From Lankhmar to the Tenderloin

FROM LANKHMAR TO THE TENDERLOIN

Two Early Pilgrimages to Fritz Leiber

by Marc Laidlaw

What author setting out on his career can resist a literary pilgrimage? There is something irresistible about encountering the flesh behind the words we most admire. And something dangerous as well. In Geneva, Shelley threw himself on Byron’s hospitality. In upstate New York, Fredrick Exley cruised past Edmund Wilson’s home and gained psychic sustenance from the proximity of his idol. For myself, a teenager in Southern California, the object of worship was Fritz Leiber, a figure whose work has passed essentially untarnished through several revolutions in the style and substance of sf, all of which have lifted him ever higher in the respect of his readers and, especially, other writers. In the days of the pulps, when workmanlike prose was sufficient to convey slapdash tales of superscience, and the whole range of human character had been reduced to a few simple outlines like silhouettes in an entomologist’s field guide, Leiber’s stories stood out for their subtlety and sophistication, for their wry humor, ambiguous motives, and dark eroticism.

At fifteen years of age, bored with Tolkein’s chivalrous elves and sexless hobbits, it seemed to me that Leiber’s was the only example worth following. I emulated, parodied, and finally wrote unauthorized adventures for his two greatest creations, the Northern barbarian Fafhrd and his sly companion, the Grey Mouser. Leiber’s duo dwelt in an exotic world of continual menace and surprise; they were as lively and involving as his sinuous, magical sentences–untamed creatures framed in polished prose. My own pastiches were clumsy cardboard things, but I never doubted for a moment that I was a worthy successor to Leiber’s pen. I sent my versions of Fafhrd and the Mouser to Leiber’s San Francisco address, asking if I might have permission to carry on the saga after his demise. Politely, he declined. Unchastened, I fired further letters after the first, receiving one reply on the back of a rather racy postcard which, tipped one way then the other, showed a buxom cartoon woman alternately clothed and nude. I was impressed by the droll, casual humor with which Leiber conducted his affairs, descending from the position of eminence┬áthat I imagined he must occupy as grandmaster of all living science fiction writers.

This was in 1976, the year I gained a driver’s license. In honor of the occasion, my mother suggested a drive north along the coast from our home south of Los Angeles. San Francisco was our goal, but my true destination was the home of Fritz Leiber. I could picture it clearly as we set out: a penthouse apartment of spacious rooms with unblemished white walls, thick cream carpeting, plush sofas, and wide picture windows overlooking a glamorous vista of towers swirled in grey fog. My host would be the dark-haired man with intense eyes and domed brow that all his pictures showed; aloof yet personable, surrounded by an opal light–his mantle of greatness made manifest. These were things I imagined for myself one day–sumptuous furnishings, penthouse suite, a tangible aura of creative fulfillment–when I had in my turn become the greatest living science fiction writer. True, despite my hopes, I had not won the Hugo Award by age twelve, but then success and recognition had not come early to Fritz Leiber either. I was prepared to wait for my fame, at least until age nineteen–or until I had published my first story. I knew that my contact with Leiber would hasten the inevitable, would set me on the path to my fortune.

Upon arriving at The Manx Hotel, I found a phonebook and looked somewhat hopelessly for Leiber’s number. I was amazed to find him listed. How could he ever accomplish anything with admirers like myself calling him day and night to tell him how much they loved his stories, to praise the fertility of his imagination, the resonance of his voice–whether he was describing a crawl through the secret rat passages beneath the fetid streets of Lankhmar, or witnessing the violent pastimes of a jaded, radioactive New York City through the eyes of a lonely British expatriate. With trembling fingers I dialed the number, heard the curiously hollow ringing, watched the wind whip a froth of fog across the rooftops below us, and then he answered.

Fritz Leiber the author, our Fritz, is more properly Fritz Leiber, Jr. Fritz Leiber, Sr. was a Shakespearian actor of some note, who brought up his son on the stage and had him mouthing Shakespeare at an early age. The voice I heard was gentle and somewhat guarded, but there were depths of power and projection in it that plainly he had little cause to call upon, the full effect of which I would never appreciate until some years later, when I heard him read one of his weird stories to a Halloween audience in a darkened auditorium where we all sat chilled, held by that voice. But today it sounded much like any other voice, and I made my request, hardly believing that it was to Fritz Leiber himself that I spoke, wondering aloud if I might come by the next morning with a stack of books for him to autograph. Why don’t you come at ten o’clock? he said, and when I set down the phone I could hardly stop shaking. Was he there? my mother asked.

