Fritz Leiber's

"The Button Molder"

A Jamesian Story?

by Rosemary Pardoe

(from Ghosts & Scholars 22.)

Story annotations below

An examination of Fritz Leiber as a writer in the M.R. James tradition would inevitably concentrate on his magnificent novel Our Lady of Darkness (1977), which started out as "a short Jamesian horror story and just grew", as Leiber said in a letter to Foundation magazine (see my article in G&S 20). A small proportion of his huge output of short stories would also have to be covered, most of them from his earlier years as a writer. "Smoke Ghost" (Unknown, October 1941) and "The Hill and the Hole" (Unknown, August 1942), for instance, have their Jamesian moments, and few would doubt the influence of MRJ on "The Hound" (Weird Tales, November 1942). Here the central character, David Lashley, is pursued by a creature which Leiber would later (in Our Lady) call a "paramental" - a creation of the city - taking the form of a hound. Just as the ticket collector on the boat in "Casting the Runes" says to his companion concerning Karswell, " 'Ad he got a dog with him, or what?", so the girl on the time-clock desk in "The Hound" asks Lashley, "Aren't you going to punch in for your dog, too?" Needless to say, there is no dog.

The influence of MRJ on Leiber's late story, "The Button Molder" (Whispers 13/14, October 1979) is rather less obvious, even though it is a kind of sequel to Our Lady. In making the case for "The Button Molder" as a Jamesian tale I realise I will not convince everyone, yet I do believe that there is a case.

At the opening of the story, the unnamed narrator (who is quite clearly Leiber himself) has just moved to a new apartment. On the ground floor of the building is a fabrics shop, and he is especially taken with a vaguely female, faceless and fingerless stuffed figure made from white cotton, which is used in the window to display the cloth to best advantage. He likes to think of it as the "unindividualized protohuman being" into which the Button Molder in Ibsen's Peer Gynt melts down mediocre and failed souls.

Soon Leiber settles in and resumes his favourite hobby of roof-top astronomy, but a series of five odd events on the roof mar his happiness in his new home, even though all but the final one have rational explanations. First he sees three shooting stars travelling in impossible formation, which turn out to be seagulls lit up by the streetlights. Then there is a silver beam striking upwards from a small hotel nearby, that reveals itself as a flagpole. On another night the appearance of a sequence of ten yellow clouds puzzles him until he realises that he is seeing the nine letters and hyphen of Pepsi-Cola in sky-writing, from off to one side. A star where no star should be is the fourth weird occurrence, but investigation shows this to be a new nova.

After each of these experiences Leiber returns to his apartment and is mildly surprised by "the beginning of a noise" and a half-seen "thin dark figure" which slips along the wall. He disregards these as a combination of his imagination and the edge of his glasses seen from the corner of his eye.

Meanwhile he has temporarily abandoned his fiction writing to concentrate on a new project, an attempt to compose "a general statement of what I thought about life and other people and history and the universe and all..." All goes well with this to begin with, but it becomes more and more of a struggle until he hits a total writer's block. He cannot, try as he might, complete the sentence: "If you could sum up all you felt about life and crystallize it in one master insight...".

Then comes the fifth, and this time inexplicable, roof-top event. Leiber spots a small violet star, pulsing over the Sutro TV tower (a central image in Our Lady). Looking elsewhere in the sky, he sees the star again in several different places, and finally on the cornice of an adjoining building. He flees back to his apartment, but there is no safety there. He hears a series of great footsteps from the dinette-kitchen, and into the room slips a figure which initially reminds him of the manikin from the shop. But this one is not altogether faceless: there are two points of violet light where the eyes should be. Similar to the Scholar's Mistress in Our Lady, it has long black hair, which rises up like a scorpion's sting above its head. Leiber feels certain that, like the Button Molder, it has come to "wipe me out, erase me".

At the same time the final words of his uncompleted sentence come to him: " would have said it all and you'd be dead." Armed with this insight, he is able to stand up against the creature, although he is sure that touching her would mean death. He holds his ground and, when a light-bulb fizzles out, the figure simply fades away leaving only a brief after-image. A later examination of the above-ceiling area containing the light-bulb reveals a small doll of the Patchwork Girl of Oz.

