Who Goes There?
Fritz Leiber has a curious relationship with the pulp horror scene of the ’30s; he started in earnest in 1939, but he was already prepping for his writing career, and he was in contact with some pretty major figures, including none other than H. P. Lovecraft. Leiber’s correspondence with Lovecraft in the last year or so of the latter’s life had a pretty immense impact on the younger author, and actually I remember Leiber quoting Lovecraft a couple times in the first installment of Destiny Times Three. Unlike though, say, Robert Bloch, whose first stories were straight Lovecraft pastiches, Leiber found his own voice (or at least enough) right away with his first professional genre publication. Still, the legacy of Lovecraft stayed with Leiber, especially in his horror, which sometimes approaches the cosmic but which more often stays rooted in known reality. A key innovation of Leiber’s as a horror writer crossbreeding old terrors with what was then a newfangled modernity, no doubt influencing what we’d now call urban fantasy.
“The Hound” was published about a year after what is arguably Leiber’s most importan horror story, if not his best: “Smoke Ghost.” Genre historian Mike Ashley called “Smoke Ghost” “arguably the first seriously modern ghost story,” in that it’s a ghost story which is unique to the post-industrial urban setting; it’s not something that could’ve been written prior to the industrial revolution. What “Smoke Ghost” did for ghosts “The Hound” sets out to do similarly for werewolves, and indeed the two feel like companion pieces—being Leiber’s first real attempts at modernizing these old chestnuts of horror.
First published in the November 1942 issue of Weird Tales, which is on the Archive. It was soon reprinted in the Leiber collection Night’s Black Agents from Argham House, complete with a handsome-ass cover by Ronald Clyne. It’s been anthologized several times over the decades, although I’m not sure how many of them you can get new. While Masters of the Weird: Fritz Leiber looks to be a fetching collector’s item, it’s just that—a collector’s item. And before you ask, unfortunately no, “The Hound” was not included in the Ballantin collection The Best of Fritz Leiber, although given the breadth of his output it’s no surprise if several major short stories did not make the cut. The most viable option, if you don’t wanna prowl through used bookstores, is the collection Horrible Imaginings, although find it at your own risk, as it’s from—you fucking guessed it—Open Road Media. I swear these bastards exist just to give all the authors I like mediocre paperbacks with the intent on further burying their legacies.
You won’t be getting much in the way of plot synopsis here, mostly because “The Hound” might be the shortest short story I’ve reviewed thus far, and it’s also not densely told in terms of its plot, although it is dense in its imagery and its ability to invoke eeriness. It’s clear to me that Leiber wanted to capture a certain exquisite vibe more so than he wanted to tell a conventional werewolf story. Good for him!
Our “hero” of the day is David Lashley, although there’s nothing really heroic about him; he’s a put-upon young man with a job he doesn’t seem particularly fond of. At first I thought David was supposed to be younger, since he’s shown at the start to still be living with his parents, but actually it looks like he’s a good thirty years old. David’s parents are elderly now and he has to take care of them, both in physically looking after them and also paying the bills with his job. If this sounds a little like Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” that’s because it might be an homage, although I’m not sure if Leiber had read Kafka at this point; he probably did, considering his involvement with the so-called Lovecraft Circle and all that, and also because “The Hound” as a whole has a remarkable Kafkaesque vibe about it. I’m using “Kafkaesque” in the correct sense of the word here, because the short story touches on themes prevalent in Kafka’s work, such as alienation, both from one’s own family and society at large.
And then there’s the city. David has been having nightmares about a red-eyed monster, like a dog but not quite, stalking him for years now, and he’s reached a breaking point; there has to be something to these nightmares of his. Of course what David is really afraid of is not some werewolf which might gnaw on his bones in the middle of the night, but something much bigger than even the biggest dog: the city—urbanity. I said before that “Smoke Ghost,” that revolutionary story from the pages of Unknown, transplanted the ghost to the modern landscape—quite literaally, with the ghost being a personification of the factories, the garbage in the streets, the put-puttering of automobiles, of modernity. The potential threat of the werewolf unnerves David on its own, but what really gets to him is the werewolf as only the beginning—the first bite—of a vastly larger creature. We’re back to Kafka again, with the city as villain.
