“Gonna Roll the Bones” by Fritz Leiber

Second paragraph:

Those were stone-solid enough, though. The fireplace was chin-high at least twice that long, and filled from end to end with roaring flames. Above were the square doors of the ovens in a row — his Wife baked for part of their living. Above the ovens was the wall-long mantelpiece, too high for his Mother to reach or Mr. Guts to jump any more, set with all sorts of ancestral curios, but any of them that weren’t stone or glass or china had been so dried and darkened by decades of heat that they looked like nothing but shrunken human heads and black gold balls. At one end were clustered his Wife’s square gin bottles. Above the mantelpiece hung on old chromo, so high and so darkened by soot and grease that you couldn’t tell whether the swirls and fat cigar shape were a whaleback steamer plowing through a hurricane or a spaceship plunging through a storm of light-driven dust motes.

I reviewed this for my website in 2005, and I wrote then:

“Gonna Roll The Bones” by Fritz Leiber won the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novelette presented in 1968, beating Harlan Ellison’s story “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” in both cases.

More significantly, perhaps, it was one of thirty-odd stories included in Harlan Ellison’s famous Dangerous Visions anthology. This book dominated the awards that year, with five stories nominated in all three short fiction categories for the Hugo and winning two (beaten in the third by Ellison’s own superb “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream”) and four nominations again scoring two wins in the Nebula awards (with the other short fiction award there being taken by Michael Moorcock’s outstanding time-travel tale, “Behold the Man”). Although looking back at it now, it’s difficult to appreciate quite what made the stories seem so radical almost forty years ago (some find them dated, others incomprehensible), it’s reasonable to suppose that “Gonna Roll The Bones” owed at least some of the credit for its awards to reflected glory from the rest of the collection.

It also of course owes something to Leiber’s general popularity and the contribution he’d made to the genre over the years. He had started early: researching this piece, I found a quotation which is a bit marginal to “Gonna Roll The Bones” but sufficiently interesting to include here:

Young Fritz (twenty-five, a University of Chicago graduate, and entering his father’s profession) has one of the keenest minds I have ever encountered… His understanding of the profound emotions behind the groping for cosmic concepts surpasses that of almost anyone else with whom I’ve discussed the matter; and his own tales and poems, while not without marks of the beginner, shew infinite insight and promise.

The quotation is from an unsent letter found, after he died, in the writing desk of H.P. Lovecraft.

The funny thing is that “Gonna Roll The Bones” is not really such a special story. Ellison says in his introduction that “it singlehandedly explains why lines of demarcation between fantasy and science fiction can seldom be drawn”. No it doesn’t; its a straightforward fantasy story, with a couple of references to spaceships and Martian creatures for background colour. I think it is a better story than “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” which it beat for both awards; but I think that several of its other competitors have shown better staying power – Philip K Dick’s “Faith of our Fathers”, nominated for the Hugo, where Dick managed unusually successfully to marry his usual themes of paranoia, drugs, and the questionable nature of reality with an actual plot which makes sense; and two Nebula nominations by Roger Zelazny, the grim romances of “The Keys to December” and “This Mortal Mountain” (the latter a superb tale let down badly by a silly ending). I noted this also with Leiber’s “Catch That Zeppelin”, which won both Hugo and Nebula a few years later. Interesting that Leiber, who was born in 1910, was the second oldest of the contributors to Dangerous Visions (the oldest by some way was Miriam DeFord, born in 1888!).

Having said that it’s not such a special story, “Gonna Roll The Bones” is still a Leiber story, and is best read for style not content. With the first paragraph, a single 60-word sentence, you’re in the action:

Suddenly Joe Slattermill knew for sure he’d have to get out quick or else blow his top and knock out with the shrapnel of his skull the props and patches holding up his decaying home, that was like a house of big wooden and plaster and wallpaper cards except for the huge fireplace and ovens and chimney across the kitchen from him.

It breaks all the rules of good sentence structure and does so with vivid, graphic effect; I can’t do it better justice than Michael Swanwick, who wrote:

Fast and cocky, dancing on the fine line between virtuosity and failure, it evokes folk-tale archetypes and harsh realism both white simultaneously throwing the reader bodily into the story with a quick tour of the protagonist his house, and his predicament. A bravura performance such as this could be sunk by a misplaced comma. But nothing is out of place, unsure, or unclear.

The story is full of arresting images – the dice whose faces look like miniature skulls; the sinister presence of the Big Gambler, and the dice hanging in his eye sockets, “rattling like big seeds in a big gourd not quite yet dry”; the last sentence as well – “Then he turned and headed straight for home, but he took the long way, around the world.” And the description of the gambling in The Boneyard is unforgettable.

