Rump-titty-titty-tum-tah-tee, or why Fritz Leiber’s short stories are worth reading


“Dear Descendant, They made me stop it. It was starting to catch on down here.”

Fritz Leiber’s creation(s), Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser, may be more immediately recognizable to fans of the sword and sorcery genre. I’ve never much cared for sword and sorcery–I vaguely remember reading Ill Met in Lankhmar but can now recall nothing of the stories’ plot much less any of the details–and so despite recognizing that Leiber was being more than slightly tongue in cheek, I never read others. And despite recognizing that Lieber’s pair of adventurers was the basis for a third of the Dungeons and Dragons adventurers out there–Conan and Lord of the Rings accounting for the other two thirds….or why reader’s advisory can be so difficult! (Or why I usually told patrons something along the lines of “Here are some books similar to the ones you’ve already read and enjoyed which you may also like. I promise nothing. If you get a few pages in and realize that you don’t care for the book, bring it right back. We accept returns!”)

It’s only to be expected/hoped that any short story collection entitled “The Best of [insert author here]” would in fact contain the author’s best short stories. That said, some authors are better at short story writing and some were simply more prolific–the more to choose from the better the odds that the stories are good in addition to being the most readable of that author’s output. (And of course, tastes vary!)

My favorite is, not surprisingly given the title of the entry, “Rump-titty-titty-tum-tah-tee”, a story in which several beatnik artists (various media) and intellectuals (various scholarships) channel the ultimate earworm: a witch doctor, the many-times-great-grandfather of one of the beatniks, sends along the addictive phrase in the title. It comes out in a musical phrase and a paint splatter, and rapidly spreads, disrupting society to the point that the group reconvenes to implore “Many Greats” for the antidote. He provides it, under duress from the higher ups in his current environment. The story, “Pail of Air”, has stuck with me for decades; it’s the sort of thing that gets anthologized in science fiction books for kids with justification: a rogue dark star has swept through our solar system and whisked Earth away from the Sun, resulting in a loss of heat and light and therefore a breathable atmosphere. The majority of the population have been taken by surprise and died thereby, but the protagonist’s family had enough forewarning to set up a “nest”, a room sufficiently insulated and sealed by layers upon layers of blankets to provide a sort of life support capsule within one room of a building. They’ve survived several years, by raiding nearby buildings for food and fuel; air is easily come by as the atmosphere settled down into liquid form on the surface of the planet as the temperature dropped–one simply walks out a window and scoops up the stuff in a pail, bringing it back inside where it returns to a gaseous state. (This one also has a happy ending.)

…also “The Night He Cried”, a Mickey Spillane sendup, in which one Slicky Millane, pulp author, is visited by a heptapus transformed into a woman in order to reform him…also “Coming Attraction”, set after the Ultimate Nuclear War…also “The Man Who Never Grew Young”, in which time itself revolts and turns back from the Ultimate War (not specified in this story…oh, OK: I like the whole book.

As for what to read next, if you like the short story format, I’d say try Fredric Brown, also a prolific short story writer and a humorous one. If you like Leiber’s work, there’s all those Fahfrd and Grey Mouser books, and when you’re done with them, try Pratchett’s earlier novels.

And now for the final challenge: what was the “antidote” that the many-greats grandfather produced at the second seance? (Don’t feel bad if you can’t remember. I have to check every time.)

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