In which a commuter develops the bad habit of looking at a certain rooftop every evening, during his train ride home.
By Fritz Leiber
First published in 1941
Anthologized in Smoke Ghost and Other Apparitions
Available online at Google Docs (Google registration required)
It’s surprising how well this story has aged. Insert a few references to mobile phones or laptops here and there, and you would essentially bring it up to date.
At the same time, it also depresses me that the commuting experience it describes has changed so little during the past 72 years. The gritty aspects of traveling to work via rail in 1941 appear to have been almost identical to those of 2013 (minus the malevolent paranormal entity, of course).
In any case, “Smoke Ghost” is a landmark story, perhaps the first major example of a modern subgenre* — namely, urban dark fantasy. During the 1940s, Fritz Leiber was one of the authors who yanked the supernatural horror story out of its traditional settings and drop-kicked it into the crowded, contemporary metropolis. In this re-formulation, Gothic mansions and remote priories were out, abandoned warehouses and deserted subway stations were in.
Leiber realized that the city — any city — is in fact the ultimate haunted house, possessing hundreds of thousands of rooms. And who knows what could be lurking within some of those?
Early on in “Smoke Ghost,” Catesby Wran, the main character, provides his secretary with a verbal sketch of the ghost suitable to such a “house:”
“‘Have you ever thought what a ghost of our times would look like, Miss Millick? 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 the panhandler, the inhibited terror of the bombed civilian, and a thousand other twisted emotional patterns? Each one overlying and yet blending with the other, like a pile of semi-transparent masks?'”
In Mr. Wran’s case, this is something more than pure speculation. A psychic who attempts to suppress his gifts, Wran is sensitive to phenomena that many of his fellow city-dwellers have learned to tune out. These include a strange bag-like figure, which lurks on a patch of roof Wran sees every evening from the elevated train. From day to day, the thing changes position, getting closer each time. Then, one day, it seems to have grown rudimentary limbs. It waves at him…
After that, life grows more complicated for Mr. Wran.
And, after publishing “Smoke Ghost” in 1941, Leiber’s literary career simply grew. It was an artistic turning point for him. In fact, the more of Leiber’s supernatural fiction you read, the more obvious it becomes that his later work was an offshoot of this story:
- He deals with possession in his novel Conjure Wife much in the same way that he does here
- The distant, sinister figure that waves shows up again in his masterpiece, Our Lady of Darkness
- Urban backgrounds are nearly ubiquitous in his horror stories — see “The Girl With the Hungry Eyes,” “Belsen Express,” The Winter Flies,” “You’re All Alone,” and many others.
“Smoke Ghost” also is notable as a purely twentieth-century story; there’s nothing nineteenth century about it. I’m speaking here of literary tone, not chronology. For example, authors such as H. Russell Wakefield were writing supernatural fiction in the 1920s and ’30s that could easily pass as having been written in 1885. By contrast, in “Smoke Ghost” there’s absolutely no doubt as to when we are — smack dab in the middle of the gritty, polluted, angst-laden twentieth century.
Of course, that was also the heyday of psychoanalysis. A creature of his time, Wran initially views his experiences through the keyhole of psychiatry; he tells himself that he’s suffering from a severe neurosis, even a psychosis. When Wran actually visits a shrink, however, it only confirms that what he’s encountering is beyond psychiatry’s abilities to treat. He has to go it alone.
Twentieth and nineteenth century supernatural fiction share a skeptical view of newfangled wisdom. That’s why the method Wran uses to deal with his problem, although unexpected and somewhat shocking, is appropriate: sometimes the old ways are best.
And that’s true, even in the modern metropolis, all lit up with electric light. There are dark corners that just can’t be eliminated.
*But not the very model of a modern major general.