Weirdfictionreview.com’s 101 Weird Writers: #1–Bob Leman

A Window into the Work of an Underrated Story Writer

This is the first of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Weirdfictionreview.com will feature a different writer. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

Bob Leman (1922 – 2006) was an American science fiction and horror short story author, most often associated with The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Leman’s first story appeared when he was forty-five. “Window” (1980), which is part of The Weird compendium’s exploration of “weird SF,” is his most famous story. Nominated for the Nebula Award, it was adapted for an episode of Night Visions, directed by and starring Bill Pullman.  Another of Leman’s stories, “How Dobbstown Was Saved,” was to have been published in the Harlan Ellison anthology The Last Dangerous Visions but eventually appeared in the collection Feesters in the Lake and Other Stories (2002). You can read his story “Loob” on Weirdfictionreview.com as well. The original version of the following revised essay by Jim Rockhill first appeared as the introduction to that collection.

– Adam Mills, editor of “101 Weird Writers”

***

In his infamous dismissal of H. P. Lovecraft, “Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous” (The New Yorker, November 24, 1945), Edmund Wilson singles out Prosper Mérimée’s tale, “La Venus d’Ille,” as an exemplar of how such tales should be written:

“(I) was relieved to find it narrated—though it was almost as fantastic as Lovecraft—with the prosaic objectivity of an anecdote of travel.”(1)

Wilson has, of course, been overly harsh on Lovecraft, and it is now clear that much of what he wrote was prompted not by Lovecraft’s work, but by his recent perusal of August Derleth’s pseudo-collaborative pastiches. Nonetheless, there is much in what he has written that bears consideration.  Mérimée’s is a classical, restrained prose that eschews Lovecraft’s “incessant effort to work up the expectations of the reader by sprinkling his stories with such adjectives as ‘horrible,’ ‘frightful,’ ‘awesome,’ ‘eerie,’ ‘weird,’ ‘forbidden,’ ‘unhallowed,’ ‘unholy,’ ‘blasphemous,’ ‘hellish’ and ‘infernal.’ ”(2) “La Venus d’Ille,” the theriomorphic fantasy, “Lokis,” the conte cruel, “Matteo Falcone,” the brutal romance, “Carmen,” and others strike us as all the more horrible for taking place in otherwise mundane settings, among individuals who at first seem otherwise unremarkable, and in language that never calls attention to itself. The intrusion or eruption, when it does occur, arrives with a greater shock than if the reader had been prepared for it ahead of time by paragraphs of foreboding rhetoric.  At its best, Lovecraft’s baroque prose has a special grandeur capable of producing an almost suffocating weight of horror, but the terror that strikes in the placid, sunlit street is capable of equal power.  Unfortunately, many proponents of one style continue to deny legitimacy to the other, just as the worst imitators of either style turn misconceptions about what makes either body of work successful into a series of unwitting parodies, the least imaginative of Lovecraft’s followers burying their tales under a mountain of references and stilted prose, while large factions of the supposedly quieter school churn out either supernatural soap-operas or cryptic fragments as mysterious as the tongue’s quest for a recently extracted tooth.

This divide is due not only to divergent attitudes towards prose and the creation of atmosphere, but to the individual writer’s notions concerning how best to craft the horror tale as well.  In spite of centuries of sterling examples that prove otherwise, many practitioners and theorists still hold that it is not possible to successfully delineate character and sustain dread in the same work—that one vitiates the other.  Even more adamant are those who hold that the creation of cosmic horror and the mundane concerns necessary to produce convincing characters are mutually exclusive. This is, admittedly, a difficult proposition, but not altogether insoluble.

One writer who successfully pursues a melding of these two approaches to the tale of horror is Bob Leman, thirteen of whose lucid, slyly imaginative tales appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1967 and 1988, in addition to one tale published in Charles L. Grant’s anthology series Shadows, and one additional story first published in the Midnight House omnibus of Leman’s shorter fiction, Feesters in the Lake & Other Stories. Ever the perfectionist, he did not seek a publisher for his one novel, which remains in manuscript.

Leman packed a wide range of experience and interests into his 84 years, and it is a pity that his fictional output, though high in quality is relatively small in quantity. His deep love of literature ranged from the novels and letters of William Faulkner, Henry James, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, and other mainstream writers to the thrillers of Richard Condon and Joel Townsley Rogers, Golden Age science fiction, and an often ambivalent appreciation for the work of H. P. Lovecraft.

