Thursday, February 23, 2017

Four more stories

THE BLEAK SHORE

A short story that, nonetheless, conveys a lot in its meager ten pages. The adage about how what matters is the travel but not the destination applies here, at least from the point of view of the reader. 

Under a powerful geas, the two rogues set off to the distant and mysterious Bleak Shore across the vast ocean. Most of the story -and its better parts- is narrated by the only surviving Mingol sailor that managed to return from the deadly trip. And the fact that he only knows about the initial trip but not what Fafhrd and the Mouser did when they got there only makes it better.

The narrator shift highlights and magnifies the sense of unreality and madness as he explains the foolish, inhuman,  and almost suicidal behavior of their (as he suspects) charmed masters. The distance between his knowledge as a uniformed participant and what we actually know or suspect amplifies the dread and eeriness that could have been lost with a more detached or omniscient narrator. Like the scraps and fragments of a diary narrating the unexplained horrors of a failed expedition, sometimes not knowing creates a stronger effect than knowing.


THE HOWLING TOWER

Another story with a ghostly theme, this one gave me a strong Edgar Allan Poe feeling, probably for the whole familicide and "vengeance from beyond the grave" themes. I enjoyed it, but your mileage may vary. I won't say more since I think it's better just to read this one.

THE SUNKEN LAND

A story with a clear Lovecraftian vibe. This is also one of the best stories in this collection, and since they are all self-sufficient (although it is implied they are all connected and arranged in chronological order,) you can jump straight to this one if you want.

Many stories that try to convey the Lovecraftian sense of horror fail for the simple reason that they go too far into the neurotic/psychological horror territory, going overboard by telling how shaken the protagonists are by the incomprehensible events they are witnessing, but we have little reason to believe it or care about things that are TOO incomprehensible. This is not the case here since the whole story depends on an -in isolation- plausible list of coincidences, which we later realize were the design of vast and malevolent intelligence. 

It is also clear that there is little that Fafhrd could have done to stop the chain of events, and his actions don't depend on any charm or supernatural influence either. He is just a human pawn who survives thanks to a fleeting gut feeling which tells him to run, to get out of the sunken city of Simorgya (akin to R'lyeh.)

When reading the final scene, it occurred to me that the cloak-like creatures that are mentioned are somewhat similar to the D&D monster the Cloaker. Reading about it, Wikipedia mentions that a variant of the cloaker appeared in the Lankhmar – City of Adventure booklet (1985) for D&D. And the name of the beast? Sea cloaker.

And if you search that term, you will find this article that explains the ecology of the cloaker and its background, and here's what it has to say about the subspecies of the sea cloaker:

"An aquatic aberration native to, and mainly inhabiting, the sunken city of Simorgya, which means minimal study has been done, but the numerous similarities between them and cloakers has led many ecologists to speculate on a relationship. "

There you go. I'm getting better at sniffing obscure D&D references.


THE SEVEN BLACK PRIESTS

"I think they're unreasonably angry," Fafhrd asserted, scrambling to his feet.
"Priests always are," the Mouser said philosophically,

I like to imagine Leiber watching the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and thinking to himself, Yeah, this is nice and all, but wouldn't it be better if the dwarfs were meaner, crazy, black, and worshiped a mind-controlling volcano god? Also, you know what? Screw Snow White and everything else, just keep the mad midgets.

[Obviously, this is a completely made-up and apocryphal explanation, but I encourage you to cite it anyway as if it were true.]

This must be one of the best sword & sorcery stories I have read (to be fair, I haven't read as many as others.) It has that bigger-than-life threat hanging over the protagonists, but the story in itself is quite lighthearted, focusing on the action and exploration, the fights (including one while skating on ice,) the comedic traps the priests set up, and the excellent banter between the two rogues. Nothing out-of-this-world, perhaps, but effective nonetheless.

