I'll admit it: I'm obsessed with Fritz Leiber's novel Our Lady of Darkness. It's pretty much the best book I've ever read about my hometown, San Francisco - but it's also just a great work of urban fantasy that seamlessly blends sexually liberated 1970s California with ancient forces of darkness drawn from pulp fiction. Lieber's ability to blend realism with the fantastic has won him a Hugo Award and many fans, including literary geek Michael Chabon. But his great works remain mostly unknown.
On the hundredth anniversary of Leiber's birth, Ted Gioia writes about the weirdness of the author's life - and how to get into his fiction.
A wide range of recent novels-from Terry Pratchett's Discworld books to Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road-reflect Leiber's clear, direct influence, while other era-defining literary series, from Harry Potter to Twilight, draw on the same mystical-meets-the-everyday recipe that Leiber mastered decades ago. The term magical realism didn't exist back in the 1930s and 1940s, but Leiber could very well have trademarked it long before the Latin American literary lions turned it into a Nobel Prize-winning style. But Leiber's impact is perhaps even more evident when one leaves behind prose fiction, and instead looks at other contemporary vehicles for storytelling: movies, graphic novels, video games, roleplaying games, and other ways in which tales come to life in the modern day. When I was a freshman in college, my roommate devoted innumerable hours to Dungeons and Dragons, a pioneering open-ended game with clear borrowings from Leiber, just as today, my youngest son spends hours immersed in an on-line multiplayer game that bears uncanny similarities to Leiber's adventure stories. Many of us, it seems, live in a Leiberian universe-or at least escape there in our free time.
Fritz Leiber's life story was almost as strange and wondrous as those he concoted for his books. At one point or another in his life he was a movie actor (you can see Fritz Leiber working with Greta Garbo in Camille), chess champion, board game inventor, comic strip writer (for the Buck Rogers series), editor of an encyclopedia, minister, student of psychology, student of philosophy, student of theology, writing teacher, Shakespearian stage actor, inspector for the aerospace industry, skilled fencer, speech instructor (at Occidental College in Los Angeles) and, of course, science fiction and fantasy author. Despite these considerable talents, Leiber spent his final years in humble surroundings, residing in a one-room apartment in San Francisco's tenderloin district. Harlan Ellison has described Leiber writing his stories on a manual typewriter propped over the sink in his cramped quarters.
You've got to read the whole essay over at Conceptual Fiction.