The theme of a mortal man playing games with the devil for high stakes, is a very old one: cards and chess (The Seventh Seal) are popular candidates, but dice have a history here too, long pre-dating the Flying Dutchman – I’ve even found a twelfth century example (from Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogue on Miracles) – and, stretching a point, the Book of Job can be considered a taproot text. (Bill and Ted, of course, beat Death at both Twister and Battleships in the course of their Bogus Journey). According to Leigh Hidell on rasfc, Leiber got an important piece of jargon wrong at the climax of the story – you don’t “crap out”, you “seven out”. Of course, as Frank M Robinson points out, the addiction that he was “really” writing about was alcohol, not gambling.

But I feel that despite the superb style and the passion of the central narrative, the story is let down by a few important details. First of all, the symbolism of what’s actually happening in The Boneyard isn’t very clear. The Big Gambler, vividly and unforgettably portrayed, is the Devil, of course; but then who is Mr Bones, the proprietor? If he is Death, then why is it not he, rather than the Big Gambler, who is represented by a skeleton? Are the chips meant to be other damned souls, or what? And what about the poet chap who gets gratuitously killed off – does he represent anyone in particular, or just local coloration? Perhaps I demand too much of my allegories, but this left me unsatisfied.

Second, the characters are all pretty unlikeable. Joe Slattermill sets off to deceive his wife, who he beats; she and her mother and even the cat are all pretty unpleasant house-mates anyway; the denizens of The Boneyard are just plain evil. In the hands of another author, it would be very difficult to care what happened to these people (as Dorothy Heydt might put it).

Third, the framing narrative simply adds to my confusion about What Is Really Going On. So the whole thing was a spell put on Joe by his Wife, his Mother and (for some reason) the cat, “to let him get a little ways away and feel half a man, and then come diving home with his fingers burned”? So where does the bread come into it? And if the Big Gambler was in fact just magicked bakery, then where did the rest of the crew in The Boneyard come from, especially the poet chap? Leiber himself provides an answer of sorts in his Dangerous Visions Afterword, but it doesn’t really help me:

The story of the bogeyman is the oldest and best in the world, because it is the story of courage, of fear vanquished by knowledge gained by plunging into the unknown at risk or seeming risk… For the modern American male, as for Joe Slattermill, the ultimate bogey may turn out to be the Mom figure: domineering-dependent Wife or Mother, exaggerating their claims on him beyond all reason and bound.

This must surely carry the blame for inspiring some of the tedious rants of Dave Sim in the later issues of Cerebus the Aardvark. I have big difficulty in seeing Joe Slattermill as a sympathetic representation of the American Everyman, and I do hope Leiber didn’t really mean this.

More helpfully, Leiber goes on to characterise the story as an “American tall-tale”, so my desperate attempts to Make Sense Of It All may have been misguided from the start, and I should just have sat back and allowed the narrative to wash over me.

Michael Swanwick subsequently wrote to me wondering…

…if your attempt to unravel it as an allegory didn’t mislead you. I’m sure Leiber had answers for your questions, but I doubt they would have much enriched your reading. Having spent a great deal of time trying to write stories very much like this one, it seems to me that while there must be such underlying explanations as a kind of logical skeleton to such a story, its virtues are much more visceral or even epidermal — surface pleasures, such as a child might get from it. Or maybe jazz would be a better analogy. There are structural depths, but they exist only to make what you hear possible.

He may well have been right.

The point that jumped out at me much more on this reading is the sheer misogyny of the story. I muttered above about the unnamed horror of the Wife and Mother; here are the two young women in the Boneyard:

Back a little from the other end was the nakedest change-girl yet and the only one he’d seen whose tray, slung from her bare shoulders and indenting her belly just below her breasts, was stacked with gold in gleaming little towers and with jet-black chips. While the dice-girl, skinnier and taller and longer armed than his Wife even, didn’t seem to be wearing much but a pair of long white gloves. She was all right if you went for the type that isn’t much more than pale skin over bones with breasts like china doorknobs.


Snapping his fingers at the nearest silver change-girl, Joe traded all his greasy dollars for an equal number of pale chips and tweaked her left nipple for luck. She playfully snapped her teeth toward his fingers.

I bet she did.

Other 1968 Hugo Best Novelette finalists: “Wizard’s World”, by Andre Norton; “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”, by Harlan Ellison; and “Faith of Our Fathers”, by Philip K. Dick, the latter two being also in Harlan Ellison’s famous Dangerous Visions which I reviewed as a whole here.

Other 1967 Nebula Best Novelette finalists: “This Mortal Mountain”, by Roger Zelazny; “The Keys to December”, by Roger Zelazny; “Flatlander”, by Larry Niven; and “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”, by Harlan Ellison, all collected in Nebula Award Stories 3 which I reviewed here.

Other 1968 Hugo winners: Lord of Light, by Roger Zelazny (best novel); “Weyr Search”, by Anne McCaffrey and “Riders of the Purple Wage”, by Philip Jose Farmer (best novella, joint winners); “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison (best short story)

Other winners of 1968 Nebulas: The Einstein Intersection, by Samuel R. Delany (best novel); “Behold The Man”, by Michael Moorcock (best novella); “Aye, And Gomorrah”, by Samuel R. Delany (best short story).

Next up is Delany’s “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones”.

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