You can also read Jon and Nathan's more useful analyses.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Bleak Shore

"Now I have heard tell that death sometimes calls to a man in a voice only he can hear. Then he must rise and leave his friends and go to whatever place death shall bid him, and there meet his doom. Has death ever called to you in such a fashion?” 
Fafhrd might have laughed, but did not. The Mouser had a witty rejoinder on the tip of his tongue, but instead he heard himself saying: “In what words might death call?” 
“That would depend,” said the small man. “He might look at two such as you and say the Bleak Shore. Nothing more than that. The Bleak Shore. And when he said it three times you would have to go.”

"The Bleak Shore." With a third mention of this strange land, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser leave Lankhmar on a red-sailed sloop, braving wave and storm to arrive at the cursed land. As the months grow long, the city believes the two men to be dead, but the last of Fafhrd's Mingol crew turns up in the city, spreading tales of their journey.

At the far end of the Bleak Shore's bonefield, a voice greets Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. "For warriors, a warrior's doom." Then armored beasts rise from the sands...

*****

One of the shortest stories in Swords Against Death, "The Bleak Shore" is one of the most memorable, hooking me instantly with Death's call to action. While the plot is a stripped down version of what we've seen before, where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are hypnotized into some strange adventure and escape due to the Mouser's keen eye, the mood utterly captivates. Starting with Death's eerie introduction and summons, to the slave sailor's spooky sea tale, and, finally, the battle on the beach, each scene builds up the dread that  Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser might not return. While the Mingol sailor's sea story might violate the well-worn adage, "show, don't tell," the extra distance it places between the readers and Fafhrd and the Mouser only heightens the aloofness inflicted by whatever spell compels them. Not only that, but the contrast between the safe passage through the storms on the way to the Bleak Shore compared to the crew deaths as the sailors tried escape reinforces that someone wanted Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to arrive. It is good to know the rules of storytelling, but it is better to when to break them for effect.

After five stories full of mesmerized characters, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser need to do something about their willpower saves...

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Seven Black Priests

If you’ve ever wondered who would win in a fight between Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, this story answers your question.

Presumably, this tale takes place after the pair escaped death on the sunken island of Simorgia.  Their ship having washed ashore somewhere in the White Wastes, the two set out on foot.  Presumably heading south, they are forced to fight their way through a gauntlet of seven black priests.  As usual, they invite much of the following trouble by happening upon a sacred object in the shape of a large clear gemstone.  The gemstone, the eye of a god, is naturally cursed, and the longer Faf and Grey hang onto the thing, the more it affects them, until finally the Mouser is forced to fight Fafhrd in order to save him from the mystic clutches of the artifact.  The fight is largely a draw, and only ends when the Grey Mouser defeats the powerful monster by using that tried and true old method of poking out its eye.  Thus freed from the spell, Fafhrd laughs off the event and the two resume their long trek towards Lankhmar.
This is a clear post-pulp story.  It does feature the fast action and light atmosphere of pulp-era fantasy –the prolonged fight set on a tilted sea of frozen green ice would fit right at home in the pulps (or a Michael Bay movie) – but the two protagonists lack the sense of heroism and virtue that most pulp heroes possess.  They are but two wandering adventurers plundering temples, fighting priests, and walking away relatively unscathed but no richer for their troubles.  They do murder a fetal-god intent on wiping out humanity, but that arises not out of a desire to protect humanity, but out of a desire to protect their own skins.  By stealing the eye of the god, they also fall into the god’s trap, and in this manner the impending birth of the fetal-god is at least partially their own fault.
This is not necessarily a complaint. This is merely an observation. 
After all, not every story needs a moral element, and sometimes it’s fun to read a story about two wandering adventurers. Most of the action oriented TV shows of the 1980s used this narrative framing device to good effect, after all.  Provided the bad guys get their comeuppance in the end, and in Swords Against Death, that comeuppance has occurred like clockwork, then the reader can at least be assured that Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser’s love of adventure has a happy ending for Nehwon, even if it does not for the dynamic duo themselves.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Claws from the Night