“I cannot remember a time when I was not greedy for fantasy.  When I was nine an aunt gave me the first three Tarzan books, which led to Burroughs’s Mars books and Carl H. Claudy’s serials in Boy’s Life and American Boy, which were cribbed from H. G. Wells, who was my next and great discovery.  There was also Dorothy L. Sayers’s marvelous anthology, Omnibus of Crime, which was half mystery short stories and half fantasy, and introduced me to most of the English ghost and horror writers pre-1930. At eleven or twelve I discovered the pulps. I read constantly, everything I could lay my hands on.”(3)

This absorption of literature in all its guises made him one of the most self-critical and least complacent writers of horror fiction during the 1980s, when the majority of his work was published. Each tale demonstrates tight plotting, excellent characterization and an exemplary lack of adjectival fog. Awe-inspiring and horrific events abound, but no effect for effect’s sake is allowed, there are no atmospheric set-pieces, and no hysterical ramblings, only recognizably real people responding to situations as real people must respond rather than as puppets created to aid the plot. His characters often embrace one viewpoint at the beginning of a story only to have that viewpoint altered by experience and a growing appreciation for a situation’s full implications as a story progresses. Some of the elements that make Leman’s work such a delight to read are his insistence, in tale after tale, upon setting himself new challenges, placing narrative conventions on their heads, and taking a mischievous delight in making the reader believe he is heading in one direction while setting traps that ensure he will invariably go in another.

***

Robert Joseph Leman was born in Woodford County, Illinois in 1922. After attending grade school and high school in rural Illinois, he entered the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, but found his Junior year of college interrupted by America’s entry into World War II. Leman rarely spoke of the three and a half years he served in Europe as an artillery officer, telling only a few of his role during the Battle of the Bulge and fewer still of his experiences during the liberation of the Ohrdruf concentration camp.

In 1947, a year after returning home from the war, he graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in political science, married, and took a job as a “land man” for the oil industry, acquiring leases and negotiating drilling contracts for the company now called Exxon. Transfers to Oklahoma, Colorado, and Wyoming ended in 1961 when he settled into a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with his wife and two daughters, a move followed four years later when he departed Exxon to go into the oil business for himself.

Leman had retired, and was still living in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania when Feesters in the Lake was printed in 2002, a scant four years before his death on August 8, 2006. I shall always regret that I was not able to meet Bob in person, but treasure the few days I was able to spend with his wife of fifty-nine years, his two daughters, sons-in-law, and four grandchildren after his funeral. They are as much a testimony to this extraordinary man as is his writing.

Although a continuing member of First Fandom, which restricts its membership to those fans active before 1938, he states he was most active in science fiction and fantasy fandom for roughly a decade, between the years 1956 and 1967, during which time he published a fanzine he first entitled The American Journal of Oculenteratology. The journal reappeared under a new title, The Vinegar Worm, before he renamed it Nematode upon his entry into S.A.P.S., the Spectator Amateur Press Society.  Leman returned the name of the journal to The Vinegar Worm once he gained entry to the older and more prestigious F.A.P.A., the Fantasy Amateur Press Association, in 1959.  This variously titled journal was, to quote its editor,

“completely written by me with no fancy graphics or illustrations—mostly humorous, mostly essays, and sometimes a story. It contained quite a bit of parody and some satire.”(4)

 The parodies of “New Wave” science fiction that make up most of the one issue I have read (5) are both funny and accurate in their deflation of the portentous tone and stylistic pretensions that marred much of the work from this period.

“After the war I made my first moves toward collecting, by searching out all the issues of the magazines that I’d missed during the war, and, after I had done those, it seemed only logical to find and buy for rereading purposes the stack that had been donated to a wartime paper drive while I wasn’t there to defend them, and then, of course, it became imperative to locate the copies printed before I found the magazines. One thing led to another.”(6)

Leman stated that he had read every issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction since its inception as The Magazine of Fantasy in October 1949, enjoyed Weird Tales and Thrilling Wonder, but still believes that the best science fiction remains that published in Astounding and Analog during the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr.   He qualified this with a chuckle by quoting Peter Graham’s famous quip, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12,” then admitting that, like everyone else, he formed his tastes in his youth.

His canon of great horror writers included the familiar names of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen and M. R. James. Leman’s attitude toward Lovecraft can best be described as ambivalent.  Like many, he had been deeply impressed by Lovecraft’s fiction at an early age, but stated that when he read him again as an adult, he was shocked to find him “the worst and most tedious writer.” One frustrating result of this ambivalence occurred when he had the opportunity to win a copy of The Outsider in a lottery held by one of the booth holders at a convention in 1958.  Carrying the winning ticket and given first choice of the items on display, Leman instead opted for another, more prominently displayed prize.  His rediscovery of Lovecraft did not occur until years later when, reading The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, he was

“amazed at how much of what was happening was completely unexpected. A lot of the scenes and images are fixed in my mind forever. It was as if I had found Lovecraft all over again. Every time I thought about The Outsider, I wanted to kick myself.”

