You’re All Alone/The Sinful Ones by Fritz Leiber

The Sinful Ones, Pocket Books, cover by Michael Whelan

What if the universe was one big machine, and human beings merely parts of it, unconsciously playing their roles, day in, day out? And what if, one day, you stepped out of the machine? This is the idea behind what Fritz Leiber called “the unluckiest, the most ill-starred and dogged by misfortune” of his novels, which he began, as You’re All Alone, in 1943.

The story starts with Carr Mackay, working in the General Employment office in Chicago, matching interviewees with likely jobs. One day, he notices a frightened-looking young woman sit down in the waiting area, followed shortly by an impressive-looking blonde (“If ever there was a woman who gave the impression of simply using people, of using the world, this was she.”). The blonde stands in front of the young woman, staring at her, but the young woman does her best to pretend she can’t see her. Eventually, the young woman walks over and sits the other side of Carr’s desk, but when he starts to talk to her, she at first ignores him. When she realises he is actually talking to her, she’s at first even more frightened, saying to him, “Don’t you know what you are?” Refusing to explain, she leaves, but, as she’s on the way out, the blonde comes over and slaps her in the face, so loud that everyone in the office would surely have heard. But nobody reacts, and the girl simply leaves the office as though nothing has happened.

What’s happened, though, is that Carr has just had the first hint that he’s “awakened” — that he’s stepped out of the big machine. Both the blonde (Miss Hackman) and the frightened young woman (Jane Gregg) are awakened, and because they’ve left their usual places in the machine, nobody else can see them — unawakened people continue to react to where the person would have been if they’d kept playing their part — which is why Jane is surprised when Carr speaks to her, and also why she pretended not to see the blonde, or react when she slapped her. Miss Hackman is part of a small gang of individuals who go around taking advantage of their awakened state, having cruel fun with the helpless unawakened, and occasionally, even more cruelly, forcing awake a chosen victim to really get down to some torture and domination. But the awakened gang are also scared of other awakened people, who might spoil their fun, so they have to be sure who’s awakened and who’s not. Hence Miss Hackman’s testing of Jane by slapping her in the face — an unawakened person wouldn’t react, so Jane does her best not to. It’s her only way to stay safe.

Universal Publishers and Distributors’s version, two great new books under one cover

Leiber’s idea was perfect for the sort of high-concept playful fantasy published by Unknown magazine — which was the only market he thought would take it. So, when he wrote the first four chapters and sent them to Unknown’s editor, John Campbell, hoping for an okay to continue, he was crushed to find that, because of wartime paper shortages, the magazine was to cease publication. With no other possible market, he put the unfinished novel aside. He took it up again at the end of World War II, having heard of a firm that — uniquely, for the time — were interested in publishing fantasy fiction in hardcover. But, after a couple of failures, the publisher gave up on the idea, so Leiber just had his agent (fellow author Frederick Pohl) hawk the book around, and went through the usual business of collecting rejections. Pohl suggested Leiber try it with Fantastic Adventures magazine, who accepted it, provided he cut the 75,000 word novel to 40,000. Instead of cutting it, though, Leiber took the bold step of going back to his initial four chapters and rewriting the story from there, as he would have, had Unknown been interested in taking it, back in 1943. The result was published as a novella, You’re All Alone, in July 1950. But the novel-length version was still being sent around, and that, too, found a publisher. It was bought by Universal Publishers and Distributors, who retitled it (The Sinful Ones), spiced up the love scenes, added lurid chapter titles (like “The Shimmering Garment”, “Bleached Prostitute”, and “Gigolo’s Home” — Gigolo, in the book, is a cat) and issued it twinned with a novel about a female bullfighter, called Blood, Bulls, and Passion.

Things got more complicated still when, in the 1970s, Leiber was approached by Ace Books, who wanted to reprint You’re All Alone. Leiber felt he ought to get the permission of his Sinful Ones publisher, and found he could buy the rights back. So he did, and You’re All Alone was published, along with a couple of other stories, to make it a reasonable length book, in 1972. Then Pocket Books got interested in reprinting The Sinful Ones, so Leiber, finding the previous publisher’s spicy bits pretty dated, went through the book and rewrote them. The Sinful Ones came out in this version in 1980, meaning there were now two versions of the same-but-differently-written Leiber story on the market.

So, knowing this and wanting to read it, what did I do? I read them both.

Fantastic Adventures, July 1950, art by Robert Gibson Jones. The dog becomes a black cheetah in The Sinful Ones.