Valuables disappeared in broad daylight, even from chambers locked and carefully guarded, or from sheer walled roof-gardens. A lady secure in her home chanced to lay a bracelet on an inaccessible windowledge; it vanished while she chatted with a friend. A lord’s daughter, walking in a private garden, felt someone reach down from a thickly-leafed tree and snatch a diamond pin from her hair; the tree was immediately climbed by nimble servitors, but nothing was found. 
Then a hysterical maid ran to her mistress with the information that she had just seen a large bird, black in color, making off through a window with an emerald ring clutched securely in its talons.  
This story at first met with angry disbelief. It was concluded that the girl herself must have stolen the ring. She was whipped almost to death amid general approval. 
The next day a large black bird swooped down on the niece of the Overlord and ripped a jewel from her ear.
Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser use the terror from a rash of black bird thieves to cover their own heist. To gain the jewel a merchant has bought to appease his shrew of a wife, Atya, the adventurers have brought their own preparations: a fishing rod, to snare the jewel, and an eagle, in case the birds strike first. But when the black birds prove to be the quicker thieves, Fafhrd and the Mouser follow the flock to the hidden temple of Winged Tyaa and her angry priestess.


"Claws from the Night" is another standard Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser story, plotted to the same structure as the previous tales but lighter in tone than even "Seven Black Priests." Yet it's still a fun little rollick, as Fafhrd and the Mouser try to use the chaos of the bird thieves for their own ends before getting swept up in a serious mystery. Like a soloist in jazz, Leiber uses the established pattern as a guide to creativity, and not as an instruction set, with no two stories told in the exact same way.

I've noticed a pattern as of late. When a dynamic duo goes on an adventure, be it Fafhrd and The Grey Mouser; Doc Savage and the Shadow; or Reimu Hakurei and Marisa Kirisame, the problem-solving responsibilities tend to be split in a regular pattern. If you want something to stop, send the Fafhrd analogue. If you want to find out why something is happening, send the thieving wizard. And whenever the Fafhrd of the team gets bogged down, the Mouser clears the jam with a shout, a spell, a sword, or gunfire. I will need to think on this a bit more to properly formulate it.

*****

For a different take on the story elements presented in "Claws from the Night", check out Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart. Clad in Chinese clothes, it recounts the adventures of Number Ten Ox and the sage Master Li as they try to save the children of their village from poison by stealing a treasure from the local lord. Nobler analogues of Fafhrd, the Gray Mouser, bird deities, and treasure-mad shrewish wives can be found in its pages.


Thursday, February 16, 2017

Thieve's House and the picaresque archetype.

Thieve's House is a story that happens after what most people would consider a more proper venture for a sword & sorcery adventure. We are told about how the Gray Mouser managed to pick an apparently unpickable triple lock, and we are also told of how Fafhrd killed the dreadful monster that guarded a treasure. But we are told of all that after the fact, and in a passing manner, with not a single description or narration. 

Thieve's House, as the title says, is not about the dungeon raid but about the following problems concerning loot allocation and why you should be suspicious of sneaky NPCs that offer you information about treasures only you can recover (Protip: he plans to double-cross you.)

As with Jewels in the Forest, our duo's motivation is simple and straightforward: money. Some may prefer more noble and epic goals, but "the rent is due" (or the bar tab, probably) is a good motivation as any. I think I'm growing on these more mundane objectives as they make the characters more down-to-earth and relatable. Besides, I'd be lying if I said there is no nobility or courage in this story. 

Some readers may have missed it because Leiber doesn't explicitly state it and there are no grandiloquent proclamations of loyalty, friendship, and goodness, or inner struggle either, but here the Gray Mouser behaves in a really selfless manner, made more pronounced by the fact that Leiber doesn't bring our attention to it and it develops in a natural and almost reflex manner, as true emotions always do.

