101 Weird Writers #31 — Fritz Leiber

Grit and Social Dynamics in "Smoke Ghost"

This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.

FLeiberFritz Leiber (1910– 1992) was an influential, award-winning American writer of fantasy, horror and science fiction. H. P. Lovecraft, Robert Graves, and Carl Jung all helped inspire his fiction. Although perhaps best-known for the swords-and-sorcery Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series, Leiber also wrote several sui generis macabre novels and stories. Our Lady of Darkness (1977) is among the best-known of his horror novels and, like much of his later fiction, includes autobiography by way of his real-life struggles with depression and alcoholism. Along with such novels, stories like ‘The Girl with the Hungry Eyes’ (1949) and the classic reprinted in The Weird, ‘Smoke Ghost’ (1941), made Leiber a key forerunner of the urban weird of writers like Ramsey Campbell. In this latest installment of 101 Weird Writers, returning contributor Elwin Cotman pays tribute to Leiber and “Smoke Ghost,” documenting the strange, haunting power of both.

– Adam Mills, editor of 101 Weird Writers


One evening toward winter he noticed what seemed to be a shapeless black sack lying on the third roof from the tracks. He did not think about it. It merely registered as an addition to the well-known scene and his memory stored away the impression for further reference. Next evening, however, he decided he had been mistaken in one detail. The object was a roof nearer than he had thought. Its colour and texture, and the grimy stains around it, suggested that it was filled with coal dust, which was hardly reasonable.

Grit has a kind of currency. There is grit as in sediment, and there is grit as an admirable character trait. Then there is grit as authenticity, an important motif to contemporary genre writing. Grit symbolizes all that is realistic: the kernels of cynicism, frustration, and nihilism that show the reader, “See? This is more than just monsters and ghosts! There’s reality here!” Over the years, there has been a move to “dirty up” fantasy and science fiction from their pastoral and epic origins. Lauding genre stories as “gritty” has become a well-worn marketing tool.

Fritz Leiber, most famous as the creator of the Lankhmar stories, was one of the first horror writers to move the genre from its 19th century Gothic trappings to noir elements. Many of his short stories focus on the urban, and engage with the city in all its seediness, filth, and exploitation. Issues like alcoholism, poverty, and racism are dealt with matter-of-factly. While his stories are “gritty” in content, grit/sediment/dirt as physical substances repeatedly come into play. Take, for instance, this section from his story “Gonna Roll the Bones”:

Above the ovens was the wall-set mantelpiece … set with all sorts of ancestral curios, but many of them that weren’t stone or glass or china had been so dried and darkened by decades of heat that they looked like nothing but shrunken human heads and black golf balls.

Dirt is used to indicate decay, a perfect ambience for the wife-beating gambling addict who serves as the story’s protagonist. In Leiber’s work, darkening indicates corruption, disease of the soul. This theme of infestation is central to “Smoke Ghost.”

First published in the October 1941 issue of Unknown Worlds, “Smoke Ghost” is the story of Catesby Wran’s obsessive need to avoid being “darkened” by the world around him. Over the course of the story, the neurotic urbanite sees the ghost described in the opening passage, and feels it is pursuing him, all leading to a rooftop confrontation with the dirty creature. Wran describes the ghost as having: “A smoky composite face with the hungry anxiety of the unemployed, the neurotic restlessness of the person without purpose, the jerky tension of the high-pressure metropolitan worker, the uneasy resentment of the striker, the callous opportunism of the scab …” It is the city he fears, with its restless human energy. However, in this opening scene, he is trying to rationalize the boogeyman in order to ease his fears. Wran is the quintessential man of reason, eager to describe his visions as “hallucination,” “that damned mental abnormality.”

Leiber’s most evocative language pertains to the city: “A dingy, melancholy little world of tar paper, tarred gravel, and smoky brick. Rusty tin chimneys with odd conical hats suggested abandoned listening posts … He always saw [the ghost] around dusk, either in the normal smoky half-light … covered by ghostly windblown white sheets of rain-splash, or patched with blackish snow …” The city is the all-encompassing universe of this story, and it is a dirty place. A world of railroads, mills, and, most of all, pollution that dirties everything.  The sky is gray and only gray. This world births the smoke ghost, symbolizing for Wran “the frustrated, frightened century in which he lived, the jangled century of hate and heavy industry and Fascist wars.” For a ghost, it is an atypically physical thing, leaving proof of its presence wherever it goes. It is entirely natural to the city; Wran at first mistakes it for a piece of litter. From another perspective, it evokes a homeless person sleeping on a rooftop.  As a supernatural being, it recalls the paramentals born of “city-stuff” in Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, who take their power from blight itself. Wran can only safely experience the city from skyscrapers and the elevated train, needing these constructs to shield him from the “hate and heavy industry.” He fears the city and the times he lives in. Hatred is spreading over the world like a cloud of soot (the story was published only two months before Pearl Harbor).  Wran, and Leiber himself, are trying to make sense of man’s place in this world, and do so through superstition.

