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Essays

WHEN SCREWBALLS MEET...

Fritz Leiber

I first met Robert Bloch in mid 1937, when my wife Jonquil and I were living in Beverly Hills, California, guests of my father, a Shakespearean actor recently turned film actor because the continuing great depression had pretty much killed the legitimate theater in the United States. H.P. Lovecraft, who'd just died in March, had introduced Bloch and myself, you could say.

It was this way. Bloch had then been corresponding with Lovecraft for a few years, I only during the last two months of 1936, but there'd been time for me to show the master my first Fafhrd and Mouser story "Adept's Gambit" and the poems which later became The Demons of the Upper Air and for him to tell a few of his correspondents about them and perhaps even circulate them. Of course at the time I was a completely unpublished fantasy writer, wouldn't even get into print for two more years, while Bloch had had a number of stories in Weird Tales. But that was how Bloch knew about me.

Bloch was visiting Henry Kuttner, another young Weird Tales writer and Lovecraft correspondent who lived at the other end of Beverly Hills, and they called up and came over and we spent a pleasant afternoon together. I remember I expressed some of Charles Fort's wild views about alien visitors to earth and other far-out scientific oddities and they both responded skeptically, just as Lovecraft had in his letters. They sure didn't believe in any occult stuff.

Thereafter, we corresponded. About a year later, more or less, Jonquil and I began to see something of Bob again. We'd moved back to Chicago where I'd got an editorial job with Consolidated Book Publishers, an encyclopedia outfit down in the Loop, and we had an apartment near the University of Chicago, which we'd both attended. He'd come down from his home in Milwaukee, a scant hundred miles away, and we'd visit and several times he was our house guest, as I recall, and at least once we went up and stayed with his parents. It was a case of crazy imaginations meshing that drew us together, or as Bob once put in a story opening, "When screwballs meet, they click." There were always some wild fantasies going on both sides. We heard about Harold Gauer and the Lab (and met Gauer finally) and about how they were writing a ribald, episodic, then-unpublishable black comedy novel In the Land of Sky-Blue Ointments about Black Art, a Negro magician and jazz musician both, as I recall, and all of his crazy friends, maybe including Lefty Feep and certainly including a woeful little condom salesman and also a man built like an inner-organs anatomy diagram. Decameron-like, they were all gathered together telling outrageous stories to each another, in Black Art's Long Island mansion while New York City was being menaced by St. Blomberg's (volcanic) Island, a great mass of excrement floating around in the Atlantic and drawing even nearer to its target city.

There was considerable drinking those evenings. Bob would never mix anything with his hard liquor or drink chasers…until the next morning when he'd breakfast on a book bottle of ginger ale. A great sensation, he maintained.

This was when Bob, as a writer, was moving from his more traditional early tales, especially those Sax Rohmerish Egyptology yarns involving mummies and beetles and masks, toward more slangy modern setting tales such as "The House of the Hatchet," perhaps the earliest of those, as I recall.

All very wacky and very much fun, but at the same time I recall Bob as a slender, serious, sensitive young man, keenly and responsively – sympathetically – aware of the plight of people, especially young people, ground down by the Depression and caught up in the fantastic, heartless buying and selling machinery that was America. While over all loomed the gloomy and certain prospect of world war, which certainly looked like the end of the world at that time, at least to me. The Depression was still very much the cental fact for us and the whole problem of finding work to do, earning a living. This was when Bloch and Gauer put in months of clever fast thinking doing the publicity campaign for the man who became Milwaukee's Mayor Zeidler, defeating a socialist who'd been in for ages, and later died in the Pacific war-theater. Endless imaginative strategems went into that job. We sold him like you sell soup, Bob once expressed it. I think that was before Bob began to support himself writing copy for a small advertising agency in Milwaukee, a job he held for years. Gauer his close friend eventually got permanent employment with the CARE food-packages-for-abroad charity.

Bob was always a very thoughtful and courteous house guest. Jonquil loved having him visit. Once he brought her a marvelous black porcelain monster vaguely resembling a panther, but more closely Immanala, the dread spirit of the night-forest in De La Mare's The Three Mulla-Mulgars. She treasured it for years.

But in those early years there were always the high jinks. There were a series of hammy photographs of Bob and myself as a couple of evil magicians bent on destroying the world (a globe of same) or sacrificing on [an] impromptu alter my infant son Justin, a naked babe. Somehow Jonquil put up with this nonsense, which I suppose is good testimony to Bob's charm and basic gentleness.

Over the years the association continued in Chicago, Milwaukee, and finally Weyauwega, where he and his first wife Marion eventually moved. And always Bob's writing kept steadily improving and widening in scope as he tried out various angles to get into the film-writing business, in many ways his life-time ambition. There was the business of him adapting a multitude of his stories for a radio program, Stay Tuned For Terror -- most effective [was] a tale where souls are trapped in phonograph records and at the end a line keeps repeating: you realize that a needle has got caught in a groove and that you've been listening all the while to a trapped soul speaking from a record….

And then there was his first detective novel The Scarf, [a] grim vision into the mind of a psychopath, and the successes spawning from the story "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper." And finally there was Psycho itself, in many ways his finest novel, carrying with it everything Hitchcock needed for his film.

Now that Bob's achieved his ambition, I think the best thing I can say about him is that he's kept on writing stories for the magazines and novels too. His collection of new tales Cold Chills was a strong contender for the Best Collection or Anthology Award at World Fantasycon 4 in Ft. Worth, Texas, in October 1978. (So was my own Swords and Magic; Hugh B. Cave's Murgunstrumm and Others won.) And right now I'm looking at a piece of promo from Del Rey books; its for Such Stuff As Screams Are Made Of, yet another collection of horror shorts by the master, Robert Bloch.


The winner of no less than six Hugo and five Nebula awards, Fritz Leiber is considered to be one of America's premier fantacists. This essay originally appeared in Graeme Flanagan's Robert Bloch: A Bio-Bibliography (Canberra City, 1979). It is reprinted here with the permission of Justin Leiber. Justin Leiber's webpage can be found here; information on Fritz Leiber can be found at Lankhmar.