[It’s not the book that’s horrible — it’s the MONDAY that’s horrible!]
The Black Gondolier is a collection of horror stories by Fritz Leiber. I love Leiber’s LANKHMAR stories — they’re some of my very favorites in fantasy literature — and I’ve enjoyed several of Leiber’s short stories and one of his horror novellas, so I figured I might enjoy The Black Gondolier.
I found The Black Gondolier to be, as we so often say when reviewing a story collection, “a mixed bag.” I love Leiber’s style in all of these stories — he’s got a great ear and I love the way he uses language. But I found that many of the stories in The Black Gondolier managed to push one of my buttons, either as a feminist or a psychologist, and usually both. These stories are full of dumb blondes with big boobs and heaps of Freudian psychobabble. So much of the old SFF is like that, I know, and Fritz Leiber is one of the worst culprits, at least in my experience, but I usually love his style and plot so much that I can overlook the sexism and bad psychology. I was only partially successful with that in this collection.
Here are the stories in The Black Gondolier:
- “The Black Gondolier” — Our narrator’s strange new friend thinks oil is sentient and that it has plans for humankind. This story is set in Venice, California and Leiber brings that region’s geography, geology, politics, and culture to life. As many of the stories in this volume do, “The Black Gondolier” features a paranoid man who seeks psychoanalysis to determine if his dreams may be subconscious foreshadowings of some horrid event.
- “The Dreams of Albert Moreland” — Similar to the previous story, our narrator has befriended a man who has strange recurrent dreams. This man, a professional chess player, is so smart and educated that our narrator decides he can’t be psychotic. The dreams must be his subconscious mind trying to tell him something. “The Dreams of Albert Moreland” is essentially the same story as “The Black Gondolier” except with a different setting and a different hero and villain.
- “Game for Motel Room” — A man who has a tryst in a hotel room with a married alien woman ends up saving the world. This story is short and amusing.
- “The Phantom Slayer” — A man inherits his uncle’s apartment and discovers a murder mystery. This one isn’t as creepy as it was supposed to be, probably because, again, it’s relying on subconscious nightmares, a theme that, frankly, I’m bored of. Also, I knew almost from the beginning how it was going to turn out.
- “Lie Still, Snow White” — This one ought to have been titled “Confessions of an Murderous Incestuous Necrophiliac.” I have to admire the writing and the imagery in this story, but it’s so disturbing that I didn’t enjoy it until the end. It’s all about sexual repression and taboos. It’s so filled with Freud that I found it painful to read. However, it’s inventive and original and I loved the ending.
- “Mr. Bower and the Atoms” — A paranoid man thinks he’s a human atomic bomb. More paranoia. Mildly entertaining.
- “In the X-ray” — A young woman who has a sudden swelling around her ankle visits her doctor and gets an X-ray. The doctor is freaked out by what he sees on the X-ray and questions her about her life history. This one is really creepy even though I knew how it was going to end.
- “Spider Mansion” — A couple visit an acquaintance who used to be a midget. Now the midget is a giant and his wife and servants are terrified by something in the house that they won’t talk about. This was one of the few truly scary stories and I liked it.
- “The Secret Songs“ — A couple of mentally ill drug abusers get married. This one was painfully bad, but blessedly short.
- “The Man Who Made Friends with Electricity” — This story is a lot like “The Black Gondolier.” Instead of oil, it’s electricity. A man talks to electricity and is disturbed when he finds out that it isn’t as friendly as he thought. I kind of knew where this was going.
- “The Dead Man” — A scientist has figured out how to change people’s health, for better or worse, through hypnotic suggestion. As his test subject, he’s using the man who’s having an affair with his wife. I liked the plot of this story a lot, even though it featured another dumb woman and a man with Mother Issues.
- “The 13th Step” — A young alcoholic woman, who thinks she’s being stalked by the fifth horseman of the apocalypse, tells her story and gets heckled at an AA meeting. There’s not much to this story. It’s short (fortunately) and the ending is obvious.
- “The Repair People” — Ann’s new job involves repairing clay people. All I want to say about this one is thank God it’s really short. I didn’t get it and didn’t like it enough to spend time thinking about it.
- “Black Has Its Charms” — A rude and nasty woman tries to provoke her husband into murdering her. I hated this story and wished I could have murdered her myself. I admired the audio narration for this one, though.
- “Schizo Jimmy” — Our narrator, who considers himself a witch hunter, kills his friend who is an immune carrier of insanity. I knew from the beginning what was going on here, but I still enjoyed this story about false perceptions.
- “The Creature from the Cleveland Depths” — Gunderson, a Cleveland author of “insanity novels,” can’t remember to turn on his favorite TV show. When his friend creates a device called a Tickler to help people remember the things they want to do, Gunderson refuses to try it. He admits that he’s afraid of machines that think. It turns out that he has a very good reason to be afraid. I liked this story. It was so much like something Philip K. Dick would have written that I had to keep reminding myself that I was reading Fritz Leiber.
- “The Casket Demon” — A Hollywood movie star lives under a curse: Every day that she isn’t in the newspapers, she loses some of her mass. Funny premise, average story.
- “Mr. Adams’ Garden to Evil” — The manager of a girlie magazine grows girls in his garden with his aunt’s secret biological technique. This was the best story of all and at least there’s a smart woman in it (the dead aunt). Also very much like PKD.
So, in my opinion, a mixed bag of stories, but essential reading for any Fritz Leiber fan. Since I consider myself a fan, I’m glad I read The Black Gondolier. I got to know Fritz Leiber better and there were several stories that I truly enjoyed. I listened to Audible Frontiers’ version which was just released and is narrated by Marc Vietor, L.J. Ganzer, David Marantz, and Jefferson Slinkard. I thought each of these narrators did an excellent job. If you’re planning to read The Black Gondolier, which you should if you’re a Leiber fan, try the audio version.