Murder, as you must know by now, I can understand and sympathize with deeply. But war? No.
After a nuclear holocaust, America is unrecognizable. There are a few cities left on the coasts, but most of America is now the Deathlands, where radioactive dust hazes the skies and radiation-scarred survivors try to stay alive another day. Besides devastating the land, the catastrophe has somehow warped the minds of the few remaining citizens of the Deathlands; they have all turned into murderers. They can’t help it — it’s a drive that can only be released by killing someone. Even when they band together for companionship, it always ends up in a bloodbath.
Ray has been on his own for a long time when he meets Alice, a woman who’s just as tough as he is. When the two of them decide, just for a while, not to kill each other, they come upon an old man and a hovercraft that seems to offer a way out of the Deathlands. Instead, they get caught up in a war between the sophisticated city dwellers.
The Night of the Long Knives, a novella by Fritz Leiber (one of my favorite writers), is totally absorbing. It vividly describes a horrifying possible future America where nuclear war has ravaged the land and the human brain. Leiber’s characters are pathetic guilt-ridden people who’ve learned that the only way to eke out a wretched existence is to kill anyone who gets close. There is no goal but survival, and those who’ve managed have their methods. Ray wears sharp metal dental implants, a lead-lined hat, and a knife he calls “Mother.” Alice, who is missing a hand, screws a knife into her stump and hides weapons in her hair. They circle each other warily, knowing that it can’t be long before one of them can’t deny the urge to kill the other.
Leiber uses his story to examine the mind of the murderer and to ask what it would take for a serial killer to change his ways. What are the influences of community, culture, and religion? How can a reformed killer get rid of guilt, make reparation, and help reform others? Another obvious theme, which was especially popular at the time Leiber wrote this novella, is the danger of nuclear war. The Night of the Long Knives is a grim story, but it doesn’t leave us in despair. I liked the note of hope at the end.
The Night of the Long Knives, which was originally published in Amazing Science Fiction Stories in 1960, feels surprisingly current — the character names are the most dated-feeling aspect of the story. The novella is now in the public domain, so you can get it free on Kindle, but I want to recommend the audio version which is 3 hours and 17 minutes long and is read by Matt Armstrong. I purchased it at Audible for $1.95.
Chicago-born Fritz Leiber is an old favorite author of mine who never seems to let me down. From sublimely creepy horror novels such as Conjure Wife (1943), You’re All Alone (’72) and Our Lady of Darkness (’77), to wonderfully imaginative sci-fi such as The Big Time (’61), to those unforgettable fantasy tales featuring Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, here is a man who has always delivered for me. His is almost like a brand name that can be trusted for excellence and reliability. Thus, when I noticed a slim Leiber volume that I had never heard of before, sitting on a shelf at NYC bookstore extraordinaire The Strand, I purchased it immediately, without a second thought. The book in question, The Night of the Long Knives, is today available as one of Dover Publications’ “Doomsday Classics,” a fascinating series of post-apocalyptic novels from the period 1905 (Gabriel de Tarde’s Underground Man) to 1973 (Sakyo Komatsu’s Japan Sinks). The Leiber title is the slimmest of the 13 books, at a mere 95 pages; my approximate word count is 42,000, making the tale a longish novella (a work of 7,500 to 40,000 words). By necessity, the story is taut and fast moving, and most readers will likely feel compelled to gulp it down in a sitting or two.
Leiber’s novella originally appeared in the pages of the famous pulp magazine Amazing Science Fiction Stories a few weeks after the author turned 49. (This is the publication, for those not familiar with it, that had been started by legendary editor Hugo Gernsback in 1926; it was the very first magazine devoted exclusively to science fiction. Originally called Amazing Stories, the pulp underwent a brief name change in March and April ’58, when it appeared as Amazing Science Fiction; in May ’58, the title was changed again, to Amazing Science Fiction Stories, and stayed thus until October ’60, when its name morphed still again, to Amazing Fact and Science Fiction Stories. After 609 issues, the magazine finally folded, in 2005.) His story copped the cover illustration of the January ’60 issue; an intriguing painting by Ed Valigursky showing two shrouded figures in what might be a desert landscape, with dozens of the titular blades descending on them. Today, the 35-cent issue would probably fetch 100 times that amount, but fortunately, we have the new, affordably priced Dover edition for all to enjoy.
