Leiber (first syllable sounds like "lie") was born December 24, 1910, in Chicago, Illinois, to the actors Fritz Leiber, Sr. and Virginia Leiber, and, for a time, he seemed inclined to follow in his parents' footsteps. (Theater and actors were prominently featured in his fiction.) He spent 1928 touring with his parents' Shakespeare company before studying philosophy at the University of Chicago, whence he graduated with honours (1928—32). In 1932 he studied at general theological seminary and worked for a time as a lay preacher. In 1934 he toured with his parents' acting company, Fritz Leiber & Co.
He married Jonquil Stephens on January 16, 1936, and their son Justin Leiber was born in 1938. Jonquil's death in 1969 precipitated a move to San Francisco, California, and a three-year drunk, but he returned to his original form with a fantasy novel set in modern-day San Francisco, Our Lady of Darkness.
In the last year of his life, Leiber married his second wife, Margo Skinner, a journalist and poet with whom he had been friends for many years. Many people believed that Leiber was living in poverty on skid row. He seems to have suffered periods of penury; Harlan Ellison has written of his anger at finding that the much-awarded Leiber had to write his novels on a manual typewriter that was propped up over the sink in his apartment. But other reports suggest that Leiber preferred to live simply in the city, spending his money on dining, movies and travel. In the last years of his life, royalty checks from TSR, the makers of Dungeons and Dragons, who had licensed the mythos of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series, were enough in themselves to ensure that he lived comfortably.
Leiber's death occurred a few weeks after a physical collapse while traveling from a science fiction convention in London, Ontario, with Skinner. The cause of his death was given as "organic brain disease."
He wrote a 100-page-plus autobiography, Not Much Disorder and Not So Early Sex, which can be found in The Ghost Light (1984).
Leiber's own literary criticism, including several ground-breaking essays on Lovecraft, was collected in the volume Fafhrd and Me (1990).
As the child of two Shakespeare actors...Fritz, Sr. and Virginia (née Bronson)...Leiber was fascinated with the stage, describing itinerant Shakespearean companies in stories like "No Great Magic" and "Four Ghosts in Hamlet," and creating an actor/producer protagonist for his novel A Specter is Haunting Texas.
Although his Change War novel, The Big Time, is about a war between two factions, the "Snakes" and the "Spiders", changing and rechanging history throughout the universe, all the action takes place in a small bubble of isolated space-time about the size of a theatrical stage, with only a handful of characters.
He also acted in a few films, once with his father in Warner Bros.' The Great Garrick (1937).
Judith Merril (in the July 1969 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) remarks on Leiber's acting skills when the writer won a science fiction convention costume ball. Leiber's costume consisted of a cardboard military collar over turned-up jacket lapels, cardboard insignia, an armband, and a spider pencilled large in black on his forehead, thus turning him into an officer of the Spiders, one of the combatants in his Change War stories. "The only other component," Merril writes, "was the Leiber instinct for theatre."
Leiber was heavily influenced by H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Graves in the first two decades of his career. Beginning in the late 1950s, he was increasingly influenced by the works of Carl Jung, particularly by the concepts of the anima and the shadow. From the mid-1960s onwards, he began incorporating elements of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. These concepts are often openly mentioned in his stories, especially the anima, which becomes a method of exploring his fascination with but estrangement from the female.
Leiber liked cats, which feature prominently in many of his stories. Tigerishka, for example, is a cat-like alien who is sexually attractive to the human protagonist yet repelled by human customs in the novel The Wanderer. Leiber's "Gummitch" stories feature a kitten with an I.Q. of 160, just waiting for his ritual cup of coffee so that he can become human, too.
His first stories were inspired by H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos and it seems that a letter of encouragement from Lovecraft during 1936 spurred his decision to pursue a literary career. Leiber later wrote several essays on Lovecraft such as "A Literary Copernicus" which formed key moments in the serious critical appreciation of Lovecraft's life and work.
Leiber's first professional sale was Two Sought Adventure (Unknown, August 1939), which introduced his most famous characters, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. His work as a writer earned much praise but little money, a problem exacerbated by bouts of alcoholism. In 1943 he sold his first novels - Conjure Wife to Unknown and Gather, Darkness to Astounding. From 1945-56 Leiber was associate editor of Science Digest.
1947 marked the publication of his first book - Night's Black Agents, a short story collection. Book publication of Gather, Darkness followed in 1950. In 1951 Leiber was Guest of Honour at the World Science Fiction Convention in New Orleans. Further novels followed during the 1950s, and in 1958 The Big Time won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Many further books were published in the 1960s. His novel The Wanderer (1964) won the Hugo Award for Best Novel and he was awarded three further Hugos for Best Novella/Novellette: for "Gonna Roll the Bones" (1967),(which also won the Nebula Award in the same category); "Ship of Shadows" (1969) and "Ill Met in Lankhmar" (1970).
Our Lady of Darkness... originally serialized in short form in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction under the title "The Pale Brown Thing" (1977) ... featured cities as the breeding grounds for new types of elementals called paramentals, summonable by the dark art of megapolisomancy, with such activities centering around the Transamerica Pyramid. Our Lady of Darkness won the World Fantasy Award.
