Please note this review is for the novella Ship of Shadows, not the later collection which took this as its title. A review of the collection can be read here.
Reading the comments regarding a review of Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time today, I was made aware of a facet of the novel I hadn’t been aware of: its hints and stabs at Weird (yes, capital W). Things never quite mirroring the reality of our world, at no time does Leiber pause to break it all down in the novel, instead letting the reader sink or swim. Inspired, I decided to pick up a collection of Leiber’s I’ve had for some time. The first story knocked me down. A Weird text if ever there were, Ship of Shadows is a delightful dip in an ether of horror to which few know the recipe. Looking for, or needing anchors to reality in your fiction? Look elsewhere.
Ship of Shadows is the bizarre story of Spar. Half-blind, half-deaf barman at the Bat Rack, a watering hole is perhaps not the best place to work for an addict. Sick and hungover on the opening page, a talking cat makes his acquaintance, and after some initial social troubles, the two become friends. The owner of the Bat Rack barely tolerant of Spar’s lifestyle, it’s the customers who keep Spar afloat. Doc, though having his own issues, has an eye out for the crippled and elderly Spar—and the eye is needed if the likes of Crown and his Hellhound are to be kept at bay. Events oscillating between the mundane and feverishly horrorific, Spar discovers a cat may be a better friend than humans.
The above introduction not extremely coherent, Ship of Shadows is a story that needs to be experienced rather than explained. An odd, peculiar narrative, at times it seems to move confidently, and at others nowhere at all. Don’t be deceived; this is Leiber’s talent. Authorial sleight of hand perpetually pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet, you never know what to expect, one bizarre scene morphing into the next.
"Sleepday’s dreams had begun good, with Spar having Crown’s three girls at once. But Sleepday night he had been half-waked by the distant grinding of Hold Three’s big chewer. Then werewolves and vampires had attacked him, solid shadows diving in from all six corners, while witches and their familiars tittered in the black shadowy background. Somehow he had been protected by the cat, familiar of a slim witch whose bared teeth had been an ivory blur in the larger silver blur of her wild hair. Spar pressed his rubbery gums together. The cat had been the last of the supernatural creatures to fade. Then had come the beautiful vision of the ship."
So esoterically strange, such a side-step from reality, Leiber’s voice compels the text to be read. That it ends up a coherent story is almost a disappointment—the ride perhaps more fun than the nature of the conclusion allows.
In the end, Ship of Shadows is a brilliantly written story that betrays itself only in the final pages to be standard horror/sci-fi. Sky is the limit imagination-wise, the narrative which precedes is a tantalizing mix of fuzzy shapes and vague sounds, weird objects, and scenes not quite fitting standard physics. Just when the reader thinks they have the setting figured out, Leiber tosses another wrench in the works, nothing firm under foot. It’s unknown whether Leiber intended it to be a fashion statement, but writers like Gene Wolfe would later to adopt the same elusiveness. Contrarily, for as entertaining as they may, some later stories with similar premises still pale in comparison—George R.R. Martin’s standard usage of similar tropes in Nightflyers coming to mind.