Weird #27: “Smoke Ghost” by Fritz Leiber (1941)

“Smoke Ghost” forms an excellent pairing with the previous story reviewed on this blog, “Far Below.” Both Fritz Leiber and Robert Barbour Johnson wrote modern, urban weird fiction, and while Johnson’s story takes place deep under New York City, the horror in Leiber’s story lurks on the rooftops. Leiber’s fiction is “a key forerunner of the urban weird of writers like Ramsey Campbell,” according to the editors (268).

To an extent, “Smoke Ghost” reminded me of the pioneering work of Charles de Lint, who virtually founded the genre of urban fantasy. De Lint’s fiction re-enchants the modern city, but it does occasionally find a place to describe for the horrors produced by our modern condition, in the same way that Leiber does in “Smoke Ghost.” I wrote a Master’s thesis on De Lint in which I explore how his horror locates the spectral and vampiric in the conditions of our capitalist modernity. The same could be said for Leiber in this story.

“Smoke Ghost” begins with Mr. Wran expressing a high concept:

Have you ever thought what a ghost of our times would look like, Miss Millick? Just picture it. 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, the aggressive whine of the panhandler, the inhibited terror of the bombed civilian, and a thousand other twisted emotional patterns.

(268)

Gothic tropes about wispy visitors from the Beyond, dressed in white, may have worked for the Victorians, but they have little relevance to mid-twentieth century life. A horror greater than any that can be found in a pennydreadful arrived with the First World War and its ensuring crises. The horrors and stresses of the modern condition create ghosts out of the living. “It’s time the ghosts, or whatever you call them, took over and began a rule of fear,” says Wran. “They’d be no worse than men” (269).

This provocative idea is then followed by a telling of Wran’s earlier sighting of a shapeless black sack on the smoky, gleaming rooftops of the city. He sees it while taking the elevated train home for work in the evening, as he usually does. He has a vision of the thing leaping from the roof towards the passenger car in a “parabolic swoop” (271). He even sees it “huddle and roll across the gravel” (271). Hoping that he is suffering merely from a nervous condition, he consults a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist makes him recall his early childhood memories in which his mother exhibited him as a clairvoyant. Since childhood, he had always had a talent for seeing through opaque surfaces like brick walls. However, his mother was convinced he could also see the dead, even though he knew his talents did not extend so far.

Eventually, science experiments under controlled conditions were performed on him, succeeding at demonstrating his rare gift. When a big test is ready to be performed on him, the young Mr. Wran grows resentful towards his controlling mother and fails it on purpose, making fools of the scientists who’d discovered him and insisted his talent was real. Now he believes this long-repressed childhood skill has returned to haunt him.

This part of the story testifies to Leiber’s interest in Jungian psychology and psychoanalysis. In suggesting how it might be possible that supernatural phenomena could remain unacknowledged by the scientific establishment, even though they exist and are even empirically verifiable, Leiber suspends the reader’s disbelief. Like many weird writers, he suggests that the lens through which we view the world often has as much to do with what we find in it as the things we actually observe, even to the point of altering what is observed before it can be seen.

The actual creature that haunts Wran is “a ghost from the world today, with the soot of the factories on its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul” (268). Later, it possesses Miss Millick in a scene on the city rooftops, where Wran bows down and swears to worship it, acknowledging the modern spirit’s right to rule the world. This is a scene John Clute would label a Revel: that is, a moment of final revelation in horror where the values of the world reverse, in a carnivalesque fashion. Mr. Wran acknowledges the dominion of the thing possessing Miss Millick over the human race itself; the lord of misrule is crowned king of the world.

In a moment that will seem distasteful to some readers, the creature that haunts Wran is shown to be partly inspired by race fear, or more specifically, the fear of black skin. It is first sighted by someone other than Wran when the psychiatrist complains about a peeping tom at the window. Wran guesses it must be a “Negro” looking through the window (273). The nervous psychiatrist shuts the window and says that it was a white man, a voyeur dressed in blackface (273).

It seemed unnecessary for me for such details to be included, apparently gratuitously, but since the entity is described as “a ghost from the world today, with the soot of the factories on its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul” (268), a ghost with a face covered in soot may well have been mistaken for a white hooligan in blackface. Nonetheless, it still seemed to me to be a strange detail to include.

Friz Leiber and Katherine MacLean (Wikipedia)

I didn’t post the previous week, so I plan on making two posts for this coming week, to bring us back on schedule. This Friday I will be examining Leonora Carrington’s story “White Rabbits” (1941), followed by Donald Wollheim’s “Mimic” (1942) the Monday after.

a dark subway tunnel

Weird #26: “Far Below'” by Robert Barbour Johnson (1939)

a dark subway tunnel

If I could point to a quintessential weird tale–a short story that has all the Lovecraftian features that have come to be associated with weird fiction–I would point to Robert Barbour Johnson’s “Far Below.” Not only is Johnson the first author in The Weird to mention Lovecraft by name as a fictionalized character in his story, but he seems to have deeply read his essay “On Supernatural Horror in Literature.” In Johnson, the Lovecraftian weird tale has solidified into its most stable form.

