Wednesday, December 28, 2022

SSW: Fritz Leiber: 3 Autobiographical Short Plays for Voices in Prose: "The Secret Songs"; "237 Talking Statues, Etc."; "The Winter Flies" (originally published as "The Inner Circles")

Fritz Leiber: three autobiographical short plays in prose

"The Secret Songs" first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1962, edited by Avram Davidson; can be read here.

And you should. Oddly enough, as I've noted on the blog before, these three linked play/stories, featuring as characters (mostly) analogues of Leiber, his wife Jonquil, their son Justin, and Leiber's parents the actors Virginia and Fritz Leiber, Sr., have never been published together in a single volume, although they flow in a natural progression. 

illustration by Edmund Emshwiller for "The Secret Songs"

"The Secret Songs" portrays the overlapping psychodramas affecting a settled married couple, he addicted to alcohol and other depressants, she to various over-the-counter stimulants, and the divergence from consensus reality that their chemical intake and personalities, and their interactions, inspire. 

"237 Talking Statues, Etc." first published in F&SF September 1963, edited by Avram Davidson; can be read here.

While this one is a psychodrama, dancing at the borders of fantasy in a manner less heavy-handed than a lot of magical realism and its offshoots, for a Leiber analog visiting his widowed mother, who's been keeping the old house as in part a kind of museum devoted to the memory of her husband. Leiber's father in his last years (in the story and to some extent in reality) moved from doing his own stage makeup to dabbling in self-portraits as theatrical characters in various artforms, from painting to sculpture and beyond; Leiber the younger finds himself in a conversation with his father about their family and lives together as well as the elder's afterlife, caught in part in each piece of the collection, as Senior's spirit is animating his various self-portraits to varying degrees.

illustration by Emshwiller for Heinlein's Glory Road

illustration by Chesley Bonestell

"The Winter Flies", originally published in F&SF as "The Inner Circles", October 1967, edited by Edward L. Ferman; can be read here.

And the third and final story portrays a version of Jonquil and Fritz, Jr.'s lives some years later, both less thoroughly chemically-dependent, perhaps in large part because they are the parents of an analog of a young (not yet adolescent) Justin. In this one, while the reveries of the Jonquil and Justin characters are touched upon, most of the interactions are between the Fritz analog, Gottfried Helmuth Adler  (whom the real Leiber-the-author not too kindly nor self-appreciatively notes is often referred to as Gott) and characters which appear only to him to illuminate his insecurities, and what those make of his desires and current state, as they spar with him.

Leiber's wit and erudition, and his fondness for both the dramatic form and a few in-jokes, not so abstruse as to be lost on the non-constant reader of fantastica or other literature, are in evidence; Leiber's ability to write confessionally and with a kind of cheerful clarity about his own failings was greatly appreciated when I first read these stories, separately, over a couple of years' time, and remains so; the closest they've come to being gathered together (aside from here, as long as the archived copies remain available) is when two of them were included in the fine 1968 UK collection, The Secret Songs; and a different pair in a somewhat clumsy 199o, all but posthumous, retrospective,  The Leiber Chronicles: Fifty Years of Fritz Leiber.

for more of today's Short Stories citations, 


George said...

As time goes on, I become more impressed with Fritz Leiber's work. I first read Leiber's NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS and went on to read as much of his SF and Fantasy that I could get my hands on back in the Sixties. I plan to feature Leiber in some FFBs in 2023.

Todd, I didn't get any emails from you. My College email account--after 30 years!--was purged with all retired faculty email accounts by the new college President, who has been fired after this outrage. My new email account is

Todd Mason said...

Alack! I had forgotten about the purge!

Algis Budrys had a line about Leiber managing to reach greater levels of insight and ingenuity than any other writer in the community...not in all his work, but in his best, seems more than fair.

ukjarry said...

I like to think these pieces were a development - or reaction - on Leiber's writing scripts for Buck Rogers at the end of the 1950s: taking the skill of writing dialog in a particular format, but then applying it in a much more symbolic fashion to his introspective psychodramas.

"The Winter Flies" is also contemporary with the first two pieces. It got sucked into the maelstrom of Merril's anthology "Taboo" for Regency in the early 60s, and when that project foundered, it got picked up for "Esquire", was eventually dropped, and then finally landed at F&SF.

There is a fourth symbolic play-story, "Crimes Against Passion", published in "Gamma" #1, 1963:

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, UKJ (as in Alfred Jarry, I take it...and are you Matthew Davis who commented on the post on Paul Neimark's TABOO anthologies)?

As I mention in response to that comment, I might've guessed that Leiber's story in Neimark's TABOO (1964) might've been what was slated for Merril's book, or "Gonna Roll the Bones" as appeared in DANGEROUS VISIONS (the eventual heir to the intended anthology Harlan Ellison as Regency Books editor solicited from Merril, but wouldn't've thought about "The Winter Flies" thus...Leiber published at least one other no bones-about-it (rolling or otherwise) play with "The Mechanical Bride" (nod to McLuhan and all), but until not too long ago I managed to forget I'd read and reviewed GAMMA's first issue some time back (along with the contemporary first issue of MAGAZINE OF HORROR--a lot of things beginning to culturally ferment in '63-'64)--to be fair to myself, GAMMA's first issue is not the most memorable, and sadly neither was "Crimes Against Passion", which apparently has never been reprinted (at very least under that title).

Matthew Stephen Smith Davis said...

Turning over some old notes I'd forgotten one other playlet.
"The Robot, the Girl, the Android, and the Poet" was a sketch co-written by Leiber, Judith Merril and Fredric Brown for the 1951 New Orleans Worldcon. I don't know how Brown comes into it, but Leiber and Merril had just begun having an affair, and its composition is just about contemporary with Leiber's "The Mechanical Bride".

Todd Mason said...

Belated thanks, Matthew! I'd seen a reference to that item somewhere along the line, but hadn't ever sought out a script/transcript. I will take a look soon. I suspect Brown was having a quick discussion with Leiber and Merril as to what sort of thing they might come up with as light entertainment for the assembled...