Fiction Friday – No Great Magic by Fritz Leiber

Fritz Leiber portrait by Ed Emshwiller

Chess Expert, Fencer, Playwright, Actor and perhaps one of the preeminent Horror/Fantasy Writers in America; that was Fritz Leiber. We spent an hour talking with one of his greatest fans, Harlan Ellison about his works, in which Ellison spoke in nothing but incandescently glowing terms, and rightfully so. Oft forgotten by sparkly vampire lovers, Fritz challenged his readers constantly but never left them wondering where they had gone. Leiber was a fascinating stylist, bringing the setting of his works to places one would hardly imagine.

No Great Magic is set in world of theatre, a world Leiber was very familiar with, having been born into an acting family. It melds theatre and magic as only he can. To quote from the 1951 short story “Poor Superman,”

“Consider the age in which we live. It wants magicians…. A scientist tells people the truth. When times are good—that is, when the truth offers no threat—people don’t mind.… A magician, on the other hand, tells people what they wish were true—that perpetual motion works, that cancer can be cured by colored lights, that a psychosis is no worse than a head cold, that they’ll live forever. In good times magicians are laughed at. They’re a luxury of the spoiled wealthy few. But in bad times people sell their souls for magic cures and buy perpetual-motion machines to power their war rockets.”

SFSN is proud to present No Great Magic:

I dipped through the filmy curtain into the boys’ half of the dressing room and there was Sid sitting at the star’s dressing table in his threadbare yellowed undershirt, the lucky one, not making up yet but staring sternly at himself in the bulb-framed mirror and experimentally working his features a little, as actors will, and kneading the stubble on his fat chin.

I said to him quietly, “Siddy, what are we putting on tonight? Maxwell Anderson’s Elizabeth the Queen or Shakespeare’s Macbeth? It says Macbeth on the callboard, but Miss Nefer’s getting ready for Elizabeth. She just had me go and fetch the red wig.”

He tried out a few eyebrow rears—right, left, both together—then turned to me, sucking in his big gut a little, as he always does when a gal heaves into hailing distance, and said, “Your pardon, sweetling, what sayest thou?”

Sid always uses that kook antique patter backstage, until I sometimes wonder whether I’m in Central Park, New York City, nineteen hundred and three quarters, or somewhere in Southwark, Merry England, fifteen hundred and same. The truth is that although he loves every last fat part in Shakespeare and will play the skinniest one with loyal and inspired affection, he thinks Willy S. penned Falstaff with nobody else in mind but Sidney J. Lessingham. (And no accent on the ham, please.)

I closed my eyes and counted to eight, then repeated my question.

He replied, “Why, the Bard’s tragical history of the bloody Scot, certes.” He waved his hand toward the portrait of Shakespeare that always sits beside his mirror on top of his reserve makeup box. At first that particular picture of the Bard looked too nancy to me—a sort of peeping-tom schoolteacher—but I’ve grown used to it over the months and even palsy-feeling.

He didn’t ask me why I hadn’t asked Miss Nefer my question. Everybody in the company knows she spends the hour before curtain-time getting into character, never parting her lips except for that purpose—or to bite your head off if you try to make the most necessary conversation.

The complete text can be found here.

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