity as Michael Moorcock explains:
Cele Goldsmith (later Lalli) is one of the great editors of science fantasy and, with Judith Merril, godmother to the American sf New Wave of the 1960s. She published all the Young Turks, most of them for the first time, in the magazines she edited … Lalli had a liking for what one of her contributors had christened ‘Sword and Sorcery’ and she commissioned a young John Jakes to write her a series of Conan-like adventures, Brak the Barabarian. She published an early fantasy of mine called ‘Earl Aubec and the Golem’, which she retitled ‘Master of Chaos’. She published the first Roger Zelazny story — and published many more. She published Thomas M. Disch and J. G. Ballard and Samuel R. Delany and all the exciting talents which helped create that wonderful sea-change of the 1960s. She also liked Philip K. Dick and Keith Laumer, but I think her favourite writer, whose talent stood so far above the majority of his more financially successful peers, was Fritz Leiber. 5
The stories proved popular, and Fritz was then offered the chance by Ace books to consolidate and expand he stories into the Swords collections we know.
As in his other work, Fritz was able to use all of his styles in these stories, with the stories often combining adventure, horror and humour. He also got to enjoy world building in the form of Nehwon, in particular it’s various gods and guilds were a huge influence on fantasy gaming, and on Pratchett’s Small Gods!
The other real pleasure is the stories evolve, from the very pulpy style of rich adventure such as The Jewels in the Forest and Thieves’ House, through to more humourous and complex tales Fritz took hold of the world and give Nehwon a real sense of being.
As you mentioned the marriage, Fritz was able to use the characters themselves to slyly comment on the genre and age, which in these stories, catches up with everyone!
John Grayshaw: “Gather Darkness” charted the social and political events in a theocracy in which the state uses science to instill fear in a peasant like populace and thus control them. I consider it a classic dystopian work on the level of “1984” and “Brave New World.” Why isn’t this novel better known?
I suspect the same reason so much of Fritz’s work is relatively unknown, as I mentioned earlier his wide spread of writing probably didn’t help. I think it is probably a bit to early in the genesis of SF too and isn’t really marketed as such. It predates Harrison’s Captive Universe and Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky which mine some of the ideas Fritz uses here.
Fritz of course had a brief period training as an Episcopal Priest, which certainly would have given him pause to think about organized religion. Fritz of course was concerned that his lack of belief in God may present a handicap, but was told ‘Think of it as a social service’ 1
I do agree that it’s surprising it is not better known, it is very readable, it still has the rich weird tales flavour of his early writing whilst raising and discussing some serious issues.
There is also the other level to the story that the people pulling the strings are not religious fundamentalists.. but nominally rational scientists.
John Grayshaw: “The Big Time” follows the idea of the spiders and the snakes battling across time (the Changewar) trying to subvert the future for their own ends. Was this the first example of a time war? Is this Leiber’s best-known work? And why?
I would suggest by some distance the Swords series is his best known work, but I agree The Big Time often appears when Fritz is discussed. One somewhat sad reason for it’s appearance, is it is often flagged up in the kind of ‘How on earth did this get as Hugo’ type discussions.
It is so far outside the norm of SF, and with it’s play structure, it is easy to dismiss compare to other weighty tomes.
I have always loved the book, I like Greta, I think the idea of time that Fritz explores (and continued to explore in several stories, including a favourite of mine, When the Change Winds Blow) is very interesting. I love the place, which let’s be honest, or more honest than Fritz could be in 1958, is a brothel. It’s bawdy, it’s loud, it’s soaked in alcohol. The characters may be writ large, but running through it are so many subtleties. When the place is cut off from the world, cut off from time, and more importantly cut off from the ongoing war, in which people seem unsure which side they are on, then people come alive and the action starts. The change winds may blow and blow away your life, but then so may a bomb. As I said earlier, Fritz was an avowed pacifist, so for his contemplation on war, and the moral weariness that comes with it, he created this strange, wonderful little novel. Like any good play, at the end, perceptions have changed, truths have been told, but the stage remains the same.
