The Lovecraft Reread

The Game of Kings… in Yellow: Fritz Lieber’s “The Dreams of Albert Moreland”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

Today we’re looking at Fritz Lieber’s “The Dreams of Albert Moreland,” first published in the Spring 1945 issue of The Acolyte. Spoilers ahead.

“You think it a complicated game? Well, perhaps it is. But I play a game a thousand times more complex every night in my dreams. And the queer thing is that the game goes on night after night. The same game. I never really sleep, only dream about the game.”

Summary

1939: Unnamed narrator, seeking work in Manhattan, gets to know his boarding house neighbor Albert Moreland. Moreland’s a professional chess player, if playing arcade chess for a quarter a game’s a profession. But Moreland’s a much better player than he lets on. He’s won games from famous masters, and Manhattan clubs are eager to groom him for big-time tournaments. However Moreland prefers obscurity.

One autumn evening, Narrator and Moreland play chess in Moreland’s room. Against the background noise of fretful gritty wind, traffic, and a buzzing neon sign, Moreland asks whether narrator thinks chess a complicated game. In nightly dreams, he plays one a thousand times more complicated. Mixing jest and seriousness, he describes it. The backdrop is black and starless infinity, as if he and his opponent meet atop the universe. The board’s so vast Moreland sometimes walks out on it to move his pieces There are many squares in many different colors, and the pieces’ powers change according to the color they stand on. The pieces are stylized as in chess, but his are different from his adversary’s. Some are asymmetric polygons like tombs or temples, some are unclassifiable life forms, some king-queen-bishop analogs that wear crowns and carry weapons. Under their voluminous cloaks and hoods, however, they’re not human. Moreland compares them to Hindu idols, futurist sculpture, dagger-bearing squids. One would have to search every planet to find their originals.

Moreland hates to touch the pieces, and is especially afraid of one he calls “the archer.” It strikes him as an “intermediate, warped life form which had achieved more than human intellectual power without losing—but rather gaining—in brute cruelty and malignity.” Though his dreaming mind acquires full knowledge of the game and a masterly command of its strategies, Moreland sometimes tries to capture the archer just to get it off the board, even when that means compromising his overall position.

As for his opponent, it’s unseen. When the enemy pieces move, they shake and careen around the board as if propelled by a “huge, invisible, senile creature—crafty, selfish, cruel.”

To our sympathetic narrator, Moreland admits that playing the endless game night after night is draining his mental energy. Worse, it shadows his waking hours. More strongly than fear or repugnance, he feels a crazy responsibility. He must win, not only for his own welfare but for that of mankind. “One wrong move,” he feels, “may plunge the universe into unending night.” And he suspects his opponent is about to launch a surprise attack.

That night narrator can’t sleep, wondering if his friend needs psychiatric help. He himself has nightmares about the “mad, dismal state of the world” and sees Moreland’s dreams as symbolic of “a last-ditch, too-late struggle against implacable forces.” What if there are cosmic beings who’ve created humans as jest or experiment or art, and now decide humanity’s fate in a game played against one man?

He returns to Moreland’s room and opens the door. Moreland speaks, but sounds distant: elsewhere in the house, or even farther away. Yet he’s on his bed, face intermittently revealed by the light of a flashing advertisement. His expression shows intense concentration, and his voice, still infinitely distant, narrates the “game.” He murmurs that his “spider-thing seizes your armour-bearer,” that his “coiled-thing writhes to the thirteenth square of the green ruler’s domain.” Narrator’s overwhelmed by a sense of being wrenched away from earth, speeding past all the stars and galaxies until he’s beyond the universe. Then Moreland murmurs: “My horned-creature vaults over the twisted tower, challenging the archer.” Fear conquers narrator, and he flees back to his room.

Afraid something’s happened to Moreland overnight, narrator stops by the arcade next morning. Moreland’s there, playing three games at once, stolid as ever. Later they talk about dreams more generally. Moreland seems more philosophical about his own dreams, but narrator doesn’t confess what he overheard. The following night they’re playing chess when Moreland bursts out that his dream-adversary has finally loosed his surprise attack. Moreland, who thought he was in a strong position, suddenly saw cracks in his defenses. His mind flashed over the “unalterable and unavoidable” moves that would defeat him, then dropped through millions of miles of emptiness to waking. Awake, he realized his position was now perilous but not hopeless; still, awake, he can’t reason out game strategy as he can while dreaming. The archer will somehow unfairly best him, he dreads.

Narrator suggests a doctor, maybe sleeping pills, but Moreland thinks a deeper sleep might render the dream even more vivid. He’ll play it out as is. Or does narrator think he’s paranoid enough to qualify for an asylum? At least there he could devote himself to the dream-game!

