Vintage Treasures: Night’s Black Agents by Fritz Leiber

Vintage Treasures: Night’s Black Agents by Fritz Leiber

Nights Black Agents (Berkley Books, May 1980). Cover by Wayne Barlowe

Nights Black Agents was Fritz Leiber’s first first collection — and in fact his first book. It was originally published in hardcover by Arkham House in 1947, when Leiber was 37 years old.

It collects six stories published in Weird Tales and Unknown Worlds, plus one tale from a fanzine, and three new stories — including the long Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser novella “Adept’s Gambit.” Needless to say, it was very successful, and enjoyed a series of hardcover and paperback editions that kept it in print for over three decades.

Nights Black Agents launched Leiber’s writing career, and he followed it with some three dozen more collections (and many novels) before his death in 1992.

[Click the images for versions with more agency.]

Nights Black Agents (Arkham House, 1947). Cover by Ronald Clyne

The phrase “Night’s Black Agents” is a quote from Macbeth (Act III, scene ii). The collection contains some of Leiber’s most famous horror stories, including the classic “Smoke Ghost.”

Here’s a review of the Berkely paperback edition, from the excellent Tellers of Weird Tales site.

If you’re feeling nostalgic for the 1940s, you might find a cure for what ails you in Night’s Black Agents, a collection of short stories by Fritz Leiber, Jr. War and the specter of war figure prominently in these stories. Perhaps more central to Night’s Black Agents is the city itself, a dirty, dark, and dingy place, full of soot, grit, dust, and noise, a place of failing light and full of lonely streets, rooftops, offices, and rooming houses. This is the landscape of urban industry, a kind of landscape that was then new to the world (or no more than a century old), new also to the weird tale…

Night’s Black Agents in the Berkeley Books edition of 1978 is a collection of dozen stories published between 1940 and 1962… It’s an odd mix: there are two tales of heroic fantasy starring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (“The Sunken Land” and “Adept’s Gambit”) and a brief, somber, bittersweet fable published in the aftermath of World War II (“The Man Who Never Grew Young”). The core of the book is a collection within a collection labeled “Modern Horrors…” Included in “Modern Horrors” is “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes,” the only story in the book to have been adapted to film. The final story, “A Bit of the Dark World,” published in 1962, might easily have been called “A Bit of Phantasmagoria.” Mature and sophisticated, it’s a story well worth reading.

When publishers reprinted anthologies and collections in paperback they frequently dropped much of the contents, usually for reasons of cost. Thicker paperbacks were harder to print in those days as well.

But the 1961 Ballantine paperback (below) contained the complete TOC of the Arkham House version, and the Berkley Books edition (May 1980, above) actually added two stories, “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” and “A Bit of the Dark World,” both of which appeared after the Arkham was published.

Nights Black Agents (Ballantine Books, June 1961). Cover artist unknown

Jack Tripper’s review is a fine summation of the importance of this collection for Leiber fans.

If I had to choose just one single-author horror collection to keep forever… Night’s Black Agents would definitely be in the top 3 or 4. You get prime early examples of urban horror from the 40s with “Smoke Ghost” and “Girl with the Hungry Eyes,” and two of my all-time favorite Lovecraftian tales, “Diary in the Snow” and “A Bit of the Dark World.” The latter is one of the most unsettling pieces of cosmic horror I’ve ever read, concerning a group of friends staying in an isolated cabin up in the Santa Monica mountains, where something beyond human comprehension awaits… A must for any and all horror fans.

Matthew Pridham has my favorite Goodreads review.

Leiber is perhaps best known now, by those who still remember him, as the author of a series of fantasy tales about two rogues named Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, as well as for is science fiction. He had, however, a profound effect on the horror genre, particularly through the stories collected in this book. Leiber brought a modern sensibility to his stories, replacing old castles and small towns cursed with Elder Gods with stories set in cities and other recognizable environments. His “Smoke G[h]ost,” collected in this book as well as any decent reprint of his sorter horror works, is a chilling story about a man haunted by a feeling of being watched as well as by the sight of ragged shape moving across the rooftops of Chicago. This story is often cited as the first real urban scary story and it is still effective. Also included in this collection are a story about a model [“The Girl With the Hungry Eyes”] that touches on themes of celebrity worship and other tales that helped set the stage for authors like Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, and T. E. D. Klein. What you should really do is find a copy of his novella “Our Lady of Darkness,” a story that hit me hard when I was a teen and changed my conception of what a monster could be.

