Archive for September 11th, 2007

“Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”

Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 3

If I am remembered for anything — which is open to debate — it will be for Witches of the Mind, my study of the American fantasist Fritz Leiber. So far, my only other claim to fame is my free software articles, but they have a brief currency, and I don’t expect anyone to remember my byline more than six months after the last one appears. But, among the half dozen or so scholars who care about the subject, Witches has enjoyed a modest reputation for sixteen years. Nor have its ideas been seriously challenged yet.

The book is an extended version of my master’s thesis in English at Simon Fraser University, in which I talk about Leiber’s development of the Anima and Shadow archetypes in his fiction. Early on in my graduate program, I had decided that, if I were going to spend eight months or more writing a thesis, I was going to do something original. Adding my ideas to one of the hundreds of articles written yearly about, say, Hamlet seemed both daunting and a waste of time. Getting the idea accepted required a little bit of lobbying by my thesis supervisor, but the possibility of a book and the then trendiness of popular culture was enough to get the topic accepted.

Writing the thesis was memorable for the thunderstorm that took down the motherboard of my first computer on the very day that I was going to learn how to do backups. I spent two anxious weeks, my defence date drawing near, before I could recover the files from the hard drive (unsuprisingly, I’ve been a fanatical believer in backups ever since). It was memorable, too, for my twenty minute defence, which was curtailed when its second reader suffered a petit mal attack that he tried to hide and so kept me from the drilling I expected from him. I also took away from it a love of research, and an exhaustive knowledge of the writings of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, much of which I read while developing my ideas. But, most of all, the process was memorable for my first meetings with Fritz Leiber and his second wife Margo Skinner, two of the extraordinary and eccentric people who have enriched my life from time to time.

The day after a drunken celebration over retsina and Greek food with my supervisor and external reader, I set about the task of reshaping my thesis for a book. Selling the idea of the book wasn’t difficult — there had been previous books on Leiber, but mine was the first scholarly one and the first, Leiber said, to offer any real insight into his creative development.

But the thesis title, “Divination and self-therapy: Archetypes and stereotypes in the works of Fritz Leiber,” was too academic. Perhaps in choosing the name, I was trying to subdue criticism by the conventional of my topic by hiding it under a thick verbiage of respectability. I had the idea of searching Macbeth, Leiber’s favorite Shakespearean play, for a pithier title, and found it in Macbeth’s hallucination of a dagger in Act 2. The phrase “Witches of the Mind” seemed ideal for conveying the idea that Leiber’s portrayal of women was a conceit that was never meant to be taken as a literal description. Leiber wasn’t writing about women as they were; he was writing about his own unconscious portrayal of them.

I admit that I was mildly disappointed when the book came out. I had added about twelve thousand words to the thesis, and, to keep the cost down, the publisher had set it in cramped pages. Even worse, the cover was a collage of images only vaguely associated with Leiber’s work, and featured a portrait of the subject with a jaw that looked as though it belonged on a stoic New England farmer, or maybe H. P. Lovecraft.

Of course, the important thing was to be published, I told myself. All the same, I took care not to let any of my academic colleagues actually see the cover of my main claim to fame.

And I worked that claim heavily, too. It was mainly on the strength of my book credit that I was allowed to teach at Simon Fraser University, despite my lack of a doctorate. The book also gave me a degree of recognition among fantasy scholars, particularly when it was nominated in both years of eligibility for the Mythopoeic Scholarship Award.

I didn’t mind, either, the modest amounts of cash I got in the first few years of sales. It was never much, but enough to pay for dining out a few times.

Buoyed by these small successes, I started doing a sequel. Originally, I hoped to publish the letters of Fritz Leiber and his college friend Harry Otto Fischer, in which the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series began. But Leiber no longer had his letters, and Fischer’s letters, if they existed at all, were in the library of Clarksburg, West Virginia, and out of range of my travel budget. I had more success with Leiber’s letters to Franklin MacKnight, another college friend, and published some of those letters in the New York Review of Science Fiction.

I also used them for a debunking article entitled “Fafhrd and Fritz,” which was intended as a sequel to Leiber’s “Fafhrd and Me,” which gives a heavily romanticized account of the origin of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series. My article debunked Leiber’s, and pointed out MacKnight’s role in the series’ creation.

For a while, I considered a collection of stories by other writers in honor of Fritz Leiber. But then my life changed. Leiber died, and so did the story collection somehow. The English department had a new chair, who saw sessional appointments as a way to exchange favors with other universities, and suddenly my regular employment was in question. I considered a doctoral thesis, but didn’t want to spend the time and had trouble coming up with a topic. Unwilling to move for personal reasons, I became what I call a “recovering academic” and started working as a technical writer. Shortly, after, I suffered the greatest crash and burn of my life. By the time I started climbing out of that bleak period, academic concerns seemed far away. My research photocopies lingered on a shelf by the window of our spare room, gradually bleaching into near-illegibility in the sun.

For several years, I thought that Witches and the academic era of my life were things of the past. Then, a few years ago, I heard from Benjamin Szumskyj, a library technician and fantasy scholar from Australia with a love of Leiber’s work. He had some extravagantly kind things to say about Witches, and did an interview with me for a fanzine. He went on to edit a collection of Leiber’s early and small press work and a collection of essays on Leiber, cajoling me and shaming me with his enthusiasm until I actually managed to write my first academic paper in over ten years, “The Allure of the Eccentric.” Ben has far surpassed my own efforts, but, in my conceit, I like to think that I may have been a minor influence for him.

Since then, I have been thinking of dusting off the Leiber-MacKnight letter project. Some improvements in OCR scanning in GNU/Linux makes that more of a possibility than a few years ago.

And every now and then, I run across copies of Witches on the bookshelf, dust them off, and dip into a page or two. I feel as though it were written by someone else now, except that I remember writing the odd phrase or two. Yet the book holds up well, considering its years, and I still can’t resist a wistful pride in having written it.

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