Tuesday, October 11, 2011

There has never been a craps table described quite like this

I'm at the halfway mark of a book I've long had on my "to be read" list--the Harlan Ellison-edited anthology Dangerous Visions (1967). I'm enjoying it immensely so far. Even when I don't quite understand everything I'm reading the sheer artistry of the stories makes up for the opaqueness. You can lose yourself in these tales.

I just finished Fritz Leiber's Hugo and Nebula Award-winning short story "Gonna Roll the Bones," about a beaten-down lowlife miner named Joe Slattermill who likes to blow off steam by gambling, getting drunk, and picking up cheap hookers. On this particular evening's excursion he enters a ghostly casino named The Boneyard and finds himself seated across the pool table from either death, or perhaps the devil.

It's freaking awesome. The way Leiber describes Slattermill's opponent--a skeletal, hollow-eyed, black-hatted figure known as The Big Gambler--reminded me of Iron Maiden mascot Eddie from my favorite Somewhere in Time tapestry, only with more menace.

I've never read anything quite like this story. It's a marvel of style. Here's how Leiber describes the crap table, for instance:

Joe lowered his gaze to the crap table. It was almost as wide as a man is tall, at least twice as long, unusually deep, and lined with black, not green, felt, so that it looked like a giant's coffin. There was something familiar about its shape which he couldn't place. Its bottom, though not its sides or ends, had a twinkling iridescence, as if it had been lightly sprinkled with very tiny diamonds. As Joe lowered his gaze all the way and looked directly down, his eyes barely over the table, he got the crazy notion that it went down all the way through the world, so that the diamonds were the stars on the other side, visible despite the sunlight there, just as Joe was always able to see the stars by day up the shaft of the mine he worked in, and so that if a cleaned-out gambler, dizzy with defeat, toppled forward into it, he'd fall forever, toward the innermost bottom, be it Hell or some black galaxy. Joe's thoughts swirled and he felt the cold, hard-fingered clutch of fear at his crotch. Someone was crooning beside him, "Come on, Big Dick."
I don't always agree with Hugo selections and other award winners, but "Gonna Roll the Bones" deserves whatever accolodates were thrown at it for that paragraph alone. The menace and alien nature of the table and its association with death, the reference to Slattermill's job and the accompanying insight into his character, the depiction of the soul of the inveterate gambler, the fear mixed with sex... wow.


Fred said...


This has always been one of my favorite tales by Fritz Leiber.

It gives new meaning to the rule that one must have one foot on the floor when shooting.

STAG said...

Good collection of short stories in that Anthology.