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Strange Wonders: A Collection Of Rare Fritz Leiber Works

01/03/2011. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

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pub: Subterranean Press. 279 page deluxe hardback. Price: $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-324-2.

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There are times when I can understand why authors leave instructions for their unpublished manuscripts and ephemera to be burnt at their death. Charles Dickens even went as far as making a bonfire of all his correspondence whilst he was still alive. He was afraid his enemies would be able to glimpse his innermost thoughts by reading not only his jottings, but infer things about him from the letters others wrote to him.

There has always been an interest in the letters and diaries acclaimed people have left behind. In the age when letter writing was an art and diary keeping was far more profound than ‘It rained today’, these things did give an insight to the state of mind of their authors. Some, like the letters recently displayed at a Van Gogh exhibition, are fascinating. With emails and texts, this kind of material will not be so readily available in the future. The shy author will only have to press the delete button on his remote for his whole unpublished oeuvre to vanish into the ether. No polluting incinerations on his deathbed.

There is still, however, a desire to know about those items of a favourite author that have not seen the light of day. Often there was a reason why they didn’t. The Tolkien estate was one of the first to really delve into the wastepaper basket of the renowned. Not content with publishing and/or finishing the manuscript for ‘The Silmarillion’ which Tolkien had been working on for many years before his death, they decided to publish volumes of corrections and versions of this and earlier works. Tolkien himself was an academic and would probably have seen some merit in examining the working processes that were involved in producing the finished work.

Recently, Gauntlet Press has produced a number of books tracing the evolution of stories by Ray Bradbury such as ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and ‘The Halloween Tree’. These are useful for several reasons. They show the development of an idea over time, as well as insight into the thought processes of the author and they relate the concerns of the story to the concerns of the public at the time. Also, Bradbury is still alive and had a guiding hand on the material that went into them. The problem with this volume of Leiber’s work is that it has neither of these advantages.

‘Strange Wonders’ is divided into four sections. The first contains unpublished scraps. Only the first item, ‘The Tale Of The Grain Ships’, is really worth bothering with. It is an early appearance of the Gray Mouser but set against a backdrop of Ancient Rome. Probably written in the latter part of the 1930s, it shows Leiber’s skill with words, but as it is only a first chapter the reader is left hanging, wondering about what might have been. Most of the rest of the pieces in this section are odd scenes, dialogue, and other bits similar to those most writers keep in their note book hoping to come back to later. They are scribblings.

The second section is the reprint of six very short stories written for children in 1934 and which appeared in ‘The Churchman’. Even in his introduction to them, Leiber admits that there were things wrong with them. Any merit is in that they show what his early work was like and how much he developed as a writer beyond that time.

Leiber also wrote poetry. On the whole, it is a good job that he decided to concentrate on fantasy novels as much of the poetry is not very good. There are some nice lines and images but the longer ones are a series of thoughts that would have benefited from considerable re-working. The sonnets are much better and the writing is far more controlled.

The final section contains two contrasting pieces but complete pieces. The first, ‘The Mystery Of The Japanese Clock’, is an autobiographical and obsession article about Leiber’s attempt to work out how a Japanese digital clock worked. This was not an LED electronic digital clock but one of the electrically powered mechanical variety from the 1970s. He then proceeds to logically try to work out how accurate the timepiece is. The second item in this last section is intended as a humorous look at a year in the life of the Quick family who live in an orbiting satellite.

This volume is very much only for the Leiber completests. It adds very little to the understanding of the way he worked as a writer other than showing that he was like almost any other serious writer who never threw anything away in case it might be useful later. Most fans of his novels will find this disappointing.

Pauline Morgan

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