Of the two, I preferred the shorter version, You’re All Alone. I can’t help feeling Leiber was a bit freer when writing for a pulp magazine than for hardcover publication. The novella has more linguistic playfulness and flights of fancy, of the sort I associate with Leiber’s better writing, including a dream in which Carr sees himself as a puppet freeing itself from its strings, and a brief daydream in which he thinks of himself and Jane as a prince and princess escaping the clutches of an evil archduke — neither being essential to the plot, but certainly giving it some imaginative spice. Oddly, for a shorter version, You’re All Alone actually contains more information about the characters and their backgrounds and world, perhaps because Leiber felt that, with fewer words available, he ought to be more direct. And so it’s made pretty clear early on exactly what sort of nastiness Miss Hackman and company are up to, and how it is, basically, sexually motivated. (The luridly named Sinful Ones, on the other hand, despite having “spicier” scenes — of which the main one felt pretty much shoehorned in, to me — doesn’t make it as clear what the gang is doing and why.) Also, one key character gets to tell his story in You’re All Alone, but is left a mystery in The Sinful Ones, to the latter novel’s detriment. Overall, The Sinful Ones (which I read first) feels a bit more poetic, having more passages about Carr’s horror at the idea of the universe being just one giant machine, but the plot lacks pace, and the poetry doesn’t quite make up for the lack of plot. The Sinful Ones adds a mysterious character at the end, Old Jules, who hints at a change taking place in the world, so perhaps Leiber was hoping he’d be asked to write a sequel, but, read as it is, I preferred You’re All Alone.

Leiber’s novel could be seen as addressing the same sort of ideas as the likes of Camus and Sartre, in their early works written around the same time. When Carr thinks of what he now knows about the universe and feels a “formless dread that kept surging through you until you almost wanted to retch”, he could be talking about Sartre’s term for existential dread, “nausea”, particularly as this dread is associated with the idea of the universe being “a place of mystification and death, with no more feeling than a sausage grinder for the life oozing through it”, and Carr’s fellow humans as being little more than automatons:

“Couldn’t robots perform the much over-rated ‘business of living’ just as well?”

At other times, it feels like the sort of cosmicism Lovecraft (with whom Leiber corresponded, briefly) wrote about:

The universe was a machine. The people in it, save for a very few, were mindless mechanisms, clockwork things of flesh and bone. So long as you made the proper clockwork motions, they seemed to react intelligently. But when you stopped, they went on just the same.”

And I’m sure that lover/hater of dark cities Lovecraft would have responded well to Leiber’s description of Carr’s Chicago as a “Dead city in a dead universe”:

“Teeming Chicago was a city of the dead, the mindless, the inanimate, in which you were more alone than in the most desolate wilderness.”

Which also reminds me a bit of Eliot’s “Unreal city” of post-war London in The Waste Land, with its “I had not thought death had undone so many”.

But Leiber’s take on the idea is, ultimately, very un-Lovecraftian. Lovecraft, for instance, surely couldn’t have let the “big machine” idea go without at least some dark hints as to what sort of inhuman entity was behind it all, and for what dark purposes human beings were employed as its parts. Leiber has one brief passage in which Carr wonders about the philosophical implications:

“Have machines infected men, turning them into things like themselves? Or has man’s belief in a completely materialistic universe made it just that? Or… has the world always been this way — just a meaningless mechanical toy?”

But mostly he’s dealing with another aspect of the idea, and a far more human one. Jane, at one point, sums up both her and Carr’s experience when she says:

“Other people weren’t alive, really alive, like you were. You were all alone.”

You’re All Alone, Ace Books, cover art by Victoria Poyser. Here we see the black cheetah from The Sinful Ones, even though it’s a hound in You’re All Alone

“Awakening” isn’t about becoming aware of the true nature of the universe, but looking around at one’s fellow human beings and realising there’s a uncrossable gulf between you and them. They might as well be dead to you, or be unfeeling robots. So what do you do? Retreat back into the machine and pretend to go along, eking out your life in fear of discovery while always being alone? Or do what Miss Hackman’s gang do, abandon human feeling altogether and get your kicks in as cruel a way as possible, while you can? (Or even what Carr’s “unawakened” girlfriend, Marcia, does, who likes to “agonize” her men — i.e., play power games with them.) Carr finally finds his answer in Jane, a person who’s had the same experience as him, and so who lives in the same emotional world as him. Leiber’s answer — not a solution to the universe-as-machine, but a way to stay human and live through it — is love. As he says in one of the little teaser passages he adds at the start of the chapters of the novella version:

“Love doesn’t make the world go round, but it sure puts a spark of life in the big engine.”

