Old Masters of Horror: Fritz Leiberposted by
“What is the whole literature of supernatural horror, but an essay to make Death itself exciting – wonder and strangeness to life’s very end?” Fritz Leiber once said. Besides horror, he wrote tales of fantasy and science fiction, and was the first to use the term “sword and sorcery” for that sub-genre. He became a protégé of H.P. Lovecraft and wrote stories in the Cthulhu Mythos, but he developed his own style. Leiber considered his main influences to be Lovecraft, William Shakespeare, and Edgar Allan Poe.
Fritz Reuter Leiber, Jr., was born in Chicago on December 24, 1910, the son of Shakespearean actors Fritz, Sr., and Virginia. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1932, where he majored in psychology and physiology. He attended Episcopal General Theological Seminary in New York and was an Episcopal minister from 1932 to 1933. Then he got into the theater, acting in his father’s company in 1934 to 1936, and later teaching drama.
Leiber married Jonquil Stephens in 1936. They had a son, Justin, in 1938. Justin is a professor of philosophy at Florida State University and has written some fiction in addition to numerous non-fiction works, mostly in the field of philosophy. Jonquil died in 1969. In 1992, shortly before his death, Leiber married Margo Skinner, who had been his companion for 20 years.
After Leiber married Jonquil, they moved to Hollywood, where he hoped to find work in films. He appeared in Camille (1936), The Great Garrick (1937), The Web (1947), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Equinox (1970), and The Bermuda Triangle (1979). Five of Leiber’s works were adapted for the screen. Conjure Wife was filmed three times: Weird Woman (1944), Night of the Eagle (1962), and Witches’ Brew (1980). “The Dead Man,” an episode of Night Gallery (1970), and The Girl with the Hungry Eyes (1995), were based on his stories.
Leiber became a protégé of H.P. Lovecraft just as Leiber’s career was starting and Lovecraft’s was winding down. Leiber had long admired Lovecraft’s work, and in 1936, his wife sent Lovecraft a letter telling him how much her husband admired his work. This began a fruitful correspondence between the two writers until Lovecraft’s death the following year. Through these letters, Lovecraft critiqued Leiber’s stories, helped him with his poetry, and offered him advice on writing. Lovecraft’s influence, though, is not clear upon casual reading as Leiber had his own style. S.T. Joshi stated that “Fritz Leiber is the only writer among H.P. Lovecraft’s friends and colleagues who can be placed on an equal footing with him in regard to his literary achievement.”
In 1937, the family moved to Chicago, where Leiber worked for the Consolidated Book Publishing Company. He started writing fiction, beginning with the fantasy genre. His sword-and-sorcery story, “Two Sought Adventure,” appeared in Unknown magazine in 1939. This was the first published story in his Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, which related the adventures of two sophisticated rogues, who were modeled, respectively, on Leiber and his friend Harry Fischer. The Fafhrd and Mouser series would span nearly 50 years and eventually fill several volumes, including a novel, The Swords of Lankhmar (1968).
His stories also appeared in such magazines as Astounding, Dangerous Visions, Fantastic, Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy, Other Worlds, Star Science Fiction Stories, and Weird Tales.
The family moved back to California in 1941, and Leiber began working as a speech and drama instructor at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
In 1943, he found success in the horror genre with the publication of Conjure Wife in Unknown magazine (it was published in book form in 1953). This novel tells of witchcraft in a small college town. His other horror works included, among others, You Are All Alone (1950), “Smoke Ghost” (1941), “The Hound” (1942), the vampire story “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” (1949), “The Black Gondolier” (1964), and Our Lady of Darkness (1977). The latter book included Lovecraftian themes and was a tribute to Clark Ashton Smith.
Also in 1943, Leiber started publishing science fiction, with the appearance of Gather, Darkness!, about the overthrow of a religious dictator.
In 1947, Leiber saw his first hardcover publication when Arkham House put out Night’s Black Agents, a collection of his stories. Leiber must have been especially pleased at this publication as Arkham House had been established to publish the works of his mentor, Lovecraft.
The family moved back to Chicago, where Leiber became editor of Science Digest. In 1958, they returned to Los Angeles, at which time Leiber became a full-time writer. After Jonquil’s death, he moved to San Francisco, where he died on September 5, 1992.
Leiber used a personal approach in writing fiction. Characters in several of his works suffer from alcoholism – reflecting his own problems with alcohol, which lasted from the 1950s until 1972. He loved cats and included them in many of his stories. Another frequent theme he used is the threat of modern urban horror, perhaps influenced by the several large cities where he lived. Our Lady of Darkness, written after Jonquil died, is about a writer of weird tales who must deal with the death of his wife and his recovery from alcoholism.
Leiber won many Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, and other awards. He received the 1975 Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy Award, the 1976 World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the 1987 Bram Stoker Lifetime Achievement Award. He was named Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1981.
Leiber’s books are widely available from on-line booksellers. Some notable editions: Donald M. Grant, Publisher, has available Gummitch and Friends (1992), a collection of Leiber’s cat tales with additional material from other writers. Writers of the Dark (Wildside Press, 2003) concentrates on Leiber’s connection to Lovecraft and contains a selection of correspondence between the two, Lovecraft-inspired stories by Leiber, and essays by Leiber on Lovecraft. Wildside Press has several other Leiber books in print. Midnight House recently published a series of three Leiber collections, which are out of print but well worth seeking out.
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