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.