The SF and Horror Fiction of Fritz Leiber


Fritz Leiber was born on the twenty-fourth of December. As it so happens, I first read his fiction on the twenty-fifth of December, albeit many decades later. My mom, who had previously bought me books on Vikings, Native Americans and other topics I was interested in, had purchased the Ace box set of Fritz Leiber when I told her I wanted "something by Fritz Leiber." My mom set me up sweet. That was a pretty cool Christmas.

The box set contained Swords and Deviltry, Swords Against Death and Swords and Ice Magic--all Fafhrd and Gray Mouser collections. In addition, Ace had tucked a copy of The Mind Spider and Other Stories in with the S&S books. With the exception of "Ice Magic," all of the books were basically reprints from the Donald Wollheim era at Ace.

That little box set gave me a solid--if not quite comprehensive--grounding in the works of Fritz Leiber, much like The Book of Robert E. Howard did for me in regard to REH several years earlier. It introduced me to Fritz's non-Lankhmar work at a young age.


The Mind Spider, with its unsettling cover by Walter Rane, intrigued me and repelled me simultaneously. It seemed to promise that some seriously spooky stuff lay within those pages. Once I began reading it about a week later, I found out the cover didn't lie. Most of the stories within the collection were set in Fritz's "Change War" universe. The tales tended to fall on a broad spectrum between science fiction and horror. "The Oldest Soldier" was the inspiration for the cover and easily the most frightening of the Change War stories in the collection. The plot involves a man who has far too much personal knowledge of battles fought long ago. This strange veteran drags the narrator into a conflict that spans time and space. Something from the Other Side is on the old soldier's trail... "Midnight in the Mirror World" is the one tale added to The Mind Spider for the 1976 reprint. A story of creeping supernatural horror. I reread the entire collection a couple of months ago. Every story still holds up.

I got around to very little further reading of Leiber's non-Lankhmar work until I picked up the hardcover omnibus of "The Books of Fritz Leiber" about a decade later. Plenty of his horror and SF tales, interspersed with great non-fiction essays by Fritz. I highly recommend both books.

For whatever reason, it wasn't until I was given a battered copy of The Best of Fritz Leiber--another Christmas gift, this time from a buddy--that Leiber's SF and horror really began to click with me. Since then, I've searched out whatever I can get my hands on. To be honest, I think I now slightly prefer Fritz's non-fantasy fiction.


As noted above, the Change War stories are good stuff. Both Gather, Darkness and You're All Alone/The Sinful Ones are damned good reads as well. In addition, they just might have influenced the Wachowski Brothers. There are certainly many proto-Matrix elements in both novels. The Wanderer is a ripping SF adventure yarn featuring apocalyptic cosmic battles in near-Earth orbit.

Horror fans should search out Conjure Wife and Our Lady of Darkness. The former is an acknowledged classic from Fritz's early period. The latter is the product of Leiber's artistic rebirth in the mid-1970s. One of the seminal works in the urban horror genre. An honorable mention has to go to Fritz's very early novella, "The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich." It has met with mixed reviews, but I found it to be an effective melding of SF and horror. Very much in the Lovecraftian tradition, but wrought in a Leiberian fashion.

As mentioned above, there are quite a few "best of" collections devoted to Leiber's work. If I had to choose, I'd say buy the original The Book of Fritz Leiber from DAW or The Leiber Chronicles. That said, it's hard to go wrong with any such Leiber collection. Find one cheap and read it.

Well, that wraps up my Leiberian Christmas reminiscences for this 2018. Y'all have a Happy New Year (or Hogmanay, in the case of my Scottish friends).