I like the writing of Fritz Leiber, though I didn’t buy it as often as some other authors, but I read a shorter version of this story called “The Pale Brown Thing” in the Jan-Feb 1977 issues of “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction,” and thought it was the best and scariest story I’d read in a long time. That year I attended a science fiction convention where Leiber was a guest, and I bought the hardcover (a longer version) and had him sign it. I haven’t read it since. One thing I didn’t realize on first reading is how autobiographical the main character is.
Franz Westen is a writer of horror stories living in an old San Francisco apartment building at 811 Geary Street. He’s still mourning the death of his wife and recovering from a bout of alcoholism that followed, but he’s been sober now for a while. He has friends among the apartment building neighbors, including a young female concert pianist, Cal, with whom he’s developed a new relationship, and two male friends, Gun and Sol, as well as the landlord and his family. Franz enjoys looking out his window at distant Corona Heights, and while examining that rocky park with his binoculars, one day sees something that frightens him: a strange, perhaps non-human figure dancing at the crown of the rock. He decides to explore the place in person. When he does, more strange things happen, and worst of all, when he looks back at his own apartment window, he seems to see the same brown figure gesticulating at him while hanging out of his own window. Franz has been investigating a former San Francisco resident author and perhaps cult leader, Thibault de Castries after finding a strange book by him in a used book store, and soon he finds more and more evidence that de Castries was on to something evil and powerful happening in the city that might still be active, and perhaps it’s now focused on Westen himself. Could the strange dancing figure be part of it? If so, how did it get into his apartment, leaving no trace except scraps of shredded paper?
While I didn’t find it as scary this time, I admire the writing of this book, and enjoyed rereading it. It draws influences from interesting places, like H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, as well as invoking the time and place and real emotions of the author remarkably well. Recommended.