Lieber is significant in being one of the first writers to envision a cosmology based around cities. He would explore the theme more thoroughly in Our Lady of Darkness, in which the occult science of megapolisomancy gains power from the energy of San Francisco. The crafting of urban mythology would go on to become a genre staple, and today’s city-dwelling supernaturals owe a debt to Leiber’s soiled ghost. The weird aspect of this monster is that, as the story progresses, its true nature becomes more abstract. At first passive, it turns active, and the final confrontation blurs power dynamics, fantasy and reality, gender and race, while avoiding the definitive answer that both Wran and the audience seek. The smoke ghost exists beyond what Poul Anderson described as “a phantom that is and of the corrupted air pervading a modern industrial city.” Its possible interpretations speak to the ever-evolving dynamics of the modern world of which Catesby Wran, a white male, finds himself incapable of navigating.

Grit as Feminine Power

I know you’ll think I’m being romantic and trite, but I’ve always felt that women were more primitive than men, closer to ancient feelings.” So says Tansy Saylor, the titular character in Leiber’s 1943 classic Conjure Wife. Her interest in the supernatural, undertaken in order to aid her husband’s career, is met with naked condescension by the intellectual Norman Saylor. He forces her to give up her conjurings, taking the wards off their family, leading to the calamities that occur later in the novel. His tip-off that his wife has embraced superstition? Finding jars of dirt in her drawer, “like a geologist’s soil specimen.”

Dirt becomes indicative of feminine agency, a soiling of the patriarchal world. This is as true in “Smoke Ghost” as it is in Conjure Wife. The story opens with misogyny. In a scene that could have come straight from the TV series Mad Men, Wran is in his office, describing the ghost in order to scare his stenographer, Miss Millick. As he is constantly self-analyzing, he is also aware of his motivations, seeking “to relieve his nerves by making jokingly serious remarks about the supernatural to Miss Millick, who seemed properly mystified.” His behavior does scare her, the reader learns, because the story opens from her perspective. The reader also learns that she is an everywoman, more focused on doing her job than these concepts. During the exchange, Wran fails to realize two things: first, when he questions whether she has ever seen a ghost, she automatically answers yes. Wran doesn’t even note that she has agreed with him, and maybe even shares his experience with the supernatural; she is there as a sounding board for his self-therapy. Second, Miss Millick is not scared of soot. Seeing some on the desk, she perfunctorily wipes it off and remarks on it to her boss. Wran, on the other hand, is incapacitated to the point of being feminized. “Everything he touched seemed gritty, and he found himself mopping and wiping at his desk like an old lady with a morbid fear of germs.” It is telling that behaving like a stereotypical woman feeds into his phobia.

The growth of cities in the early 20th century offered new opportunities for women, particularly single women. It is not surprising that the women’s liberation movement found its hotbed in urban areas. That Miss Millick becomes the vessel for the ghost, avatar of the urban, speaks to Leiber’s recurring exploration of patriarchy, and the double-edged quality of the male gaze. In his stories and novels, women are often forced to represent male fantasies. They are hated and brutalized for their femininity. A prime example is the story “Coming Attraction,” in which future-America sexualizes women’s faces to the point they are forced to wear masks, this Taliban-like repression mirrored inversely by cults that worship the female. Leiber views lust as the cause for much of this love/hate.

His work is overt about sexuality as a cultural force. Starlets, streetwalkers, burlesque girls, call girls, and cigarette girls feature prominently, catering to male lust. This is not so much for titillation as to explore the complications that patriarchy creates between men and women. Another story is “A Deskful of Girls,” which I would posit is creepier than “Smoke Ghost” through the virulent misogyny of its characters. The narrator of theorizes, “Sex opens up the unconscious mind, which isn’t exactly a picnic area. Sex is a force and rite that is basic, primal; and the caveman or cavewoman in each of us is a truth bigger than the jokes and cartoons about it.” The fetishization of women is dangerous for men in that it leads them further from the rational, modern world, into the primal one.

In “A Deskful of Girls,” misogyny is represented by Dr. Slyker, a corrupt and insane psychiatrist. He steals the ectoplasmic essence from women, creating “ghosts” of them that he literally hoards in his desk. The image of the mask comes to symbolize the identities women adopt in order to please the male gaze. In reference to the objectification of Hollywood actresses, Slyker says, “In the Twenties it was … Garbo the Free Soul — that’s my name for the symbol she became; her romantic mask heralded the Great Depression. In the late Thirties and early Forties it was Bergman the Brave liberal; her dewiness … helped us accept World War II.” Note that the women have no control over the masks they put on. (Leiber himself was in the Garbo film Camille, perhaps admitting feelings of complicity in these deceptions.) When the actress Evelyn Cordew comes into the story, she mourns having to adopt “ever-changing faces that were gossamer masks of madness, drunkenness, desire and hate.” Conforming to the male gaze robs her of self. This is upended in “Smoke Ghost,” in which Miss Millick terrorizes Wran while literally masked in the grit of the city.