The dissolution of his science fiction collection coincided with his first attempt to write for publication. Both stemmed from the same source—his disillusion with the direction science fiction was taking in the 1960s.

“I sold my science fiction collection to Bob Madle in 1967 and, unlike many people, have not spent any time since trying to purchase it all back. I had a discussion with a writer at a science fiction convention the year before who had published a lot of work, and thought, if this fellow could write a story and get it published, so could I. I wrote ‘Bait’ to satisfy myself that I could do it if I tried, and its publication seemed to satisfy me until I wrote another a decade later.”

This first tale, “Bait” appeared in the January 1967 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.(7) This seems, at first glance, to be a fairly conventional tale about a traveling salesman attempting to convince his customer that the larger-than-life claims made of his product have a basis in reality.  One of the most frustrating phenomena in supernatural fiction is the willingness of people, apparently living in the same world as you and I, to accept anything told them, no matter how outlandish, with barely a moment’s hesitation. Leman deftly bypasses this first by presenting most of this information as a sales pitch interrupted by dialogue rather than in great chunks of exposition, then begins adding subtle details that make us ask why this customer should accept all of this information with such familiarity. He repeatedly shifts the dynamics between salesman and customer so that such details as the source of his rejuvenating protein, the nature of his book and this customer’s eagerness to accept everything she is told begin to take on increasingly disturbing undertones.  Every time the reader thinks he understands what is happening, Leman adds a new element that changes our perception of events.

Even better is Leman’s next tale, “Industrial Complex,” which premiered in the May 1977 issue, little more than a decade after the first tale.  It begins in time-honored Unknown fashion with a man who believes himself to be insane, and is just as adept as that magazine’s less forgiving tales at suddenly turning a ridiculous situation into a horrible one.  Leman succeeds in turning that old joke, “Help! The paranoids are after me!” into a mind-bending odyssey that owes as much to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow out of Time” as it does to any of the tales of Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner or their fellows. Even when events are at their most extreme, the prose remains clear and precise.

Two years passed before the poignant time-slip tale, “Loob,” reprinted here on Weirdfictionreview.com, appeared in the magazine’s April 1979 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and in true Leman fashion is more than the sum of its parts. Following the theory of serial time advanced by the Anglo-Irish engineer and philosopher John William Dunne (1875–1949) in such books as An Experiment with Time (1927), The Serial Universe (1934), The New Immortality (1938), and Nothing Dies (1940), A. E. van Vogt’s classic “The Ghost” (Unknown Worlds, August 1942) had posited the presence of supernatural phenomena in terms of parallels and disruptions in the time continuum. Leman lends further complications and a deeper emotional resonance to these concepts by making the nexus of these disruptions a mentally deficient and emotionally disturbed man for whom, like William Faulkner’s Benjy Compson, past and present, dream and reality coexist without any clear boundaries.

Bob Leman is one of the field’s least complacent writers.   One of the things that makes his work such a delight to read is that in tale after tale, he sets himself new challenges, puts narrative conventions on their heads, and takes obvious delight in making the reader believe he is heading in one direction while setting traps that ensure he will invariably go in another.  “Change of Address,” which appeared in September 1979, gives the lie to the notion that characterization and the cosmic frisson cannot exist side by side. The plot at first resembles one from the pages of Unknown or the novels of Thorne Smith.  The opening portrait of bibulous self-pity is, like that in “Skirmish on Bastable Street” of two years later, both funny and pathetic. There is nothing sentimental about it.  The remainder of the tale describes the development of an independent human personality in an alien presence that is as charming on an individual level as it is terrifying on a cosmic one. If one can imagine the great ball set on the eve of Waterloo in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair with the fate of worlds at stake, or Dunsany’s great dreaming god, Māna-Yood-Sushaï, resting ever more fitfully against a background of frivolity, one might be granted a glimpse of the contradictions that drive this story and makes its final, simple image so chilling.

“Window” is Leman’s most famous story, having debuted in March 1980, appeared that next year in two anthologies collecting the year’s best science fiction, and in two subsequent volumes devoted to the best stories published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as well as its recent appearance in The Weird (Corvus Imprint, 2011), edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. The television series Night Visions aired a filmed adaptation of the tale starring Bill Pullman and titled “A View Through a Window” on July 19, 2001. I love the way the “Gosh! Wow!” Scientifiction mood of this tale changes significantly at the first mention of the word “teeth,” then grows progressively darker.  One of the author’s cleverest and most relentless tales, “Window” deserves its fame.

