Passages: Fritz Leiber

From “Bazaar of the Bizarre,” a short story by Fritz Leiber, collected in Swords Against Death:

“The Devourers are the most accomplished merchants in all the many universes — so accomplished, indeed, that they sell only trash. There is a deep necessity in this, for the Devourers must occupy all their cunning in perfecting their methods of selling and so have not an instant to spare in considering the worth of what they sell. Indeed, they dare not concern themselves with such matters for a moment, for fear of losing their golden touch — and yet such are their skills that their wares are utterly irresistible, indeed the finest wares in all the many universes — if you follow me?”

Fafhrd looked hopefully toward Sheelba, but since the latter did not this time interrupt with some pithy summation, he nodded to Ningauble.

Ningauble continued, his seven eyes beginning to weave a bit, judging from the movements of the seven green glows. “As you might readily deduce, the Devourers possess all the mightiest magics garnered from the many universes, whilst their assault groups are led by the most aggressive wizards imaginable, supremely skilled in all methods of battling, whether it be by the wits, with the feelings, or with the beweaponed body.

“The method of the Devourers is to set up shop in a new world and first entice the bravest and the most adventuresome and the supplest- minded of its people — who have so much imagination that with just a touch of suggestion they themselves do most of the work of selling themselves.

“When these are safely ensnared, the Devourers proceed to deal with the remainder of the population: meaning simply that they sell and sell and sell! — sell trash and take good money and even finer things in exchange.”

Ningauble sighed windily and a shade piously. “All this is very bad, My Gentle Son,” he continued, his eye-glows weaving hypnotically in his cowl, “but naturally enough in universes administered by such gods as we have — natural enough and perhaps endurable. However” — he paused — “there is worse to come! The Devourers want not only the patronage of all beings in all universes, but — doubtless because they are afraid someone will someday raise the ever-unpleasant question, of the true worth of things — they want all their customers reduced to a state of slavish and submissive suggestibility, so that they are fit for nothing whatever but to gawk and buy the trash the Devourers offer for sale. This means of course that eventually the Devourers’ customers will have nothing wherewith to pay the Devourers for their trash, but the Devourers do not seem to be concerned with this eventuality. Perhaps they feel that there is always a new universe to exploit. And perhaps there is!”

“Monstrous!” Fafhrd commented. “But what do the Devourers gain from these furious commercial sorties, all this mad merchandising? What do they really want?”

Ningauble replied, “The Devourers want only to amass cash and to raise little ones like themselves to amass more cash and they want to compete with each other at cash-amassing. (Is that coincidentally a city, do you think, Fafhrd? Cashamass?) And the Devourers want to brood about their great service to the many universes — it is their claim that servile customers make the most obedient servants for the gods — and to complain about how the work of amassing cash tortures their minds and upsets their digestions. Beyond this, each of the Devourers also secretly collects and hides away forever, to delight no eyes but his own, all the finest objects and thoughts created by true men and women (and true wizards and true demons) and bought by the Devourers at bankruptcy prices and paid for with trash or — this is their ultimate preference — with nothing at all.”

Early in his career, Fritz Leiber received the benediction of no less a luminary than H.P. Lovecraft, in an unsent letter found after his death:

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.

Not a bad start for a writer of imaginative literature! Too bad the acquaintance was cut short, for Lovecraft would have benefitted immensely from prolonged contact with Leiber’s prose, which right from the start was several cuts above his peers and kept developing right up to Leiber’s last works.

One of my favorite opening passages in any story is this sixty-word rule breaker from “Gonna Roll the Bones,” a 1968 novella about dicing with Death that should be the basis for Tim Burton’s next animation project:

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.

As a bonus, the story also has one of my favorite closing lines:

Then he turned and headed straight for home, but he took the long way, around the world.

Leiber’s straight science fiction work, such as The Wanderer, has dated pretty badly. His metier was pure fantasy in all its modes, and his best work of all was in heroic fantasy, for which Leiber himself coined the term “sword and sorcery.”

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, when it seemed the bulk of fantasy writing was either a Conan knockoff or a slavish Tolkien imitation, the stories of Fritz Leiber were in a class by themselves. Urbane and witty where so much heroic fantasy is broad and clunky — only Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories come close to matching it — Leiber’s work remains a lodestar for writers like Neil Gaiman, who owe him a debt of thanks for showing how even a cootie-laden genre like sword and sorcery can stretch to encompass the humor and alertness of the best writing.