Leiber used the same basic idea of the world as a machine in much shorter form in the story “The Big Engine”, which was published in Galaxy magazine in February 1962, and which can be read at Project Gutenberg. (And he seems to have incorporated that story, in part, into The Sinful Ones, as Old Jules’s speech near the end of the book, which perhaps means Leiber did more than just a few edits to the book before its republication.)

In all, a book with a complex publishing history and several finished versions. Not Leiber’s best, but an interesting read all the same. (And an early version of the same sort of idea behind 1999’s — coincidentally, the number of words in this blog post — The Matrix.) There are reviews of The Sinful Ones and You’re All Alone at the Lankhmar Fritz Leiber site.

The Palace of Morgana by John Sterling

cover art by Richard Dadd

I first heard of the early-19th century writer John Sterling through Brian Stableford’s Dedalus Book of British Fantasy: The 19th Century, which included one of his tales, “A Chronicle of England”. Introducing it, Stableford said:

“Sterling would surely have become one of the leading writers of his day had he not died so young, and he might well have become the most important nineteenth century fantasy writer; his prose fantasies are more various and more adventurous than any other contemporary work.”

“A Chronicle of England” paints a delightful, fairy-haunted picture of England in the days before it received its first human inhabitants. The constant battles between the semi-substantial, light-loving fairies, and their brothers, the thunderous, brutal giants, often feels like a poetic allegory of England’s changeable weather — sunny one moment, cloudy the next — particularly when, at one point, the giants open a great cave to unleash a mist upon the land. The story certainly felt different in the richness and poetry of its fantasy elements compared to the other writers in the anthology, and I wanted to find out more.

Sterling was born in 1806 and died of tuberculosis in 1844. During his short life he’d been co-proprietor of the literary magazine The Atheneum, a disciple of the elderly Coleridge, and a friend of Thomas Carlyle. He wrote novels (Arthur Coningsby, published in 1833; The Onyx Ring, serialised from 1838 to 1839), poetry, and numerous essays, plus enough short fantasy stories to fill a slim volume. His shorter writings were mostly collected in a two-volume, posthumous Essays and Tales in 1848 (which you can find at archive.org), and these contain almost all of his fantasy output. (His novel Arthur Coningsby also contains some easily-separable stories, as told by its characters, some of which are published on their own in Essays and Tales, but I found two more of a fantastical nature that merited being collected as tales in their own right.)

cover by Murray Ewing

Once I’d sought these out, cleaned up the text, and assembled them together for my own reading, I thought I’d put them out as a book, because, although the Essays and Tales are freely available as a PDF, I think the fantasy tales are worth issuing on their own, and in a more readable form.

Are they worthy, though, of Stableford’s high praise? It’s impossible, of course, to tell if Sterling really would have become one of his age’s most important writers, but his fantasy stories certainly show signs of developing in a unique direction. Aside from an attempt at Orientalism (“The Caterpillar”), which at least has the virtue of ending with a humorous moral to its tale of what happens to a young woman who thoughtlessly flicks a caterpillar off her arm, Sterling’s early tales published in The Atheneum were mostly set in or around the world of Ancient Greek myth. “Zamor”, for instance, is a sort of Vathek-in-miniature, providing three glimpses into the life of Alexander the Great, first as a carefree but ambitious boy, then as a world-conqueror granted a glimpse of the afterlife horrors awaiting all world-conquerors, and finally as a broken man haunted by that terrible vision. Perhaps the best tale of this period is the poignant “The Last of the Giants”, in which a fifteenth-century man, wandering among wild mountains after a shipwreck, gets a privileged but mournful glimpse of the titular creature.

The Arthur Coningsby tales are slighter but see an opening out in the sort of fantasy Sterling wrote. “The Crystal Prison”, for instance, is about a man punished by being imprisoned in a crystal sphere, in which, wherever he looks, he sees only his own face (an idea also used, if I recall rightly, in “The Hell of Mirrors” by Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo in 1926), and “The Sons of Iron” is a sort of early robot fable, about men made of metal who spend their lives making more men out of metal.