As Kat mentioned above, in the book, the reader encounters a man whose name is ultimately revealed to be Ray Baker. In the post-apocalyptic, bomb-decimated, radioactive wasteland sector of the U.S. known as the Deathlands, Ray ekes out an existence that is grim in the extreme. We first encounter Ray just as he is encountering that rarity: a female roamer through the Deathlands, named Alice. The two warily have sex without uttering a single word, after which they both contemplate killing the other; homicide, it seems, is almost an instinctual reflex for Deathland residents. But before Ray or Alice can act, they are surprised by two nearly simultaneous happenings.
A plane crash-lands near them, out of which emerges an impeccably dressed pilot, who they unthinkingly slay, as is their wont. And then, an old man appears out of nowhere, who Ray dubs Pops. This geezer, as it turns out, is a former homicidal maniac himself, but has now reformed and even heads a sort of self-help group called Murderers Anonymous. Pops has plenty of time to tell his story to Ray and Alice after they enter the dead pilot’s plane and are summarily whisked eastward, via the craft’s anti-gravity capabilities. (At this point in the story, the wondrous flying machine starts to assume the properties of a fantastical magic carpet ride of sorts.) And after not many hours, the trio finds itself in the middle of a full-scale conflict between the forces of the Atlantic Highlands and those of Savannah Fortress…
Leiber’s novella is, in essence, a 36-hour snapshot glimpse of this decimated postwar landscape; a glimpse that does hold out some small hope for mankind’s future. Our three lead characters are efficiently sketched, and we do get to learn a bit about each of their pre-war lives via some truly startling revelations. Leiber’s tale is both sexually frank (that wordless coupling manages to impress today; back in 1960, it must have been shocking) and highly imaginative. For example, in most post-apocalyptic tales, the reader might expect to encounter a landscape strewn with skeletons; here, though, the author gives us fully preserved corpses, the ubiquitous radiation having killed off their bacteria and thus preserving them “indefinitely.” In many similar stories, our hero might find the scar on Alice’s forehead, not to mention the screw-on metal hook on her right wrist stump, to be off-putting and repugnant, but Ray, surprisingly enough, finds them a turn-on!
Ray, who is our narrator, ultimately reveals himself to be well suited to telling his tale, expressing himself with jazzy, tough-guy talk (he repeatedly refers to people as “cats”). He has a lucid, well-expressed voice, thus preparing the reader for his background revelation later on, although is still quite capable of such ungrammatical expressions as “They didn’t contain nothing of consequence…” Ray peppers his story with touches of humor (I like the word he uses to describe how he removed his gun from its holster, pre-coitus: “disarmingly”) that help the entire conceit, and all the assorted violent bits, go down very smoothly. Meanwhile, author Leiber manages to tack on a few surprising details at the end that go far in tying up some niggling loose ends.
To be honest, I was left a bit mystified by one aspect of Leiber’s story; namely, the precise location in the Deathlands where Ray first encounters Alice. At first, Ray tells us that he was “between Porter County and Ouachita Parish,” which suggested the former Louisiana to me. A little later, he tells us that he was near “Manteno Asylum,” which suggested to me … well, nothing, really. But later still, in that anti-grav plane, he learns that he might have been … south of Lake Michigan. Anyway, don’t ask me. The title of Leiber’s story also puzzled this reader a bit, too. It is true that all three of our lead characters carry knives on their person (Pops actually has dozens of them hung around his body, while Ray has one pet blade that he calls “Mother,” and Alice has a knife that she can screw onto her wrist stump, after her hook has been removed), although their prominence is not so great in the story as to warrant naming the novella after them. But these are minor matters.
The Night of the Long Knives remains a charming, likable adventure, and a thought-provoking one. It could surely have been expanded by its author to a full-length novel or have even served as the opening salvo of an entire series, but this tantalizing glimpse will have to do. It is still another winner from the great Fritz Leiber, and its resurrection by Dover is to be applauded. I now find myself wanting to read another title in their Doomsday Classics series, and indeed, may soon be purchasing Margaret St. Clair’s 1963 offering, Sign of the Labrys. Stay tuned…