As the above passage shows, Leiber also had a taste for amusingly barbed satire — something not often seen in such a humorless genre.

Though he worked in a genre that sprang more or less complete from the forehead of Robert E. Howard, Leiber’s heroes were conceived as a human-scaled alternative to Conan and the platoon of brawny supermen who followed in his train. Fafhrd, a strapping northern barbarian, and the Gray Mouser, his diminutive comrade-in-arms, were instantly more believable and engaging than the standard run of fantasy heroes. Leiber took care to show their personalities forming and developing over the course of the seven Nehwon books, and one of the pleasures of Swords Against Death (the second in the series) is Leiber’s readiness to pause for interesting character touches. Late in “The Jewels in the Forest,” after a particularly vicious battle with a band of competing treasure-hunters, Fafhrd comes down from his berserker rage by laughing, then weeping over the blood he has shed; the Mouser, meanwhile, feels “worried, ironic, and slightly sick,” aware that his own emotional reaction will not come for some time. Imagine Conan experiencing such complex feelings after a bout of violence.

Their travels across the alternate universe of Nehwon always took them back to the fetid city of Lankhmar, a superb creation in its own right. Though the darkened streets and alleys read as an overlay of all the great, dangerous metropolises of history — think Rome at its most decadent, or Constantinople during the reign of Justinian — Lankhmar was at bottom a lovingly detailed cousin of Manhattan, squatting next to a great salt marsh passable only by an elevated road, choked by smogs and smokes, with streets and place-names that amusingly echoed and inverted their equivalents in the Big Apple. Read a couple of the Nehwon volumes (all but one of them were short story collections, which best suited Leiber’s muse) and you could quickly locate Cheap Street, the Plaza of Dark Delights (derived from Times Square in its viciously seedy, pre-tourist days) and Thieves House, with its front door always left ajar to taunt anyone foolish enough to attempt unauthorized entry.

Most . . . well, pretty much all heroic fantasy reads like the work of teenagers and boy-men whose experience of the world runs the gamut from ogling at the shopping mall to copping a few feels at the high school dance. Leiber, son of a Shakespearean actor who led his own touring company, had clearly been around and it showed in his fiction — particularly his characterization of the Gray Mouser, whose dealings with women ventured into pretty louche territory for a genre where the apex of sexuality was Conan yelling for more mead as he swatted the backsides of barmaids. Leiber was also an accomplished swordsman, which knowledge he put to good use in the fight scenes.

Leiber’s Nehwon stories are also unique in the range of moods they encompass. The adventures of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser cover everything from straightforward swashbuckling action to horror to slapstick comedy. Swords in the Mist, the third Nehwon collection, opens with a straight-up chiller called “The Cloud of Hate,” then takes a left turn into “Lean Times in Lankhmar,” a cross-breed of Robert E. Howard and Bertolt Brecht, in which the heroes part ways for separate careers when their money runs out. The Mouser becomes a hired thug for a local crime boss, while Fafhrd cuts his hair, forswears wordly goods and becomes a servant to the priest of a lower-tier god called Issek of the Jug. Though Issek has previously been pretty much a laughingstock deity, Fafhrd’s charismatic devotion (and the fighting skills he uses against shakedown artists) raise Issek’s stock in the public eye, bringing more donations and making it inevitable that the crime boss will demand his own cut — thereby bringing the two companions into conflict.

“Bazaar of the Bizarre,” the concluding story in Swords Against Death, was Leiber’s personal favorite and it’s easy to see why: within the space of a single short story, Leiber packs in social satire, weird fantasy, swordplay and comedy. As it happens, I agree with him, and while I would recommend the story to anyone wanting to venture into Lankhmar for the first time, I certainly wouldn’t recommend stopping there. If there’s one American writer badly overdue for rediscovery, it’s Fritz Leiber.

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One thought on “Passages: Fritz Leiber

  1. David says:

    Great article! There is a hint of rediscovery, the swords series, plus the Wanderer and The Big Time are now audio books which is a start, now we need Our lady of darkness and Conjure Wife.

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