In my previous post on The Weird, way back in July, about Robert Barbour Johnson’s ‘Far Below’, I speculated about the point at which modernity and the weird became more closely engaged with one another, and linked Johnson’s story of the creatures living in the New York subway system with ‘Smoke Ghost’ by Fritz Leiber, the story I’ll be discussing here, and stories by Donald A Wollheim and Ray Bradbury. It’s not exactly about subject matter; to be precise, I said that ‘this group of stories seems to be anchored in the here and now in a way that earlier stories weren’t. Or, more accurately, perhaps, that the narrative movement has shifted direction: the weird emerges more clearly into the contemporary rather than the story leaving the contemporary in search of the strange.’
But if ‘Far Below’ is unconscious of the change in direction, ‘Smoke Ghost’, published in 1941, two years after ‘Far Below’ seems to be much more self-aware. Almost the first thing the reader knows about Catesby Wran is that he is preoccupied with ghosts, but not any old ghost. Having asked his secretary, Miss Millick, if she’s ever seen a ghost, he goes on to qualify his question.
I mean a ghost from the world today, with the soot of the factories on its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul. The kind that would haunt coal yards and slip around at night through deserted office buildings like this one. A real ghost. Not something out of books. (268)
‘Not something out of books’ suggests a farewell to the work of people like M.R. James and maybe Lovecraft too, a reaction against the ghost as a haunter of libraries, cloisters and college rooms. Modern times require modern ghosts; Wran makes this plain as he expands on his theme.
Have you ever thought what a ghost of our times would look like, Miss Millick? Just picture it. A smoky composite face with the hungry anxiety of the unemployed, the neurotic restlessness of the person without purpose, the high-pressure metropolitan worker, the uneasy resentment of the striker, the callous opportunism of the scab, the aggressive whine of the panhandler, the inhibited terror of the bombed civilian, and a thousand other twisted emotional patterns. Each one overlying and yet blending with the other, like a pile of semi-transparent masks. (268)
One might think, on the one hand, of that scene in Johnson’s ‘Far Below’ as the narrator sees the passengers in the subway train, each face suspended for a moment like a frame of film, types, yes, but still identifiably human, and on the other, of Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925), with its flâneuristic narrative of snippets of people’s lives as they flow through the city streets, the reader briefly connecting with just a few of them, enough to understand that all these faces are human beings with stories. By the time we reach ‘Smoke Ghost’, all this is gone. All Wran can see is varieties of pain, anger and worry, a composite face; individuality, however crudely expressed, has been lost. People have become occupations and emotional patterns, their individuality somehow obscured but not entirely erased, and it’s perhaps that incomplete erasure that worries Wran so much. His fellow passengers on the elevated railway, however, are ‘the usual reassuringly wooden-faced people everyone rides home with’ (271), not showing their emotions at all. Indeed, it is Wran who commits the solecism of unconsciously uttering a muffled cry when he is startled by something beyond the carriage window: ‘the man beside him looked at him curiously, and the woman opposite gave him an unfavorable stare’ (271).
However, the source of Wran’s anxiety is even more complicated than this might suggest. At first sight, his modern ghosts appear to be working-class ghosts, blue-collar ghosts, ghosts with dirty hands, who queue up to punch their cards, who worry about losing their . One might understand that fear given that Catesby Wran is not himself part of that world. Instead, he is an advertising executive, high enough up the ladder to have an office to himself, a secretary to take dictation. Perhaps that ‘high-pressure metropolitan worker’ inserted into that list is Wran, nervously clinging to his fragile middle-class status.
Faces are not the only recurring motif in the story. Height too is important. This is most clearly stated in the role of the elevated train in the story. Wran first sees the mysterious figure from the window of the elevated train, and sees it again and again, but think too of the elevator in his office block, and how so much centres around its rise and fall. Height represents status and security, on the one hand, but with height comes an undefined sense of threat.
It had all begun on the elevated. There was a particular little sea of roofs he had grown into the habit of glancing at just as the packed car carrying him homeward lurched around a turn. A dingy, melancholy little world of tar-paper, tarred gravel and smoky brick. Rusty tin chimneys with odd conical hats suggested abandoned listening posts. There was a washed-out advertisement of some ancient patent medicine on the nearest wall. Superficially it was like ten thousand other drab city roofs. But he always saw it around dusk, either in the smoky half-light, or tinged with red by the flat rays of a dirty sunset, or covered by ghostly wind-blown white sheets of rain-splash, or patched with blackish snow; and it seemed unusually bleak and suggestive, almost beautifully ugly, though in no sense picturesque; dreary but meaningful. (270)
Leiber goes on to suggest that for Wran it represents ‘certain disagreeaible aspects of the frustrated, frightened century in which he lived, the jangled century of hate and heavy industry and total wars’ (270). Yet, there is more to it than that. The phrases ‘sea of roofs’ and ‘little world’ suggest that it is somehow cut off from the life of the streets altogether yet it is also, in that nightly glance, the receptacle of Wran’s concerns and has somehow given them a life of some sort.
It’s the nature of that life that is perhaps the most disturbing part of the story. First, there is the endless contaminative drift of the soot that seems to pervade Wran’s office, followed by a ‘shapeless black sack’ that gradually acquires a ‘misshapen head’, turns into a ‘sodden, distorted face of sacking and coal dust’ and becomes by turns ‘a Negro’, when he seeks to clarify what his doctor sees through the window, and then, according to his doctor’s account, ‘a white man in blackface. You see, the colour didn’t seem to have any brown in it. It was dead-black’ (273) before, finally, emerging in his son’s cries of ‘black man, black man’ (274). We might begin to wonder again about those workers whom Wran catalogues and transforms into a composite ghostly face, smoky and masked, and about what aspects of the twentieth century do frighten Wran.
What’s also fascinating about this story is the way in which Wran sets about dealing with his experience, attempting to explain it away through psychology, drawing on his childhood experiences as what he calls ‘a sensory prodigy’ and his mother’s attempts to transform him into a medium. If we notice a sense of disconnection and confusion in Wran’s experiences as an adult, the childhood discrepancy is even stronger, at least if we are to believe Wran’s own account. His matter-of-fact statement that he can see people through walls contrasts sharply with his description of his mother’s agonising attempts to persuade him to see dead people, dismissing his actual ability, supposing we accept it as being real, trying instead to find something that is not there. Or rather, given the timing, one might wonder if his mother understood that spiritualism thrives in time of war and that Wran’s skills, properly channelled, might provide her with solace or, more prosaically, with reflected glory. It’s a complex emotional nexus, not least with the involvement of the researchers and Wran’s failure to deliver to order.
Again, in his final encounter with the spirit of the city, embodied in Miss Millick, herself representative of so many city workers, one has the sense that Wran is caught somewhere between scientific modernity and something older, buried deep in the human imagination, that been carried into the city and is now seeking to find a way to express itself with the tools at hand. I hesitate to use the word ‘primeval’ but it’s tempting to look back to Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’.
And indeed, for all this talk of modernity, what strikes me about Leiber’s story is how much it draws on the past as well, wearing its Jamesian influences very clearly: in particular ‘The Mezzotint’ and ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ come to mind. At the same time, Leiber very deftly captures that particular experience of riding home at night along suburban train lines, looking out over the roofs and seeing a peculiar high-rise world that is invisible from street level.
And possibly, in the end, it is all about imagination. Wran’s focus on that cluster of roofs every evening has somehow brought something into being but when he acknowledges its power, submits to it even, something vital is lost. One wonders then what bargains the other ‘wooden-faced’ passengers have made.