I genuinely understand why people don’t like it, it’s very unusual and doesn’t really fit any normal novel type, but it’s a shame to dismiss it.
But lastly, as with all his work, it is the language. He just knows how to draw you in!
“Have you ever worried about your memory, because it doesn’t seem to be bringing you exactly the same picture of the past from one day to the next? Have you ever been afraid that your personality was changing because of forces beyond your knowledge or control? Have you ever felt sure that sudden death was about to jump you from nowhere? Have you ever been scared of Ghosts—not the story-book kind, but the billions of beings who were once so real and strong it’s hard to believe they’ll just sleep harmlessly forever? Have you ever wondered about those things you may call devils or Demons—spirits able to range through all time and space, through the hot hearts of stars and the cold skeleton of space between the galaxies? Have you ever thought that the whole universe might be a crazy, mixed-up dream? If you have, you’ve had hints of the Change War.”
I should also add it’s coda so to speak, No Great Magic is a more traditional tale, but a very thoughtful one at that.
John Grayshaw: In “The Wanderer,” an artificial planet materializes from hyperspace within earth’s orbit, its gravitational field captures the moon and shatters it. Meanwhile, on Earth, the Wanderer’s gravity well triggers earthquakes, tsunamis, and tidal phenomena. This novel won the Hugo for Best Novel in 1964 and yet I don’t often hear about it today. How was it received at the time and why isn’t it better remembered today?
The Wanderer (with the caveat that it has cats, and alien cat sex) is a very straightforward read, features some great characters. It also prefigures the disaster films of the 1970s with it’s multiple viewpoints and narratives stretching over the novel.
These days, like The Big Time, it is a sadly maligned award winner. It is probably about as straight as Fritz did SF, it bubbles with ideas, language, dialogue and very enjoyable characters. That said, as someone who has read so much of his work, perhaps I am akin to Rasputin and immune to finding his stories and style unusual! I suspect for a lot of people expecting something akin to a Niven / Pournelle Footfall or Lucifers Hammer would be very disappointed!
John Grayshaw: What makes Leiber interesting from a critical perspective? What first drew you to his work?
My discovery I tend to think of it as an accident, but I suspect it was an accident waiting to happen. As a young teen I was reading the genre fiction of the time, Larry Niven, Stephen King, David Eddings, Stephen Donaldson, Harry Harrison etc. Whatever I could find in the bookshop on the market.
For some reason, on our bookshelf at home, was a copy of Clark Ashton Smith’s ‘Lost Worlds Vol II’ with it’s stunning Bruce Pennington cover. It was electric for me, exotic language and places suddenly flooded into my mind, truth be told, the other tales I had read, seemed so normal in comparison.
There were various writers on the book saying how good the book was, so I eagerly sought out Ray Bradbury, H P Lovecraft and, Fritz Leiber.
Bradbury was easy to find, as was Lovecraft, and I devoured their work, but Leiber, he was a little trickier.
To be fair I grew up in a provincial town, and Leiber was always a little rarer in the UK, but I eventually found a battered copy of the original red Ace Swords Against Death, and I was hooked. As I slowly discovered more and more of Fritz’ s writing, the more I came to enjoy his work. Fritz is a lovely writer, and reading a lot of his work can make other writing seem very vanilla at times. He is also so very varied. Like many people, especially as one grows older, you get less Catholic about your reading. I still love horror, SF and fantasy, but also crime, spy, humour and what might be called literature. But reading Fritz, you never quite know where you will be taken. His Lankhmar tales, his most approachable and popular works can still take you to strange places you would not expect to find in the genre.
It is a passion which has never faltered, and one of my proudest moments was supplying some rarer stories for John Pelan to include in a couple of the lovely collections he produced for Midnight House. Having my name in the credits of a Fritz Leiber book was all I could ever hope for!
