Who Goes There?
This is it. The last Fritz Leiber review I’ll be writing for a long while. I’m about tuckered out at this point, but thankfully we’re ending this month on somewhat of a high note. I like Leiber quite a bit, and his range is impressive, but even with that said, this is not the sort of thing I’d normally do with an author. I’m not even sure I’ll do it again, ever, but it’s been a neat experiment! Most importantly, going through so many of his works in such a span of time has made me appreciate Leiber’s versatility more, the things that make him tick, as well as become more aware of his few limitations. That Leiber continued to produce great work for so long, despite some obstacles, is a testament to his skill and especially his creative restlessness. Despite debuting in 1939, alongside Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, Leiber did three decades later what those peers of his could not: remain contemporary. His longevity and his versatility across several genres are remarkable, and much of his material still reads as perfectly modern.
You’re All Alone was part of a big revival for Leiber, having reinvigorated himself around 1950 after half a decade of low productivity and struggling to publish what little he wrote. Despite being published around the same time as SF classics like “Coming Attraction” and “A Pail of Air,” though, You’re All Alone‘s origins go back much farther, with themes and a tone that fall much more in line with Leiber’s horror fiction from the early ’40s. ISFDB provides an unusually lengthy note on the short novel’s gestation, but beware that this is a secondary source and the couple of typos left in tell me it’s not as thoroughly edited an entry as it should be. Basically, Leiber started working on You’re All Alone in 1943, right after finishing Conjure Wife and Gather, Darkness!, with the intention of submitting it to Unknown. Unfortunately, Unknown kicked the bucket midway through the year and Leiber was left without a suitable market for his fantasy-horror tale. It wasn’t until Fantastic Adventures, under the new editorship of Howard Brown (who also took over Amazing Stories), became a more prominent fantasy outlet in 1950 that Leiber’s novel would see publication.
Now, there are two versions of this novel: there’s the shorter magazine version under the title of You’re All Alone, and then there’s the longer book version titled The Sinful Ones (what a trashy, inferior title). The latter was initially published in 1953 with changes were made without Leiber’s consent, and it was “spiced up” considering books had looser censorship standards than the magazines. This strikes me as funny because the magazine version is already lurid enough, for reasons I’ll get into, and that while I haven’t read The Sinful Ones yet I feel like teetering more on the eroticism would simply be too much. Clocking in at 40,000 words (according to the contents page, and I can believe that estimate), You’re All Alone is too long to be considered a typical SFF novella (normally we’d be talking 20,000 to 30,000 words), and thus I’m reviewing it as a “complete novel,” even though it’s technically an abridged text.
First published in the July 1950 issue of Fantastic Adventures, which is on the Archive. Pretty striking cover, huh? It does a good job of letting you in on this being a little horrifying, a little paranoid, but also, judging from the woman’s torn clothing, a little sexually charged as well. Oh, there’s a dog in the novel, and it’s big and ruthless enough to rip out a man’s throat, but it’s not nearly that big. Unusually for a complete novel, You’re All Alone saw magazine publication more than once, appearing again in the November 1966 issue of Fantastic, which you can also find here. It’s been reprinted in both its magazine form and as The Sinful Ones, which can get confusing; there’s a paperback of The Sinful Ones from Wildside Press, and there’s a combo paperback with You’re All Alone and C. G. Gilford’s The Liquid Man, also a Fantastic Adventures complete novel. Your best bet is to just bite the bullet and read it online, since neither version has been published often, and unfortunately even the shorter version is too long to be anthologized.
Carr Mackay is just your average thirty-something in a lot of ways. He’s got a nice job at a Chicago employment office, he’s attractive enough but not model material, he has a sexy if also demanding girlfriend, and he doesn’t have any major hangups to speak of. Unfortunately for Carr, whose life prior to the story’s beginning seemed to be simple, he’s about to get a real kick in the pants in the form of a girl (said to be college age, don’t think about it too hard) who will both make and break his world. What follows is a trip into a nightmare world, a novel-length chase sequence, and perhaps most perplexing of all, a bit of a love story.