In what way is all this Jamesian? Some points are obvious. With its mundane, normal beginning and progressive build-up of strangeness in the form of the roof-top phenomena, "The Button Molder" shows Leiber has definitely taken to heart MRJ's suggestion in his introduction to Ghosts & Marvels (1924): "Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage."

A Jamesian ghost must be malign and the Button Molder (or whatever she is) is undeniably that. But what about the central requirement for a Jamesian tale: the implication that one should not dabble in things best left undabbled in? The 'curiosity killed the cat' theme is one of the main features of MRJ's own stories. Often the protagonists endanger themselves simply by looking somewhere they shouldn't look or asking the wrong question at the wrong time. We are used to thinking of this in terms of old tombs, ancient manuscripts and medieval churches, but it is limiting the scope of the James Tradition unnecessarily to insist that these are the only possible contexts. A writer like Ramsey Campbell, for instance, can produce something definitely Jamesian without even a hint of an old manuscript or building.

In "The Button Molder", the central character dabbles in an even more ancient area: the human mind. In trying to resolve his thoughts on the meaning of the universe, he is going beyond the line of safety, and he very nearly loses his life (or worse) because of it. Only when he realises what he has done (i.e. when he finishes his incomplete sentence) does he step back from the brink and thereby find himself able to fight and win against the creature or archetype his questioning has conjured up.

Fritz Leiber set out to write a Jamesian story with Our Lady of Darkness. I don't think he did the same with "The Button Molder", but I would maintain that unconsciously he has used Jamesian themes and techniques to produce something which is very definitely in the James Tradition.

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The Button Molder: Annotations

"The Button Molder" was first published in the American small press magazine Whispers #13/14, in October 1979. Editor Stuart Schiff then reprinted it in the third Whispers anthology (Doubleday 1981). It did not appear in a Leiber collection until The Leiber Chronicles: Fifty Years of Fritz Leiber in 1990 (Dark Harvest, ed. Martin H. Greenberg). Despite this relative neglect it is an important story, and if anything even more autobiographical than Our Lady of Darkness (1977). In 1980, "The Button Molder" received the British Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction.

Page and line references below are to The Leiber Chronicles. Page references to Our Lady of Darkness (Our Lady) are to the Millington hardback and Fontana paperback editions (1978). Page references to Leiber's autobiographical essay, "Not Much Disorder and Not So Early Sex" in The Ghost Light (Berkley 1984) (Light), are to the Ace paperback edition (1991).


p. 515, l.10: "Astronomers speak of apparitions": astronomically speaking, an apparition is the reappearance of a heavenly body after its occultation (eclipse) behind another.

p.515, l.15ff: Andrew Lang (1844-1912), Scottish folklorist; his 1897 volume (full title: Book of Dreams and Ghosts) is devoted to the thesis that "...the ghostly is nothing but the experience, when men are awake, or apparently awake, of the every-night phenomena of dreaming." (p.3)

p.515, l.27f: "one six-story apartment building to another": Leiber lived at 811 Geary Street, the setting of Our Lady and "The Glove" (Whispers, June 1975) from 1970-77. In autumn 1977 he moved three blocks east to 565 Geary, where "The Button Molder" is set - "My place at 811 had become cramping to me, permanently overheated, and far too noisy" (Light, p.364).

p.515, l.28f: "a remarkable number of those": another is the chief setting of Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse (1929).

p.516, l.30: "clanking and groaning monster": see Our Lady, pp.27-28.

p.516, l.31: "I lived on six in both places": Leiber did indeed live on the sixth floor at both 565 and 811 Geary, although his apartment number at 811 was 507 (as opposed to his Our Lady alter ego's 607), since the building was numbered using the British system.

p.517, l.2f: "Button Molder... Peer Gynt": the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) wrote Peer Gynt in 1867. Ibsen in general and Peer Gynt in particular were long-time favourites of Leiber's. The Button Molder appears in Act Five at the end of the play, where Peer Gynt encounters him at a cross-roads. The old man's job is to melt down the imperfect souls of those who have failed in their purpose (good or bad) in life, in order to reform them into new souls. He has been instructed to take Peer Gynt's but is talked into a series of delays and then, thanks to the love of Solveig, an indefinite postponement until "the last cross-roads".

