Saturday, February 8, 2014
A Bit of the Dark World
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.