Leiber also did the 1966 novelization of the Clair Huffaker screenplay of Tarzan and the Valley of Gold.
Many of Leiber's most-acclaimed works are short stories, especially in the horror genre. Owing to such stories as "The Girl With the Hungry Eyes" and "You're All Alone" (aka "The Sinful Ones"), he is widely regarded as one of the forerunners of the modern urban horror story. (Ramsey Campbell cites him as his single biggest influence. In his later years, Leiber returned to short story horror in such works as "Horrible Imaginings", "Black Has Its Charms" and the award-winning "The Button Moulder."
The short parallel world story "Catch That Zeppelin!" (1975) added yet another Nebula and Hugo award to his collection. This story shows a plausible alternate reality that is much better than our own, whereas the typical parallel universe story depicts a world that is much worse than our own. "Belsen Express" (1975) won him another World Fantasy Award. Both stories reflect Leiber's uneasy fascination with Nazism...an uneasiness compounded by his mixed feelings about his German ancestry and his philosophical pacifism during World War II.
Fans awarded him the Gandalf (Grand Master) award at the World Science Fiction Convention in 1975, he was Guest of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention in Brighton, England (1979)and in 1981 the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America voted him the recipient of their Grand Master award.
He was also a member of the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America , a loose-knit group of Heroic Fantasy authors founded in the 1960s, some of whose works were anthologized in Lin Carter's Flashing Swords! anthologies.
In an appreciation in the July 1969 "Special Fritz Leiber Issue" of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Merril writes of Leiber's connection with his readers:
That this kind of personal response...is shared by thousands of other readers, has been made clear on several occasions. The November 1959 issue of Fantastic, for instance: Leiber had just come out of one of his recurrent dry spells, and editor Cele Lalli bought up all his new material until there was enough [five stories] to fill an issue; the magazine came out with a big black headline across its cover ... Leiber Is Back!
His legacy appears to have been consolidated by the most famous of his creations, the Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, written over a span of 50 years. The first of these, "Two Sought Adventure", appeared in Unknown in 1939. They are concerned with an unlikely pair of heroes found in and around the city of Lankhmar. (Fafhrd was based on Leiber himself and the Mouser on his friend Harry Otto Fischer, and the two characters created in a series of letters exchanged by the two in the mid-1930s) These stories were among the progenitors of many of the tropes of the sword and sorcery genre (a term coined by Leiber). They are also notable among sword and sorcery stories in that, over the course of the stories, his two heroes mature, take on more responsibilities, and eventually settle down into marriage.
Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories were also award winners and nominees: "Scylla's Daughter" was nominated for a Hugo (1961), and the Hugo and Nebula awards were awarded to "Ill Met in Lankhmar" (1970). Fittingly, Leiber's last major work, "The Knight and Knave of Swords" (1991) brought the series to a satisfactory close while leaving room for possible sequels. In the last year of his life, Leiber was considering allowing the series to be continued by others writers, but his sudden death made this more difficult. One new Fafhrd and the Mouser novel, Swords Against the Shadowland, by Robin Wayne Bailey, did appear in 1998, and according to the author's web site, a second volume is in the works.
The stories were influential in shaping the genre and were influential on other works. Joanna Russ' stories about thief-assassin Alyx (collected in 1976 in The Adventures of Alyx) were in part inspired by Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and Alyx in fact made guest appearances in two of Leiber's stories. Numerous writers have paid homage to the stories. For instance, Terry Pratchett's city of Ankh-Morpork bears something more than a passing resemblance to Lankhmar (acknowledged by Pratchett by the placing of the swordsman-thief "The Weasel" and his giant barbarian comrade "Bravd" in the opening scenes of the first Discworld novel).
Swords and Deviltry (1970). Collection of 3 short stories.
Swords Against Death (1970). Collection of 10 short stories.
Swords in the Mist (1968). Collection of 6 short stories.
Swords Against Wizardry (1968). Collection of 4 short stories.
The Swords of Lankhmar (1968) (expanded from "Scylla's Daughter" in Fantastic, 1963)
Swords and Ice Magic (1977). Collection of 8 short stories. (Though see Rime Isle below.)
The Knight and Knave of Swords (1988) Retitled Farewell to Lankhmar (2000, UK)
Conjure Wife (originally appeared in Unknown Worlds, April 1943) ... This novel relates a college professor's discovery that his wife (and many other women) are regularly using magic against and for one another and their husbands.
Conjure Wife was filmed three times under other titles:
* Weird Woman (1944)
* Night of the Eagle (aka Burn, Witch, Burn!) (1962) (screenplay by Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson and George Baxt, directed by Sidney Hayers, produced by Albert Fennell)
* Witches' Brew (aka Which Witch is Which?) (1980)
A film adaptation of Conjure Wife was announced in 2008, to be filmed by US director Billy Ray. It is slated to be a United Artists/Studio Canal co-production.