A conversation with Harlan Ellison, after “Window” became a finalist for the Best Short Story Nebula Award, led to Leman’s submission of “How Dobbstown Was Saved” to the mammoth, legendary, still-unpublished anthology, Last Dangerous Visions in February 1981.  It is a shame that this tale has never seen print prior to its inclusion in the present volume, as it is a delightful romp through every pulp and B-movie cliché imaginable. Furthermore, odd details in the narrative soon make it clear that the narrator is far from reliable or disinterested. The tone teeters between the ironic detachment associated with Jay Ward’s Fractured Fairy Tales and the exuberant grotesquerie that characterizes the supernatural tales of Nikolai Gogol.  One could label this a “tale of the marvellous and the ridiculous” without any fear of paradox.  I would give much to see the illustration Mr. Ellison commissioned for this tale from Tim Kirk.

Discussing the countless pastiches published since Lovecraft’s death, Bob Leman told me, “You cannot copy Lovecraft any more; if you are going to attempt to enter his world, you need to do something new in it.”  As if he had not already proven the truth of this statement in earlier tales, Leman makes a number of overtly Lovecraftian themes his own in a series of tales published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between October 1980 and March 1988. Some of these are set in and around the somnolent mill-town of Sturkeyville nestled among the northern Appalachians in mythical Goster County, which had been introduced in “Loob”.  Like Lovecraft’s Miskatonic River Valley, this is a region with a long history of colonization and development, desertion and decay—a region of the Midwest normal and placid on the surface beneath which seethes all manner of occult activity.

The opening paragraph to “Feesters in the Lake” (October 1980) deliberately eschews two devices favored by the horror-story writer—an atmospheric build-up to revelation on the final page and the oblique reference to horror given at the beginning that gains coherence throughout the remainder of the narrative.  Leman, who realizes that most of his audience has already read either Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or one of its many imitations, therefore opens his tale with a description of the monsters and then proceeds to tell us why their story is relevant to the human population of Goster County. As with Theodore Sturgeon’s “A Way of Thinking” and Stephen King’s “The Crate,” the human response to events turns out to be even more horrible than the supernatural one.

“Skirmish in Bastable Street” and “Unlawful Possession” appeared in the June 1981 and September 1983 issues respectively, and mix elements of the fairy tale with the kind of seriocomic approach to the supernatural displayed in Henry Kuttner’s demonic bargain stories of the 1940s and 1950s, such as “Compliments of the Author,” “The Devil We Know” and  “By These Presents.” The most fascinating thing about the former tale, aside from its Moebius strip plot, is Leman’s decision to make the protagonists as unattractive a pair of squabbling drunkards as any in fiction. Like the Kuttner tales cited, “Unlawful Possession” also contains more than its share of twists and paradoxes, including the first of Leman’s unusual takes on love and affection.

Ghouls called up from the cellar are just the beginning of the events and complications that arise in “The Tehama” (December 1981), which moves outside Goster County and makes inventive use of Native American legends.  The Lovecraft references are more oblique in this tale than in “Feesters in the Lake,” but the themes are not.  Before the tale ends, the reader can not help but recall the warning, “Doe not call up Any that you can not put downe” in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and those horrors of which even the monsters are afraid in At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow out of Time.”  As with all of the themes he uses, Leman has developed these materials independently making them his own.

Although “Skirmish in Bastable Street” and “Unlawful Possession” each nod toward Sturkeyville, “The Pilgrimage of Clifford M.” published in May 1984 marks Leman’s first return to Goster County’s evocative back country in four years, and is as much a tour de force as any of the other tales set in that vicinity.  Ostensibly the revision and recasting of a technical paper, like the tales in Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly, this fine tale chronicles the life of one member of a species known to folklore as the vampire from its first documented sighting as “Ossie’s Monkey” in the 1880s, through fugitive appearance in books concerning feral children, to its emergence into adult human society. The tale seamlessly melds elements ranging from Edward Lucas White’s “Amina” to Donald A. Wollheim’s “Mimic,” and even the hideously immortal Struldbrugs who appear in Part Three of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Its alternation of the dry, pedantic, clinical tone of the investigator with the increasingly human tones of the creature he is studying is masterful and increasingly poignant.

“Instructions,” which appeared four months later in the same magazine, has no room for such considerations.  It is pure, merciless manipulation by an intelligence completely indifferent to anything besides its own goals. I think Clark Ashton Smith, author of “The Abominations of Yondo” and “The Maze of Maal Dweb,” would have approved of the tale’s amoral logic and the inventive malignity of its landscapes.  All texts subsequent to the first magazine appearance, including this one, restore the line with which the author originally intended the tale to end.