On the question of what makes Leiber interesting critically, I am not best placed to answer, but Tom Staircar, and in particular Bruce Byfield and Benjamin Szumskyj have written fascinating observations on Leiber, as has Ramsey Campbell. What I would say is that his impact on fantasy and horror in particular are huge, SF, probably less so, as he wrote what in the old days might be called science fantasy, and the space bound SF that came to dominate was not a place where Fritz ventured.
John Grayshaw: What do you feel are Leiber’s most significant works? Do you have personal favorites of his work? And why?
For me, I think one has to look to Smoke Ghost, such a great horror story and easily sits alongside Lovecraft and James as a key story in 20th century horror development, to that I would also add Conjure Wife and his later Our Lady of Darkness. Those things alone make him a seminal horror writer.
The influence of his Swords series is difficult to underestimate and it’s impact on the world of roleplaying and Dungeons and Dragons cannot be overstated.
The much maligned Big Time is a great tale, and as Aldiss notes in Trillion Year Spree, it prefigures the New Wave in it’s approach to SF, and Fritz continued to be championed by New Wave writers who dismissed my of Leiber’s contemporaries who made their name with more traditional space operas.
A personal favourite is You’re All Alone / The Sinful Ones.
It kind of bridges his work as he moves from pulps to his later more self analytical style, but the underlying premise, which he examined in the Big Engine, and some of the strange unsettling imagery and suggestions in it are so memorable and engaging. Think of it akin to The Adjustment Bureau, but a 1000 times better.
John Grayshaw: What are some of Leiber’s works that you feel should be better known than they are?
Obviously the answer is all of it! I am saddened that Leiber’s fantasy tales have been crowded out by Lord of the Rings and it’s lingering influence on epic fantasy, here I agree with Moorcock
“J. R. R. Tolkien was ‘an obscure academic’ who ‘published a peculiar trilogy with a William Morris/Anglo-Saxon ring to it [that] became the core of a somewhat unhealthy cult’, Leiber was, simply, ‘the best living Fantasy writer’.”
It is well worth reading Moorcock’s essay “Epic Pooh”. One has to have some sympathy with Moorcock’s world view, which I have, but I think it is difficult to argue about the inherent conservatism and lack of women in Lord of the Rings. I read the Hobbit as a young teen and thoroughly enjoyed it, but never LOTR. In all honesty, after reading Leiber’s Swords series, which being a series of unconnected tales might seem slight, Lord of the Rings seemed stodgy, slow and strangely unable to articulate the true horrors it was grappling with. But I realise here I am the outlier, it has outsold and out influenced Fritz a thousand times over, but it still strikes me as odd! At the very least his tales of Lankhmar are just such great fun and easy to read (on the whole).
John Grayshaw: Who were some of the writers Leiber grew up reading?
Fritz himself always cites Shakespeare and Lovecraft, but he was clearly influenced by Robert Graves (adepts Gambit was originally set in Rome, as were the fragments that became Swords of Lankhmar) and Thomas Mann, who he went to visit. Cabell and Eddison were a clear influence on his Lankhmar tales, and Leiber also sites Ibsen.
He was well read in horror, from Poe, through Machen, Blackwood and James and he devoured the pulps, reading Doc Smith, van Vogt and of course Lovecraft and particular Clark Ashton Smith who eventually took a ‘pilgrimage’ to meet.
John Grayshaw: H.P. Lovecraft was an early mentor and role model for Leiber. How did this mentorship, and Lovecraft’s writing in general, influence Leiber?
Luckily we can see the influence in Fritz Leiber and H.P. Lovecraft: Writers of the Dark which came out in 2005 and 2014’s Adepts Gambit, the Original Edition. Lovecraft gave so much time and advice to his aspiring acolyte and it was advice Fritz largely took. Their correspondence was intense, if sadly curtailed by Lovecraft’s death. I think it is difficult to underestimate how much these interactions helped Fritz in focusing on becoming a professional writer. Lovecraft picks apart any inconsistencies, but he is also fulsome in his praise, which for a young writer who only recently had been excitedly reading Mountain of Madness at university, must have been a huge boost to his confidence. That said, Fritz never really went down the Lovecraft Mythos route, the only real exception being The Terror from the Depths, which having abandoned it in 1937 after Lovecraft’s death, he wrote in 1975. There is also To Arkham and the Stars, which is not really a mythos story, so much as a gentle look at it’s origins when someone visits Arkham.
