THE DEEP ONES: "The Black Gondolier" by Fritz Leiber
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"The Black Gondolier" by Fritz Leiber
Discussion begins May 30.
First published 1964 in OVER THE EDGE by August Derleth, ed.
The Black Gondolier
Over the Edge
I might break out my copy of The Green Millennium / Night Monsters (Ace Doubles)
I think this will be my first Deep Ones failure. I don't have a copy of this one, and I've been abroad since Thursday, so it seems unlikely that I'll snag the story and read it in time, while I'm scrambling to catch up on regular business since my return home last night.
Take your time - remember that there's no end date on Deep Ones discussions!
Sentient, malevolent.... oil!?!? This is truly a weird tale and Leiber makes it plausible in a "whistling past the graveyard" kind of way. In fact, "The Black Gondolier" can be taken as a metaphorically deft , truly prescient story that cuts even closer to the bone after numerous post-publication oil wars, environmentally devastating massive oil spills, and the more ominous aspects of offshore drilling, not to mention the manner in which the superpower nations are addicted to the stuff.
Loved the idea of the Black Gondolier himself, a sort of oil-soaked Charon.
Agreed about the commentary on the oil. It's the first really modern subject our stories have touched on this cycle. Others have found horror in the past (the achealogical find of the old whistle, an old family curse) or out elsewhere ("mars", Jirel's underworld) but this one gets it's menance from the here and now. And given the role oil still plays in our world it still works on that level fifty years later.
Good point on the modernity of the story's subject, Lucien. It also applies to how Leiber tackles the supernatural angle: "Ghostliness is a matter of atmosphere, not age. I have seen an unsuccessful subdivision in Hollywood that was to me more ghostly than the hoariest building I ever viewed in New England" is pure Leiber, and really distills the philosophy of most of his horror fiction down to its essence. This was certainly touched on in "Smoke Ghost", which we have also discussed, but by 1964, we see that Leiber is well on his way toward an even more complex view of a new kind supernatural entity, which culminates in 1977's Our Lady of Darkness.
Okay, I found some time this morning to read "The Black Gondolier" online, and I'm sure glad I did. Yes, this one (like "Smoke Ghost") tackles the possibility of horror infusing the infrastructures of industrial civilization. It also reminded me of "Bob" and the Oxygen Wars, a story by Waves Forrest that made quite an impression on me when I first read it circa 1990.
Another thing: Here again, as in "Pigeons from Hell," we can see the competitive American regionalism regarding horror. Just like REH validates rural Lousiana against New England witchery, Leiber writes:
I have never been one to be dogmatically skeptical about preternatural agencies, or to say that Southern California cannot have ghosts because its cities are young and philistine and raw that sprawl across so much of the inhospitable desert coast because the preceding Amerind and Mission cultures were rather meager -- the Indians dull and submissive, the padres austere and cruel. Ghostliness is a matter of atmosphere, not age. I have seen an unsuccessful subdivision in Hollywood that was to me more ghostly than the hoariest building I ever viewed in New England.And also with respect to setting: The false setup in which the reader is first led to think that the story is placed in Italy (with the opening reference to "St Mark's square" along with Venice, canals, etc.) has a trickle of contrary clues until the narrator's admission that it is in California. The effect on the reader is to create a sense of wariness, suspicion of being again misled, that aligns with the "paranoid" (not if they really are out to get you) mentality of Dalloway and his ambivalently appreciative friend.
I knew you'd make it to the table!
Agreed. I think that Leiber did for SoCal what Stephen King did for Maine or HPL for New England, except what Leiber did was more difficult to accomplish, and required much careful deliberation on his part. After all, how do you make something so modern so haunted?
I love the section in which he begins by describing the history of some of the major highways, then moves on to "And then there were all the theosophists and mystics and occultists, genuine and sham, who came swarming to Southern California in the early decades of the century", leading into the description of "oil's black ghosts". Yes! It all starts to make sense! What a sinister place!
The effect on the reader is to create a sense of wariness, suspicion of being again misled, that aligns with the "paranoid" (not if they really are out to get you) mentality of Dalloway and his ambivalently appreciative friend.
I also appreciated Leiber's having the narrator himself point out how on-the-surface laughable the idea of an oil-entity is. This thwarts the same reaction in the reader, who is then free to go along with the "but what if" scenario that is subsequently presented.