Take this early passage, which juxtaposes (and Leiber does it quite subtly here) the threat of the werewolf with David’s position as a “modern” man, a man of the city:
David Lashley clenched his hands in his overcoat pockets and asked himself how it was possible for a grown man to be so suddenly overwhelmed by a fear from childhood. Yet in the same instant he knew with terrible certainty that this was no childhood fear, this thing that had pursued him up the years, growing ever more vast and menacing, until, like the demon wolf Fenris at Ragnorak [sic], its gaping jaws scraped heaven and earth, seeking to open wider. This thing that had dogged his footsteps, sometimes so far behind that he forgot its existence, but now so close that he could almost feel its cold sick breath on his neck. Werewolves? He had read up on such things at the library, fingering dusty books in uneasy fascination, but what he had read made them seem innocuous and without significance—dead superstitions—in comparison with this thing that was part and parcel of the great sprawling cities and chaotic peoples of the twentieth century, so much a part that he, David Lashley, winced at the endlessly varying howls and growls of traffic and industry—sound sat once animal and mechanical; shrank back with a start from the sight of headlights at night—those dazzling, unwinking eyes; trembled uncontrollably if he heard the scuffling of rats in an alley or caught sight in the evenings of the shadowy forms of lean mongrel dogs looking for food in vacant lots.
Think about it, “the endlessly varying howls and growls of traffic and industry.” Can I take a moment to gush about how a good a writer, sentence-by-sentence, Leiber is? At his best he becomes genuinely poetic, and (this is a hot take) I’d say he comes much closer to marrying sheer terror with the beauty of the English language than Lovecraft. The two men were only a generation apart, but Leiber still reads as modern (if occasionally pulpy) while Lovecraft reads like he’s from a totally different era—which he was, I suppose. Much of my joy in reading “The Hound,” even when not much was actually happening on the pages (which is a lot of it), came from the way in which Leiber wrote (almost sculpted, like he was carving a swan out of a giant cube of ice) about the dark world surrounding Our Hero™. That David’s paranoia feels rather unprompted is beside the point, although admittedly it does feel like we’ve been thrown into the middle of a larger narrative; there’s a lot about David we don’t get to know.
Well, we know a few things: we know David resents caring for his parents, we know he likes but is unable to settle down with this one woman he’s good with (Kafka again), and we know he wants to get the fuck out of the city but is unable to articulate this desire himself. He also has a friend, Tom Goodsell (which sounds like symbolism but probably isn’t), who has some rather odd things to say about werewolves and the supernatural in general when asked about them. In-story, Tom’s half-joking proposition about the evolution of the supernatural in relation to civilization probably didn’t help David’s paranoia, but on a meta level he summarizes Leiber’s mission statement pretty well. In short, the haunted castle narratives of the pre-Victorian era are no longer compatible with the “modern” conception of the supernatural, because between 1792 and 1942 we got, among other things, Darwinian evolution. The automobile. The airplane. And pretty soon, nuclear weapons.
Even the psychologically adept ghost stories of Henry James would struggle in the face of modernity, and God knows they would struggle even more in the wake of the atomic bomb. If our understanding of the nature changes then our understanding of the supernatural must also change. You might not agree with that statement; God knows there’s always a market for an old-fashioned vampire novel that barely treads beyond the ground mapped out by Dracula. But Leiber is making a grander statement here, not just about how we write about the supernatural has the evolve, but also that horror writing much evolve as well. The dude respected Lovecraft a great deal, and worked to preserve his legacy, but he also acknowledged that we (anyone who wants to become a practitioner of horror) has to, at some point, move beyong Lovecraft—into uncharted waters.
