by Fritz Leiber
What was the whole literature of supernatural horror but an essay to make death itself exciting?—wonder and strangeness to life’s very end.
The Pale Brown Thing, a tale containing autobiographical elements, is the story of a horror writer in San Francisco, Franz Westen (Fritz Leiber?), who has a supernatural experience and attempts to run it down, submerging himself in occult works to decipher a cryptic curse.
Noteable figures, some of whom were Leiber’s friends or acquaintances, are heavily referenced, such as Clark Ashton Smith, H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Anton LaVey, M.R. James, Jack London and Ambrose Bierce, adding to the metafiction and cementing the tale in the everyday world. Furthermore, Franz’s experiences are said to partially reflect Leiber’s own concerning the death of his wife and his battle with alcohol.
Originally published in 1977 in the February issue of Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Pale Brown Thing is the tale that would be rewritten and expanded into the World Fantasy winner Our Lady of Darkness later that year. Leiber stated,”…the two texts should be regarded as the same story told at different times.”
This particular version of the story is largely unnoticed due to the presence of its award-winning, lengthier version, but is arguably the superior telling, leaner and with tighter focus. Either is, at times, devilishly ponderous due to the investigative introspection of Franz.
The Pale Brown Thing is a quiet stunner, heavy in the occult, and already a slowly suffocating horror in its tightened version. If you loved Our Lady of Darkness, this shorter, faster version should still be enjoyable—everything needed for a great story is present. If you didn’t love or aren’t familiar with Our Lady of Darkness, you’re a prime candidate to read this book immediately. It’s one hell of a story, and comparatively, this version moves.
“…to be a good story is to me the highest test of the truth of anything.”