p.517, l.26: "roof-top astronomy": one of Leiber's main hobbies - "I try to learn a little more of the pattern of the stars each night" (Light, p.316).

p.517, l.49: "a secret world above the city world": Leiber's fascination with the world of roof-tops dated back to well before his move to San Francisco. In "Smoke Ghost" (Unknown, October 1941), the central character is intrigued by the roofscape of Chicago which he sees from the elevated railway, and it is on these roofs that the 'smoke ghost' first appears.

p.518, l.19: "rear inner court": see Our Lady, pp.12,83.

p.519, l.5f: "a coveralled attendant... dark green truck": can Leiber have got this image from the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (dir. Philip Kaufman), which was released in 1978, at a time when he was presumably either writing or thinking about writing "The Button Molder"? Set in San Francisco, the film includes scenes of garbage trucks removing the spent husks of the alien pods. Prominent throughout the film, and identified by film-maker Alex Cox as a symbol of paranoid disquiet, is the Transamerica Corporation building, better known as the Transamerica Pyramid (cf. Our Lady, pp.28,155, etc.).

p 520, l.5: René Descartes (1596-1650), French philosopher and mathematician, who posited an absolute distinction between mental and material substance - what would become known as Cartesian dualism.

p.520, l.13f: "popular science magazine... encyclopedias and books of knowledge": Leiber was associate editor of Science Digest for twelve years in the 1940s and '50s. In the late '30s he worked for the Consolidated Book Publishing Company on their The University of Knowledge book series and on The Standard American Encyclopedia.

p.521, l.35ff: "ancient or present-day astronauts... changed history": the theories propounded by Erich von Däniken (1935- ) and Immanuel Velikovsky (1895-1979), in books such as Chariots of the Gods? (1969) and Worlds in Collision (1950) respectively.

p.522, l.10f: Moby Dick (1851) by US author Herman Melville (1819-91), also mentioned by Leiber in Our Lady (p.102). Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë (1818-1848), English novelist. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), UK philosopher and mathematician. Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950), science fiction writer of two of the greatest SF 'ideas' novels, Star Maker (1937) and Last and First Men (1930). Robert Heinlein (1907-88), prolific US science fiction writer.

p.522, l.36f: "a secret enclave of extra-terrestrials... stratosphere": the writer-narrator of Leiber's novelette "Diary in the Snow" (Night's Black Agents, Arkham House 1947) develops a similar idea which turns out to be all too real.

p.523, l.3: "Altair": also called Alpha Aquilae, the brightest star in the constellation Aquila, with an apparent visual magnitude of 0.77, roughly sixteen light years distant from the Earth. The name probably derives from the Arabic for 'eagle', applied to the constellation.

p.524, l.38: "Whitehead": Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), mathematician, philosopher, psychologist and metaphysician who believed that metaphysical understanding could be achieved by empirical analysis not of universal physics but of human existence.

p.525, l.40ff: "Kenneth Arnold's original flying saucers...": on June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold saw a group of unidentified flying objects over Mt Rainier in Washington State. Although this was by no means the first UFO sighting, it was Arnold who coined the phrase "flying saucers" to describe them.

p.526, l.31: "Holst's The Planets": Gustav Holst (1874-1934), English composer; "Saturn the Bringer of Old Age" is the fifth section of The Planets Suite (1918). In Light (p.303), Leiber describes how he wrote "Ship of Shadows" (Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1969) to the accompaniment of The Planets.

p.526, l.33: "Williams' Sinfonia Antarctica": Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), English composer, friend and contemporary of Holst (see above); his seventh symphony, Sinfonia Antarctica (1953), was adapted from his music for the film Scott of the Antarctic (1948, dir. Charles Frend).

p.526, l.34: "Berlioz's Funeral March for the Last Scene of Hamlet": (Louis-) Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), French composer; he wrote Funeral March for the Last Scene of Hamlet in 1848.

p.526, l.44f: "chess endings": Leiber was a chess enthusiast and many of his stories involve chess-playing characters.

