Although best known for his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser sword-and-sorcery series, many horror fans get their first exposure to Fritz Leiber via his oft-anthologized short story “Smoke Ghost.”
First appearing in the October 1941 issue of Unknown Worlds, “Smoke Ghost” is noteworthy as one of the first works to shift the ghost tale away from the drafty mansions and castles of 19th Century Gothic fiction. Its title apparition could only manifest amid the filth, violence and alienation of a large, modern city.
On his way home via a commuter train, neurotic businessman Catesby Wran spots an amorphous black shape lurking among the urban rooftops and smokestacks he passes. Soon, the sighting becomes an obsession, and Wran fears the shape — an embodiment of all that is dirty and frightening about the modern world — is pursuing him, attempting to taint him with its grime.
As the story unfolds, Wran finds physical evidence of his haunting, mostly in the form of soot he believes the ghost leaves behind. Although the reader is left wondering whether anything supernatural is actually taking place, we understand how Wran interprets it as the residue of “the frustrated, frightened century in which he lived, the jangled century of hate and heavy industry and Fascist wars.”
The leap is easy to follow because Leiber’s prose taps so perfectly into Wran’s paranoia. The story’s language is not evocative of the bumps and drips of the previous century’s ghost tales but of the hard, gritty prose of noir detective fiction. By emphasizes the setting’s filth and seediness, Leiber taps into his protagonist’s fear of the grim, grimy century in which he finds himself.
It’s easy to see how “Smoke Ghost” left an imprint on horror works that followed — from Ramsey Campbell to the darker urban fantasy writers. A raft of movies from “Dark City” to “The Machinist” also seem to owe it a heavy debt.
“Smoke Ghost” is a landmark in the evolution of modern horror — and one worthy of raising a glass to. In its honor, this week’s cocktail introduces the element of smoke to one of the most iconic of urban cocktails, the Manhattan.
2 1/2 oz Smoky Whiskey, such as Ranger Creek Rimfire Mesquite Smoked Texas Single Malt Whiskey
3/4 oz Red Sweet Vermouth
1 hefty dash Angostura Bitters
1 Maraschino Cherry
Combine whiskey, vermouth and bitters with a few ice cubes in a mixing glass. Stir gently until the mixture is chilled. Put the cherry in the bottom of a chilled coupe glass and strain the mixed drink into the glass.