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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC ISSUE 71 OUT NOW!

The Late Review: The Pale Brown Thing

5th Sep, 2019

Author: Peter Tennant

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We ended August with discussion of three books by Joel Lane, the last of which was published by The Swan River Press, and so it seems appropriate to open our September campaign by paying some attention to the remaining titles from that publisher languishing in my TBR pile.

As well as publishing fiction by some of the brightest and best writers currently operating in the genre of the supernatural and weird, Swan River publisher Brian J. Showers has brought back into print forgotten and neglected work, which leads me on to a consideration of Fritz Leiber's novella THE PALE BROWN THING (Swan River Press hc, 160pp, £30).

Leiber (1910 - 1992) was undoubtedly one of the greatest writers to grace the speculative genres with his presence, producing masterpieces in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. Originally serialised over two issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1977, The Pale Brown Thing was later expanded into Leiber's classic novel of the supernatural, Our Lady of Darkness, which Joel Lane described as "perhaps the most ambitious and challenging supernatural horror novel of modern times" when discussing Leiber's work in his critical overview of the genre, This Spectacular Darkness (see Case Notes blog entry of 22 August 2019 for my thoughts on that book).

A recovering alcoholic, after the death from cancer of his beloved wife Daisy, Franz Westen is making a new life for himself in San Francisco, writing stories for the pulp magazines and in a relationship with musician Cal. His fascination with old books and forerunners in his chosen field of "weird" fiction, particularly those with a San Francisco connection, such as Jack London and Clark Ashton Smith, lead to discoveries about the deceased occultist Thibaut de Castries, with his theories of the malign effects of metropolitan living and the entities he named paramentals. As he digs deeper, Westen finds out rather more than is good for him, and learns that he himself has unwittingly become the object of a curse.

While Our Lady is an undoubted classic of the field, this seminal work is every bit as entertaining and thought provoking. Leiber has constructed a plot in which every single detail adds to the whole, with suggestion and implication used to stunning effect, so that our sense of dread mounts along with that of Westen himself as he painstakingly pieces together the clues that anticipate his dire fate. There are chilling touches of detail, such as the unsettling feeling he has that he is being observed and followed, paranoia that steadily mounts throughout the book, until blossoming fully in the final pages where his behaviour goes completely overboard. Things such as his vision of "Taffy" visiting his house have about them an undeniable stamp of the Jamesian, while the ultimate manifestation of the monster brings to mind that image of "a crumpled sheet".

The sense of verisimilitude is aided by Leiber's portrait of San Francisco itself, the intimate streets in which it is so easy for even a native to get lost, wild and minatory places like Corona Heights rubbing shoulders with such tokens of the modern world as the TV Tower on Mount Sutro and the Transamerica Pyramid. Underlying all this we have de Castries and his fascinating theories of megapolisomancy, which sound silly taken in isolation but in context add a gripping philosophical foundation and horrifying plausibility to the events of the story, offering us a mythos of a kind that is peculiarly suited to the modern world.

Playing counterpoint, we have the cast of supporting characters; Cal, with her intuitiveness and love of music, the easy camaraderie of lovers that her and Franz have, while friends Gun and Saul offer more in the way of logic and scientific method, though ultimately even they must accept that not everything here is subject to rationality. These three, together with Franz's landlady and the caretaker with whom he plays chess, help to ground the story and add a dimension of the everyday; they are amiable people, easy to like and easy to believe in.

Inevitably, given Westen's chosen vocation, there are numerous references to books of the supernatural, both fiction and non-fiction, and Westen tends to visualise his problems in literary terms, adding an extra frisson and thrill of discovery for the reader in the know, so that you leave this work wanting to look up some of these people and learn more about their antecedents and how much of the details were devised by Leiber himself. And with an equal inevitability, at the novella's denouement the monster takes the form of an entity whose nature adds an ironic twist, with the thing Westen loves and values the most translated into the agency of his undoing. Of course, given his grieving and his barely conquered alcoholism, there is always the question of how much his own self-destructive urges and psychology make Westen vulnerable to the monsters that arise from de Castries' id.

Overall this is a splendid work of supernatural terror, the acorn from which a mighty oak grew, but no less valued for that. We also have a wealth of bonus material. In his introduction, Donald Sidney-Fryer who was the model for one of the characters and a friend of Leiber, gives a very personal account of events surrounding the story's creation and the milieu of San Francisco back at the time of the novella. Finally John Howard, in an afterword of sorts, talks about the differences between novella and novel, going so far as to list alterations to the text, the additions and expansions that made Our Lady possible. I loved this book and will probably dig out my copy of the novel to check out some of those alterations for myself.

As with all Swan River releases, this is a beautifully produced book, one that will almost certainly attain the status of collector's item if it hasn't done so already, with superb cover art and design courtesy of Meggan Kehrli and Jason Zerrillo. It was released in a limited edition of 350 copies and, according to the publisher's website, is already sold out, but you can probably pick up second-hand copies on websites such as Amazon.

 

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