Then Moreland laughs sharply, denying the remark’s serious. Nevertheless narrator later speculates in the dark of his own bed that every creature in the universe may be doomed to engage in a game with demoniac mentalities assured of final victory—“or almost assured, so that it would be a miracle if they were beaten.”

What’s Cyclopean: The not-chess pieces have evocative names that are also as pedestrian, in their own way, as the ordinary set: spider-thing, armour-bearer, coiled-thing, green ruler. Unlike rooks and pawns, though, these pieces writhe.

The Degenerate Dutch: Perhaps surprisingly for a story approaching World War II, there’s no mention of race, ethnicity, or nationality. One suspects this is deliberate.

Mythos Making: The pieces on the not-chess board aren’t labeled as specific Mythos critters, but certainly seem to have some anatomy in common with them—and evoke similar reactions in witnesses.

Libronomicon: The quoted passage of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam is extremely apropos.

Madness Takes Its Toll: The narrator and Moreland joke, nervously, about whether Moreland belongs in an asylum for his dreams.

 

Anne’s Commentary

So, here’s another of these engagingly annoying fellows with many arrows to his quiver—like the Archer perhaps? Fritz Leiber, actor, teacher, magazine editor, lay preacher, speculative fiction writer with a range from those sword-and-sorcery icons Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to science fiction to proto-urban fantasy. Oh, and he was also a chess expert; whether like Albert Moreland, he employed this skill in super-cosmic strange-dimensional dream games, I don’t know. I’m not sure whether to hope so or hope not. Moreland’s game may be perilous, but like all things cosmic, it both appalls and appeals.

Near the end of his life (1936), Lovecraft wrote a letter of encouragement to then novice fictionist Leiber, and Lovecraft was a strong early influence on him, as this story shows. It features a dreamer who in sleep travels to some ultimate, even extra-universal destination and battles eldritch foes really damn godly, unlike Stross’s “mild” K-Thulu. Narrator ponders the familiar uncaring-cosmos theory, with its Mythosian twist of utterly alien Gods, or gods, or “gods,” who may have created humanity for their malignant sport, or by accident, or just because they CAN create life forms—maybe can’t HELP but create, and perhaps, destroy them. You know, like blind and mindless Azathoth. Could he be Moreland’s opponent? “Senile” might describe him, but not “crafty” or even “selfish”—you need a mind for that, right, self-awareness and all? Those adjectives could describe Nyarlathotep, infamous for messing with mere mortals for his own sardonic amusement, and I suppose he could act feeble if he thought it might throw his rival off. Shub-Niggurath? Nah, she’s too busy with the Thousand (Plus) Young. Yog-Sothoth’s always tending the Gates and Keys and stuff. So Nyarlathotep it is, in my mind. Possibly Leiber had no particular Outer God in mind. At any rate, Moreland and narrator are in Manhattan. It seems neither of them has stumbled across abominable tomes in his travels, which everybody does in Arkham, Kingsport, Innsmouth and Dunwich. Why, there’s not a Necronomicon in sight, or even a De Vermis Mysteriis.

A lot of Lovecraft’s work takes place in cities, yet Leiber’s does seem more urban fantasy to me. I think of “Smoke Ghost” and “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes.” Our current story is also masterful in its evocation of New York and the eeriness beyond its more sooty mundanity: the games arcade with its shooting gallery and pinball machines, the brownstone boarding house, the gritty wind and buzzing neon and eternal susurration of traffic which can make the darkness seem “restless and irritably alive.” That electric sign that flashes clock-regular illumination on Moreland’s dreaming face. Nicest of all is narrator’s awareness that the city is the uncaring universe in miniature: “…the impersonally murmuring city all around us—block on block of shuttling, routine, aloof existence.”

I’m struck by narrator’s association of Moreland’s dreams with World War II. By autumn 1939, when Moreland’s dreams start, Germany has “reunited” with Austria, invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland, and allied with Italy and Russia; Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and France have declared war on Germany, while the United States remains neutral. We don’t know how old narrator is, but he may well recall World War I and dread the onset of a similar planetary war. He supposes war worries are the basis of Moreland’s dreams, just as he himself dreams of air raids. At story start, he confesses he can’t shake the idea there’s a connection between Europe’s battles and Moreland’s dream-conflict. Of course, that’s nothing a sane person would consider seriously. Because, come on, the war and Moreland’s dreams can’t be parallel aspects of an attack by malign cosmic deities on their human creatures, with Moreland responsible for the outcome of game and war and human existence alike. “The Dreams of Albert Moreland” appeared in spring 1945, so it must have been written earlier, while war still raged. Germany wouldn’t surrender until April 1945, Japan until August, following the debut of a true existential threat to mankind: that first mushroom-bloom of tactically deployed atomic weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Leiber, who turned from pacifism to fighting the fascist threat via aircraft production, is, through his narrator, unnervingly prophetic.

