Review – Horrible Imaginings

Fritz Leiber

After being completely mesmerized by Jean Ray’s The Horrifying Presence (review here), I quickly learned that there are only a few other collections of Mr. Ray’s short fiction available in English. One of these was published by a small press whose work I had never come across before called Midnight House. Their collection of Mr. Ray’s stories, My Own Private Specters has long been sold out, but I nonetheless wanted to familiarize with the output of the press and so ended up acquiring a copy of Horrible Imaginings, a collection of Fritz Leiber’s short horror fiction. Prior to reading this collection, I had never read anything by Mr. Leiber (one of the many enormous holes in my reading). I can now say that while I’m very impressed with the quality of Midnight House’s books, I was less impressed with the work of Mr. Leiber.

While Jean Ray’s stories remain chillingly effective today, the stories in Horrible Imaginings do not, in my opinion, stand up quite as well. There are definitely notable exceptions. “Diary in the Snow,” for example, is a terrifying treasure that could just as well have been written by Simon Strantzas or Adam Golaski as Mr. Leiber. In it, an aspiring science fiction writer joins a friend in the latter’s remote mountain cabin to jump start his writing. Against a backdrop of severe winter weather, a series of increasingly strange events afflict the writer and his host; events that have more to do with the unfolding story the writer is working on than either man imagines. This story, however, was regrettably unique in its effectiveness.

In other instances, Mr. Leiber explores themes that have since been more deeply and satisfyingly explored by later writers. Here, I’m thinking of two stories in particular. The first is “The Hound,” in which a young man is pursued by a creature that is, for lack of a better description, a product of the city dwellers’ relationship with the city, a beast spawned from the singular psychological state of modern man. The second is “The Girl with Hungry Eyes,” a tale about a photographer’s professional relationship with a girl who personifies the vampiric nature of advertising in modern times. Both of these stories are ably told and interesting, but the subject of modern man’s relationship with cities has been more deeply explored by dozens of authors, and done so with greater effectiveness and nuance. The result is that these stories end up feeling more like historical curiosities than anything else.

My final beef with Horrible Imaginings is that Mr. Leiber sometimes has a tendency to write in a way that can be very tiresome, using a lot of words to say not a whole lot and overusing parentheticals. He doesn’t do it very often but when he does it can be difficult to persevere. I had to make no less than five separate attempts to make it through the first story in the collection, the eponymous “Horrible Imaginings.”

Despite these criticisms, in addition to the stories already mentioned several others are also worth reading, even if they aren’t mindblowingly amazing. These include “The Automatic Pistol,” “Answering Service,” and “The Ghost Light.”

Mr. Leiber is a highly respected author, but Horrible Imaginings just wasn’t for me. The physical quality of the book, on the other hand, was very impressive and is consistent with the highest quality books being published by small presses today. I’ll be reading more books from Midnight House in the future.

The True First

Horrible Imaginings was first published by Midnight House in 2004. It was limited to 520 copies, of which 500 were offered for sale.

[This review was not based on a review copy]

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8 comments

  1. strantzas

    It's unfortunate you missed the first two Midnight House Leiber volumes — Smoke Ghost and The Black Gondolier — as they contain some of his most fascinating work. Leiber really began the transition of the ghost story from gothic castles to a modern urban setting.

  2. Ben

    Interesting. Perhaps I'll track down some of those other volumes…

    While I don't pretend to be very well read in the Gothic castle variant of the ghost story, I do enjoy what I have read of them and I also enjoy modern ghost stories. It's odd that that the transition pieces wouldn't similarly appeal. Perhaps I should have waited a bit before wading into his work.

    In any event, I seem to be completely alone in my lack of enthusiasm for the his work.

  3. Orrin Grey

    I'm a huge Leiber fan, though his short pieces can sometimes be uneven and I haven't read this particular volume. Like Simon, I recommend at least some of the stories from the other two Midnight House collections (I've read them, but don't remember which stories are in what), and I'm a big fan of his Lankhmar books as well as his novels Conjure Wife and Our Lady of Darkness.

  4. Ben

    Alright, the three of you have convinced me to give some of his other work a try 🙂

    I'll make an effort to acquire one of the Midnight House volumes but I've got to find them at the right price or I might have to try some of his work from another publisher.

  5. MayorWhitebelly

    Leiber is an author who has done some work I love, but has a larger body of fantasy and science fiction I've wholly ignored. He has written some excellent horror, I second the recommendation of Conjure Wife and Our Lady, and would single out his story 'The Hill and the Hole' as his best work. Midnight House hasn't disappointed me yet; I would especially recommend Bob Leman's Feesters in the Lake; some of the best underappreciated weird fiction I've read; 'Window' is an absolute masterpiece, and 'The Pilgrimage of Clifford M.' is perhaps one of the most original vampire stories ever written.

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