Night Monsters reflects author Fritz Leiber’s career-spanning affection for horror, urban fantasy, timeless antiquity, arcanum, anima and Dark Ladies (no sword and sorcery adventures, alas). It’s a minor collection of stories, but still worthy of a place on your nightstand for a little bedtime reading.
During his time, Leiber skirted genre restrictions willfully, but to me he was mostly a first-rate horror and fantasy writer. Many people continue to compare him (somewhat dismissively, I’m afraid) to H.P. Lovecraft. I totally get it. But I prefer Leiber’s clever and mood-y wordplay to Lovecraft’s overly written and often awkward prose. It’s a personal choice, I guess.
That’s not to say, however, that Leiber wasn’t indulgent at times. He was a smart writer who loved to remind readers how smart he was. This writerly quirk is present throughout Night Monsters. Time after time, he includes some sort of esoteric throwaway reference and immediately pauses to explain himself in a fussy way.
Take for example the song lyrics from “The Black Gondolier,” the first (and best) story in this collection. A beatnik folksinger acquires a bit of notoriety for composing a theme song for Leiber’s inky elemental monster. “The Black Gondola’s gonna take you for a ride with a cargo of atom bombs,” sings the bohemian bard.
The complete lyrics are, in fact, quit clever. And Leiber wants you to know it. The song, he says, includes references to W.B. Yeats, Vachel Lindsay, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Considering the year “The Black Gondolier” was written (1964), there’s probably a little bit of Bob Dylan, Allan Sherman and Stan Lee in there as well.
But I quibble. All writers (thank goodness) have their loveable idiosyncrasies. Even 30 years after his death, Leiber’s stories remain uniquely compelling and creepy. His monsters aren’t the type of creatures that crawl out of sewers or tower over skyscrapers. Instead they are “an oleaginous humanoid spawn” (“The Black Gondolier”), “a spider in the crystal web” (“Midnight in the Mirror World”), “an elaboration of all that is decayed and rotten” (“I’m Looking for Jeff”) and “a black cloud with the head of a wolf” (“The Casket-Demon”).
Fritz Leiber knew that monsters came out at night. They were strong with night’s secret power, he said back in 1946. “There’s still a black shivery outside, you know—a weird realm from which men shrink in terror. Science hasn’t done away with it. Nothing will ever do away with it.”
[Night Monsters / By Fritz Leiber / First Printing: March 1969 / ISBN: 9780441303007]