We meet Jane, who comes in presumably for job opportunities but who, judging from her nervous demeanor, is here for something else. She notices something off about Carr, but she won’t say what it is, at least not in public. Carr himself notices that a tall blonde woman is spying on both of them, or at least that’s what it looks like. Jane tells Carr to act like everything’s normal, but she’s not doing a good job at such an act and all of this is confusing for Carr, who is now finding out that there’s somsrthing “different” with him, something which separates him from everyone else. When Jane leaves, the tall blonde, apropos of nothing, slaps her, but Jane does not react; she doesn’t so much as flinch, just ignoring the slap and walking out. Do the two know each other? How come nobody in the office reacted to this? The opening scene is uncanny, and it’s also from this early point that Leiber injects a bit of social commentary into the equation.
No one said anything, no one did anything, no one even looked up, at least not obviously, though everyone in the office must have heard the slap if they hadn’t seen it. But with the universal middle-class reluctance, Carr thought, to recognize that nasty things happened in the worlds they pretended not to notice.
You’re All Alone is a Chicago narrative through and through, and it’s pretty far from a flattering depiction of the city. Of course, this could be just about any city. For such an urbanite, Leiber consistently made out cityscapes to be nightmarish, oppressive, artless, unappealing, specifically in his horror fiction. While it was published years afterward, You’re All Alone has more in common with his early stories “Smoke Ghost” and “The Hound” (see my review of the latter here) than with other works of his published during that time. There is no science-fictional basis for what happens to Carr; he, the average guy, is plopped by the hand of God from “our” world into something else entirely, as if someone had flipped a switch in the universe. One second his girlfriend Marcia and his coworker Tom act like their usual selves and the next they start acting strange, like they too had been suddenly put into a different universe, only they act unaware of it.
One moment everything’s normal, the next it’s all backwards. That’s what falling in love is like, you know, only here it’s a bit more foreboding. Who can he trust? He supposes it would have to be Jane, but she hesitates to explain herself, only to say that she and Carr ought to trust each other, that the people Carr knows are not entirely who they seem to be, and that the tall blonde is someone to be avoided at all costs. This would be sort of a demented meet cute if not for the fact that Carr is already taken, though he won’t be like that for long. First Tom introduces him to someone who does not exist (possiblly Jane is supposed to be in that place, but Tom is talking to thin air), and later when Carr meets up with Marcia she talks to him, but not quite. Again Marcia is talking to thin air, but it’s like she’s talking to a Carr who is not where she thinks he is, like Carr has gone invisible and there’s another alternate version of him that’s supposed to be in his place.
What the hell’s going on here? Carr has his theories, as to why people he knows are suddenly ignoring him or acting like he’s somewhere he’s not, as to why Jane has singled him out. And surprisingly, in the midst of his theorizing, he more or less figures out what the deal is, although it’s hard to explain, all the more so because there’s no why given. Basically, Tom and Marcia and the others are not the people who are acting weird, but in fact it’s Carr and Jane (along with the tall blonde) who are acting out of order. The tall blonde is named Hackman, and she’s part of a trio of people who, like Carr and Jane, have stepped out of the “normal” world and entered a level of existence where normal people can’t touch them.
The “normal” world of You’re All Alone is predetermined, with everything on a set path, with an unwritten script that everyone is supposed to follow. The people of this world may look alive, but they’re basically robots (not literally but metaphorically) who exist to serve what is predetermined. There are, however, exceptions… people who have broken from the script, who have become truly alive in the sense that they’re able to think and make decisions that go against the greater reality. The weird part is that the robots don’t react to when the “free” people break from the script; they just keep going like nothing has changed, reacting to the ghosts of the people they assume to be following along. The result is that the “free” people are free to do whatever they want, albeit they have to contend with other people who have gone off-script, some of which I’ll get into in the spoilers section.
