Thursday, 9 September 2010

Review: Midnight by the Morphy Watch

If anyone was going to write weird fiction about chess, it was going to be Fritz Leiber. Though not as well known to the general public as Robert E Howard or H P Lovecraft, Leiber was one of the defining authors of American weird fiction and a pioneer of the urban horror story that plays off the inchoate fears of the city dweller. In novels like Conjure Wife and short stories like "Smoke Ghost" and "The Girl with the Hungry Eyes" Leiber took our clean, modern world that we pride ourselves as having thrown off the superstitious and populated it with a new demonology. University campuses become the hunting grounds of witches working to advance their husbands' careers, smog and oil become tangible monsters, and photographs spawn succubi.

"Midnight by the Morphy Watch" (Worlds of If, July 1974) is a perfect example of how Leiber was able make San Francisco seem like it was on the borders of Arkham and an innocent game of chess into a gateway to Hell. The Morphy Watch is one of the Chess world's greatest lost treasures and even in real life it was the centre of an incredible story. Paul Morphy (1837-1884) was one of the great geniuses of chess. A child prodigy, he was crowned (albeit unofficially) world chess champion when only 21. Returning to his native United States, he enjoyed a hero's welcome and a celebrity life. Accolades and prizes were showered on him–one of which was a specially commissioned watch given to him by the American Watch Company that had chessmen instead of numerals on the dial. Having beaten all comers and growing increasingly eccentric, Morphy suddenly declared that chess had no more challenges for him and he retired from the game for good. Morphy later pawned the fabled watch and it passed into the hands of Arnous de Riviere. It vanished some time after 1921. It's whereabouts a mystery, Leiber provides an answer.

In "Midnight by the Morphy Watch", the titular timepiece (sorry) is rediscovered by Stirf Ritter-Rebil, an aging chess enthusiast and antiquarian, in a San Francisco secondhand shop of the sort that only do business in the pages of weird fiction. The watch is bit more elaborate than its real-life counterpart and Ritter (as he prefers to be called) soon discovers that he has purchased more than an historical curiosity. At a local chess tournament, he finds that his atrophied chess skills are returning. In fact, he is playing better than ever. Soon he is winning game after game and progresses to defeating masters while blindfolded in a simultaneous match against four opponents. As Ritter's powers grow, so does his mania for the game. He can't stop thinking about chess or dreaming about it. The game becomes literally all-consuming in Ritter's expanding mind. It also doesn't help that he is haunted by four spectral figures and a prowling "something" with a hint of the cosmic about it.

The story is a simple one with a neat twist at the end, but Leiber is able to flesh it out with his bold writing style. The characters are vivid and distinct. Ritter is fully realised and comes off the page in a way that is economical, yet effective. One suspects that there is a bit of Leiber mixed in him. Leiber's word pictures are neat little stories in themselves, such as the part where a dusty window is cleaned, without detracting from the main action. His descriptions of San Francisco linger and his blending of the earthly and the unearthly is masterful.

In all, as tidy a gem as one of Morphy's games.

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