The kind that would haunt coal yards and slip around at night through deserted office buildings like this one. A real ghost. Not something out of books. The story opens with its protagonist, Catesby Wran, already in the psychological grip of such an entity. Initially, we see him through the eyes of his secretary, Miss Millick, in a state of distracted anxiety. In the course of a difficult conversation with the embarrassed Miss Millick, we see that that he is profoundly troubled by a recent experience.
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Or, more accurately, perhaps, that the narrative movement has shifted direction: the weird emerges more clearly into the contemporary rather than the story leaving the contemporary in search of the strange. Almost the first thing the reader knows about Catesby Wran is that he is preoccupied with ghosts, but not any old ghost. I mean a ghost from the world today, with the soot of the factories on its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul.
The kind that would haunt coal yards and slip around at night through deserted office buildings like this one. A real ghost. Not something out of books. James and maybe Lovecraft too, a reaction against the ghost as a haunter of libraries, cloisters and college rooms. Modern times require modern ghosts; Wran makes this plain as he expands on his theme. 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 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.
Each one overlying and yet blending with the other, like a pile of semi-transparent masks. All Wran can see is varieties of pain, anger and worry, a composite face; individuality, however crudely expressed, has been lost. At first sight, his modern ghosts appear to be working-class ghosts, blue-collar ghosts, ghosts with dirty hands, who queue up to punch their cards, who worry about losing their. One might understand that fear given that Catesby Wran is not himself part of that world.
Instead, he is an advertising executive, high enough up the ladder to have an office to himself, a secretary to take dictation. Faces are not the only recurring motif in the story. Height too is important. This is most clearly stated in the role of the elevated train in the story. Wran first sees the mysterious figure from the window of the elevated train, and sees it again and again, but think too of the elevator in his office block, and how so much centres around its rise and fall.
Height represents status and security, on the one hand, but with height comes an undefined sense of threat. It had all begun on the elevated. There was a particular little sea of roofs he had grown into the habit of glancing at just as the packed car carrying him homeward lurched around a turn. A dingy, melancholy little world of tar-paper, tarred gravel and smoky brick.
Rusty tin chimneys with odd conical hats suggested abandoned listening posts. There was a washed-out advertisement of some ancient patent medicine on the nearest wall.
Superficially it was like ten thousand other drab city roofs. But he always saw it around dusk, either in the smoky half-light, or tinged with red by the flat rays of a dirty sunset, or covered by ghostly wind-blown white sheets of rain-splash, or patched with blackish snow; and it seemed unusually bleak and suggestive, almost beautifully ugly, though in no sense picturesque; dreary but meaningful. Yet, there is more to it than that. We might begin to wonder again about those workers whom Wran catalogues and transforms into a composite ghostly face, smoky and masked, and about what aspects of the twentieth century do frighten Wran.
Again, in his final encounter with the spirit of the city, embodied in Miss Millick, herself representative of so many city workers, one has the sense that Wran is caught somewhere between scientific modernity and something older, buried deep in the human imagination, that been carried into the city and is now seeking to find a way to express itself with the tools at hand.
At the same time, Leiber very deftly captures that particular experience of riding home at night along suburban train lines, looking out over the roofs and seeing a peculiar high-rise world that is invisible from street level. And possibly, in the end, it is all about imagination. Share this:.
The Weird – Smoke Ghost – Fritz Leiber
This page short story originally appeared in the October issue of Unknown Worlds. The author, Fritz Leiber, had just a few years before entered his first phase of greatness as a writer, especially as a fantasiste, but this piece is an example of his early mastery of the weird fiction form. In the mids he had corresponded with H. Then Leiber showed himself to be a budding writer, articulating his appreciation of an established master, seeking advice on developing manuscripts, and learning from the veteran author what he needed to perfect his own natural brand of emerging talent. By the early s, we encounter in Leiber a writer who has fully acquired stylistic finesse, dramatic power, and deftly-handled symbolic details; "Smoke Ghost" exemplifies these qualities, and takes the reader by astounding surprise in how it conjures up a true sense of terror. In the world of fantasy, Leiber is a writer who can take you into the deepest wells of laughter, suspense, thrills, and even compassion, and always these sensations hit you unexpectedly. These are the fruits of a complex weaver of plot and character.
A Spectre for the Modern Age: Fritz Leiber’s ‘Smoke Ghost’
Or, more accurately, perhaps, that the narrative movement has shifted direction: the weird emerges more clearly into the contemporary rather than the story leaving the contemporary in search of the strange. Almost the first thing the reader knows about Catesby Wran is that he is preoccupied with ghosts, but not any old ghost. I mean a ghost from the world today, with the soot of the factories on its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul. The kind that would haunt coal yards and slip around at night through deserted office buildings like this one.
Smoke Ghost & Other Apparitions
From to , he worked as a lay reader and studied as a candidate for the ministry at the General Theological Seminary in Chelsea, Manhattan , an affiliate of the Episcopal Church , without taking a degree. In , he initiated a brief yet intense correspondence with H. From to , he was employed by Consolidated Book Publishing as a staff writer for the Standard American Encyclopedia. In , the family moved to California, where Leiber served as a speech and drama instructor at Occidental College during the — academic year.