The question is, how do you inject physical conflict into a story where the leads are unable to be hurt by 99.9% of people in the world? Well, suppose you had a secret, and a possibly dangerous one at that; then suppose there was a small group of people that knew this secret of yours, and conversely you would know their secret. You would become secret sharers, which means you could form a bond over your shared knowledge, or…
Carr and Janes are faced with danger from more than one direction. On the one end you have the trio of Hackman, Wilson, and Dris, plus their dog (yes, the dog on the cover and in the interior art, although it’s nowhere near that size) and on the other they face an even more mysterious threat: a gang of four men in black hats, who seem to scare the aforementioned trio just as much as our leads. Then there’s a wild card in the form of Jane’s ally, or at least the closest she has to one, a fellow “free” person whose name we never learn, only described as a small man with glasses. How trustworthy is he? How do we deal with these villains? Stay tuned.
There Be Spoilers Here
This is a novel full of thrills, not just of the horror variety but also incorporating some thrills of the romantic/sexual kind. Not a surprising development, but as Carr and Jane try to evade the fiends which haunt the city streets, they also grow closer together, and the result is kind of a love story. Romance is not something often practice in old-timey SFF, and even more rarely does it work; while I wouldn’t put the romance between Carr and Jane on a Shakespearean pedestal, it’s a more earnest effort than what most authors of the time would’ve given us. The problem with writing romance in the world of old-timey SFF is that presumably there would have to be some chemistry between a male lead and a female lead, and the latter specifically is an issue because most authors were not keen on writing a female lead as more than just a satellite love interest.
Jane is not as thoroughly characterized as some later Leiber leading ladies (try saying that three times fast), but she’s certainly not a trophy with legs existing only as a reward for Carr. Unlike the average leading lady in SFF from this time, Jane also has some real baggage; her home life sucks (she has basically none to speak of, on account of going off-script), she constantly lives in fear, and she has some major trust issues—with Carr as well as the small man with the glasses. Unlike most other examples from this period, Jane is not a perfect do-gooder or a total shrew but a believably flawed person, and ultimately Carr accepts her anyway, which I think is pretty sweet. Really ahead of his time, that Leiber.
Speaking of being out of the norm, there’s this common assumption that American life in the ’50s (You’re All Alone was written in the ’40s, but you’ll get what I mean) was puritanical, basically devoid of depictions and discussions of sex outside of the bedroom. You didn’t read about it, and you didn’t watch it, and you certainly didn’t talk about it. I’m thinking of Pleasantville, which is a good movie, but it’s also often misunderstood to be a parody of ’50s American suburban life when it’s actually parodying ’50s American suburban life as depicted in ’50s American television. The truth is that people seventy years ago were about as horny then as they are now—which is to say they were pretty fucking horny, it’s just that they didn’t have as many outlets for expression. A good deal of pulp fiction illustrations from this period shows scantily clad or tastefully nude women, either in a state of distress or of joy.
Why do you think the book version of this novel is called The Sinful Ones? To make it sound more lurid for the book market, sure, but it’s also not entirely inaccurate. Carr, Jane, the small man with the glasses, and others of their kind are indeed the sinful ones, the ones who have broken from societal norms on account of breaking of the big machine, and well, if you had the ability to get away with, say, being a peeping tom without consequence, you may very well do that. A “free” person in the world of the novel wouldn’t use that ability to rob a bank or get away with murder (although the latter, as we see, is certainly an option), but rather for something even pettier: to get their rocks off. Sexuality defines so many of the motivations and actions among the characters that the novel would cease to function without it; even the “wholesome” romance between Carr and Jane is tinged strongly with sexual tension.
In one of the most memorable scenes in the novel, Carr and Jane are out on one of their “dates” and they stop at a club, except they don’t take part in Chicago’s night life so much as have their fun apart from it. At one point Jane does a strip tease for Carr where everyone can see them, except nobody notices past maybe a split-second of disruption, like a glitch in the Matrix. It’s provocative, but it also captures intimacy between lovers in a public space that I’ve rarely seen in fiction. It’s like you’re both caught in a bubble and suddenly you turn into a couple of exhibitionists. Why should you care if people watch? There really is nobody else.
