Monday, March 21, 2022

Pulp Fantasy Library: Smoke Ghost

Fritz Leiber is an author who gets a lot of love on this blog and deservedly so. His tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are, I think, among only a handful of stories that can credibly be claimed as feeling like playing Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy roleplaying games. This is implicitly acknowledged by Gary Gygax himself, who not only included Leiber in Appendix N of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide, but called him, along with a small number of other authors, one of "the most immediate influences" upon the game. 

Leiber was a very prolific writer and his contributions to the canon of pulp fantasy are not limited to the adventures of the Twain. Indeed, one of his earliest published stories is set in 20th century Chicago and features a subject that some might consider horror. Nevertheless, I think it's an important and compelling tale that takes a staple of the fantastical literary tradition – the ghost story – and updates it for the modern era while also making it genuinely timeless.

"Smoke Ghost" appeared in the October 1941 issue of Unknown Worlds and tells the story of advertising executive Catesby Wran. One day, while dictating to his secretary, he asks the young man a very strange question.

"Have you ever seen a ghost, Miss Millick?" And she had tittered nervously and replied, "When I was a girl there was a thing in white that used out of the closet in the attic bedroom when you slept there, and moan. Of course it was just my imagination. I was frightened of lots of things." And he just said, "I don't mean that traditional kind of ghost. I mean a ghost from the world of today, with the soot of the factories in its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul. The kind that would haunt coal yards and slip around at night through deserted office buildings like this one. A real ghost. Not something out of books."

Miss Millick is confused by Wran's line of questioning, thinking that "he'd never been like this before." Nevertheless, he continued to ponder this topic.

"Have you ever thought what a ghost of our times would look like, Miss Hallick? Just picture it. A smoky composite face with the hungry anxiety of the unemployed, the neurotic restlessness of the person without purpose, the jerky tension of the high-pressure metropolitan worker, the sullen resentment of the striker, the callous viciousness of the strike-breaker, the aggressive whine of panhandler, the inhibited terror of the bombed civilian, and a thousand other twisted emotional patterns. Each overlying and yet blending with the other, like a pile of semi-transparent masks?"

I can't speak for anyone else, but I found this a powerful passage that remained in my mind for some time after reading it. It's little wonder that Miss Millick called it "an awful thing to think of." Undeterred by his discomfort, Wran keeps musing aloud about this topic.

"Yet, that's just what such a ghost or vitalized projection would look like, Miss Millick," he continued, smiling in a tight way. "It would grow out of the real world. It would reflect all the tangled, sordid, vicious things. All the loose ends. And it would be very grimy. I don't think it would seem white or wispy or favor graveyards. It wouldn't moan. But it would mutter unintelligibly, and twitch at your sleeve. Like a sick, surly ape. What would such a thing want from a person, Miss Millick? Sacrifice? Worship? Or just fear? What could you do to stop it from troubling you?"
Wran continues in this vein for some time, adding more and more details to his sketch of what a modern day ghost might be like. Leiber is at the absolute top of his game here. As the details pile up, we're left not just with a frightening picture of a 20th century specter but also of a mind slowly deteriorating under the weight of the terrifying thoughts it bears, the conclusion to them being this:

"It's a rotten world, Miss Millick," said Mr. Wran, talking at the window. "Fit for another morbid growth of superstition. It's time the ghosts, or whatever you call them, took over and began a rule of fear. They'd be no worse than men."
We soon learn that Wran's musings have a cause: he's been seeing a black figure wherever he goes, following him. Wran hopes that the figure is a manifestation of a psychosis, because the alternative – that it is real – is too awful to contemplate. "Good thing I'm seeing the psychiatrist tonight," Wran thinks to himself. Surely, if anyone can help rid him of this dreadful vision, it's Dr. Trevethick – or so he hopes. 

"Smoke Ghost" is not in the public domain, like many of the stories I discuss here, so I can't point readers to a place online where you can read it. The story is, however, included in many anthologies not just those specifically devoted to Fritz Leiber's short fiction. If anything I've written above intrigues you, I highly recommend you make an effort to find the story and read it. It is, in my opinion, one of the best ghost stories I've ever read, one that gets to the heart of why ghosts continue to haunt us, even in this age of materialism, science, and psychology. 

One of the accompanying illustrations by Edd Cartier


  1. "It's a rotten world, Miss Millick," said Mr. Wran, talking at the window. "Fit for another morbid growth of superstition."

    Prototypical form of what became the urban horror subgenre in later years? Some of that just jams old superstitions into a modern setting, but others are more creative about re-imagining the old bogeys for a newer world.

  2. Leiber wrote many great stories, "The Man Who Never Grew Young", "The Ship Sails At Midnight" and "Mariana" are my favourite (non-Fafhrd and Gray Mouser)ones.

  3. Leiber had a bit of a thing for the ephemeral bits of modern life coming together as a greater whole--this may have been one of the first adumbrations of his later "Megalopolisomancy" that would crop up later.

    The Smoke Ghost is certainly urban, but in my opinion the real innovation is that it is collective. Most ghost-story ghosts are about the residua of individual personalities, or sometimes abstract principles, demons, or tulpas. But this one is about a gestalt entity aggregating out of communal anxieties and frustrations. If there's a good example of one before this, I don't think I've come across it.