John Grayshaw: Who are some writers that were Leiber’s contemporaries that he enjoyed/admired?
“Heinlein is my Favorite SF writer by several lengths, with real goodies like Wells, Herbert Best, Joanna Russ, Stapledon, Sturgeon, and Kornbluth trailing. At least, judging by the number of times I reread books, Heinlein is way in the lead. I even found ‘I Will Fear No Evil’ better than practically everyone else in SF-though it is surely his poorest book. ” 7
Fritz wrote SF reviews for various publications and it is the one area I would like to look at more as it is a rich vein to mine as Fritz wrote so very many words on other authors.
He clearly didn’t rate L Ron Hubbard (Fritz being present at ‘The monstrous birth of Dianetics’ 6) and as early as 1951 was having a pop at him with Poor Superman.
John Grayshaw: Did Leiber have favorites of his own works?
Fritz would comment on a favourite story here and there, but Fritz was always very critical of his own work, and happy to play up the value of others. He would always champion Harry Fischer as the originator of the Lankhmar tales, but the stories are all Fritz’s creation. Reading his thoughts on his writing it is much more about why and how he wrote it, rather than it’s final value, or not.
He was though, very disappointed with Destiny Times Three, which he had to gut to guarantee a pulp serialisation, this was something that always disappointed him.
John Grayshaw: Who are some of the science fiction writers he had correspondence/friendships with?
He corresponded with Bloch, DeCamp and Anderson, Sheckley and Russ. What Fritz does mention was attending a convention for the first time in the late 40s was important as he suddenly found a connection to this whole group of other like minded writers and a number of friendships were formed.
John Grayshaw: L Sprague de Camp told a story that at Discon II in 1974 he and Leiber, pretended to quarrel furiously, and fought a make-believe duel with sabers. Are there other stories about Leiber at conventions or otherwise corresponding/meeting with fans?
From all the articles and commentary I have read over the years, mainly that Fritz was a kind and generous guest, who entertained and indeed tolerated the strangeness of SF fandom with great joy and charm.
John Grayshaw: What are some of the most interesting things you’ve found in your research of Leiber?
I cannot really claim to have done academic research on Leiber, and whilst I have expressed my opinion in these answers, I fear I am only standing on the shoulder of giants, and I mention these in a few notes at the end!
John Grayshaw: Are any of Leiber’s works under option for movies or TV?
I have no real idea, Lankhmar adaptations were dangled under Fritz’s nose, but they finally went nowhere, though of all his work, it’s episodic nature would make them the most likely adaption.
Conjure Wife was filmed twice and a couple of his short stories were adapted for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, but given the theatricality of his work it has always surprised me we never saw any adaptations on film or TV.
John Grayshaw: Did Leiber have any particular writing habits or routines he stuck with?
Fritz worked very hard to develop a routine, with daybooks full of notes and ideas and routine that saw him to try to write at least 500 words every day. Most of all, he always wanted to improve, and I believe he worked hard to develop an outline before he started any writing.
John Grayshaw: What were some of Leiber’s hobbies other than writing?
I think it’s safe to say, writing dominated his life. He did at times try acting, he could fence and of course at times dedicated a great deal of time to chess. Cats remain a constant, and toward the end of his life he became enthused about astronomy. Sadly, the hobby that took over his life was alcohol.
John Grayshaw: I heard that in the 70s Leiber lived in a very tiny apartment in a bad neighborhood. Was money an issue for him at this time? How did this influence his writing at the time?