Jane looked at Carr and let her slip drop. Tears stung Carr’s eyes. Her breasts seemed far more beautiful than flesh should be.
And then there was, not a reaction on the part of the crowd, but the ghost of one. A momentary silence fell on Goldie’s Casablanca. Even the fat man’s glib phrases slackened and faded, like a phonograph record running down. His pudgy hands hung between chords. While the frozen gestures and expressions of the people at the tables all hinted at words halted on the brink of utterance. And it seemed to Carr, as he stared at Jane, that heads and eyes turned toward the platform, but only sluggishly and with difficulty, as if, dead, they felt a faint, fleeting ripple of life.
And although his mind was hazy with liquor, Carr knew that Jane was showing herself to him alone, that the robot audience were like cattle who turn to look toward a sound, experience some brief sluggish glow of consciousness, and go back to their mindless cud-chewing.
The eventual two-way confrontation with Hackman, Wilson, and Dris (and let’s not forget the dog!) and the gang of four (who are implied, going by their names, to be mafia members) is also inevitable; thus I don’t feel the need to dig deep into that. I was expecting thrills and chills with You’re All Alone, a robust and fast-moving plot with Leiber’s reliable level of prose, but what I was not expecting was sheer grime and sleaziness of the setting to not only be as present as it was but also to inform the plot to such an extent. Sex and violence are like border towns in neighboring countries, techically separated but only a stone’s throw apart. Leiber knew all about sex, violence, and alienation, and he respected the audience enough to let them in on this dark knowledge. For “pulp trash” in 1950 to do this? It’s likelier than you think. In hindsight the version of You’re All Alone that we now have would probably not have gotten printed in Unknown, a magazine which for all its virtues was a “classier” and more chaste establishment.
The ending is hopeful, if also too abrupt for my tastes, yet there’s still this sense of danger lurking around every corner, as if the dog that had been stalking Carr and Jane for much the novel was only a taste of future terrors. The total lack of an epilogue (the novel ends at exactly the same time the action ends) hints at a lack of real closure. Our leads can escape normal everyday life, but they can’t escape the shadows of the city, nor can they even hope to return to normality. It’s the story of star-crossed lovers who find, for both better and worse, that they are not alone.
A Step Farther Out
Leiber wasn’t much of a novelist, despite the two Hugo wins (plus a Retro Hugo) in that category, but unlike Destiny Times Three, which was short and felt like it could’ve been longer, You’re All Alone is short and yet feels like it wouldn’t really benefit from expansion. The cast is small, the plot is simple when you get down to it, yet this baby is dripping with atmosphere; the Chicago skyline is oppressive, the alleys and clubs no refuge from the lurking terror of suffocation. I’m not surprised Leiber had started working on it in the early ’40s, since it has more in common with his horror fiction and even the moodier Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories from that period. Leiber started out as a fantasist, but he was especially a practitioner of horror—a student of Lovecraft who quickly outpaced his teacher. You’re All Alone, published during Leiber’s return as a masterful science-fictionist, feels like the climax of his horror phase, being his last major venture in the genre for at least a decade. It might be the strongest argument for Leiber as the most important innovator in urban fantasy (and horror) in the days before Neil Gaiman, which may sound like a niche compliment, but it really isn’t.
Well, that’s it! I might do something like this again late next year, but this has been exhausting, if somewhat enlightening. Leiber is one of the few old-timey SFF authors who can be read voraciously in a variety of modes, and if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that such a marathon is unwise for even an author as varied as him. I’ll be posting this on the last day of 2022, and if you’re reading this in the future (which yeah, 99% likelihood you will be) you’ll have at least something of an idea as to how 2023 is going. Is it better? did things somehow get worse? Regardless, I’m looking forward to getting back on a regular schedule with a roundtable of authors, jumping across decades and discovering (and rediscovering) several quite different voices. Much as I like to pay tribute to an author I respect very much, the thrill of discovery is so much greater…
See you next time.