Heroes and Horrors

More Fritz Leiber.

This retro review is from May 26, 2012.

Review: Heroes and Horrors, ed. Stuart Schiff, 1978.Heroes and Horrors

This book is more of interest for Leiber’s horror tinged fantasies than the heroic stories. The latter are two Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories”, “Sea Magic” and “The Mer She”, that take place after the series novel Rime Isle, and they can be found in the series’ collection The Knight and Knave of Swords.

The horror stories – it might be more appropriate to use the modern label “dark fantasy” – are a lot more interesting. Many put Leiber’s idiosyncratic areas of knowledge to effective use or show Leiber an interesting theoretician of the horror story willing to test his theories out.

Leiber is one of the founders of what is now called urban horror, the idea that horror can be found in modern, industrial settings. “A Bit of the Dark World” doesn’t have such a setting. Instead, it takes place around a lonely house perched above an isolated California canyon. It opens with three writers of “science-fantasy” discussing where horror can be found in a world now a vast “city” categorized and explained by scientific experts. Even the occult and religion and parapsychology only offer horror if one accepts the premise of their systems. And, asks one character, the non-writer of the bunch, why seek other horrors than the plentiful ones reality offers: “Nazi death camps, brain-washing, Black-Dahlia sex murders, race riots … Hiroshima”? The suggested alternative is Lovecraftian horror: “the intrusion of the utterly alien, the sense of something listening at the rim of the cosmos or scratching faintly at the other side of the sky”. The story ends on such a note though it is more interesting than horrifying.

“Belsen Express” was one of the stories I most looked forward to. It is a subtle piece of horror, the intrusion of the Holocaust into the life of a man who has strived so hard to forget it or the other moral outrages of his world. Set about 1957, I hoped for more of an alternate history or a grand horror, so I was somewhat disappointed. However, on a second reading and taken on its own terms, it’s an interesting story but with a letdown of an ending.

“Midnight in the Mirror World” was a clever tale of approaching doom analyzed in a very scientific manner. The protagonist spots a mysterious figure in the background of his two mirrors that face each other to provide “infinite” reflections.  As the days pass, the figure gets closer, and the man must work out the figure’s origin and his fate.

“Richmond, Late September, 1849” was my whole reason for buying this collection. Its account of Edgar Allan Poe meeting, in the last days of his life, a mysterious woman who claims to be Berenice Baudelaire, sister of the famous poet, shows erudition about Poe’s work. But there is something of literary gamesmanship in seeing so many of the images and plots of Poe’s poems and stories presented as harbingers of the Civil War. The hoped for air of melancholy and menace really only shows at the memorable end.

“Midnight by the Morphy Watch” puts Leiber’s love of chess to good use in a tale of a watch owned by many famous chess players and the magic it confers on its new owner

“The Terror from the Depths” is the gem of the book.  It is a tribute and an obituary and a homage to a man Leiber corresponded with: H. P. Lovecraft.  Leiber mixes in names and places and creatures from Lovecraft’s work (as well as the man himself) into a Los Angeles setting circa 1937 and also adds mentions of Simon Rodia, builder of Watts Towers. This is something of a gold standard for modern Cthulhu Mythos stories.

“Dark Wings” was just a weird story, fairly explicit in its sexual references and action, which has a woman fearful of rape meeting a woman who seems to be her twin. I’m not sure I understand, completely, the ending, but it certainly kept my interest.

The Tim Kirk illustrations are of varying interest. Most of the stories get at least one with the ones for “Midnight in the Mirror World”, “The Terror from the Depths”, and “Richmond, Late September, 1849” being the best.

 

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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