Geary Street, the next morning, was cold and empty except for hurrying old men wrapped in coats the color of the drab buildings. Nowhere did I see the lavish apartment tower I had imagined. I gazed up at peeling walls, crumbling plaster coats-of-arms, and finally found a dim, glass-fronted lobby with the name “Leiber” merely one among dozens alongside a row of buzzers. I pressed it and waited, while the pictures in my head began to change in accord with reality. I didn’t want this process to go on, but there seemed to be no way of stopping it.

Then someone came out of the shadows at the back of the lobby, a stooped man, an old man, very thin and extremely tall; his living features forever blotted out the dated images I had retained from old book jackets. I’m sure that if Fritz Leiber were to somehow slip backward in time, his hair growing thick and dark again until he exactly resembled the young man of those early photographs, I would have no way to recognize him. Despite my awe of this magnificent apparition drifting toward me through the lobby, my heart went out to him. I no longer felt a merely intellectual admiration, no matter how fevered: this was a love like that for a grandparent, love for a man who had in some very real sense created me through his writing, for his fictions had taught me how worthwhile it is to dream.

He opened the door to me, guided me in, fought with a heavy iron grate that guarded the elevator. I felt as if I were a participant in a ritual, hushed and watchful but no longer afraid. The dark little compartment groaned as it carried us, and then it stopped and Fritz opened the door into a narrow hall darker than the elevator or the lobby had been. Down this we went to a door, and through the door into—

No penthouse suite, no white walls or expansive views.

One room. Smaller than my bedroom. Books crowded to the ceiling; books covering a single bed that also served as a couch. A coffee table with a typewriter on it had been pulled close to the bed so that one could sit there to write. There was nowhere else to sit, nowhere else to put a typewriter. A tiny refrigerator, a hot plate, two doors that I presumed were a closet and a bathroom. A telescope stood at the single window, but a glance outside showed me only an airshaft, with a distant view of hills above the crowded buildings. This claustrophobic view figured prominently in the occult novel Leiber was writing at that time (Our Lady of Darkness, or as it was called then, The Pale Brown Thing)–as did the pile of books on the bed (his “scholar’s mistress”), the telescope, and the building itself, amid the grime and steep streets of its Tenderloin locale. All these things I observed for the first time, with feelings something like shock and betrayal; but Leiber himself had lived with them for years, had drawn them into himself and spun them into the fabric of his fictions. I felt dislocated from my dreams. I was still looking for the penthouse suite and feeling cheated…because really, it was my own future I had been wishfully imagining, not Fritz Leiber’s present; I had taken for granted that my success would follow from his. I had believed that the writer I most admired–the man who, of the many gifted authors of fantastic fiction, had done the finest work for the longest time–must surely have been admired by all readers as much as myself and showered with riches in exchange for the pleasures, the poetry, the strange insights he had given the world. And since these were also my goals, I had known that inevitably, in time, the same rewards would come to me.

But opening that door, entering that little room, I saw my future change. I saw my dreams give way to reality. And I felt the first stirrings of what I can only call artistic courage in myself. These emotions were mingled with the tenderness I felt for Leiber, though we had still spoken hardly a sentence to each other. Once my confusion passed, I simply felt grateful that he had allowed me to see him as he was, and not as I had wished him. That was the first time I was able to ask myself a basic question: am I willing to do without the trappings of luxury, can I surrender all my juvenile notions of success and still succeed at what really matters? Because even in these surroundings, with all my fancies rendered irrelevant, I never doubted for a moment that Leiber had succeeded. The proof of that lay in his accomplishments, and not in the way life had treated him.

I stayed with him for almost an hour, though almost nothing of our conversation remains in my memory. I remember instead an almost wordless communion. Looking at scraps of a story or letter caught in his typewriter. Paging through a heavily annotated copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider–a volume I had never dreamed of touching, let alone of seeing full of Leiber’s notes and comments on the text. I brought out my volumes of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, the Swords series, and Leiber gave me a copy of You’re All Alone. I was still focused on images of fantasy, that penthouse suite; meanwhile, he was gently prodding me in the direction of the world, pointing the telescope out the window–at the stars, yes, but also at the buildings that hemmed us in, the bare streets and impoverished strangers who wandered there, engulfed in guilt and shame. I was not yet ready to see these things. Another year had to pass before I began to understand that fantasies must sometimes, much to our advantage, be left behind.

In that ensuing year, I thought often of the small apartment on Geary street. Part of me remained there, with its solitary inhabitant. But I did not write to Leiber much after that. Despite my dose of reality, I was still much in the grip of fantasy. Nor was I alone in my illusions. My best friend, Robert S. Gillespie, was a tall, muscular barbarian with the linguistic gifts of a Cyrano. His passion for Fafhrd and the Mouser surpassed my own; in fact it was he who had introduced me to Leiber. Years before, he had spent several days sorting through his collection of a thousand dog-eared science fiction paperbacks (whereas I turned the pages of a book by breathing on the pages, scarcely daring to open them for fear of creasing the spine, Gillespie curled covers back on themselves, cracked spines with gusto, and marked his place by folding corners) and organized them according to his standards of literary quality. Fritz Leiber had ended up on top of the stack. It had always seemed somehow unfair to me that after being introduced to Leiber by Gillespie, I should have been the one to meet him first. I resolved to bring my friend to our idol’s apartment at the first opportunity.

