Author, author: What you need to know about the fantastical Fritz Leiber

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Jun 16, 2017, 9:34 PM EDT (Updated)

As Blastr's month-long celebration of books continues, our latest author profile focuses on the genre-crossing Fritz Leiber.

A lot of his work may be hard to find these days, which is a shame since it's time for new generations of readers to discover Fritz Leiber. While Leiber wrote science fiction, horror and fantasy in equal measure, a lot of his work mixed those genres together to create bold and unique stories that provided the template for a lot of modern writing that achieves the same crossover effect. He also wrote frankly about sexuality, the oppression and isolation of urban life, and the decay of contemporary society, which makes his best work hold up well to this day. 

His horror stories were arguably among the very first to be situated in urban settings and play off the unease of city life, a form later mastered by the likes of Richard Matheson and Ramsey Campbell. His science fiction tales set recognizably human characters in the context of often mind-bending and cosmic-sized concepts. As for his fantasy output, his cycle of stories about two swordsmen known as Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser remain among the most important works the genre has ever produced.

A free thinker and a deeply philosophical writer, Leiber may have been ahead of his time in many ways. Like the other two writers we've profiled here recently -- Richard Matheson and Theodore Sturgeon -- his stories retain a deep compassion for humanity and human beings, as flawed as they are, and an instinctive curiosity about human relationships and consciousness. But Leiber also excelled perhaps in overall mood and world-building than many others of his generation. Here are seven things you need to know about Fritz Leiber:


The Basics

Leiber was born on December 24, 1910 in Chicago. His father Fritz and his mother Virginia were both actors, a profession in which the younger Fritz was interested for a while (that's him on the left, arms raised, with his father to the right of him, in the 1937 movie The Great Garrick). He toured with his parents' theater company for some time, and other jobs included drama and speech teacher as well as staff writer for an encyclopedia and for Science Digest. It was when he moved from Chicago to California a second time, in 1958, that he finally began a full-time writing career. Leiber married Jonquil Stephens in 1936 and they had one son, Justin, born in 1938. Jonquil's death in 1969 triggered a three-year period of dissolution and alcoholism for Leiber, from which he eventually emerged with not just his life back, but with one of his best known novels, Our Lady of Darkness. He eventually got remarried to a journalist named Margo Skinner in 1992, but the marriage was short-lived -- Leiber died on September 5 of that year from a brain ailment while on his way home from, of all things, a science fiction convention.


The Novels

As we noted, Leiber wrote comfortably in all three genres -- horror, science fiction and fantasy -- and often mixed the three with unique results. His first novel, Conjure Wife (originally published in serial form in 1943) is among his best known and his finest. The tale of a college professor whose wife is a witch was the inspiration for three movies, including the sublime Night of the Eagle a.k.a. Burn, Witch, Burn! (1962). His second novel, Gather, Darkness! (1943) was set in a future theocracy where science disguised as witchcraft is used as a means of revolution. The Big Time (1958), his first Hugo Award winner for Best Novel, was a relatively short book about two groups of time travelers whose long-running conflict creates changes in history. The Wanderer (1964), his second Hugo winner, was an apocalyptic story about a planet that suddenly appears in our solar system and wreaks havoc. His last major standalone novel, 1977's Our Lady of Darkness, was inspired by tragic events in his own life (the death of his wife and his descent into alcoholism) and dealt with the discovery of "paramentals," elemental entities that emerge from the structure of cities.


The Short Stories

Leiber wrote far more short stories and novellas than novels, and many of his most famous short stories were horror -- more specifically, urban horror that took place in big cities and were marked by a suffocating, paranoid atmosphere. Among his best-known short works were "Smoke Ghost" (1941), "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" (1949), "Coming Attraction" (1950), "A Pail of Air" (1951), the novella "The Night of the Long Knives" (1960), "Gonna Roll the Bones" (1967), "Catch that Zeppelin!" (1975), "Belsen Express" (1975) and many more. His stories, like his novels, crossed over from horror to sci-fi to fantasy, although he seemed the most comfortable with either darker, moodier supernatural pieces or somewhat jauntier satirical tales. A new collection from Centipede Press, Masters of Science Fiction: Fritz Leiber, highlights his output in that genre, while various collections both in and out of print offer a range of his horror tales as well as his sci-fi stories.


Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser

Leiber's best known work is neither sci-fi nor horror: It's a cycle of fantasy stories based around the adventures of a massive yet romantic barbarian named Fafhrd and his smaller, more cynical partner, the thief known as the Gray Mouser, who are excellent warriors, swords for hire, and true adventurers and friends. Leiber and his friend Harry Otto Fischer invented the duo in a series of 1934 letters, with Fafhrd based loosely on Leiber and the Mouser based on Fischer. Leiber published the first Fafhrd and Mouser story, "Adept's Gambit," in 1936 and wrote tales about the pair for the rest of his life, eventually tying them all together in one continuous cycle. Many of the stories starring the rogueish pair were collected in titles like Swords in the Mist (1968) and Swords Against Death (1970), with The Swords of Lankhmar (1968) the sole full-length novel in the cycle. The Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, particularly the early ones, created the template for much modern fantasy writing -- in fact, it was Leiber who coined the term "sword and sorcery."


Leiber at the Movies

Leiber began his career as an actor, as we mentioned above, and can be seen in several movies. His earliest appearances are in the 1936 Greta Garbo film Camille and the 1937 release The Great Garrick, both of which he did with his father. He also had a small speaking role in the 1939 remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton, and in the 1970 horror movie Equinox, where he plays a professor of the occult. Although he had some dialogue in the original cut of the movie, it was later edited out. Strangely enough, Leiber's own work has not been adapted very much: Conjure Wife was filmed three times -- as Weird Woman in 1944, Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch Burn! in 1962 and as a comedy, Witches Brew, in 1980. A fourth version was announced in 2008 but never materialized. His short story "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" was loosely adapted as a film in 1995. That story and another one, "The Dead Man" were adapted in 1970 for Rod Serling's Night Gallery TV anthology series. Despite the success of fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser tales have yet to be plundered for either the big or small screen.


Leiber and Other Writers

Terry Prachett (Discworld), Michael Chabon (Gentlemen of the Road), Stephen King, Joanna Russ and many others cite Leiber as a main influence -- with the esteemed British horror writer Ramsey Campbell calling him the single biggest influence on his particular brand of urban supernatural terror. So much modern fantasy -- whether of the sword-and-sorcery variety or the modern kind -- owes him a debt as well. The makers of Dungeons & Dragons acknowledged the influence of the Fafhrd stories by licensing the mythos in order to use elements of it in their games -- with the royalty checks reportedly providing enough income for Leiber to live out the last years of his life in relative comfort (although he was never what you would consider financially well off).


Random facts

1) In 1932, Leiber studied at the General Theological Seminary in Manhattan and, for a while, worked as a lay preacher. 2) He won a total of six Hugo Awards and four Nebula Awards, and was given the World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1976. 3) He was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2001. 4) During the last years of his life, he lived in a tiny apartment in San Francisco and supposedly wrote his stories on a manual typewriter perched over his sink. 5) Leiber's earlier work was heavily influenced by H.P. Lovecraft and he received a letter of encouragement about his writing from Lovecraft in 1936. 6) He suffered from bouts of alcoholism throughout his life, which sometimes brought his writing to a halt for years at a time. 7) His love of chess, cats and the theater all manifest themselves in a lot of his works. 8) Although a lifelong pacifist, he was disturbed enough by the rise of the Third Reich to enlist in World War II, for which he worked in aircraft production. 9) His son Justin (with whom he is pictured above), who died this past March aged 77, was a philosophy professor and occasional science fiction writer.