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]