He witnesses her transformation: “the flesh of her face was beginning to change color; blackening until the powder on it was a sickly white dust, rouge a hideous pinkish one, lipstick a translucent red film.” When the smoke ghost cannot follow Wran into his skyscraper sanctuary, it possesses Millick instead. She dirties the sanctuary, “her high-heeled shoes le[aving] neat black prints.” Millick literally becomes one with grit, and in doing so makes a claim of authority. Wran’s reaction is one of fear and abjection.

Being female, she is locked out from the world of the rational due to her “vacuous mind,” as Wran puts it. The lust ascribed to her by the male gaze pushes her into the realm of the primal. Thus, it makes sense that Millick is open to the supernatural effects of the ghost. As in Conjure Wife, the feminine is the space where the rational is rejected precisely because man has reserved that space for himself. This upending of the power dynamic is also shown in “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes,” in which men become so enamored by the image of an advertising model that she, in turn, gains vampiric power over them. In “Smoke Ghost,” the mask of grit grants power in the urban environment, the brave new world in which social barriers are eroding. In this world, there are two types of people: those who embrace the inevitable soiling, and those who cower from it.

White Man in the City

There is a racial component to the themes of blackening, marring, ruining. During the Northern Migration of the late 19th and early 20th century, American cities were infused with many blacks from the Southern U.S. and Caribbean. This upheaved the social structure of cities. Leiber’s work deals frankly with racism, and in “Smoke Ghost” it is the white urbanite’s fear of dark faces. In addition to being litter, the ghost is characterized as a Negro:

Then he saw that the doctor was not looking at him, but over his shoulder. Color was draining out of the doctor’s face and his eyes did not seem so small. Then the doctor sprang to his feet, walked past Catesby, threw open the window and peered into the darkness.

As Catesby rose, the doctor slammed down the window and said in a voice whose smoothness was marred by a slight, persistent gasping, “I hope I haven’t alarmed you. I saw the face of … er  … a Negro prowler in the fire escape …”

There is comedy to how the possibly supernatural force is automatically assumed to be a black man. This speaks to white racial fears; the growing black population is “the unmentionable face pressed close against the window, smearing it with wet coal dust.” The second time blacks are mentioned, they are a child’s fear, related by Wran’s wife regarding his son:  “Ronny just had a scare. It woke him up. He was pointing to the window saying, ‘Black man, black man …’” There are, in fact, no black characters in the story. It takes place entirely in controlled environments made for middle- to upper-class whites. The inherent soiling is that of other races in their sanitized world, and this fear is passed through generations.

The dread of miscegenation echoes Conjure Wife, in which Norman Saylor is disgusted to find his wife employing powders, “the sort that Negro conjure doctors used.” In his viewpoint, black religion is automatically mere superstition. The greater fear is that blackness has found its way into his house via his wife, a race-mixing that is anathema to him. The black face on the other side of the window is the face of danger.

In “Smoke Ghost,” race-mixing comes to a head on the rooftop. Standing at the precipice, Wran cowers from his stenographer. “The black, coarse-grained face came nearer, a focus for the worst in the world, a gathering point for poisons everywhere.” The sexual implications of a white woman being “soiled” by blackness are clear. Millick’s darkened face also calls to mind the burnt cork used for minstrel shows. While minstrel shows are associated with virulent racism, they were also a means in which black culture was made known to white culture. The popularity of black theater with white audiences paved the way for integration. On the roof, two groups who have been othered — the black man and white woman — become a composite enemy to the white man’s authority.

These dynamics are not the only ones represented by the ghost. Over the course of the story, Leiber tackles intellectualism versus superstition, 19th century spiritualism versus 20th century psychoanalysis, the desire for normalcy, and pacifism versus war. After all, one has to wonder why Wran is so obsessed with the war — perhaps Leiber is dealing with his own pacifism, the smoke ghost of global war that would ultimately convince him to help fight fascism. The nature of the ghost becomes more abstract paragraph by paragraph. Is it real? Hallucination? A prank played by the vengeful Miss Millick? Either way, it represents everything Wran wishes to hide from, and all he can do is surrender. To the spirit of the 20th century he says, “I will obey you. You are my god … You have supreme power over man and his animals and his machines. You rule this city and all others.” This seems to quell the beast, and the darkness leaves Miss Millick. The social order is restored, but Wran’s worldview is shattered. The question comes: how can he escape the smoke ghost if it is all around him. And in the 20th century city, where blacks and women have found ways of ascendance, who is now the outsider?

Leiber is rooted not only in the urban, but the contemporary. His works are cultural products with timely references. Author and characters are facing the second total war in twenty years; it had to feel like a time of apocalypse. The nerve gas of World War I had to be in the author’s mind when developing his poison motif. If anything, the mid-century anxiety of “Smoke Ghost” would prove prophetic in the cancers caused by pollution and the leukemia-suffering survivors of Hiroshima. In such a world, change gets below the skin. After his experience, Catesby Wran is still philosophizing, rationalizing: “[He] knew that mankind had once again spawned a ghost world, and that superstition ruled once more.” It seems that the true reaction to the desolate rooftops, silent commuters, and fire-spewing mills, is the same answer that came to Norman Saylor at the end of Conjure Wife.

I don’t know. I don’t really know.”


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