In those days, we styled ourselves as Laguna Beach versions of Leiber’s swashbuckling pair. Gillespie’s vocabulary was certainly up to the task. He could fell a rampaging quarterback with a choice ten-syllable word, though his fencing skills were also superior. Given his size and penchant for duels, he was well-suited to play Fafhrd; I, being slighter and more evasive, naturally thought of myself as the Mouser. Our exploits sent us scaling buildings in the middle of the night, roaming for lost treasure in the sagebrush hills, and exploring ruins around the nude beach. Once, frightened from a park by a few skateboard punks who had lobbed gravel at us, we returned to Gillespie’s house for his broadsword and Viking helmet, then cruised through the dark streets with the headlights of my Volkswagen beetle doused; finding the youths astride their boards in the middle of a lane, Gillespie donned battle gear and strode toward them through the mist, letting out a blood-curdling cry and slicing the air with his blade as I switched on the headlamps to light him melodramatically from behind. The punks screamed as if Hell had opened its gates, and rolled away downhill on their butts, too startled to regain their feet.

A year after my first meeting with Fritz Leiber, Gillespie and I had a chance to spend a night in San Francisco. We were traveling with his mother this time, on our way home from Oregon. Once again I found myself thumbing through phonebooks, now in the El Cortez hotel, dialing Leiber’s number, wondering if he would remember me. He did, but unfortunately he was leaving town and had no more than a few minutes to spare for the signing of Gillespie’s stack of books.

This second meeting was as insignificant as the first had been portentous. We met the man, autographs were given, Leiber brought out his copy of The Outsider at my request, and then our audience ended. Feeling somewhat deflated afterward, we roamed the streets of the Tenderloin until well past dark, and continued to wander until the foot traffic fell off and the cars thinned out and the two of us seemed to be alone in the windy grey city. We were Fafhrd and the Mouser still, but somehow our god, our creator, had cast us away–out of Nehwon, the realm of heroic adventure, and into the streets of a cold foreign city. It seemed appropriate. Fafhrd and the Mouser were always battling with their gods, alternately spurned and seduced by fate, but we had never appreciated the depressing fact of this cosmic rejection until now.

But we were not exactly alone. As we headed back toward our hotel, a man darted out of a shadowy doorway and asked us to come in for a look at some women. We laughed like sailors, looking up at the lit marquee above the door, which identified the place as “The Palace of Joy.” Modestly, we told him that we were too young for such an establishment–being only seventeen or so. He shrugged, looking around to see that the street was otherwise empty, and waved us in anyway. Gillespie and I looked at each other with the mutual understanding that the gods had snatched us back to Leiber’s Lankhmar, where anything might happen.

Entering a dark parlor hung with thick curtains of burgundy velvet, we took seats on a padded bench along one wall. The only light came from a heavy brass standing-lamp with a parchment shade. After a moment, a wispy shadow of a woman entered and seated herself on a wire-legged stool; she was sheathed in black, reminding me of the Addams Family’s Morticia. White skin, dark red lips, strikingly beautiful; she began to ask us about ourselves, ascertained that we were tourists, and eventually wondered if we might like the company of several women, either here in the Palace of Joy or back at our hotel. Thinking of Gillespie’s mother, also back at the El Cortez, we admitted that this place would be better. Unfortunately, we had limited cash. The Palace accepted credit cards, she assured us, and travellers’ checks, of which I had a few. Do you want to? Yes. No. Yes. Gillespie would require a loan. I noticed his hand clenching, bunching up on his knee, but he sat perfectly straight, whitefaced, sweating. We gave Morticia our assent, and the girls came in.

Four of them, specters, phantoms from Nehwon. (“Ghost girls, I said. Sexy ones.”) In the dim light I could hardly see their faces; a Spanish girl shimmied to the almost inaudible beat of a distant radio. One looked as old as our mothers. Another had the hair of a rock star, thick curls streaked with blonde, and she hung back where I couldn’t see her face, and so was free to impose whatever features I wished on the veiled dark. Morticia asked us to choose, and I was ready, helpless to resist, but then I noticed Gillespie’s hand clenching and unclenching not on his knee, but in the air near the heavy brass lamp. The light shook. I realized that he was about to seize the pole and brandish it like a weapon, to scatter these illusions, these vampire women who had been sent to snare us by laughing wizards. And even as one woman reached out to take my hand, I drew back and pleaded that I really wasn’t sure about this; Gillespie’s hand relaxed. We had girlfriends at home, I lied, who really loved us. Yeah, yeah, that’s right, said Gillespie, gasping for air. They love us and we love them and we want to be faithful.