Portrait of John Sterling, by J Brown

Near the end of his life, Sterling began publishing a series of stories under the shared title “Legendary Lore” in Blackwood’s Magazine, and it’s here his writing really shows the promise Stableford alluded to. “A Chronicle of England” and “The Palace of Morgana” (a virtually conflict-free idyll about bright young things flitting around the grounds of a paradisal palace, amusing themselves with displays of magic — Stableford calls it “a uniquely delicate prose poem”) have left the world of Classical Greece for a fantasy that seems to owe more to the Shakespeare of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. The fantasy in these two tales is poetic and playful, strange and wondrous. Also published in Blackwood’s was “The Suit of Armour and the Skeleton”, a dialogue between two relics in an old church, one of whom (the suit of armour), despite being hollow, is rather full of himself, for having once been worn by a somewhat brutal duke, while the skeleton, of humbler origins, proves to have a more down-to-earth and inclusive outlook, as well as a greater claim to be on display in the church. The title and form both reminded me of Clark Ashton Smith’s prose-poem dialogue, “The Corpse and the Skeleton”, which has a similarly satirical (though more darkly cynical) flavour.

If these three, the best of Sterling’s tales, point the way to how his work might have progressed had he lived, he’d certainly have deserved Stableford’s praise. Ralph Waldo Emerson wanted to get Sterling’s works published in the US, and Carlyle, Sterling’s friend and literary executor, wrote a book on his life, but today he’s mostly forgotten. I’d like to imagine though, that, had the Ballantine Adult Fantasy line continued, it might one day have had a Sterling volume such as this. (I was aiming for something of that feel with my cover.) His language is often poetic and archaic (and I like it all the more for that), and he may rely, on occasion, on certain Romantic clichés (most of his heroines are unworldly, innocent types devoted to their ageing, widowed fathers, but have a longing to witness strange and sublime sights), but if you like classic fantasy, I think there’s something to enjoy in them.

The Palace of Morgana and Other Fantasy Tales is now available on Kindle, ePub and in paperback (and, of course, you can read most of the tales in Essays and Tales at archive.org).

The Haunted Woman by David Lindsay

first edition, from Methuen

What is the haunted woman in David Lindsay’s The Haunted Woman haunted by? The novel starts with Isbel Loment (whose name is a wonderfully Lindsayan mix of music and tragedy), engaged to a Lloyd’s underwriter, Marshall Stokes, but in the meantime living an itinerant existence in a series of hotels with her aunt, Mrs Moor. Before her marriage, Isbel knows she must find a place for her aunt to settle, and Marshall, coming back from a trip to the United States, hears of a possibility, Runhill Court, near Steyning, in Sussex. As Isbel and her aunt are at present staying in Brighton, it’s only a short car-ride away, so an afternoon excursion is planned.

As well as showing the two women round this mostly Elizabethan mansion, Marshall has an additional assignment given to him by the house’s current owner, the 58-year-old widower Henry Judge. Judge, not presently living at the house, had some unusual experiences in the East Room, and wants Marshall’s opinion of the place. (Presumably he asked Marshall because, as Marshall himself admits, “I’m not gifted with a great deal of imagination”, and so might be expected to be down-to-earth in such matters.) But it’s Isbel who senses something strange about the place, hearing a sound in the passage leading to the East Room which the others can’t hear, and which she compares to both an orchestra tuning up, and “a telephone wire while you’re waiting for a connection”.

It’s already been revealed that Isbel has unfulfilled depths to her character. Sherrup, an artist and musician they meet briefly at Runhill Court, later tells her she’s “an artist without a profession… a lightning-rod without an outlet”, and she herself has already intimated that the rather shallow Marshall might not be the best match for her:

“I don’t know. . . . Love must be stronger than that. . . . I mean, one girl might be content with mere placid affection, and another might ask for nothing better than a thick sentimental syrup. It depends on character. My character is tragic, I fancy.”

Isbel, then, is all potential; the house, with its supernatural orchestra tuning up, is also all potential. Isbel says Runhill Court’s “atmosphere seems tragical”, so it’s obvious in which general direction all this potential is going. And when she meets the house’s owner, Henry Judge, and he says to her:

“There are deep, and possibly painful, transactions of the heart to which the term ‘romance’ would be quite inadequate…”

— she perhaps ought to know Marshall is not the man to fulfil her deeper nature, and Henry Judge is. But, already engaged as she is, society will not allow her to even think of the possibility. So constricting are the social rules by which Isbel and Judge live, it affects even their ability to feel when their deeper selves begin to suggest a route towards fulfilment.