Consider this, from Tom:
I’ll tell you how it works out, Dave. We begin by denying all the old haunts and superstitions. Why shouldn’t we? They belong to the era of cottage and castle. They can’t take root in the new environment. Science goes materialistic, proving that there isn’t anything in the universe except tiny bundles of energy. As if, for that matter, a tiny bundle of energy mightn’t mean—anything.”
In part it reads like an essay on what a modern horror story should be, and there’s definitely a criticism towards “The Hound” that it reads almost more like what Leiber thinks a good horror story ought to read like than a good horror story on its own; in that sense it doesn’t hold up as well as “Smoke Ghost,” which is considerably more gripping as a narrative by comparison. And yet, Leiber probably figured (correctly) that it would be better to discuss what he thinks horror ought to become by way of demonstration rather than to lecture the read about it straight up. Also because presumably more people would read it as a short story than as an essay, but that’s neither here nor there. Another advantage is that with fiction Leiber is allowing himself to go full blast on describing David’s mindset, the setting around him, the way he doesn’t vividly describe the ghostly werewolf that’s stalking him, all that. It’s hard for this man to write a bad sentence.
There Be Spoilers Here
I’m not a fan of the ending. When David finally confronts the hound, I do appreciate that Leiber refrains from describing the creature much, partly because the scene is so darkly lit (a blackout occurs in the climax) and partly because Leiber at least knows that the unseen is much scarier than the seen. Even so, the ending commits the sin of having David saved by way of deus ex machina, albeit a mundane one in a vacuum: it’s just some guy with a flashlight, whose name and even face are unknown. It’s also, I have to admit, a little corny. When David asks if the rescuer had seen the hound himself, he replies with:
“Wolf? Hound?” The voice from behind the flashlight was hideously shaken. “It was nothing like that. God, I never believed in such things. But now—” Then the voice spoke out with awful certainty and conviction. “It was— It was something from the factories of hell.”
The dialogue up to this point had admirably stayed away from the typical oh-ye-gods Weird Tales brand of horror dialogue, and the omnicient narrator even pokes fun at the melodrama of it early on, but I suppose Leiber couldn’t help himself at the very end.
Now is a good time to explain why I like werewolf stories so much. I suppose it’s the inherent duality of the thing; a werewolf, by definition of its name, might not necessarily turn into a person, but it will always transform into something. There’s always the possibility of transformation with werewolves. A vampire will always be a vampire, whether they want to be or not, but a werewolf implies duality. In the case of “The Hound,” the werewolf and the city are all but said to be two sides of the same coin—that duality right there, the beast and the civilized. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Leiber started the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, about two adventurers who would rather travel abroad than settle down in urbanity, around the same time he wrote “Smoke Ghost” and “The Hound.” He was a bit of a cosmopolitan, but I can’t help but find Leiber’s ambivalence toward urbanity palpable.
A Step Farther Out
Earlier I said that “The Hound” is like a companion to Leiber’s earlier horror story, “Smoke Ghost,” and while I think that’s true I also think “The Hound” got published in what was then the lesser magazine because it’s somewhat less refined than its older brother. While his fears are justified, David’s fear of the wolf feels inexplicable at first, almost like it’s more a product of his psyche (which itself is not in the best shape) than a flesh-and-blood creature. Even with a story this short, Leiber strings together only but the bare bones of a plot, with a few characters thrown in who appear once and then never show up again. The ending is oddly unsatisfying, but then at least it wasn’t quite as predictable as I was anticipating. And yet, something must be said of how eerie and prescient Leiber’s vision is, not to mention how poetic his descriptions can get. He doesn’t tell a narrative or give us insight into our lead character so much as he presents a colorful metaphor for what happens when—to cop E. M. Forster’s sentiment—the machine stops.
Leiber would return to urban horror again, perhaps most famously with his debut novel Conjure Wife, but it didn’t take long for him to move to greener pastures. Or hell, for him to dip his toes in every other subgenre of horror and fantasy.
See you next time.