Editor Benjamin Szumskyj has, in Strange Wonders, assembled a group of Fritz Leiber’s unpublished writings — sketches, chapters, fragments — as well as his poetry and some very early published works somewhat outside what we consider the canon of Leiber’s fiction.
As might be expected, for many of these selections, there is good reason they were never published: mostly they are exercises, of uneven quality, and few of them can be considered complete works. The book starts off strong, with a brilliant little chapter titled “The Tale of the Grain Ships,” featuring none other than the Grey Mouser, transported to the Roman Empire under Claudius — or perhaps that’s where he started out, before there was such a place as Lankhmar. Few of these selection are up to that level, however; for the most part, they are workmanlike, but not special. Very seldom is that Leiber wit, that playfulness evident, although “The Adventurer” displays some of the childhood feel.
That essential Leiber-ness does show up in the selection of stories the author wrote about 1934 for a church periodical called, aptly enough, The Churchman — two tales that Leiber calls, in his introduction, “science instructive,” and four moral tales for children. They are, let it be said, delightful, although I have to confess I wonder how some of today’s “morally correct” would react to them.
Szyumskyj has also included Leiber’s poetry — or all of it that anyone knows about. Strangely enough, the poetry lacks the resonance of Leiber’s fiction — there’s not the sureness, the inevitability, the sense of something standing behind the words that so often we find in his prose. The diction sometimes jars — one thought that struck me over and over again as I was reading these poems is that this was a science-fiction writer writing poetry, not a fantasist. They are pragmatic works that never quite break free of the everyday.
The volume concludes with “The Mystery of the Japanese Clock” and “Quicks Around the Zodiac — A Farce,” which reveal two very different sides of Fritz Leiber. The first shows us the meticulous, matter-of-fact realist with unquenchable curiosity; the second, the madcap with a highly developed sense of the bizarre and ridiculous, along with a totally outrageous sense of humor (it is, indeed, very funny). Sadly, both wind up being too much of a good thing.
This is a volume, I think, for the scholar, the fan, the Leiber completist. It’s gives us valuable insights into the growth of one who was not only a major voice himself, but influenced a generation that came after — or perhaps more than one. But for that semi-mythical creature known as “the casual reader,” it might prove a mixed bag.
(Subterranean Press, 2010)