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.

Born to the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

Born to the Dark from PS Publishing, cover by Les Edwards

The second book in Campbell’s Three Births of Daoloth trilogy is set thirty years on from the first. Dominic Sheldrake, a child in The Searching Dead, is now a lecturer on film, and married, with a child of his own. Young Toby, though, suffers from “nocturnal absences” — a sort of nighttime paralysis —and when a paediatrician recommends a new treatment offered by the Safe to Sleep clinic, Dominic and his wife are at first delighted, as it seems to work. But Dominic becomes suspicious of the sort of dreams Toby has under the influence of this new treatment, which sound as though they could have come straight out of the journal of Christian Noble, the man who, in The Searching Dead, found a new way to raise the dead.

Set in the 1980s, Born to the Dark recalls aspects of Ramsey Campbell’s 80s novels, which were often concerned with the vulnerability of children, and in particular the anxiety about a parent’s care of, and potential misuse of power over, their child. This, of course, comes about because of Dominic’s stage of life, but part of me looked for, and found, other (perhaps deliberate) echoes of Campbell’s 1980s novels. For instance, there’s the idea of dreams/sleep being studied by an institute or research project and resulting in supernatural forces leaking into our world (as in 1983’s Incarnate). I think it was in that novel, too, that Campbell used the police as an expression of the protagonist’s helplessness and humiliation by a powerful authority, and in Born to the Dark we have the sinister double act of officers Farr and Black, whose darkly cosmic double-entendres are the closest this novel gets to the sort of absurdist horror-comedy of Campbell’s most recent Lovecraftian work, the 2013 novella, The Last Revelations of Gla’aki. Campbell even allows himself an in-joke reference to Rose Tierney (the protagonist of his 1980 novel, To Wake the Dead/The Parasite), who’s mentioned here as being a former lecturer at Dominic’s university’s film studies division.

Providence issue 1, cover by Jacen Burrows

More than The Searching Dead — which mostly concerned itself with dead things lingering too long in the land of the living — Born to the Dark opens itself up to cosmic horror, thanks to the visions Safe to Sleep induces as part of its treatment. And there are hints of a coming transformation or apocalypse, after which human life as we know it will be over forever, though not necessarily extinguished. In this, Born to the Dark reminded me of Alan Moore’s Providence, another 21st century take on Lovecraftian horror which ended in our world being fully exposed to cosmic realities that make a nonsense of life at the human level.

(Born to the Dark also recalls Providence in the way its occultists, like Moore’s, are more willing than Lovecraft’s to explain their beliefs to outsiders. 1980s Britain, with its openness to New Age ideas and alternative medicine, is just the sort of place where the likes of Christian Noble and his family can be open about their cosmic beliefs, and be allowed to practise their esoteric arts as a treatment — even within the bounds of the NHS!)

A slight disappointment, for me, was that the narrator, Dominic, has grown up into a somewhat blinkered adult, who has difficulty realising just how mad his accusations against Safe to Sleep sound to anyone but himself, and can’t understand it when people don’t immediately accept his wild claims as the truth. But it does lead to a heartbreaking admission partway through the novel:

“However misunderstood and solitary I’d sometimes felt as a child, I would never have expected growing up to bring that back.”

It’s impossible to properly review the second book of a trilogy — and an as-yet uncompleted trilogy, at that. Born the Dark takes events on from The Searching Dead and, far more than that first volume (which could, I think, be enjoyed on its own), leaves me feeling we’re heading for a properly Lovecraftian conclusion. Will the ending be quite as bleak as that of Moore’s Providence? The final volume, The Way of the Worm, will presumably reveal all — or, at least, all we mere humans can grasp.

There’s a good interview with Campbell about Born to the Dark at Gary Fry’s website.