Just finished the story. I had difficulty suspending my disbelief vis-à-vis the tale's central conceit (sentient oil), although I will give Leiber the benefit of the doubt and say that he probably intended the reader to have a primarily metaphorical reading of this. Stylistically, it's a dream - long, sinuous sentences that Leiber never lets get beyond his control (take that, Henry James!), an effective, never overbearing use of alliteration, and deft characterization - in sum, a model short story. I also loved the little sketches of various California subcultures, particularly the Beats.
Forgot to mention (and I swear I'm not making this up): while I was reading this today, my car was in the shop for... a fuel line leak. :O
It did take me while to warm to the story because of the conceit but by the end I was hooked. Overall, I liked the how it focused on the horror of its real world setting while still giving room to play in a fantastic setting (the dream) and tying them together*. I also thought it was interesting how this is a world thoroughly infused with a supernatural threat (even if few are aware of it) rather than a one time incursion from something outside every day experience.
*Though putting the twist / reveal at the end in an italicized font is so over used that it's become comical.
It wasn't hard for me to swallow the central conceit, because I already feel that way about petroleum.
What I really admire about Leiber is that you can find him toying with the concept of contemporary hauntings or manifestations in some of his earliest writings and then watch the trajectory as he develops it into the richly complex, sophisticated megopolisomancy and paramental entities of his later work. He really did think it through, which is how he was able to pull off the idea of malevolent oil in this one.
If you have ever watched Cocteau's ORPHEUS, the eerie, silent, slow-mo descent by Orphee into Death's realm is how I pictured the nightmarish gondola ride in Leiber's tale.
Exxon's Board of Directors are OIL'S BLACK AGENTS!!!
BTW- I liked Fritzy's play on words there, referencing his early Arkham House collection.
I think I'm going to have to nominate Harlan Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" for discussion for our next go-'round. If you're not familiar with it, it plays around with a lot of ideas that are similiar to the Leiber stories we've discussed.
It just occurred to me that "The Black Gondolier" reveals the real reason the Energy Task Force meeting (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_Task_Force) was kept secret! :O
> 18 the real reason
Yeah, Cheney took his mask off among fellow initiates of the Black Baptism.
Thanks to everyone who voted for this story!
I started a Leiber reading project a year or so ago but haven't completed it yet. (Don't intend to read the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stuff, though.) But I hadn't even heard of this story.
As people have noted, Leiber set out (and you could say Richard Matheson partly did this too) to put his horror settings in modern, industrial settings. I have no idea if everything historical Leiber mentioned is true, but I'd heard of some of the details and events regarding California history. And, like his "The Man Who Made Friends with Electricity" of two years earlier (1962), this is about sentient spirits haunting man's industrial infrastructure. (William Gibson's Sprawl Trilogy was, in some sense, treading old ground with his idea of artificial intelligences haunting the cybersphere.)
But Leiber uses a very Lovecraftian story structure: assertion of paranoid horror and starting with the denoument of the story (Daloway disappearing), the offering of the official explanation, and then a backfilling in of the story events to connect the horrifying dots of the sentient oil menace and the conclusion, complete with italics, of the physical evidence that lends credence to the worst, most outrageous interpretation of events.
But the metaphors and analogies Leiber uses to get us to buy into his absurd premise are more his own: the comparison of oil's chemical complexity to the complexity of our brains right down to the "stony skull" and "earthy flesh" oil is found in and the notion that petroleum's origins and eventual uses show it has all life and potentiality of life in it.
Tim Powers has always acknowledged his love of Fritz Leiber, and I can really see the influence Leiber had with this story: the modern California setting, the mention of strange historical events and anomalies, and the paranoid plot connecting disparate dots.
Hm. I've only read one Powers novel (and a good one: Declare), but I can see the resemblance.
I recently had to come up with my top 30 horror novels of the twentieth century. I couldn't resist including The Anubis Gates by Powers. Harlan Ellison is another big name who will gush over Leiber's greatness. The man had a hugely important influence on multiple genres, but I often think of him as more of a ”writer's writer” than as one who was name-brand popular with the masses. His idea for Conjure Wife alone was ”borrowed” over and over again. He also loved cats, and I love his tales featuring Gummitch and friends.
"For anyone who loves great literature, Fritz Leiber walked on water." - Harlan Ellison
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