Read the whole review here..

The Girl with the Hungry Eyes, and Other Stories, edited by
Donald A. Wollheim (Avon Books, 1949). Cover by Ann Cantor

And just so we don’t neglect its importance as a sword & sorcery collection as well, here’s an excerpt from a review by Ben that speaks warmly of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales.

An exceptional collection, and one of the best volumes Arkham House put out. From the opening story, ‘The Smoke Ghost’ you know you are in for something quite unique. [Leiber’s] ‘modern horrors’ almost all use the modern industrial city as a central motif from which to weave a series of claustrophobic, dystopian fables which explore the existential dread lurking in the twilight of urban existence. At the other end of the spectrum are the two Fafhrd and Gray Mouser tales, both of which are exceptionally entertaining sword and sorcery yarns. Overall, a brilliant book. Brilliant cover too.

The Arkham House edition of Night’s Black Agents contains 10 tales, plus a forward by Leiber. It included three original stories: the 77-page Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser novella “Adept’s Gambit,” plus the Lovecraftian horror tale “Diary in the Snow,” and “The Man Who Never Grew Young.” Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

Foreword by Fritz Leiber
“Smoke Ghost” (Unknown Worlds, October 1941)
“The Automatic Pistol” (Weird Tales, May 1940)
“The Inheritance” (Weird Tales, January 1942)
“The Hill and the Hole” (Unknown Worlds, August 1942)
“The Dreams of Albert Moreland” (The Acolyte #10, Spring 1945)
“The Hound” (Weird Tales, November 1942)
“Diary in the Snow”
“The Man Who Never Grew Young”
“The Sunken Land” (Unknown Worlds, February 1942)
“Adept’s Gambit”

The 1980 Berkley paperback contained the complete contents of the Arkham House hardcover, and added two new tales.

“The Girl with the Hungry Eyes” (The Girl with the Hungry Eyes, and Other Stories, 1949)
“A Bit of the Dark World” (Fantastic Stories of Imagination, February 1962)

That was the last paperback edition, and the book has been out of print since 1980. There is no digital edition.

Ace Double editions of The Mind Spider and Other Stories and Ships to the Stars
(Ace Books, 1961 and 1964). Covers by Ed Emshwiller and Jack Gaughan

Nights Black Agents was published by Berkley Books in May 1980. It is 282 pages, priced at $1.75. The cover is by Wayne Barlowe.

The fiction of Fritz Leiber is one of our favorite topics here at Black Gate, and our previous coverage includes:

The Mind Spider and Ships to the Stars (2023)
The Worlds of Fritz Leiber (2022)
The Golden Age of Science Fiction: “The Button Molder,” by Steven H Silver (2019)
Heroes And Horrors (2019)
Birthday Reviews: Fritz Leiber’s “The Cloud of Hate” by Steven H Silver (2018)
Danger In Every Dark Alley: 40 Years of Adventuring in Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber’s Great Fantasy Metropolis (2018)
The Silver Eggheads by Fritz Leiber by Steve Carper (2018)
Vampires, Frozen Worlds, and Gambling With the Devil: The Best of Fritz Leiber by James McGlothlin (2016)
Dual Structures in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and The Gray Mouser Stories and Robin Wayne Bailey’s Swords Against the Shadowland by Gabe Dybing (2015)
Lust, Women, and the Devil: Seven Decades of Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (2014)
Night Monsters by Fritz Leiber (2014)
Vintage Treasures: The Best Of Fritz Leiber (2013)
Fritz Leiber, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Appendix N: Advanced Readings in D&D (2013)
Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, Part 2: The Fritz Leiber Novelization by Ryan Harvey (2013)
Art of the Genre: Looking Back at Old Readings with Neil and Fritz Leiber by Scott Taylor (2013)
The Girl With The Hungry Eyes by Fritz Leiber (2013)

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

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It’s a good collection.

[…] (Black Gate): Nights Black Agents was Fritz Leiber’s first first collection — and in fact his first book. […]

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