Not only does the rogue go back to a thieve's den to rescue his friend, Fafhrd, he does it after he managed to get his hands on the treasure, the skull Ohmphal. He could have fled with the treasure, but he did not. Sure, we know he would never have done that, after all, they are called Fafhrd AND the Gray Mouser for a reason, but still, it is a notable behavior, especially when it comes from characters like these.

In my previous post, I mentioned a few connections between that Jewels in the Forest and D&D. There are also a few here, but probably more of tone and style. Although Fritz Leiber was not the first to create the concept of a Thieve's Guild (I'll go back to that point later,) he probably was one of the firsts to create a Thieve's Guild as we understand them, in a Fantasy context. In fact, it's hard to read this story and not recognize many other thieve's guilds from scores of games and novels. 

It may be just a coincidence, but as I was reading this story, my mind kept telling me "I'm sure I have played this one before." Yes, played. A Thieve's Guild, with labyrinthic sublevels and, finally, a dark, forgotten, and ruined underground where the undead roam and dark gods are worshiped? Uhh...

Baldur's Gate (1) Thieve's Guild, (2) Thieve's Maze (3) Undercity


In any event, there was a sentence that made me think of a curious and old rule (I don't know how many people use or used it) which has mostly disappeared from later editions and RPGs. When most people think about traps they think about a yes/no event. Perhaps this is an influence from video games (as in Baldur's Gate) where most traps occupy the whole width of a corridor and the only option to avoid them is to disarm them (no 10-foot pole allowed!) Whatever the reason, this what not always the case:

"Traps are usually sprung by a roll of a 1 or a 2 when any character passes over or by them. Pits will open in the same manner."

             OD&D, Book III: The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures, page 9.

Sure, that was when the thief class didn't exist, but the same rule still appeared years later:

"If any character does something which could trigger a trap (such as walking over a certain point), the trap will be sprung on a roll of 1-2 (on 1d6)."

                                                                  D&D Basic Set (1981,) page 22.

So, yeah, you could miss a trap just by sheer luck, just like Fafhrd:

"Had he originally entered this blind alley by way of the corridor, missing the deadly stone by pure luck?"

There's also the whole jargon used to describe and talk about the thieves, which is pure D&D. As I mentioned in my previous post, classes had Titles assigned to levels, and for thieves, they went from Apprentice to Master Thief. And in this story, the low thief novices are described as apprentices, and the title of the leader of the guild is, yes, a master thief. Also, one of the thieves, Fissif, is described as a "cut-purse of the first rank," and cut-purse was the Title for a level 5 thief. And then there's Leiber affection for the word "pilfer," which is the root word for another Title (Pilferer.) 

However, here I should mention that it was not Leiber who invented those labels. Gygax et al. may or may not have gotten the inspiration from him, but he was not the original creator of these conventions and titles. That honor should go to the XVI-XVII Spanish writers who created the genre of picaresque novels and, through them,  their followers and imitators in the English-speaking world, which adapted it to their own criminal underworld. But even these writers were merely drawing inspiration from the reality they saw around them, which -oddly enough- would make the Thief the most historically "accurate" class of them all.

Puzzling as it may seem to modern readers, the idea of a "guild" of thieves (without a maze or underground lair, though,) with a hierarchy and titles which went from apprentice to master, was nothing more than applying medieval guild's customs to the organizations of the criminal underworld. As with any other guild, you started as an Apprentice, and you finally became a Master. But unlike a Master Smith or Cobbler or whatever, you are now a Master Thief. Which sounds cooler, to be fair.

That medieval version of the Mafia was what those Spanish novels described with a style that, although they are centuries-old books, seems curiously modern for their naturalism. Con-artists, beggars, thief apprentices, and all sorts of rogues and scoundrels that survived thanks to their wits were the protagonists of those stories which tried to portray the dark side of cosmopolite and newly-rich cities like Seville, with all their contradictions, hypocrisies, moral degeneration, and peculiarities.

