Times Obituary

Although often referred to as a science fiction author, Fritz Leiber lived in a world far more complex than that. He was the first to use the term ‘Swords and Sorcery’ to describe this particular SF sub-genre, and wrote of dark horrors of the commonplace: scratch the surface of urban life and there is something deeply sinister beneath. In this he could be compared to the director David Lynch

amsey Campbell. the highly regarded British horror author (whose own work touches Leiber territory) called him, “the greatest living writer of supernatural horror fiction”. He certainly exerted an definitive influence on American fantastic fiction, drawing many of his own themes from Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P Lovecraft and the master of the English ghost story, M.R. James

Fritz Reuter Leiber Jnr was the son of a notable Shakespearean actor. Leiber Snr had his own touring company and had starred in several silent films. Encouraged to join his father’s company, Fritz Leiber toured with him in 1934, but left two years later when he married Jonquil Stephens. He decided to settle for a career as a writer, but during a brief spell as an actor he did manage to play a small part in Camille. Leiber was a graduate of the University of Chicago where he had majored in psychology and physiology, a grounding that helped the sub-structure of many of his stories

His interest in writing came from a long correspondence with a a close college friend, Harry Fischer. Together they developed alter ego characters: Nordic Fafhrd a tall gangly limbed individual from ‘the North’ – based on Leiber, and the effervescent Grey Mouser – based on Fischer. Leiber first featured the characters in a story, “Adepts Gambit”, which featured a cast of creations in a world of mystic magic. The story was rejected, but the two character reappeared in his first published story “Two Sought Adventure”, which was published in Unknown magazine

In these early days he was edited by John W Campbell, of Astounding Science Fiction (and author of The Thing From Another World). Although Leiber experimented with a variety of forms and sub-genres, the Fafhrd/Gray Mouser partnership was a series to which he remained faithful throughout his life. Many collections followed and one anthology, Ill Met in Lankhmar (1970), received the Hugo science fiction award.

ritz Leiber’s many awards included a Life Award for his contribution to his field, presented at the Second World Fantasy Convention. His writing career, though, underwent a roller-coaster progression, due mainly to chronic alcoholism, a condition about which he openly spoke and wrote. There were occasions when he appeared almost completely to disappear from public view, although he produced over 40 books.Leiber’s first major work as an SF author came with his novel Gather, Darkness! (1943), concerning the overthrow of a religious dictatorship.

The most interesting side of Leiber’s fiction is his pre-occupation with the threat of modern urban horror, city life and its web of terrors gradually corrupting the psyche: The Automatic Pistol (1940) featured a gun with a life of its own, and Smoke Ghost (1941) presented the tensions of a pressured metropolitan worker. For many followers of fantastic fiction the novels were a turning point in the field. In The Black Gondolier (1964), a darkly portrayed Death-figure becomes the emissary of oil, a metaphor for the pollution of the environment.

Leiber was also fascinated with the idea of the femme fatale. He used witchcraft as a metaphor for feminine cunning and realised this in one of his most famous novels, Conjure Wife (1953). The novel was filmed as Night of the Eagle in 1962, featuring Peter Wyngarde as a college professor. It was not much regarded at the time but has since become a cult movie.Leiber often referred to Shakespeare’s dark lady but his pre-occupation culminated in the last and best of his later novels, Our Lady of Darkness. It is not only a homage to the horror genre, it is the natural resolution of his previous work.

Four months ago he married Margo Skinner, his partner for the past 20 years. He is also survived by his son Justin, from his marriage to jonquil Stephens (who died in 1969). Fritz Leiber was a gracious man, willing to give time to his many fans who would queue to speak to him at Fantasy and Science Fiction conventions. He regularly contributed a column to the SF trade magazine, Locus, and was most articulate when discussing the genre’s pre-occupations. Of supernatural horror fiction, he said “What is the whole literature of supernatural horror, but an essay to make Death itself exiting – wonder and strangeness to life’s very end?”.