Japanese edition

(The social world, in The Haunted Woman, is staid and placid on the surface, but vicious immediately beneath, as exemplified by Isbel’s exchanges with the widow Mrs Richborough, who also has her sights set on Judge. Judge, like all the men in the novel, except perhaps for the artist Sherrup, is oblivious to the barely-veiled subtext of what Isbel and Mrs Richborough are saying, but beneath their civilities, the two women are spitting venom and all but tearing at each other with their teeth.)

So, it’s her tragical, passionate nature that makes Isbel a haunted woman, and it requires a haunted house to bring the haunting out. Runhill Court doesn’t offer the traditional kind of haunting; its ghost is architectural. As Sherrup says of the structure that first stood where Runhill Court stands now:

“It was called Ulf’s Tower. The story is that Ulf was the original builder of the house. He lived about a hundred years after the first landing of the South Saxons… When Ulf built his house, Miss Loment, it was on haunted land. Run Hill was a waste elevation, inhabited by trolls—which, I figure, were a variety of malevolent land-sprites. Ulf didn’t care, though he was a pagan. He built his house. I gather he was a tough fellow, away above the superstitions of his time and country. And—well, one day Ulf disappears and a part of his house with him. Some of the top rooms of the Tower were clean carried off by the trolls; it happened to be the east end of the house, the nearest to their happy hunting-grounds. That was the very last that was heard of Ulf, but all through the centuries folks have been jumping up to announce that they’ve caught sight of the lost rooms. . . . ”

These rooms, accessible by a staircase that appears only to certain people at certain times, are where the story of Isbel and Judge’s true selves play out. The idea that it’s only in a place supernaturally removed from the day-to-day world that we can even start to make contact with our deeper feelings, our truer instincts, is typically uncompromising of David Lindsay. What’s worse, as soon as Isbel and Judge leave the rooms, they return to their everyday mindsets and forget everything that has just happened, even their most heartfelt vows and life-changing decisions.

Unlike A Voyage to Arcturus, The Haunted Woman offers no explicit, final explanation. Isbel has no Krag to tell her what it all means. This is one of the characteristics of Lindsay’s novels between Arcturus and Devil’s Tor — the human characters get mind-blasting visions, but no clue or guidance as to what they mean or how to fit this new strata of experience into the everyday world of twenties England.

Tartarus Press edition, artwork by R B Russell

For most of The Haunted Woman, though, the meaning of the supernatural elements seems clear. Up the phantom staircase, Isbel is confronted by three doorways, and in her first three trips, she explores a different room each time. In the first room, furnished only with a mirror, she receives a vision of herself as she truly is, with all her tragical and passionate potentialities written clearly on her face. In the second room, furnished only with a couch, she meets Judge and the two can “drop the mask of convention, and talk to each other more humanly and truthfully” than in the outside world. But what of the third room? Here, there’s a window, looking out on a Spring-like, fresh world, unspoilt by man. No roads, no hedgerows. A musician plays his archaic instrument and his music awakens the pair’s passionate nature, until they’re overwhelmed, and can’t sustain the “worldly prudence on his side, angry pride on hers” that keeps them apart in the normal world. But what Lindsay does next takes it all one step further than a mere allegory of love in the face of straitening social bounds. Looking into the musician’s face kills two of the novel’s characters. The musician is not, then, the embodiment of human love or passion, but of the essentially tragic nature of the passion that’s so much a part (though submerged throughout her normal, waking life) of Isbel’s character.

David Lindsay, grainy newspaper photo, from the time of the publication of Devil’s Tor

So, passion, or love, is lifted to the level of Muspel (our true spiritual home) from A Voyage to Arcturus, as though Lindsay is saying that what Pain was in that first novel, Tragical Passion is in this one — the way out of a deceptive, ensnaring world, and the way home. (Lindsay several times in the novel links passion with pain — and music — as when he describes the sound of the musician’s bowed instrument as “low, fierce, passionate, exactly resembling a deep, forced human cry of love-pain.”)

This feeling that the coming together of a man and woman in a deeply meaningful, but deeply tragical and troubled manner, is the closest the living can come to a sort of reconnection with their deeper, truer selves, is reiterated in The Violet Apple, and intensified in Devil’s Tor. (I’d say it also has a hint of fairy-tale fulfilment at the end of The Adventures of Monsieur de Mailly.) It obviously had great meaning for David Lindsay, and is certainly an argument for regarding his post-Arcturus novels not as commercial compromises (as they’re often seen), but as genuine attempts to further his understanding of his own ideas.