Leman again plays against the reader’s expectations in “Olida” (April 1987), set in a degenerate insulated community residing amid the decrepit remains of a village not far from the county seat in Sturkeyville. This is home to the titular hill-country femme fatale, descendant of the ancient and decaying Selkirk family, part Lavinia Whateley and part Asenath Waite, and connected mysteriously to the Very Great. The tale contains an amazing number of echoes from “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Thing on the Doorstep,” but Leman consistently reshapes them to his own ends with surprising results.

When “Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming” first appeared in Charles L. Grant’s anthology Shadows 10 (Doubleday, 1987), many expected to see a broadened interest in his work and a further outpouring of fiction, but this was not to be.  Leman had this and one more Lovecraftian tale in store for his readers before he abruptly gave up fiction. This tale has nothing to do with Lovecraft, being instead the story of a man haunted by love. In true Leman fashion, the very nature of the ghost grows from reassuring to terrifying, its calm, perfect beauty as horrible as the thing that comes after Katharine Ross at the climax of The Stepford Wives.

Whereas Steven Mariconda has referred to “The Dreams in the Witch House” as “Lovecraft’s Magnificent Failure,”(8) I have always found that tale both magnificent and terrifying. It is “The Thing on the Doorstep” that has continued to give me qualms over the years. Its cosmicism is consistently undercut by inadequacies in the protagonists and their characterization so fundamental that the domestic tragedy not only fails to seem inevitable, but also succeeds in largely vitiating the tale’s wider implications.   In one last visit to Goster County, Bob Leman’s final tale, “The Time of the Worm” (March 1988) negotiates similar terrain with bleakly brilliant results.  The range of influence in this tale of personality displacement is now wider and the extent of control even more extreme. More important is Leman’s keen display of the phenomenon’s human impact.  He replaces the self-pity that seems to be so much a part of Edward Pickman Derby’s response to his situation with terror, desperation and even self-sacrifice. Love, a major theme of Leman’s penultimate tale, and a disturbing subtext in “Unlawful Possession,” is also demonstrated here in both its natural and twisted forms. It counterpoints events with results that are simultaneously pathetic and utterly pitiless.

Fifteen tales may not seem large body of work for a man writing over a period of three decades, but the depth of each work makes up in quality what it may lack in quantity; hence this collection of marvellous tales, ridiculous only when Mr. Leman’s artistry will have it so. One can only regret that Mr. Leman felt he had “ ‘fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf’ ” and that “whatever creative spark I had for a while just went away” by the time this first attempt to collect his fiction was going to press.

Years ago, when I first asked Scream/Press and then Arkham House if they would consider a book of Mr. Leman’s tales, I could easily envision such a collection squeezed onto a shelf alongside such American masters of weird literature as Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, and Ray Bradbury.  More than a decade passed since those first attempts. The volume is no longer printed on Winnebago Eggshell and bound in Holliston Black Novelex as I had once imagined; nor does it bear the words Window & Other Apertures upon its spine in gold.  Thanks to Bob Leman, John Pelan and everyone at Midnight House, however, the book finally exists—even if its current rarity is unfortunate—and is every bit as well-made as that imaginary volume of long ago.  It has finally spilled over from our dreams and into your hands where it belongs. These tales have been part of my imagination since they first saw print—you have only to open the book for them to spill into your own.

Dowagiac, Michigan
October 2001, Revised January 2012

 


(1) From the text reprinted in Classics and Commercials (W. H. Allen, 1951), pp. 288-289.

(2) Classics and Commercials, p.  288.

(3) In a letter to the present writer, dated October 1, 2001.

(4) Unless stated otherwise, this and other quoted statements stem from telephone conversations between Bob Leman and myself held on September 25 and October 2, 2001.

(5) The Vinegar Worm, Volume II, No. 11, for FAPA 125, the journal’s penultimate issue.

(6) In the same letter, dated October 1, 2001.

(7) Since thirteen of Mr. Leman’s fifteen tales were first published in this magazine, all dates of publication refer to issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, unless stated otherwise.

(8) “Lovecraft’s Cosmic Imagery,” in David Schultz and S. T. Joshi (editors), An Epicure of the Terrible (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991), p. 192.

3 replies to “Weirdfictionreview.com’s 101 Weird Writers: #1–Bob Leman

  1. Pingback: SF Tidbits for 1/18/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog

  2. Great piece! I loved the Leman collection! What a truly underapreciated author. When is someone going to reprint “Feesters in the Lake” so that the whole world can discover Leman?

    [feesters haunt you]