p.527, l.18f: "near Cygnus... a star that shouldn't have been there": Leiber was actually still at 811 Geary when he observed Nova Cygnus '75 "making the Northern Cross crooked for a few days" (Light, p.363). It is also mentioned in his "The Death of Princes" (Amazing, June 1976): "I saw... Nova Cygni 1975 crookedly deforming the Northern Cross at August's end for four nights running before it faded down so rapidly." 500 million light years distant from Earth, Cygnus is the home of the mysterious Cygnus A, from which radio waves are emitted at a rate more than 10(exp)11 times greater than that at which energy of all kinds is emitted by our own Sun; the source of this energy remains unknown.

p.527, l.22: "silvered balloon they call Echo": either of two experimental communications satellites launched into orbit around the Earth by NASA during the 1960s. Basic in the extreme, the Echo satellites were simple non-transmitting reflectors of radio waves, in the form of aluminium-coated Mylar balloons that were inflated after launching.

p.527, l.25f: Norton's Star Atlas was first published in 1910 and is updated regularly; containing charts of all naked-eye stars, lists of data, etc, it is the amateur astronomer's 'bible'.

p.530, l.13f: The Sutro TV Tower on Palo Alto Avenue, Mount Sutro, was erected in 1968. It is central to the events in Our Lady, and described on p.11, where it is credited with triggering Leiber's interest in roof-top astronomy. There is an account of Leiber visiting the Sutro TV Tower in Locus 274 (November 1983).

p.530, l.27f: "Violet... uncommon color of a star": but it was a colour which Leiber also made use of elsewhere. In "Diary in the Snow" (Night's Black Agents, Arkham House 1947), for instance, a "beam of violet light" is sent to Earth on several occasions by the extra-terrestrial 'spider-creatures', to open the way for their invasion.

p.530, l.37: The 853-foot (48 stories and a 212-foot spire) high Transamerica Pyramid (more properly the Transamerica Corporation Building), at 600 Montgomery Street, was designed by William Pereira and erected in 1972. Like the Sutro TV Tower it is central to the events in Our Lady.

p.531, l.14f: "I met a star upon the stair..." Leiber's variation on the well-known but sinister rhyme: "As I was going up the stair / I met a man who wasn't there / He wasn't there again today / I wish, I wish he'd stay away". The original was written by Hughes Mearns (1875-1965), American psychologist and poet.

p.533, l.22: "glistening black 'hair'": compare with the hair of the creature in Our Lady (p.180).

p.533, l.32: "Egyptian god which weighs the soul": it was not actually the soul (ba) but the heart (ib) which was weighed after death in the Pharaonic Egyptian religion. Ibis-headed Thoth, god of wisdom and magic, did the weighing.

p.534, l.7f: "man of brass... Roger Bacon's robot": Roger Bacon (c.1220-92), English friar and scientist, was one of several medieval scholars said in separate legends to have built a head of brass which was able to speak. Bacon's head spoke just three times, to say "Time is," "Time was," and "Time's past", before destroying itself.

p.535, l.1: "Anima... Kore... Hag...": the Anima is the female archetype present in all men, according to Jungian psychology, a subject which interested Leiber and which influenced many of his stories as well as his life. The creature in Our Lady seems similarly to be a kind of Anima-projection. The Kore, or maiden, and the Hag are aspects of the Anima; the Hag is the destroyer, the sacrificer of men.

p.535, l.28: "the Patchwork Girl": the central character of The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1913), the seventh of fourteen Oz books by L. Frank Baum (1856-1919). The Patchwork Girl is brought to life by a magician and his wife, but accidentally spills a potion that turns the wife to marble. The Girl and her companions then travel through Oz, collecting materials for a charm to bring the wife back to life. Perhaps there is a link here with Leiber's struggle to come to terms with the death of his wife, Jonquil, in 1969. (Leiber's first encounter with the original Wizard of Oz was in 1918, when he read it while a victim of a flu epidemic, and found it "pretty unhappy and peculiar... faintly nightmarish" [Light, p.274].)

p.535, l.30: "Scraps": Scraps is the name of the Patchwork Girl of Oz - "for my patchwork is all scraps, and nothing else".

(Compiled by Rosemary Pardoe with thanks to Don Herron, John Howard, Betty Nicholls and Jane Nicholls. Some notes expanded/amended 2002 by Steve Duffy.)

Copyright © 1996 Rosemary Pardoe

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