Supernatural Horror: Authors and Themes





Fritz Leiber, one of the most versatile and unorthodox writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror, died on 5 September 1992, at the age of 81.

Leiber was born in Chicago on 24 December 1910. His parents, Fritz Sr and Virginia, were members of Robert Mantell's Shakespearean repertory company, and Leiber's early years were filled with the trappings of Shakespearean drama and the theatre, which would later influence his work. He attended the University of Chicago, eventually graduating in psychology and philosophy. After a very brief spell as an ordinand of the Episcopal Church, he joined his father's own Shakespeare company.

Leiber married his first wife, Jonquil Stephens, on 18 January 1936. They moved to Hollywood, where he attempted to find work in films, while trying to write saleable supernatural horror fiction. At this time he became a correspondent of H P Lovecraft, who was perhaps his single greatest literary influence (although not much in terms of style). Lovecraft encouraged his  early attempts at fiction. At the same time Leiber began the first drafts, in collaboration with Harry Fischer, of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories -- tales which revolutionised the heroic fantasy genre, and eventually defined much of it.

The Leibers' son Justin was born in 1938. They moved back to Chicago, where Fritz went to work for the Consolidated Book Publishing Company, on their The University of Knowledge book series and other projects. He continued to write, making his publishing debut with the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser novelette "Two Sought Adventure" (Unknown August 1939), and the urban supernatural tale "The Automatic Pistol", (Weird Tales May 1940).

In 1941 Leiber was able to use his dramatic talents and background when he became a speech instructor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. This helped to provide the academic community background for the supernatural novel Conjure Wife (Unknown April 1943, book form 1953). He also published Gather, Darkness! (Astounding Science Fiction May-July 1943, book form 1950) just before beginning war work as a precision inspector on the night shift at Douglas Aircraft, while still writing during the day.

The Leibers returned to Chicago, and Fritz became Associate Editor of Science Digest. The part-time writing continued. In 1958, they moved back to Los Angeles.

Leiber won the Hugo and Nebula Awards several times, in particular for his novel The Wanderer (1964) and the short story “Catch That Zeppelin!” (1975). His last, and often best-regarded novel Our Lady of Darkness won the World Fantasy Award in 1978.

Jonquil Leiber died in 1969, and Fritz moved to San Francisco, where he lived until his death. In 1984 Leiber published the long autobiographical essay “Not Much Disorder and Not So Early Sex” (included in The Ghost Light). Fritz Leiber had married his long-time friend Margo Skinner on 15 May 1992.

Leiber's personal life and interests were inextricably mixed up with his fiction.  His best-known works, the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, written over a period of some fifty-five years, used the author himself and Harry Fischer as the basis for the characters.

His interests in astronomy, architecture, the environments of the places where he lived, together with musings on the nature and passage of time, all figured in his stories. Like his major influence H P Lovecraft, Leiber in his later years wrote a succession of long and moodily introspective tales, which, laced with humour and wit, contain moments of almost paralysing terror, as the ineffable and other breaks into the everyday world. These late great stories are usually narrated by lonely older men living alone. The novel Our Lady of Darkness (1977) is the prime example of this, as well as being one of the finest novels of supernatural terror of all time. Like the central character in Our Lady of Darkness, Fritz Leiber battled with alcoholism for over half of his life.

In 1979 he was a Guest of Honour at the World Science Fiction Convention held at Brighton. I have never forgotten hearing him read his then new tale, "The Button Molder" (Whispers October 1979), at a midnight story-reading session. Let his words in that story end this tribute to a writer whose like we shall never ever know again:

    There is the dark, eternally silent, unknown universe; there are the friend-enemy minds shouting and whispering their tales and always seeking the three miracles -- that minds should really touch, or that the silent universe should speak, tell minds a story, or (perhaps the same thing) that there should be a story that works that is all hard facts, all reality, with no illusions and no fantasy; and lastly, there is lonely, story-telling wonder-questing, mortal me.


A slightly different version of this article first appeared as an obituary in Ghosts & Scholars 15 (1993) 

Copyright (c) 2001 John Howard