Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Fritz Leiber couldn’t imitate Lovecraft

Near the start of the year, I tried to read Fritz Leiber’s The Terror from the Depths. It was a short story I’d never heard of, even though I’ve been reading Leiber for over thirty years. I tried again and got through it. As an intellectual curiousity , it was interesting but I didn’t think much of it as a work of fiction.

Something I hadn't  known until I read about the story in my second go is that Fritz Leiber and H. P. Lovecraft  corresponded near the end of Lovecraft’s life. I wasn’t surprised since Lovecraft collected pen pals the way some people collect stamps but I hadn’t known Leiber was one of them. 

Leiber started the story in 1937, the same year that Lovecraft died. In fact, Lovecraft’s death is part of the story, which makes me really wonder if Lovecraft’s death was the impetus for the story. Which didn’t get finished until 1975.

The actual plot is easy to describe. A sensitive, artistic type discovers dark secrets of the eldritch universe, which includes his own lineage. Eventually, said revelations lead to his horrible demise. It does include winged, eyeless serpents who swim through the earth and has might actually be the dreams of dread Cthulhu unleashed. That’s a new touch to the mythic, albeit one that hasn’t been reused Tommy knowledge.

 But there are two things that make the story a slog.

Leiber wrote some brilliant works. The Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, Conjure Wife, Our Lady of Darkness. But one of the things that really marks is work is how grounded his style is. No matter how fantastic the situation is, there is a level tone, almost deflating the wonder. Leiber imitating Lovecraft’s purple prose is working against his strengths.

And there are soooo many references to Lovecraft’s works. An annotated version of The Terror from the Depths would be half again as long. Even Lovecraft himself is referenced. It bogs the story down and actually lessens the mystery and horror.

Frankly, the story behind the story interests me more. What exactly inspired Leiber to write this? Why did it take so long? What did it means to him and what was he trying to say?

If the Terror from the Deeps has been written by someone I’d never heard of, it would have been utterly forgettable. But since it was by Fritz Leiber and ties into his personal relationship with Lovecraft, reading it was a fascinating experience. 

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