Last observation. Much as I enjoyed this story, it seems oddly truncated. Did Leiber hit a hard deadline, or run up against his allotted word count? The last paragraph works okay as an ambiguous no-ending ending, but in the previous paragraphs he seems to have set up Moreland for a final apocalyptic confrontation with his Adversary. The night before, Moreland jerked out of dream-game convinced he was in a hopeless position. On waking, he realized he’s in peril of losing, but still secure. However, he can’t be sure, since his waking mind isn’t “big enough” to hold all the steps in his strategic reasoning.

For me, that’s a fictive promise we’ll see the result of the last battle. But no. In fact, narrator doesn’t even know what happened to dreaming Moreland in the end. Could be he’s still a chess player, could be he ended up in an asylum, like he half-wanted to. Shrug. Fritz! You knew full well what Howard would have done! On that last night, narrator would have heard a soul-rending scream from Moreland’s room. He would have rushed in to find his friend dead, that electric sign spotlighting either a rictus of terror or a radiant smile, the expression signifying either defeated damnation or victorious apotheosis.

Just saying. It’s still a cool story—and game.

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

Last week, we saw how well the Mythos meshes with the Cold War. This week, we skip back to World War II and the previous looming apocalypse. The world’s been ending since World War I; if we ever got to a point where it wasn’t, perhaps Lovecraft’s popularity would wane entirely. In the meantime, wherever we see ourselves in a “last-ditch, too-late struggle against the implacable forces of fate and chance,” there will we find Cthulhu.

Or whatever Entity opposes Moreland in his nightly round of Hyper-Chess. Leiber isn’t playing clever games with Elder Cameos or callbacks to specific stories. No notation of “Shoggoth to Yellow King’s 12” makes the connection explicit. But the feel of that unseen enemy, the shapes of the pieces, the repugnance they invoke, are unmistakably Mythosian.

“Moreland” evokes two Lovecraft stories that also involve late-night battles against mysterious adversaries. The narrator’s relationship with Moreland seems very much like the central relationship in “The Music of Erich Zann.” Like Zann, Moreland has but a single friend to sorta confide in. Both fight their other-dimensional enemies with oft-mythologized skills—both music and chess are common weapons in otherworldly duels, and the devil is rumored to play both competitively.

Then there’s “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” in which an otherwise unassuming man is merely the mask for a cosmic power, and fights in dreams with an implacable and reviled enemy. The similarities are more superficial, though: as far as we can tell, Moreland’s genuinely an ordinary mortal with overwhelming job responsibilities. And unlike Joe Slater in “Sleep,” it’s clear that he’s losing.

That moment of reversal, when you realize your opponent’s supposed error was actually a clever gambit, can be gut-churning even without cosmic stakes. I’m just good enough at chess to feel the shape of a board viscerally. A winning position vibrates, like a violin string or drawn bow, with momentum towards the sought-after conclusion. A losing one is repugnant, even if you’re moving a rook rather than a coiled-thing. Moving from the one to the other is nauseating.

Chess is paradoxical. On the one hand, it’s a byword for rational decision making. Even if you love playing or loathe your opponent, there’s supposed to be little passion involved in the choice of moves. In practice, play is a matter of passion and style as well as cool calculation. Do you throw power at the board’s center, trying to intimidate or provoke your opponent? Do you start cautiously, building a web of potential moves until ready for the shock of their sudden confluence? Beyond this, grandmasters have a reputation for being temperamental, eccentric, and sometimes considerably madder than anything suggested about Moreland. When the narrator says his friend may be in “greater need of psychiatric treatment than most chess players,” all I can think is that this story clearly predates the advent of Bobby Fischer.

The timing of “Moreland” is also interesting: written just before World War II’s end, and set just before it started. It makes a lot of sense that, with the war’s resolution still uncertain, Leiber would choose to leave off any definite revelation. Lovecraft would have (as he did in the examples above) gone a scene or two longer, concluding with some awful proof that Moreland’s dreams represented a real threat—and focusing in on the narrator’s horrified acknowledgment of that reality. But this week’s narrator, sick with the repugnant gut-sense of the approaching war, doesn’t need to describe that insight. The reader, Leiber assumes, knows what’s coming—because they’ve experienced it for themselves.

 

Next week, we explore yet another take on the connection between the Mythos and the darkness of the human… nah. Forget that, next week we’re reading “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar,” by Neil Gaiman.

Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint on April 4, 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story.The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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