It is notable that while most fantasy archetypes are, well, exactly that, almost eternal archetypes like the Warrior or the Mage and various variations of those themes, the Rogue/Thief is unique in itself, the one with a more concrete sociological context and raison d'ĂȘtre

I'm not talking about his quasi-magical skills as defined in D&D, like hiding in shadows, as those would be added later to give him an almost mystical halo, as with Thief's protagonist, Garrett (a clearly D&D-inspired video game, by the way,) but its social and historical justification as a class. I mean, why (and how) would anyone specialize in picking locks, climbing buildings, or disarming traps? While, generally speaking, the idea of "adventurers" work better in an almost post-apocalyptical landscape, and the only thing a warrior needs is the will to fight and a weapon, the rogue is an urban creature that profits, in fact, requires, advanced civilizations and that sudden wealth that begets vice, misery, and organized crime. 

Even Lankhmar is a cosmopolitan port, like all the great cities and organizations that have inspired the Thief archetype, from Seville to Shangai, from our European criminal guilds to the more exotic and mysterious master criminals of the East which years later would become many of our Super Villains (e.g. Dr. Fu-Manchu.) 

As a source for villains or anti-heroes, the dark underbelly of our civilizations has created some our most memorable cultural icons. And to the question "Where can one find adventure?" the Thief is the urban answer to a genre used to the wilderness.









A Different Sort of Shaggy Dog Story

I
f you really want to know whether or not a man has got some serious writing chops, take a look at how he writes long, slow, boring chase scenes.  For my money, no one does it better than Louis L’Amour, whose cowboys often found themselves haring off all over the west chasing after bandits, kidnapped ladies, or missing doggies.  Lieber pulls out all the stops in this story, when the Grey Mouser wakes up alone and sets out to track Fafhrd.  The description of one man running through a grassland for more than a day and half might make for a read as dull as actually running for that long, but Leiber changes up the terrain, pauses for the Grey Mouser to ponder Fafhrd’s predicament and whereabouts, and get the lay of the land.  All the while, the titular howling grows and grows.  The reader and the Grey Mouser both know exactly where Fafhrd is, but instead of skipping the long tracking scene in a sentence or two, Leiber makes good use of the hours long run to ratchet up the tension.

Leiber also manages to make the dreaded expository dump more tense than it has any right to be.  The old man’s story describing the source of the howling is so well performed that one wonder if that old man might not have made for a successful fantasy writer had he only been born in 20th century earth instead of Nehwon. 

In fact, if there’s anything disappointing about this tale, it would be the standard ghost story ending where the source of the howling was simply hungering for vengeance.  Leiber keeps that storybook ending brief, and the remainder of The Howling Tower is so well done that Leiber can be forgiven for not deviating from the standard stories on that score.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Next Puppy: Catskinner's Book

Misha Burnette is one of those writers who first came to my attention in the pages of Cirsova Magazine, with his eldritch earth story.  The strength of that story led me to his blog, and I've been a regular reader ever since.  His post on the Five Pillars of Pulp (Action, Impact, Moral Peril, Mystery, and Romance, for those of you following along at home) has been the subject of much well deserved praise.  He is definitely an author who deserves more support than he has gotten to date.

His writing advice and analysis is outstanding, and his short work memorable, and so he has been on my "to read" list for quite some time.  It's time to move one of his books over into the "have read" column.  The fact that several men whose judgment I trust enjoyed his books gives me the confidence to select Catskinner's Book as the March Puppy of the Month selection.

A warning, this book is one of the darker books ever selected for reading.  My understanding is that it is a moody and solemn story that harkens back more to the New Wave sf/f than to my typically preferred pulpy style.  That's not a contradiction or compromise.  The Pulp Revolution has no purity test.  It has no interest in retconning previous styles out of existence, and can readily admit that every style of fiction has its classics that can be enjoyed by anyone.

Let's see if Catskinner's Book is one of those together this March.