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.

Weird #3 The Willows by Algernon Blackwood (1907)

No weird tale that I have read captures a sense of dread and impending doom so subtly and beautifully in its descriptions of the natural world as “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood (1907), the third story included in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Tales.

In this story, two canoeists journey down the Danube and wind up stranded on a sandy island in the middle of a swampy part of the river that arrests their progress toward Budapest. This part of the river is described as a “region of singular loneliness and desolation…covered by a vast sea of low willow-bushes” (27). No one can imbue the natural world with quite the same sense of terrifying, pagan dread as Blackwood. His other story, “The Wendigo,” also captures a sense of a predatory natural world, but nowhere near so exquisitely as in “The Willows.”

The willow forest the canoeists have entered is a living entity, a character in itself that is “full of tricks” and holds a “secret life” (29). The plants and creatures that inhabit it leave an undeniable affect on their human observers. Though the river may be treacherous at times, the two men “forgave her because of her friendliness to the birds and animals that haunted the shores” (29). But it is not long before the river matures and leaves the men at its mercy, aware of their “utter insignificance before this unrestrained power of the elements” (30). In one of the most memorable images, what at first appears to be a man’s body floating in the water–perhaps the body of a fisherman spotted earlier–turns out to be nothing more than an otter that “looked exactly like the body of a drowned man turning helplessly in the current” (32).

In the wake of the Second Industrial Revolution, rapid industrialization and urbanization triggered a pang of guilt in the minds of those who revered nature as a  Romantic entity and as a sublime refuge from the bourgeois city. Blackwood’s species of the weird represents this contradiction in literary terms through its othering of nature, which has turned into an active predator. Representing this breathless terror in the content and style of his writing, Blackwood writes about how the narrator’s emotions of awe, wonder, and uneasiness

seemed to attach [themselves] more particularly to the willow bushes, to these acres and acres of willows, crowding, so thickly growing there, swarming everywhere the eye could reach, pressing upon the river as though to suffocate it, standing in dense array mile after mile beneath the sky, watching, waiting listening. (31)

Something of the paranoia in “The Wendigo” emerges here, except that the terror is not associated with some separate, carnivorous entity (a First Nations flesh-eating monster) but with the natural world itself. This demon is a projection of the guilt of the industrialized world and a premonition of the environment’s ‘revenge’ upon humanity. Blackwood’s weird tale is all the more horrifying a hundred years after its publication because of our retrospective knowledge that mass extinctions and climate change have been triggered by industrialization.

Perhaps the strangest moment in this story occurs when the narrator thinks he perceives the shapes of non-human entities in the willow branches:

They first became properly visible, these huge figures, just within the tops of the bushes–immense, bronze-coloured, moving, and wholly independent of the swaying branches. […] They were interlaced one with another, making a great column, and I saw their limbs and huge bodies melting in and out of each other, forming this serpentine line that bent and swayed and twisted spirally with the contortions of the wind-tossed trees. (35-6)

These creatures are of the kind that overtired eyes might spot in the complex, swaying patterns of a willow tree in a breeze. After all, humans like to see patterns in random shapes. Yet, for all that the narrator acknowledges the possibility he might be seeing things, he becomes utterly convinced of their absolute reality: “I understood quite well that the standard of reality had changed. For the longer I looked the more certain I became that these figures were real and living, though perhaps not according to the standards that the camera and the biologist would insist upon” (36). These creatures exist according to a different set of laws than Enlightenment science provides. In this singular willow grove, scientifically-defined reality no longer holds sway, suggesting modernity has spread unevenly across Europe, leaving this glade untouched. As one of the characters states, “The gods are here, if they are anywhere at all in the world” (39).

Next week, I will review Saki’s much shorter, though no less bizarre, “Srendi Vashtar” (1910).