Providence by Alan Moore

Providence issue 1, art by Jacen Burrows

Halfway through the run of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’s 12-issue comic, Providence, I re-read all of Lovecraft’s stories (as well as S T Joshi’s monumental Lovecraft biography, I Am Providence), and suddenly the comic made a lot more sense. It’s not that Moore makes a lot of references to Lovecraft’s work — being pretty familiar with Lovecraft, I’m confident I’ll get most broad-brush references to his stories — it’s that the interplay between Providence and Lovecraft’s work (and life) can be quite subtle, and the deeper you can go into those subtleties, the more connections you can spot, and the more you’ll get out of the series. (The annotations at Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence helped a lot, too.)

Now I’m going to completely eat my own words about something I went into only a few Mewsings ago. Talking about Alien: Covenant, I said how prequels, particularly those that delve into a series’ background mythology, are pretty much doomed to failure, unless, like Star Wars: Rogue One, they do their best to keep their entanglements with the further reaches of the mythology as minimal as possible. Well, Providence is a prequel to Moore’s two other Lovecraftian comics — The Courtyard and Neonomicon — and it wallows in mythology (mostly Lovecraft’s, but at the end you need to know Moore’s, too). Not only that, but it attempts to make all of Lovecraft’s ramshackle mythology tie up, and — ye Eldritch Gods! — it even tries to explain it all.

art by Jacen Burrows

But, it works.

Perhaps it works because this twelve-issue series isn’t also trying to be a cinema-audience-pleasing ninety minute thrill-ride at the same time, but can take its time to tell the story as it needs to be told. Considering this is a horror comic, very little happens in the first few issues — unless, that is, you’re busy making Lovecraftian connections, in which case the implications will be building. But also, of course, this is Alan Moore, and Moore is particularly good at not only sorting out other people’s narrative tangles, but at adding his own — often awe-inspiring — sense for them to make.

In fact, I’d say Moore is energised by a creative challenge, and the bigger and more impossible-seeming, the better. He stated his aim for Providence in a 2015 article on Previews World:

“…Providence is an attempt to marry Lovecraft’s history with a mosaic of his fictions, setting the man and his monsters in a persuasively real America during the pivotal year of 1919: before Prohibition and Weird Tales, before Votes for Women or the marriage to Sonia, before the Boston Police Strike and Cthulhu. This is a story of the birth of modern America, and the birth of modern American terror.”

The comic follows Robert Black, a reporter from New York who, upon the suicide of his lover (in a suicide booth — this is a slightly different world to ours, in this case owing a little to Cambers’ King in Yellow), leaves his job to pursue his dream (“some day, if Providence allows”) of writing a novel. Scholarly, nervous, and by no means an action hero, Black is the typical Lovecraft protagonist — in all but being both Jewish and gay. Intrigued by the mention of a translated Arab alchemical text that made its way to the US, Black begins tracking down the various individuals and occult groups who have made use of it in their beliefs.

Providence 7, art by Jacen Burrows

These individuals and groups are Moore’s renamed versions of Lovecraft characters, and the main fun of the first half of Providence is in tying up Moore’s characters with Lovecraft’s, and seeing what twist Moore has put on them. Usually, the effect is to emphasise the historical and social context in which their stories are being told, and to — at first at least — make us feel that perhaps Lovecraft’s presentation of them as figures of horror is a misunderstanding because of their status as social, racial, religious, or sexual outsiders. Because of this, Black doesn’t even start to glimpse the implications of what they’re saying (Moore’s dialogue has a wonderful way of playing with double meanings), and I, as a reader, started to feel that perhaps the whole point of Providence was to redeem Lovecraft’s secretive, evil-intentioned cultists from any horrific interpretation at all.

The first character Black meets, for instance, is a Doctor Alvarez, Moore’s version of Lovecraft’s Dr. Muñoz, from “Cool Air”. Like Lovecraft’s Muñoz, Alvarez is seeking to preserve his life beyond the natural point of death, which requires him to live in a controlled, artificially cold environment. He doesn’t hide that he’s doing this, but neither does he state it outright:

“For myself, I must not complain. Here, for a time, I can be comfortable… Life does not trouble me.”