That is a tricky one to answer, Fritz was not well off, but he would have had money. His room in Geary street where he recovered and wrote after Jonquil’s death was certainly, from my reading, pretty grim. He had to write sitting on the bed, with his typewriter propped on a chair. The neighbourhood was not great and his friends were worried about him, and did intervene. The intervention included Harlan Ellison, who in a three way conversation with Leiber and Clarke at a convention is unusually modest about it 8, and in another interview is audibly unable to talk for a few seconds recalling Fritz’s life during a time in the 70s. 2 So eventually Fritz was moved to a better apartment. That said, Fritz enjoyed the area, the textures and people he saw, he was never bored and the range of lives he saw worked their way into his fiction, which as he recovered from his grief became very productive and produced some of his best work. I am of the opinion, that when to went to San Francisco, so escape the grief and in some levels guilt of Jonquils death, he lived, for a whole at least, like a drunken monk, seeing his reduced standard of life as part of his penance so to speak, and only when he full emerged from this period was he able to re engage full and start to look after himself again.
John Grayshaw: I’ve heard that royalty checks from TSR, Inc (the makers of Dungeons and Dragons who had licensed the mythos of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series) were enough to ensure that Leiber lived comfortably in his later years. Was this a big change from his life in that tiny apartment?
The TSR checks, and the Ace editions of Swords certainly made Fritz final years financially comfortable, especially given that Fritz was not an extravagant man. He could work, travel, eat out and enjoy his health while it lasted. He remained productive, despite his increasingly deteriorating eyesight, til the very end of his life. Bruce Byfield writes movingly of how when Fritz lay dying in his hospital bed (which for a strange set of reasons Bruce was witness to), during moments of coherence, Fritz said he wanted to stay to ’Write more stories…’ 9
What is Leiber’s legacy? Why was his work significant at the time? And why is it still important today?
I think in horror, whilst not having the position of James or Lovecraft, most critical studies would reference Leiber in moving horror into the more modern era.
For Fantasy, his legacy is huge, but somewhat hidden by Tolkien, who is seen as the defining fantasy author. Many of the tropes we rely on in picaresque fantasy come from the pulp introduction of fantasy, for which Fritz (along with Robert E. Howard) was critical the development of, and as I mentioned before, these tropes are even more evident in D&D which has Leiber stamped all over it.
His SF legacy is slight, partly is that the kind of speculative fiction he was critically appreciated for is not in vogue, and hasn’t been for some time, much as the short story seems to have faded from relevance.
Fritz’s significance at the time, and remember that was from 1940 to 1990, was that he never stood still, never churned out the same thing. He was happy to comment on the state of the USA and its societal mores. I think his interest in psychology is relevant, because in his writing it was never a lazy ‘Freudian motivation’. Fritz was interested in what made him, and others, feel the way they did, and that gives great depth to his writing.
It is important today for the simple reason it was important then. The fact so many of todays important writers viewed his as an inspiration, or even hero, means looking at his work, is looking at some of the best and most forward thinking fiction being produced.
As a last comment, the reality is that without a franchise like LOTR, Dune, Blade Runner or Cthulhu, lots of important writers do not cut though. I have no doubt if a Lankhmar series appears on Netflix there will be quite a few people suddenly talking about his ‘legacy’, and many more experts for you to choose from John!
I have a few sources here incase people wish to read more. I have absorbed so much Fritz information over the years, but I have tried to check and mention where I get the thoughts and information. But it goes without saying that anyone wishing to know more about Fritz should seek out Bruce Byfield, S T Joshi, Benjamin Szumskyj or Ramsey Campbell.
- “Not so Much Disorder and Not so Early Sex: an Autobiographical Essay” The Ghost Light, 1984
- TalkCast 36 – Fritz Leiber Retrospective with Guest Harlan Ellison
- Weird Fiction review
- Ancalagon 1961
- ‘Introduction’, Ill Met In Lanhkmar 1995
- The Book of Fritz Leiber
- Speaking of Science Fiction: The Paul Walker Interviews 1978
- SCIENCE FICTION REVIEW #40