The girls thought this sweet, though Morticia could not hide her disappointment. “I had a boyfriend like that once,” said the Spanish girl. And once we had made our decision, once we had chickened out, nothing could hold us there. We swept through the plush curtains, rushed out past the houseboy and onto the street–laughing and giddy, shaking with terror. We passed another house of pleasure where girls waited silhouetted in the windows, but we sauntered past and waved like regular customers. By the time we reached the hotel, I was overcome by regret. I could hardly face Gillespie’s mother. We climbed to the roof above the snapping electric buzz of the hotel sign, and talked about what had happened, joked longingly about going back there again. But nothing came of it. Looking down on the city through the cold fog, I had a feeling we wouldn’t be playing Fafhrd and Grey Mouser again.

We weren’t in Lankhmar anymore, but San Francisco was Leiber’s city as well. One lived in him, and he in the other. In fact, Leiber’s stories of Fafhrd and the Mouser had begun to appear less frequently, though when they appeared they were wrapped in ever denser webs of fierce, frequently erotic poetry and invention. Leiber had resumed writing stories of urban horror, a form he had, if not completely invented, at least set on its way with a few of its finest examples in his early career.

With advancing age, many writers return to their early themes, unfortunately often blunting the sharpness and clouding the insights of their original images, as if time and practice had paradoxically rendered them clumsier at their craft. With Leiber, the opposite happened. His stories became more harrowing, more honest than ever, and at the same time more tender and dreamy. The streets of the Tenderloin, closely observed, disgorged horrors more unnerving than any monster that ever shambled through Lankhmar.

In his finest story of those years, an obscure novella entitled “Horrible Imaginings” (from Macbeth: “Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.”), Leiber carried his elderly protagonist through some of the establishments that Gillespie and I avoided on that cold night when we were looking for Lankhmar and lost it completely. Ramsey Ryker, haunted by dreams of being molested in total darkness by a hundred tiny phalluses shoving at his ears and eyes and mouth, observed and laughed at, masturbated on, choking on cigar smoke and overhearing the crude talk of unseen men, wakes and visits a Tenderloin “Ultrabooth,” where he sits in the dark behind a two-way glass and is treated to a banal display of a young woman’s genitals. This gruesome scene, which serves to exorcise Ryker’s nightmares, opens into one of the strangest, saddest fantasies ever written, a tale which explores modern sexuality, the consequences of sexual brutality, and the mystery of why 13th floors are often missing from old buildings. Narrated partially through the fragmented consciousness of a ghost, a woman who appears and vanishes and thinks herself mad, it casts its sharpest light on Ramsey–on Leiber himself– “immured,” in the words of the story, in the marvellous ugliness, the brutal beauty of urban life. The story, set entirely in the hollow superstructure of hallways and elevator shafts of Leiber’s building (except for fragments of memory which carry the characters past the walls), contains scenes as evocative and perilous as anything found in Leiber’s Nehwon, and ultimately it is this versatility, this ability to perceive and explicate the dark erotic magic of nature (especially human nature) at work in any situation or locale, that elevates Leiber’s oeuvre above the work of most writers who spend their lives spinning tales of fantasy. He has followed a few streams of invention faithfully over the years, but unlike too many authors, has never restricted himself to one mode, one setting, one trope or troupe of characters. Nimble at parody as well as poetry, dreaming scenes of beauty both lurid and subdued, writing with the wild inventive agility of a young man and the trained, scrupulous eye of an elder, Fritz Leiber has given completely of himself, letting the light of his imagination scatter from so many inner facets that at times it would be difficult to believe they are all the same man–were it not for the continual reassurance of that deep, trained Shakespearean voice, lending its power and authority to so many roles.

In an age of corporate book-packaging that seems bound–by accident or design–to stamp out all individuality, to make one writer sound exactly the same from book to book (for genre writers today are pressured to write always of the same subjects and, even worse, always in the same tone of voice), Leiber is an example of what the fiction artist can be–should be.

If success means living in a single room, hunched over a coffee table to type, then (Fritz seems to say) go and find the stories in that room, in the dim halls beyond it, even in the elevator shaft. Extract the ghosts from the patterned walls and turn them out into the world. Readers, admirers, will follow–and a walk through those chilly streets will do them good.

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“From Lankhmar to the Tenderloin,” copyright 1991 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Science Fiction Eye #8 (Winter 1991), edited by Stephen P. Brown.