Gather, Darkness! (serialized in Astounding, May, June, and July 1943)
Destiny Times Three (1945) (reprinted 1952 as Galaxy Novel number 28)
The Sinful Ones (1953), an adulterated version of You're All Alone (1950 Fantastic Adventures abridged); Leiber rewrote the inserted passages and saw published a revised edition in 1980.
The Green Millennium (1953)
The Big Time (expanded 1961 from a version serialized in Galaxy, March and April 1958, which won a Hugo) ... Change War series
The Silver Eggheads (1961; a shorter version was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1959)
The Wanderer (1964)
Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966) (novelisation of a Clair Huffaker screenplay)
A Specter is Haunting Texas (1969)
You're All Alone (1972) (the first book edition includes two shorter works as well, reprinted as The Sinful Ones)
Our Lady of Darkness (1977)
Rime Isle (1977) (somewhere between a novella and a two-novelet collection, composed of "The Frost Monstreme" and "Rime Isle" offered as a unitary volume)
The Dealings of Daniel Kesserich (1997) ... H. P. Lovecraftian novella written in 1936 and lost for decades
Dark Ladies (NY: Tor Books, 1999). Omnibus edition of Conjure Wife and Our Lady of Darkness
Night's Black Agents (1947)
Two Sought Adventure (1957)
The Mind Spider and Other Stories (1961). Collection of 6 short stories.
Shadows With Eyes (1962). Collection of 6 short stories.
A Pail of Air (1964). Collection of 11 short stories.
Ships to the Stars (1964). Collection of 6 short stories.
The Night of the Wolf (1966). Collection of 4 short stories.
The Secret Songs (1968). Collection of 11 short stories.
Night Monsters (1969). Collection of 4 short stories. UK (1974) edition drops 1 story and adds 4.
The Best of Fritz Leiber (1974). Collection of 22 short stories.
The Book of Fritz Leiber (1974). Collection of 10 stories and 9 articles.
The Second Book of Fritz Leiber (1975). Collection of 4 stories, 1 play, and 6 articles.
Bazaar of the Bizarre (1978)
Heroes and Horrors (1978). Collection of 9 stories.
Ship of Shadows (1979). Collection of 5 short stories & novel The Big Time. Paperback (1982) drops 1 story.
Changewar (1983). Collection of the Changewar short stories (7 stories).
The Leiber Chronicles (1990) Collection of 44 short stories.
Gummitch and Friends (1992). Leiber's cat stories, the first five of which feature Gummitch.
Ill Met in Lankhmar (White Wolf Publishing, 1995, ISBN 1565049268) combines Swords and Deviltry (1970) and Swords Against Death (1970).
Lean Times in Lankhmar (White Wolf Publishing, 1996, ISBN 1565049276) combines Swords in the Mist (1970) and Swords Against Wizardry (1970)
Return to Lankhmar (White Wolf Publishing, 1997, ISBN 1565049284) combines The Swords of Lankhmar (1968) and Swords and Ice Magic (1977)
The Black Gondolier (2000) Collection of 18 short stories.
Smoke Ghost and Other Apparitions (2002) Collection of 18 short stories.
Day Dark, Night Bright (2002) Collection of 20 short stories.
Horrible Imaginings (2004) Collection of 15 short stories.
Quicks Around the Zodiac: A Farce. (Newcastle, VA: Cheap Street, 1983).
Consider the age in which we live. It wants magicians…. A scientist tells people the truth. When times are good...that is, when the truth offers no threat...people don't mind.… A magician, on the other hand, tells people what they wish were true...that perpetual motion works, that cancer can be cured by colored lights, that a psychosis is no worse than a head cold, that they'll live forever. In good times magicians are laughed at. They're a luxury of the spoiled wealthy few. But in bad times people sell their souls for magic cures and buy perpetual-motion machines to power their war rockets.
Everyone knows Newton as the great scientist. Few remember that he spent half his life muddling with alchemy, looking for the philosopher's stone. That was the pebble by the seashore he really wanted to find.
A bibliography of Leiber's work is Fritz Leiber: A Bibliography 1934-1979 by Chris Morgan (Birmingham, UK: Morgenstern, 1979). It is fairly definitive as to the date of publication but Leiber's work badly needs an updated comprehensive bibliography.
Jeff Frane's critical study in the Starmont Reader's Guide series, Fritz Leiber (Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1980) was the first full-length monograph on Leiber's life and work. Another booklength study, Fritz Leiber by Tom Staicar was published in 1983 (NY: Fredrick Ungar Publishing Co).
An important bio-critical study is Witches of the Mind by Bruce Byfield .
An essay examining Leiber's literary relationship with H. P. Lovecraft appears in S. T. Joshi's The Evolution of the Weird Tale (2004).
Benjamin J. Szumskyj edited (with S.T. Joshi) Fritz Leiber and H.P. Lovecraft: Writers of the Dark (Wildside Press, 2003), a collection of letters, fiction and essays relating the two writers. Szumskyj has also edited Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays, which examines various aspects of Leiber's work and Fantasy Commentator No. 57/58, a special theme issue devoted to Leiber's work.