It’s as though Alvarez might be quite willing to admit the truth about what he’s doing, if only Black were to ask the right question. But Black never does, because — who would? Who would suspect that the quiet-voiced, well-mannered Alvarez is actually a walking corpse, preserved by ammonia and low temperatures? Also unlike Lovecraft’s character, Alvarez is fully human, even compassionate, as revealed in a very un-Lovecraftian line:

“…to not love is to waste the existence. Even life is a small matter beside it.”

But there is a real horror, and Black’s journey takes him right to the heart of it. The Arab alchemical text, the Kitab Al Hikmah Al Najmiyya, includes a prophecy of two figures, a Herald and a Redeemer, who are to bring about the end of our world — or its transformation. Moore’s refusal to provide a Lovecraftian moral judgement of his characters extends to a refusal to judge the coming transformation.

So, you start by thinking this Dr Alvarez is, in fact, a pretty nice chap; then that those Innsmouth folk are maybe odd-looking but they’re just folk from a different culture; then that Garland Wheatley (Moore’s version of Wizard Whateley from “The Dunwich Horror”) is, well, dangerously backward, perhaps best left alone, but not a world-shattering evil… Then you find yourself at issue 6, the halfway point, where it is, finally, made clear to Black that he is in the midst of something really bad, and in deep, and it’s way too late to do anything about it.

art by Jacen Burrows

Randall Carver, art by Jacen Burrows

The ideas Moore presents undergo a similar shift. At first, it seems as though he’s presenting Lovecraft’s horrors and his dream-world stories as evidence of a real but separate dream-reality, which brushes up against our world and which can even be accessed by dreamers such as Randall Carver (Moore’s version of Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter, which confusingly is also Lovecraft’s fictional version of Lovecraft himself, which makes it triply strange when Moore presents us with his versions of Carver and Lovecraft living in the same town). Black has a few such brushes, but initially dismisses them as hallucinations. His issue 6 experience, though, is too deeply traumatic to be dismissed even if it can be thought of as a hallucination, and it sets the tone for an increasing bleakness throughout the second half of the series, which on a first read left me with as much a feeling of nihilism as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus did on a first viewing. There’s a real sense, in the closing issues of Providence, just how little human life and our illusions of free will matter in the face of the coming transformation:

“We are words on papyrus, a thousand years ago.”

In its final issues, Providence is at times quite moving — issue 11, for instance with its rapid skim through the history of Lovecraft, his circle, and his growing impact on culture — but, at the end, it’s also terribly bleak. Robert Black turns out to be yet another Moore version of a Lovecraft character, so you know he can’t come to a good end, but in its final issue, Providence brings in characters from The Courtyard and Neonomicon (which I also found horrendously bleak, after its protagonist underwent a similarly horrific and traumatic experience as Robert Black does) and resolves the whole three-title series.

Robert Black, art by Jacen Burrows

Most of the issues of Providence included a lengthy text extract from Black’s diary, and I have to admit that, on my re-read of the series, I skipped these. In part because, although they provided Black’s innocent interpretation of the events in the comic part of the story, they didn’t really add much, as it was pretty easy to guess what Black thought was going on anyway. But also I skipped them because they were pages and pages of single-column, long-paragraph, small-size handwritten text and were just plain difficult to read. Aside from the wonderfully punnish extracts from an Innsmouth parish newsletter in issue 3, I really don’t think I missed much by skipping them.

It’s an excellent series, if bleak, though one I think you really need to know your Lovecraft to get the most out of. As such, it might not have wide appeal, but I’d certainly rank it with the best of Moore’s work, and Jacen Burrows is to be applauded for the amount of work he’s put into realising so many historically accurate locations and Lovecraftian characters, as well as providing some neat visualisations of sometimes transdimensional concepts.