The opening line is an absolute classic: “With a roar and a howl the thing was upon us, out of total darkness” (260). The “thing” itself is nothing more unusual than a New York City subway car, but the way it is described estranges it, so that it comes to resemble a bizarre worm crawling though the darkness below the city streets.

But there is a monstrous threat below the city. As Inspector Gordon Craig of the NYPD informs the nameless narrator, “They” have been known to break into the tunnels. The threat remains vaguely defined: a race of pale white creatures who inhabit the darkness and appear similar to a human or a gorilla, yet not dissimilar to “some sort of giant, carrion-feeding, subterranean mole” (262).

“Far Below” actually precedes The Mole People, a 1956 film that popularized the concept of mole people living beneath the earth. However, the first example of mole people is probably the Moorlocks from H. G. Wells’s Time Machine in 1895, in which they were depicted as devolved forms of proletarian humans operating machinery far below the earth’s crust.

This story scores almost every tick in the weird fiction checklist, or, if you prefer, every square in the weird fiction bingo card. These mole people are a cosmic horror, a vaguely defined outside threat that the majority of human beings carry on their lives blissfully ignorant about. The NYPD are like the Night’s Watch from Game of Thrones fighting back the dark horrors of the night, though instead of a wall, they patrol the subway tunnels. And if they do find one of the creatures, they shred them to pieces with suppressed Maxim guns so no questions are asked about the hidden war beneath the streets.

Unfortunately, it also checks off the “racism” item on the weird tale checklist. The editors make it clear that some aspects of the story would appear dated today. The reasons for this is probably best encapsulated by the fact that the mole people are used to explain Indigenous burial practices that settler scientists cannot explain. (This particular details also checks off the pseudoarchaeology square on the bingo card.) The mole people are also used to explain the cheap price at which the original inhabitants of Manhattan sold the land to the Dutch settlers. Furthermore, there are certain reference to phrenology, or determining human intelligence by the shape of the skull or brain. These features show how the mole people inhabit settler fears of counter-invasion and counter-colonization, as well as White people’s fears of miscegenation.

Johnson is clearly a disciple of Lovecraft’s. As if the content of his story was not enough of a clue, he also has Gordon Craig directly say that he consulted Lovecraft’s writings himself when researching the history of these underground monsters:

Oh, yes; I learned a lot from Lovecraft–and he got a lot from me, too! That’s where the–well, what you might call the authenticity came from in some of his yarns that attracted the most attention! Oh, of course he had to soft-pedal the strongest parts of it–just as you’re going to have to do if you ever mention this in your own writings!

(264)

This passage is quite clever because of the way it plays with fictionality: the reader’s relationship to other texts and the reader’s relationship to the world outside the text.

Firstly, it posits that the story told by the character of Gordon Craig has been influenced by Lovecraft himself–but a version of Lovecraft that exists in Johnson’s fictional universe. This raises questions about the ontology of this version of Lovecraft. Is this Lovecraft the real Lovecraft known to scholars, who wrote made-up stories for Weird Tales? Or is it a Lovecraft who may be a slightly different version of himself, appropriate to Johnson’s world?

Johnson seems to want the reader to think that his fictional Lovecraft had “real” encounters with the weird things he wrote about. Since he blurs the line between the real and fictional Lovecraft, he implies that the real Lovecraft who lived outside the text also had these encounters: in short, that his mole people and the weird events of Lovecraft’s “Pickman’s Model” also happened in the reader’s world.

What’s more, Johnson subtly usurps Lovecraft’s own originality by saying he owes the authenticity of his own descriptions to the first-hand experiences of Johnson’s fictional character, Gordon Craig! This positions Johnson’s story as closer to the “truth,” while Lovecraft’s fiction is actually a second-hand report.

These rhetorical moves and blurring of lines between fiction and fact create not only the illusion of a shared reality outside the text that both Lovecraft and Johnson have written about in their fiction, but the illusion of the reader’s immersion in their shared universe.

The fact that Johnson’s narrator is never named strengthens the illusion that the narrator might be a fictionalized version of Johnson himself, who “really” travelled with Gordon Craig in the New York subway and recorded his story like a journalist would. Since encounters with real cosmic horror cannot be tolerated by most readers’ minds, perhaps Johnson wishes to make the reader think that he has chosen to tell his story through fiction only because of the shielding alternative it gives. If he had used journalism, perhaps readers would have thought him mad, or gone mad themselves.

Johnson may have intended the appearance of fiction to be seen as one the ways in which his narrator has softened the truth, just as Lovecraft supposedly softened it through fiction. By suggesting that not all of the truth was told, Johnson lets his readers posit that there is a “worse” reality behind his story, a reality the reader could discover for themselves if only they searched for it “out there.”

Each of these strategies of Johnson’s assists in creating the intertextual illusion that the the mole people might actually exist outside the story, in the grimy subway tunnels of Manhattan, where the reader is currently reading Weird Tales magazine as the dark tunnels zip by the plexiglass windows.

There’s a detailed discussion of Johnson’s story and his other inspirations on the Tor.com blog.

Next week, I will be examining Fitz Leiber’s story “Smoke Ghost” (1941).